Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) And My First Astrophotography

Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) photographed in the skies above Burnaby, Abbotsford, and Langley, BC.

comet neowise in the evening sky above Burnaby Mountain

Comet NEOWISE in the evening sky above Burnaby Mountain (Purchase)

Comet NEOWISE was first discovered on March 27, 2020 and was visible in the night sky throughout much of July 2020. Since NEOWISE was going to be visible with the naked eye, and not long after sunset, I made a number of attempts to photograph it. I have never really done any photography of the sky at night, so I had do to some research as to how these sorts of photographs were accomplished. The first photograph above was made from the top of Burnaby Mountain at Simon Fraser University. I had thought that the nearby Burnaby Mountain Park would be a good location, but it was crowded. Not wanting to try to figure this all out while trying to socially distance from people, I moved up to SFU on the top of Burnaby Mountain. Seems this was a good call as the police showed up after sunset at the park to deal with some car rally people who were misbehaving in the parking lot. SFU was certainly a bit more serene – though it was weird being up there with every building closed (they are typically open 24/7). The photo above is a combination of 9 images made over a period of about 45 seconds. I thought the clouds that were rolling through would have been a big problem processing this one, but I rather like the outcome – it has a bit more going for it than just a comet in the sky. I had been trying to think of a good location where I could work something into the foreground for NEOWISE but never really came up with many promising ideas that weren’t likely around a lot of people. These clouds do make a foreground of sorts I guess!

Learning what sort of settings to make these photographs with, find a location, and get some decent weather was not my only obstacle in creating these images. I later had to learn how to “stack” the photographs using different software than I was used to. I tried several but by far had the best results from a program called Sequator. Stacking photographs like this together brightens up the dim stars (without creating the star trails of a long exposure) and also cancels out some of the noise that is created by the camera sensor.

comet neowise in the night sky above abbotsford

Comet NEOWISE in the night sky above Burnaby Mountain (Purchase)

For the next opportunity to photograph Comet NEOWISE I went to a viewpoint in Abbotsford that looks over Glen Valley and the Fraser River. While on Burnaby Mountain the comet wasn’t all that easy to see with the naked eye which was probably a combination of light pollution and where NEOWISE was positioned in relation to the sun. On this second attempt the tail was very easy to see. There is less light pollution out there and it is also likely that the comet and tail was simply brighter at that point in its journey. I could easily spot it just glancing out the car window! I picked up quite a few mosquito bites making the above photo, but this night turned out to be the best conditions I had photographing NEOWISE.

comet neowise in the night sky above langley

Comet NEOWISE above Langley

The last photograph of Comet NEOWISE here is not very good, but it is interesting in that the comet’s core appeared quite green. The tail was quite faint, and I was actually never able to see the comet with my eyes – even through the camera lens. The green color was nice though. I photographed this at Glen Valley in Langley, amid the blueberry and cranberry fields. What was probably the more interesting even that evening was when I saw a few Coyotes on the side of the road. One was clearly this years crop and was considerably smaller than the others. A few kilometers from where I saw the pup is where I photographed, and there was a pack of Coyotes rather close by howling and singing away while I made my photographs. I clapped my hands a few times just to make my presence known, but they weren’t overly concerned with this and never seemed to cease the celebration over a rabbit hunt or whatever they had going on. Perhaps they were enjoying the comet.

Point Atkinson Lighthouse Redux

The Point Atkinson Lighthouse in Lighthouse Park, West Vancouver, Canada

point atkinson lighthouse

Lighthouse Park in West Vancouver (Purchase)

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   Occasionally I look back at some of my older images with a bit of disappointment due to the new post processing skills I have since learned. This photograph of the Point Atkinson Lighthouse at Lighthouse Park in West Vancouver is a good example.

lighthouse park point atkinson lighthouse in west vancouver

Lighthouse – old version

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In the older version (left) I made a number of bad decisions, and just didn’t know how to get much out of the file. While going through older images recently to do some keywording and uploading to my Image Library I found this lighthouse photograph from 2011 and decided to improve the image.

   Both of these versions were processed from the same single raw file using Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) and Photoshop. I don’t know why I thought it would be a good idea to edit out the rock “island” in the foreground. I did an reasonable job of making that seamless, but the decision to remove it (or manipulate anything to that degree) is now puzzling. This is not the kind of editing I wish to do to images any longer, and most with that level of manipulation have never seen the light of day anyway. The main issue with my previous version is the colour balance and the details in the sky. While the newer versions of ACR (and Lightroom) are much better at bringing out detail in highlight areas, I’m sure the older versions were capable of much more than I knew how to accomplish at the time. When processing the new version I fixed the colour issues (older version was way too warm in my opinion), brought out some details in the sky, and added a layer to function somewhat as a digital graduated neutral density filter. At the time I photographed this I did not own any ND filters that I recall, and even if I had this scene is a tough one to implement them with the trees on the left. Many seem to debate between a physical GND filter and a digital alternative but I tend to use both. I much prefer the results when using a physical filter but often tweak things in post slightly using a digital one (usually in Photoshop not the tools available in ACR or Lightroom). I hope you agree this new version is an improvement. : )

For more photographs from the Vancouver area please visit my Vancouver, Coast and Mountains gallery.

Photoshop CC Mathematics

douglas squirrel in campbell valley park in langley bc

Post needed a photo so… Squirrel!

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   I am sure many of the photographers that might read this are using Adobe products to do their post processing. Recently Adobe announced that their next iteration of Photoshop would not be CS7, but rather a subscription model called Photoshop CC (Creative Cloud). As one would guess, this has caused some confusion, consternation, and internet rioting over the changes.

   Part of this new setup is due to the high rate of Adobe Photoshop piracy. One feature of Photoshop CC is to have your installation check in with the Adobe servers at least once a month to ensure that you are paid up and licensed. I have no problem with this part of using the “Creative Cloud”. I have legit software, and don’t have a problem if Adobe wants to verify that. Stressing that this is the main impetus for the changes does not seem genuine, however. I think the part Adobe is more concerned with is effectively raising the prices of their software, but under a new system so it is not as easy to directly compare.

So lets compare!

   The last change Adobe made to Photoshop licensing involved the upgrade paths. Previously you did not have to buy every version of PS, you could skip a few and still upgrade to the new version for approximately $200. Then there were some controversial changes to this program that required you to purchase every version or you would no longer get a “discounted” new version/upgrade. There were some changes to this along the way but I think this is how the system eventually was implemented. I recently upgraded from CS5 to CS6 for $200 plus tax (I live in Canada). Lets crunch some numbers without the tax, and assume a customer that had planned on upgrading to each new version on the old 18 month cycle. The new system requires an investment of $20 per month for just Photoshop CC.

18 month upgrade: $200 over 18 months$11.11 per month$133.33 per year
Photoshop CC Subscription model:$20 per month$240.00 per year

This is an 80% increase per year just to use Photoshop.

   I have to wonder if Adobe will stick to this plan, or at least the pricing it released today. Almost doubling the cost of your software for existing users is something any company knows will draw some ire. Hopefully Adobe was just testing the waters today. I’m not against the need to verify a license, nor a monthly subscription model, but a price increase on this scale is going to be rather hard to stomach. I just wish there was a viable alternative…

   

Focus Stacking ‐ Spring Crocus Flowers

a crocus flower - crocus vernus - emerges from the ground in one of the first signs of spring

Crocus vernus
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   A closeup of two Crocus (Crocus vernus) flowers in the backyard last Spring.

   This photograph was a bit of an experiment. I wanted to have a shallow depth of field that would blur the background. Since these flowers were at different heights, having them both in focus was not going to occur along with a shallow depth of field. I might have been able to get these both in focus with an aperture of f/16 or higher, but this would not have the background bokeh effect I was looking for. So this is a blend of two exposures shot at f/2.8 each focusing on the top of one of the flowers. The two exposures were then merged in Photoshop. I like the effect this created, and it shows that a “focus stack” doesn’t have to have everything in focus through the composition.

   More photos of Spring flowers and gardens can be found in my Garden Photos Gallery.

Why I Save "Borderline" Images

late evening light on firs and cedars at ricksecker point
Late Evening Light at Mount Rainier National Park
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Save your photos! Well, some of them.

  Sometimes I read how others delete all the shots they aren’t immediately happy with, not just those that were out of focus etc. As I have written before I do go through and quickly delete photos that are obviously not up to par (focus accidents, test shots etc) – but then I tend to sit back and digest them for a while. Immediately after I shoot the impressions I have of the results may not be very objective. I wait for a while to process most images so I can more clearly see what is going on, and to distance myself from my initial expectations. Even after some distance and thought I do not always get things “right” in my choices, and sometimes images fall through the cracks.

  The image here is one such example. This is a late evening shot I made in Mount Rainier National Park in October, 2010. Ricksecker Point is a good vantage point for Rainier itself, but unless you get some really special light things will look just like all the other “iconic” shots from the same spot. I had gone there hoping to get some good sunset shots near the Tatoosh Range but this just wasn’t going to happen with that day’s conditions so I started looking for alternative compositions. I noticed the glow of the late evening light on these fir and cedar trees and made a few photographs of what I saw. When I first looked at these at home though, they did not really seem to stand out.

  A few weeks ago I was going through some of my folders of photographs from 2010. I like to review things occasionally and look over shots I have passed by in favour of images that, at the time at least, appear stronger. I noticed this shot and was somewhat surprised I had never really noticed it before. It had not been a throwaway but was not selected for bigger things at the time either.

I am curious what other photographers do with the shots they initially think are “borderline”? Do you purge everything but the strongest images right away or do you sit on a lot of shots so you can evaluate them later?

Image Post-Procesing Objectivity

panorama of mount redoubt and nodoubt peak from chilliwack lake provincial park

Alpenglow on Mount Redoubt and Nodoubt Peak from Chilliwack Lake Provincial Park
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6 exposures stitched, Canon EF 70-200mm f/4 L IS USM @ 144mm

   When I spend time shooting I will normally take a quick overview of the days results immediately. There are often a few shots that will stand out – and those are often processed and sometimes show up here on the blog right away. I have learned that taking a long step back from a series of new photos can be beneficial to me in terms of my objectivity in culling the weaker shots. If I were to go through all the shots immediately I still carry my mental image of what I had planned for a photo. Not everything I try works out of course, and sometimes my initial expectations turn out to be too high. Sorting and processing images a month or two later gives me a lot better perspective of what is a “good” shot or a bad one – as many of my initial expectations have settled down. This has generally worked out so far – and I think I am better at choosing strong images than I used to be in part because of it.

However…

   I recently had an experience where the month+ delay in processing a panorama didn’t really seem to help. I processed and stitched this panorama 3-4 times – never quite happy with the colour of the sky. Things got to the point where I was no long able to view the photo at all objectively.

   For this particular panorama I stood in the snow next to Chilliwack Lake for over an hour, freezing, taking the odd shot but waiting for the right light. When it came – I shot about 3 panoramas (and many single shots) with a few different compositions. I like the composition of this one the best. The colour of the sky seemed quite purple compared to what my brain was telling me looked “natural”. This could be a case of over analysis – but I try to process images such that they are faithful to what I saw at the time. So I processed the 6 shots that make up this image again in Camera Raw with some PS adjustments to account for the colour. Then I did this again. Still not happy I put the image away for a few more weeks. I should note the purple color is present in the raw file – not as a result of some other colour processing I have done.

   Now that I have picked up this panorama again, I am still not sure if this looks natural. I like the colour on the mountain peaks, this is how it looked when I was there – but the sky still bothers me. I have stared at it so long I no longer remember what it looked like in person – perhaps that is the downside in waiting to do post processing? Maybe I just have to drop an image for longer or toss it entirely? I again processed an alternate panorama – taken about 7 minutes before the one posted above – and the sky looks bland and the clouds undefined – the whole image is uninspiring.

So what is the good thing about all this?

   During this process I learned a few more Photoshop techniques that I otherwise would not have. Tweaking sky colours using Selective Color in Photoshop, for example. Next time I have a sky colour problem as a result of changing colour temperature etc – I know how to fix it. I have also learned that sometimes I might need to move on from processing an image that just isn’t right – or leave it behind entirely.