Tag Archives: tips

How to Fly with Camera Gear

We, that is, Steven and the Mrs. recently had to attend a funeral on the East Coast. Steven lives on the Left Coast.  If you’re wondering what this post has to do with photography, he will admit that this article is part rant against Delta Airlines and part tips on transporting photography (or other) gear and assorted other tips. I’ve flown all over with my gear both in the US and internationally and picked up a few tips which I offer to you. I would be interested to hear any tips you have as well! If you want to skip the rant and go straight to the tips, just scroll down for the title: “Tips on Traveling with Camera Gear

Fare Tip: Bereavement fares may be available, but those fares are very likely to be a bad deal. Qualifying for a fare requires many hoops to jump through. You may find, as we did, that you can get a much better price by using PriceLine or similar service. Warning, however: you may also discover that you will be treated like a pariah. Our 3 flights went from San Jose, to LAX to Raleigh-Durham. In each flight we were relegated to the non-reclining back row seats.  This means no-resting, and extreme first hand familiarity with the poo bin. Indeed, even the new aircraft we flew on from LAX to ATL actually had direct visual access INTO the bathroom. Arom-rama and people standing around twitching does not really heighten the flying experience in any way.

Book early enough to NOT have to be in or near the back row (hard to do, of course if your travel is of an emergency nature).

But wait, it’s worse!  When we booked we were only able to claim seats on the last leg of our 3-hop circuit. The other two legs were “gate holds”.  When we checked in at the airport desk rather than actually giving us boarding passes for any flights, we were given a “placebo pass” for the first leg and told to claim our boarding passes at the gate. The gate was CHANGED however. It wasn’t actually gate 7, but gate 5.  At gate 5, apparently there was some additional difficulty. The printer was not printing.  No problem, we were told… just stop at any attended counter when we disembark.  Mind you that we only had a 40 minute layover, the plane was late arriving and since we were at the back of the plane we lost still more time while the hordes ahead of us disembarked. We had what seemed to be fractional seconds to exit the plane get boarding passes AND get to the departure gate in another terminal.  The first attended Delta counter employee said “Sorry, we’re really busy with this flight right now, could you please go to another counter?” What did we learn from this?

Insist on getting all of your boarding passes at the beginning. Don’t believe it when they tell you you can get them later – you may not have enough time or cooperation.

We ran to the gate listed on the flight display only to find that the plane we were to take the next 4+ hour ride on was already boarding.  We found ourselves relegated again to the “bathroom seats”. By now we were quite hungry, but without time to even buy a snack in LAX. We were relying on the food (at extra charge) to be served on the long leg of our flight. BUT (you knew there’d be a BUT), they RAN OUT OF FOOD about 12 rows ahead of us.  One bag of peanuts and pretzels were our only sustenance.  On a subsequent leg, beverage service was suspended due to turbulence.  The back half of the plane was unserved – not the airline’s fault, of course, but it is a cautionary tale about being prepared.

Tip: Pack something to eat *and* drink. Something substantial because you can’t trust the airlines (Delta, at least) to have any food for you. Bonus tip, make sure that your food is in your “personal item” since you may not be able to fetch it if there is turbulence, or you have to store your bag far away (see below). Ditto for any medication you might need.

The Delta in flight entertainment screens worked great except for the intermittent pop-up 32 second advertisements that were SO LOUD you literally had to yank off your head phones or risk deafness. Oh, and the Delta attendants were also hawking American Express cards seat to seat. On the way back, I was amused to learn that the entertainment system runs Linux, and crashes!  So a tip here is do not use the Delta entertainment system unless you really want additional aggravation. Besides, they are going to charge you $5 to play Sudoku – you can get the iPhone app for free. Another thing to consider: in my experience about half of the jacks for headphones are marginally to completely non-functional.  You’re better off bringing your own entertainment on board.

Delta Inflight Entertainment Crash

Delta Inflight Entertainment Crash

Tips on Traveling with Camera Gear

As you are probably aware, Delta and many other airlines charge an additional fee if you check baggage. The additional charge has many side effects, including making it take longer to check-in. And of course it also means people are taking MORE on board the airplane to avoid those fees.  The geniuses at Delta (and Virgin) have confounded the problem with their policies. If you lug a huge-ish bag all the way to the gate, they will gate check your bag for FREE. Smart people have concluded that schlepping a large bag to the gate will likely result in not being bilked out of another $50!  The bag fiasco also means that the airline will try really hard to convince you to gate check your bag otherwise there won’t be enough overhead space!

My fully packed f-Stop Tilopa photo bag WITH tripod easily fits in every overhead bin I’ve faced. I usually separate the tripod and put it crosswise in the narrow section at the back of overhead bin. You can also attach the tripod to either side of the bag, but depending on your tripod, it might be too long to fit.

FStop Tilopa Pack

FStop Tilopa Pack

On most aircraft, the Tilopa fits long-way in – meaning the bottom of the pack is at the back of the bin rather than sideways. In fact, it’s almost a perfect fit that way. The Tilopa might look bigger than many carry ons, but it’s not! My Tilopa even fit sideways in the 50 passenger commuter aircraft. One additional benefit to carry ons: domestic airlines do not usually weigh your carry on. You might get away (as I did*) with stuffing 45 pounds of gear in there! And don’t worry, the posted weight capacity of those overhead bins is around 160 pounds… so even if three of you packed the crap out of your bags and stuffed them in the same overhead bin, the bin is engineered to take it.  It also means if you could appear to effortlessly shuffle a 100 pound bag around the airline would be none-the-wiser and you’d not have to pay an overweight baggage fee! If the airline wants to shake you down for every nickel and $20 bill they can, you might as well do some creative baggage management of your own. Besides, do you really trust baggage handling to not break or “lose” your thousands of dollars investment in camera gear?

I’ve never had a problem traveling with my tripod. Screeners seem to understand what a tripod is both when traveling domestically and internationally. Once when leaving Israel I was warned that I might not be able to take the tripod on board but there was no problem going through security. Every once in a while I am asked to remove my camera and lenses from the pack, but most of the time the pack – chock full of bodies, lenses, batteries and miscellany goes through screening without a hitch.

Those overhead bins aren’t ONLY for passengers. On our Delta flight we found toilet paper, and leaking bathroom deodorizer refills together with the usual oxygen and blankets in the overhead bin above us. To find space for your pack, you’ll want to get on the plane as SOON AS YOU CAN. That usually means you want to be IN LINE well before your zone or row are called even if they politely insist that you wait in your lounge seat. But being the first in your group may not be enough. The only available overhead space might be many rows in front of or behind you.  I now understand why the guy in row 33 put his junk over my row 17 seat: he was not lazy he had to adapt because the airline had co-opted what would have been his overhead space.  If you’re traveling on Southwest, it is probably well worth the $10 fee per flight to get “automated checkin”. That may get you in the A list for boarding.  If you find yourself in the “B” or “C” section on Southwest, you might want to get the $40 business boarding “upgrade” for at least one in your party.

Those overhead bins apparently are seldom ever cleaned. I used a thick white paper towel to wipe out the leaking bathroom deodorizer and the paper towel came out as black as my camera bag!  Don’t throw a sport jacket up there unless it’s in something to keep it from getting icky – or maybe you don’t mind smelling like a lavatory 🙂

Oia at Night (Οία τη νύχτα)

Oia at Night (Οία τη νύχτα)

*I often carry about 45 pounds (17 kg) of gear in my pack. Only the Greek airline Aegean asked to weigh my carry-on bag – and their weight limit was 7 kg despite the 90 kg capacity of the overhead bins.  They allowed me a waiver since the flight wasn’t full.  Despite their check of my carry on bag Aegean is one of the best airlines I’ve ever traveled on. Delta could learn a few lessons from them!

Intervalometer Tricks

Red Rockin' Spiffed Up

Scratching your head and wondering what an Intervalometer is?  We’ve covered that in this article, and talked about some super fancy Intervalometers in this article.

Before we launch into the tricks, let’s first get some terminology straight.

  • Long Exposure – in my vernacular this is an exposure over 30 seconds – the limit of most DSLR cameras.
  • TimeLapse – a series of photos taken over time that compresses (or expands) the actual time when made into a movie. Usually all the exposures use the same settings.  An event that takes 3 hours can be distilled into a 30 second video.  An event that takes fractional seconds – like a balloon popping – can be shot at high speed and expanded into a movie that lasts much longer.  Usually expanding the time is called “Slow Motion”.
  • StarTrail – like its timelapse brethren, implies a series of shots taken over time and combined into one exposure to show the star motion OR a StarTrail can be created from a SINGLE very Long Exposure.
  • Bramping (aka Bulb Ramping) – a timelapse techinque in which the length of the exposure is changed over time to accommodate the setting sun, rising moon – anything that involves a gradual change in the ambient light.

How is a Timelapse different from a Star Trail?

The two are not different, except that by intention a Star Trail created from multiple exposures requires a minimal interval between one shot and the next or gaps result. For a timelapse – which can be taken at night or day – the key is having a regular interval between each shot.  Changing the interval between shots has the effect of warping time.

Ok, Got it. Tell Us About the Tricks

Sub-Second Intervals

Why would you want sub-second intervals?  For one, to catch as many meteors as possible. The second or so that the camera spends with it’s shutter closed is a second you might miss that brilliant fireball. Another reason to keep the interval REALLY short is to reduce or eliminate gaps in star trails.  But sub second intervals are the hardest trick of all.  There are almost no intervalometers that allow setting an interval shorter than one second, and even if it’s possible many cameras can not handle sub-second intervals. However, there are a few devices that can do sub-second intervals: Trigger Trap for one.  The best way to find the shortest possible interval is to set up the camera and try! Set the interval to say 700 ms and see if your camera can run off a sequence of 15 to twenty 30-second shots without missing a beat. If that works, set the interval to say 500ms.  Note that the minimum interval will depend on the camera, as well as the size of the image, and speed of the memory card. Once you find the minimum, leave a little extra time and use that. My Canon 5D Mk II was happy with 450 ms intervals between shots. That’s HALF of the waiting time of one-second intervals.

Shake Reduction – Mirror Lock Up

Many people worry about mirror slap. Mirror slap occurs when the little mass of the mirror “wiggles” the camera enough to blur long-ish exposure shots. Mirror slap is particularly pernicious in the 1/4 to 2 second exposure length. It may also be a problem if you have your camera attached to a delicately balanced telescope at high magnification.  How do you solve the problem?  It depends on your camera, but there are several approaches to try:

  1. Leave live-view on (which will eat batteries and may result in excessive warming of the sensor)
  2. Use the camera self-timer in mirror lock-up shooting mode. Most cameras will behave properly if your exposure length is not bulb. That is, they will move the shutter, wait for the delay to expire and then take the shot. Remember to allow a delay that is at least one second longer than the shot length plus the self timer delay. For example, let’s say you want to take as many 24 second exposures as possible but you need at least 8 seconds for mirror slap to stabilize. Set the camera to 24 second exposures with a 10 second self-timer.  Then set the intervalometer to take a 1 second(!) exposure every 36 seconds. The reason for the 1 second exposure is to allow enough time for the shutter release to be recognized while the 36 second delay allows for 10 seconds of timer, 24 seconds of shot and a 2 second safety buffer.
  3. See the Maximum Shots, minimum interval trick. But instead of 1 second delays, change the length of the exposure to the amount of time you need for camera stability + 1 second.
  4. Want to do shake reduction in BULB mode and without a self-timer?  Set the exposure length to the desired amount of time and use a short interval. With mirror lock-up on, you’ll get every-other exposure at the desired length. Note: this is the most “iffy”mode as it depends on your camera behavior.
  5. Finally for shake reduction in BULB mode WITH a selftimer, set the intervalometer as normal, but set the length of exposure longer and include the self-timer interval. For example to take 60 second exposures with a 10-second self timer, set the exposure length on the intervalometer to 70 seconds.

Variable Length Shots

While this technique seldom works well, you can allow the camera to determine the exposure length via metering.  All you have to do to make this work is to have the camera take 1 second exposures (as before) no more frequently than the longest exposure you expect to take. Some fancier devices, like the Trigger Trap and the CamRanger can even be configured to change the exposure length over time. This feature is called “Bulb Ramping”.

Extended Self Timer

Got a big group shot and no wireless remote. Not a problem. Set the camera to a short (e.g. 2 second) self-timer delay, and set the shot delay to say 20 seconds – or as long as you need to safely climb on top of the human pyramid to get that perfect shot.  Since you can allow multiple shots, you’ve all got plenty of time to change your poses, or re-architect your human pyramid.  We use this trick all the time when we’re conducting workshops. It allows us to set up our camera and walk away while we instruct. We leave enough time to set up for the shot.  Most cameras will blink or flash to let you know they are about to take a picture so everyone can time that cheesy fake smile.  Note: If using a Flash, you can lengthen the interval between shots to give the flash extra time to recycle.

Maximum Shots, Minimum Interval

When not in Bulb mode, it can be maddening to not have the Intervalometer and the camera in sync. Set the camera to 20 seconds and the intervalometer to 19 and you’ll miss about every other shot. Bummer.  Here is a trick to maximize the number of shots and not care much about the actual exposure time.  Set the intervalometer to take one second shots with one-second intervals between each.  The maximum shot-to-shot delay will be two seconds that way and it doesn’t matter what your exposure length is on the camera if it’s NOT bulb.

What if you want BULB mode? How do you configure that?

Answer: (Select the text below to reveal)
That’s the normal intervalometer configuration mode. Camera is bulb, length of exposure is whatever you need and the interval should either be 1 second, or exposure length PLUS one second depending on the intervalometer.

More Star Stacking Tricks: Use the Bridge

Red Rock Cometary [C_009865-76+79brC]
Perhaps the most popular thing we’ve done at StarCircleAcademy is to provide a stacking action for Photoshop.  What can you do with it? Alas, you can’t use it to end hunger, or create world peace. However, the action allows you to automate the task of creating star trails from individual images. You can create the trails from JPGs, TIFFs, or even RAW files in fact from any file that Photoshop is able to load.

You have to capture the images in the first place, so we humbly suggest you begin with understanding How to expose, how to shoot, what settings to use, and even what to consider to create a more compelling image. Or if this is all new, start at the beginning and learn about night exposures and the kinds of star shots that are possible.

Beacon [C_069244-92]

Curious about the circle? It is formed by shooting north in the Northern latitudes.

If you have already used the Stacking Action as we previously described you are all set to put on your big-boy pants and do more advanced stacking tricks using, of all things, the lowly Adobe Bridge. Bridge is a lighter weight version of Lightroom (sort of) and it comes with Photoshop and other Adobe products for no extra fee.

Why would you want to use Adobe Bridge as the front end?

  1. Bridge allows you to do mass corrections to raw files before they are used by Photoshop. Anything that Adobe Camera Raw can do, Bridge can do to a number of files all at once.
  2. Bridge has an operation called, uhm, “Stacking” which is a way to group images together in a nice memorable way.
  3. Bridge allows you to SEE and select specific files to operate upon – unlike the “folder” method you may have been using previously.
  4. Bridge is relatively lightweight and doesn’t need preloading as Lightroom does.

It is slightly more complicated to use Bridge for stacking, but do not worry. We will make it as simple as possible.

Suppose you have a number of files to stack and they are located in a single directory along with a number of files that you don’t want to stack. Below I’ve navigated to a big directory full of CR2 (Canon Raw Files) and I’ve used the Ctl Key to select the first four images of a star trail sequence.


As is my customary practice I used a number of colors and lighting methods to begin my star trail and I can tell I don’t like C_066715 or C_066716 (which is too green).  So instead I’ll start with image C_066717.CR2.  Scanning forward, the clouds start to become a problem by image C_066739 so I have picked images 717 through 738.  I won’t be describing how to use it here, but if you look on the lower left side of the Adobe Bridge screen there is a “Filter” window where you can choose images based on ISO, exposure time, keywords, etc.  That may come in handy if you want to only select the 24 second exposures in a sequence.

Getting back to my quest… Though I don’t have to, I will mark the images I’ve selected as a stack.  NOTE: Images can only be in one stack.


And then I will select ONE of the images to decide what “develop settings” to apply. That is, what to do with the image before stacking it.

AdobeStackSelect.bmpHere is where I’ll give you a hint to keep you from banging your head on the wall. If you click the “image” of the stack you will only select the first image.  However if you click on the count of images (where the yellow arrow points) it will select the whole stack. Here I’m selecting only the first image by double clicking it. My primary interest is getting the color balance about right.  There are lots of ways to adjust the white balance including using the white balance tool or adjusting the color temperature. This is also a potential departure point because there are two ways I might want to address my set of images:

  • I may want a nice clean star trail with gaps as small as possible, OR
  • I may want to produce individual frames for an animation or timelapse.


If my goal is a star trail, then I will set all of the sliders to zero, set noise reduction to zero, and set the curve to “linear”. About the only thing I’m likely to do is vignette correction – leave lens correction for later, it may cause bad things. In fact, I have created an ACR preset to do exactly that I call it “linear”.  If, however, my goal is a timelapse, I’ll try to beautify the image as much as possible including sharpening, noise reduction, and exposure corrections.

For this example, I am taking the beauty route. I made the adjustments I want and saved the settings as a preset called “TronaStack”.  Next I will apply those settings to all of the images in my stack.  What really happens is that Adobe Bridge creates sidecar (XMP) files for each of the images and re-renders the file in Bridge to approximate the changes.

Mass Applying Settings


With all the raw settings applied, I want to do the stacking operations exactly as described here – but we will be using “Bridge” as the source.


NOTE: Your menu might look a little different especially if you haven’t installed Dr. Brown’s Services.  As you might have guessed, using “Photoshop -> Batch” invokes Photoshop.  The next screen you see will look familiar except you’ll notice the Source is Bridge.


As the instructions state, you should run the “Do This First” operation. It creates a properly sized black background using the dimensions of the first photo in the stack.  You then re-run it with the operation you want. Here I’m using the comet stacking option of the Advanced Stacker.  It is important to make note of the output options. If you don’t override them, the intermediate result will be written over itself repeatedly.


The Advanced StarCircleAcademy Stacking actions will create “Comet_” documents but you’ll need to add a unique number as shown above. If you don’t like the base name, you can substitute whatever you like instead of “Document Name” above. E.g. “MySequence”. I often set the starting serial number to the first image number in the stack since I try to make sure I uniquely number every image I capture.

After stacking the output appears in the “C:\tmp\StackTest” folder like this:


What is especially cool is that I’ve directly stacked the RAW files into “comets” for an animated sequence.  I could then create a timelapse out of those images if I wish.  Of course there is one hitch. The huge files are too large to easily create a meaningful timelapse. It would be so much nicer if all the images were straightened, downsized and cropped to a specific format like 1920 x 1080 (HD) or 800 x 600. That is a topic for another column, but Adobe Camera Raw can do the trick. And it’s also possible to do the deed with the Advanced Stacking action.

If you’re wondering how you can get your hands on the Advanced Stacking Action with comets and more see the Store.

Can I Use Mini Bridge?

Well, yes, you can, though Mini Bridge only works if Bridge is open so it’s not really very mini!


Astrophotography Equipment Recommendations – Beginner to Intermediate

For basic astrophotography I recommend starting with a wide angle lens and a sturdy tripod.  That’s it. Go out there and get some Milky Way or starry sky shots. Take plenty and average stack them (after aligning them). More on this later.

To image things like the moon, planets, galaxies and nebula you’ll want to move up to a decent telephoto lens (200-800 mm effective focal length) and an Equatorial Mount.


To my thinking there are 4 categories of mounts with their approximate prices and assembled total weight (excluding telescope or camera):

  • Light, single drive (e.g. the AstroTrac, $900, 15 lbs, the Polarie or the SkyTracker)
  • Cheap ($189) and probably useless to decent but limited AstroView Equatorial $350, 26 lbs.
  • Mid-range, accurate with features like autoguide ports, and GoTo: Celestron CG-5GT, $690, 42 lbs; Orion Sirius, $1150, 43 lbs; Orion Atlas, $1400, 76 lbs. All are heavy!
  • High end: A hefty hunk of metal with a hefty price point: e.g. Celestron CGE Pro, $4,400, 154 lbs.

In the examples I’ve shown mostly equipment from Orion for three reasons:

  1. I have Orion equipment and they have a local store.
  2. They have a good reputation for being helpful and consumer friendly
  3. Their website makes comparisons easy!

The Portable Solution

The best portable solution is clearly the well made AstroTrac with the power cable, finder scope (upper right) and the drive at the bottom.


To use this you need several other bits and pieces shown here excluding a standard camera tripod.


It’s a well engineered, portable system. All the gear together (including tripod, drive, camera, telephoto lens, batteries, etc) is about 16 pounds – meaning you can carry it with you. The next closest equatorial drive solution is about twice that heavy.

The cost is a minimum of $680 for the drive, polar scope and power cable. But you’ll need some additional head components (about $210), a power supply of some kind ($30) and perhaps a sturdier tripod. The total outlay will be under a thousand making it comparable to the low end of the mid-range mounts.

PROS: The AstroTrac is easy to set up, and relatively easy to align if you use the geared heads and the polar scope. You can pack it in a suitcase or a backpack and take it on an airplane!

CONS: More expensive than a single drive equatorial mount. Only drives one axis (all that is generally needed). Maximum tracking time is about 2 hours. Repointing the camera may misalign the drive. Need to build or buy a 12V battery pack (though this is easy to do). Need to learn your sky to find things.

The Equatorial Mount

Go cheap, go big, go fancy… but you’re not going light.


The AstroView – which I have – requires drive motor(s) for another $130 or so bringing the total outlay to about $380. It’s carry weight is about 35 pounds if you include the camera, and all accessories including counter weights.

PROS: Inexpensive, includes polar scope, lighter of the many mount options, can support modest refractor or small reflector. Tracks well.

CONS: No guide port, limited to about 12 pounds of capacity, no “GoTo” option so you have to learn your skies to use it well. Tripod is thin aluminum. It’s sturdy but may not hold up to extended use.

A step up from the entry level mount would be something like the SkyView Pro ($850) It includes a “GoTo” computerized control which is a great help to the novice and helps you with alignment routines. I’d probably opt for the Orion Sirius ($1150) however as it supports 10 more pounds (30 total) and for that extra $300 bucks you also get a polar scope, the ability to use a decently large telescope and fancier drive options. A highly recommend mount is the Celestron CG-5GT at about $690 add $50 for a polar scope. All of the GoTo mounts will “slew” (move rapidly and accurately) from one object to the next and you can enter the object into a keypad to get there. Save even more money by using your computer instead of the “GoTo” unit.

Attaching A Camera to A Mount

If you opt for a telescope mount, you will want to consider using a ball head for maximum ease of pointing the camera. However you CAN attach the camera directly to the dovetail bar and use it just like a telescope (with limitations on the field orientation). Here I have used a ring collar that couples my telephoto lens to the ball head. This allows me to rotate the camera to change the frame without having to repoint. It’s also better balanced.  There is enough room on the front of the dovetail to put another head and another camera.



I even “cheated” and am using a camera as a counter weight – see it hanging there in front of me?



If you decide to up the ante, here are a few commendable small, light refractors. None are “top of the line”, but I’ve had some pretty good success with the ED80. It’s biggest weakness is that it comes with no mounting bracket, and the focus mechanism is not the “dual speed” (fine focus) option that seems to help fine tune things. I did find that I could mount the ED80 on my scope without mounting rings by attaching it to a Vixen-style dovetail bar and a 1/4″ 20 cap screw. A hex bolt would work fine, too.  I drilled out one of the threaded holes in the dovetail bar.


If you are thinking of going in all at once, various vendors offer bundles that might interest you.  Here are some examples from Orion (www.telescope.com)