Thursday, July 27, 2023

Balboa Pier

 I had a birthday a couple weeks ago. Yes, I'm at that age where I would prefer to totally forget about birthdays. Just ignore them altogether. But I did get to choose where I wanted to go out to dinner. I chose getting a burger (or something similar) at the end of the Balboa Pier. For me, it's more about location, view, and a comfortable casual setting than the actual food. A place where flip flops and T-shirts are appropriate attire.
You can just barely make out the Ruby's restaurant at the end of the Balboa Pier in this photo. Lilly & I are checking out the waves. It turned out to be a crummy day for boogie boarding (sorry Lilly!). Water was uncharacteristically cold and the waves broke right on the sand, which can be dangerous. On the plus side, it was delightfully cool. While the more inland areas cooked in the extended heat wave we are having, the beach was cool (even a little cold when we first got there).
Pretty sky (photo by Lilly)
Since the waves were bad, we opted for a late lunch rather than dinner.
I love spending time on a pier, surrounded by the Pacific Ocean on three sides. Watching the fishermen and the surfers is always enjoyable.
If you live in a hot area, stay cool and stay safe! I've been hearing that this could be the coolest summer of the rest of our lives. A very scary thought! I would say let's all move to the beach, but it's already very crowded at the beaches, not to mention the price of real estate is ridiculously expensive. Plus they have their own problems, with rising sea levels and coastal erosion. I guess we all need to just stay put and make the best of it!
Thanks for stopping by!
Linking with Skywatch Friday

Thursday, July 20, 2023

Milky Way over "Big Eyes" Rock Formation

 Thanks so much for all your comments last week. It's encouraging, and also it provided me with some excellent feedback: The majority liked the darker Milky Way with the LED-lit rocks (top photo, below).
The above outing (during the April new moon on 4/20/23) provided me with some badly needed practice at Milky Way photography. After this solo outing was completed, I talked my friend Mitch into joining me for the May new moon (5/21). Our goal was to photograph the Milky Way over the "Big Eyes" rock formation I had come across on a recent hike. It looked like optimal Milky Way position would be about 11PM, but we decided to "go heavy" with sleeping bags, tents, and all the other gear needed in case we needed to spend the night. It would turn out to be a good decision.
Big Eyes is such an interesting and unusual-looking rock formation, and I was really looking forward to trying to get a good Milky Way photo with this as the foreground! We trudged out to the location with our heavy backpacks, getting there about 45 minutes before sunset. We set up our tripods, used the PhotoPills app to determine the position of the MW so we could compose our photos, and set up our tents.
This is the view looking out from inside the right "eye" of "Big Eyes." That's Mitch on the right, probably consulting his PhotoPills app, and you might be able to spot my tent (behind him and toward the center). 
I'm adjusting lights so we can get a "glowing eyes" shot later. Note the clear skies.
So there's nothing much to do now but wait for the Milky Way to be in optimal position. With Milky Way photography, there's a lot of waiting around. We decide to try for a couple hours sleep while waiting, and set our phone alarms for about 11PM. 
Nice view from inside my tent. Good night!
Beep... beep... beep... Time to get up, which is fine with me because I couldn't fall asleep. Mitch and I immediately notice that clouds have moved in. Nooooooooooooooooooooo!!😟
Not only have the clouds moved in, but they are perfectly obscuring the Milky Way. Instead of a nice MW sky shot, I now have "Clouds blocking the Milky Way" sky shot!! Very ominous looking, but not what I'm after.
Glowing eyes version of "Clouds blocking the Milky Way."
The clouds kind of come and go, and there are a couple times when we think we may get a good clear shot, but then the clouds move in again and snatch it away! We discuss the option of calling it a night and hiking back to the car.
The rest of the night is kind of a blur. At some point we decided to go back to our tents and try for sleep, but we agreed to get up every couple hours to see if the clouds had cleared. This photo was taken at 1:32AM.  Partial clearing, and at least you get a small glimpse of the Milky Way!
And then, at 3:11AM, we finally had clearing!! Notice how the MW moves across the sky from SE to SW, and from a diagonal position to a nearly vertical position. It means, flip your camera on the tripod to a portrait orientation. We were both so very close to giving up and crawling into our tent for the rest of the night or hiking back to the car. So glad we didn't!
My favorite of the night.
I think we finally got back to bed about 4AM, tired and elated at the same time. I nearly ran right into this Black Widow (in the process of eating a moth) on my way to my tent. Fortunately my head lamp lit her up just in time, and I was able to go around her. I'm pretty sure she didn't want to share her meal with me!
After sleeping a couple hours, we were back up with first light, taking down our tents and stumbling back in the general direction of the car, totally sleep deprived. It's rare that I get to see sunrise and first light out in this part of the desert, so a real treat!

So there you have it. Another night out on the desert, under the stars (and clouds), chasing a sometimes elusive Milky Way! I count this as a successful outing, and so happy the clouds eventually cleared. At some point, I'll share my attempts at June and July Milky Way outings, and hoping to get out in August as well. Stay tuned!
Thanks for stopping by!!
Linking with Skywatch Friday.

Thursday, July 13, 2023

Bird Skull Rock and Milky Way

 Have you ever tried to take pictures of the Milky Way? I lost interest in Milky Way photography a number of years ago. It always seemed like a lot of work for not much return. It requires you to pack a lot of gear (camera, tripod, lights, and sometimes a sleeping bag, tent, ground pad, etc., etc.). Lots of water because the Milky Way is best seen in the hot summer months. You end up with a really heavy pack. And it requires a lot of careful planning: A new moon night so the light from the moon doesn't mess up Milky Way visibility, position of the Milky Way and galactic center, and most importantly, picking an interesting foreground (a photo of the MW in the sky without an interesting foreground is pretty boring!). Your view of said foreground must be to the south (location of the MW). You can use an app like PhotoPills to see where the MW will be in relation to your foreground on your planned date. Sometimes you get lucky and the optimal position of the MW/galactic center is around 11PM or so. But other nights, the optimal time to photograph the MW might be 3:30 or 4AM. Since I like to get to my shooting location late in the day to get set up, and photograph my foreground after sunset, it makes for a long night! So after all this careful planning and hiking out to what you have selected as your perfect foreground with a really heavy pack, you should be good to go, right? Nope, not necessarily. Winds can kick up and ruin things, skies get hazy, or the MW photographers worst enemy, clouds fill the sky and you can't even see the MW. Talk about frustrating! Your very best case scenario is none of this happens and you get a wonderful photo of the MW and foreground. Maybe one or two good, usable photos. See what I mean about a low return on investment?
So why my renewed interest in MW photography? Blame it on the Big Eyes rock formation that I came across recently. I took one look at it, with it's perfect view to the south, and immediately thought it would make an ideal MW foreground.
I decided back in April that I wanted to do a practice run at MW photography before heading out to Big Eyes. I knew of another rock formation (Bird Skull Rock) that might make a good foreground, and the best view is SE (good for viewing the MW in April). The optimal time would be about 2:30AM, so my plan was to hike out while still light, get some photos of my foreground just after sunset, and then try to get a few hours sleep before shooting the MW. Unfortunately, that would mean packing a sleeping bag and pad along with all my other gear, so a very heavy pack!
It was a little over a one mile hike out to Bird Skull Rock. Not too far, but with a super-heavy pack on a hot afternoon, far enough! I passed by a couple interesting rock formations on the hike out.

Interesting "two story" lower level shelter (left) and upper level alcove. 
Ah, there it is! Bird Skull Rock is what I want to use as my foregound. My plan is to take a photo after sunset while there is still enough light to see the rocks, and focus the camera on the rocks. I've also packed two LED lights to help light up the rocks. Then, without moving my camera from the tripod, I'll come back some hours later, change my camera focus and other settings for the MW night sky. If successful, I'll combine the two images and everything should be in focus and have a reasonably good exposure.
View from inside the rock formation. Bonus points if you can spot my tripod!
My sleeping pad is orange. That's where I'll be sleeping tonight.
Here I am, camera and tripod are set up, and waiting for the sun to go down. I splurged and bought an ultra-light backpacking chair. There's a lot of waiting around with MW photography, and it really helps to have a comfortable place to sit!
Screenshot of my PhotoPills app. It's showing where the Milky Way will be at 2:23AM. The MW moves across the sky (to the right) as the night progresses, and also goes from horizontal to vertical. The orange circle is the galactic center, which is the brightest part of the MW. It's a great tool to help you plan how to compose your photo and the optimal time to take your photo. I'm hoping to get the MW in a diagonal position to the left of the "eyes", and it looks like 2:30-3:00AM will give me my best outcome.
I really love this part of the desert. There are no trails out here, and few visitors. The sense of solitude and quite is wonderful, and spending the night out here enhances the experience even more.
Here's the foreground photo I will be using. Just enough light to make out the rocky detail, and (hopefully) sharp focus on the "eyes". If I make it too light, it will look unnatural when I add the dark MW sky. I can always make some minor edits in Photoshop later if needed.

Here's the same photo, but using LCD lights to light up the rock formation. I don't think I like this as much... looks unnatural, but you never know what it will look like when you add the night sky later. Now it's time to set my phone alarm for about 2:30AM and hope I can get a little sleep! 💤
Beep Beep Beep. 2:30AM and time to get up. I don't think I got much, if any, sleep. Very uncomfortable sleeping on these rocks! But luck was with me and no clouds moved in.
Version #1: Milky Way over a Bird Skull Rock using LCD lights. I'm happy with this one. The lights add drama and pull your eye to the rock formation. The focus is good on both the foreground and the sky. 
Version #2: Milky Way over Bird Skull Rock, no LCD lights. The sky is a little lighter. Focus is good (both foreground and Milky Way). I'm happy with this one as well. I'm curious: Do you have a favorite??
I finished up around 3:30AM. Since I had no luck earlier trying to fall asleep, I decided to pack up all my geat and stumble back to my car, just using a headlamp for light and my GPS for direction. The surrounding mountains and rock formations that are my usual landmarks are covered in darkness. Hiking off-trail across the open desert on a moonless night is a strange and wild experience!
Thanks for stopping by, and I appreciate your comments!
Linking with Skywatch Friday.

Thursday, July 6, 2023

Fireworks in the Desert

 We were out in the desert for the 4th this year and I was busy studying Google Maps, trying to find a parking spot that would give us a good view of the display. We were also keeping our fingers crossed that our dog would be OK (we've only had her a few weeks). We didn't want to leave her home alone on the 4th, and figured if the noise was too upsetting for her, we could easily leave the show early and drive home. We arrived at the viewing spot I picked out about 15 minutes early (turns out a lot of other people had the same idea!), set up or chairs and waited for the show. The dog wasn't totally thrilled, so my wife took her in the car and watched the show from there, while Lilly & I watched from our chairs.
It's been a while since I've photographed fireworks, so had to ask Mr. Google about typical camera settings. A tripod and exposure time of 3-4 seconds, f 9, ISO 125 seemed to be the sweet spot, with a short telephoto lens.
Does anyone else see a face??
If you celebrated the 4th, hope you had a good one!
Linking with Skywatch Friday.
Thanks for stopping by!