Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Panorama | Out for a good book; instead, a good storm

Click on the above image to go to the full-size panorama on Flickr. Using a tripod, I took 10 vertical photos at a focal length of 32mm, each overlapping slightly, then combined them in a free program called Autostitch. I had gone to Lake Washington to read a book and drink a milkshake as the sun went down Monday evening. Before I left home, the radar was pretty clear. But it's Florida, and the hot summer air tends to generate these storms pretty quickly. The milkshake was an expected treat that I drank during this unexpected one.

I took this very blue shot soon after arriving. It's zoomed in to show the layers of the clouds as the storm approached.

The brunt of the storm passes just north of my position on the Melbourne lake. I took all of these photos with the camera on a tripod as I carried on a conversation with a beer-drinking storm watcher who said he used to operate a camera shop in town. I told him I just moved down to Florida a few years ago, and he apologized. Eh, but with storms like these, the Sunshine State isn't such a bad place.

Fishermen hurry in to the boat ramp just to the left of me. The bands of rain are visible on the horizon.

This very dark shot was taken just before I packed up and ran for my car. The far shore is no longer visible. Why? There's a wall of rain in the middle. It soon started pouring heavily, and lightning hit close to my car as I drove away. Then, I almost hit an extension ladder that someone apparently had lost in the middle of the road.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Photo | Going green

This is another scene from the undeveloped portion of Palm Bay that I drove into last week as a thunderstorm approached. It's an HDR image stitched together from five photos of differing exposures, which permits the bright green in the foreground and the dark sky in the background.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Photos | Delta IV rocket launches through many hues of blue

After the launch of a Delta IV rocket from Cape Canaveral had been delayed since Friday and again for a matter of minutes Saturday, I was in the dark as to when the thunderstorms would finally clear for it to blast off. After 6:45 p.m., when I heard that 6:51 p.m. would be the time, I raced from work to the Indian River to get a few photos.

Even from Palm Shores, about 30 miles south of the cape, it was a beautiful daytime launch. I appreciated the gradations of blue as the rocket shot through them. I took this shot with my backup camera, a Nikon D40, at a focal length of 18mm. I also had my D90 slung around my neck for the close-up shots.

Two boosters fall from the Delta IV for an eventual splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean, as the rocket soon disappears into the distance. The rocket successfully carried the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's GOES-O weather satellite into orbit, where it will start to watch severe-weather systems, such as hurricanes, in two years.

The contrails cast a distinct shadow. The conditions were just right for it to be visible. And yes, that palm tree is glowing.

This shot better shows the shadow. A rainbow appeared to arc over the river as the rocket lifted off, but my angle was such that the two couldn't be captured together. As it was, none of my rainbow shots are worth publishing.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Photo | More colors from Monday's sunset

As the sunset over Lake Washington evolved Monday, the colors changed to darker pinks and blues.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Photo | Red sky at night, photographer's delight

I took this Monday night at Lake Washington in Melbourne, my usual sunset spot, just before thunderstorms brought lots of lightning to the Space Coast.

Photos | Not a lot of lightning but some interesting lighting

Tuesday's thunderstorms were confined mostly to the inland. Brevard County residents - or Brevardians, as they are called - saw only a close brush with dark clouds. Above, I trekked to the undeveloped outskirts of Palm Bay, Brevard's largest city, where paved roads lead through empty scrub land and along canals full of storm water. This area -- known as "The Compound" -- is popular with local hooligans who like to race cars and motorcycles and probably smoke marijuana. I saw two young boys setting off a wad of firecrackers. The lightning was not frequent with this storm, but with dark clouds overhead and strong sunlight shining in from all around the storm, the conditions were neat out there.

Light that was reflected from a bright cloud, which was surrounded by dark clouds behind me, hits this stop sign near a day care center in Palm Bay. I did take a photo of the cloud, but it wasn't that interesting in and of itself.

Because it's my weekend, I had nothing better to do than follow Interstate 95 south as the storm paralleled the highway. My instinct took me off the interstate near Vero Beach in Indian River County. There, I took State Road 60, an east-west thoroughfare that courses through orange groves and cattle land. Just west of Yeehaw Junction, I stopped in a driveway to a hay farm and waited for the rain to pass. When it did, the above photo is what I got. This is still hours before sunset and is facing north. Obviously, I enjoyed the colors.

The lightning was impressive with this portion of the storm. But the big problem: It was still daylight. Lightning is relatively easy to shoot at night, when a photographer just has to open the shutter with a cable release or remote, and wait. During the day, with this crawling type of lightning, a tripod and a ready trigger finger are necessary equipment. These shots did come at a price, however: Mosquitoes gnawed at my arms and legs, and ants stung my ankles.

It's possible to catch the lightning during the day either by holding down on the shutter button or by waiting until you see the start of something lighting up, then depressing the button. I opted for the latter strategy because these crawlers - which make their way across the sky relatively slowly - offer a good tip that more is to come in the following split seconds.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Relief from the heat and frustration from an antiquated computer

Worried about ruining my equipment, I had to wait in the parking lot of the Cocoa Beach Pier for the rain to pass. This is one of the shots I got as lightning struck to the south of me.

Central Florida has been experiencing a heat wave recently: It was 99 today in Melbourne. And I have been experiencing some serious computing issues: My MacBook Pro, which I use to edit photos, is in the shop. The keyboard has been randomly malfunctioning - probably a serious hardware issue.

So I knew that when I went out to intercept a lightning storm Monday night - some much-needed heat relief - I would have difficulty editing the photos if I were to get any. Indeed, with my slow Toshiba laptop, it took two hours to "edit" the five photos for this post. I say "edit" sarcastically because I got so frustrated that I ended up doing very little of it. Because I shoot in Nikon's raw format, each photo must be processed for a proper effect. My PC does not have the proper capability for that.

Despite the incredibly frustrating post-production aspect, the production itself was both exciting and disappointing. I left home late because I was in the middle of dinner when I saw that the storms were tracking southward along the east coast of Florida and into northern Brevard County. By the time I got into position for some kind of shot in Cocoa Beach, the storm was well upon the region - which basically means it was pouring. The lightning was intense, mostly striking just offshore, but often coming close enough to make my hair stand up once again.

During a break in the rainfall and after most of the storm passed, I got a few shots of the lightning to the south. Most of my photos were taken from the parking lot of the Cocoa Beach Pier.

In this photo, there are two men, workers at the pier, who stood at the window and asked me what I was up to. "Photographing the lightning," I said. "Are you studying it or something?" they asked. "No. I'm just a photographer," I said.

With the strong lights in the foreground, I got some lens refraction, which I couldn't remove because of the deficiency of my slow PC.

Here's a cropped in version. You can see the distortion caused by my extreme wide-angle lens. I'm sure my old laptop would have taken a few years to rectify it.

When I was heading back home to the south, the lightning was still going strong. State Road A1A, which runs along the coastline, is a split highway in southern Cocoa Beach. Here, in the parking lot of a Baptist church, the lights on the northbound lane are out, but on my side, they are on. The lightning knocked out power to some of the stoplights, too.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Photo | Meet the official bird of the Sunshine State: the mockingbird

jay_0010The mockingbird is quite common in Florida, where it is considered the state bird. I see many in my wildlife observations. This immature mockingbird was blending into the bushes along Space View Park in Titusville, where I was scoping out the area in preparation for a space shuttle launch Wednesday morning. Of course, things never got off the ground, but now that NASA looks to have gotten to the bottom of the problem, things might get back on track.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Photos | Why my name almost didn't go to the moon on Thursday

Thunderstorms Thursday threatened to further delay the launch of NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which is carrying my name to the moon. This storm west of Melbourne was much more photogenic than the rocket launch, however. This was the scene on Harlock Road, a street lined with trees and horse ranches. (I liked this shot, so I gave it the honor of being the first full-size vertical photo ever on The Offlede.)

From near the end of Parkway Drive in Melbourne, I could see heavy lightning as the wavy storm front approached in the distance. I guess the skid marks kind of ruin this photo.

Still on Parkway Drive here.

Some wispiness is seen in the clouds over Harlock Road. The storm never really got too close, though. These photos were taken near my apartment, but only 10 minutes to the north, the sun was shining brightly.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

A year ago, I gave NASA something I hold dearly; today, it went to the moon

The Atlas V rocket carrying my name to the moon became visible in a clearing for only a few seconds. This is tightly cropped so you can actually see it.

atlas_vert_0062I've pledged never to miss photographing another rocket launch as long as I'm a resident of the Space Coast. Thursday's liftoff of an Atlas V with two NASA lunar explorers presented more of a problem than usual, though. In a configuration without solid rocket boosters, the Atlas V leaves only a faint smoke trail, and the flame itself is minimal. Also, I was at work in Melbourne, about 30 miles south of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. That made for little to actually photograph when the weather cleared for liftoff at 5:32 p.m.

The rocket was visible only at the horizon (left) and for a short period when it appeared in a blue break in the otherwise cloudy skies over Brevard County. Though they are poor photos, they are proof that I did not miss the launch. Not that I would have considered skipping it anyway: This one was extra special.

In addition to returning NASA to the moon for the first time in a decade, the rocket was carrying the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which holds the name of yours truly. I entered it precisely one year ago today (June 18, 2008) in NASA's Send Your Name to the Moon Project (for proof, click here). That's more than a coincidence; that's fate. I was meant to go to the moon - along with the 1.6 million other people who signed up, according to NASA.

Left: Houses along the shore of the Indian River on southern Merritt Island provide the foreground, and the faraway Atlas V is seen only as a tiny speck of fire as it ascends through the hazy Florida air.

Night had so much going for it, but launch just wasn't meant to be

Lightning from a thunderstorm, which was moving to the south, stretches through the sky above Merritt Island around 10:30 p.m. Endeavour's perch on launch pad 39A, which is bathed in light, is to left. The lightning delayed the fueling of the external tank, but it was not thought to threaten the launch time of 5:40 a.m.

My whole weekend revolved around NASA. I made the 45-minute drive to Titusville on Monday to scout out spots from which to photograph the launch of space shuttle Endeavour. I adjusted my sleeping schedule so I could observe the lighting conditions for two nights before liftoff. And I drove to Titusville again Tuesday to wait eight hours in the muggy Florida air for the real thing.

I began my trip about eight hours before the launch. But thunderstorms had moved into the area, and lightning was flashing in all directions. Distracted from my goal to photograph the launch, I stopped in the parking lot of a Baptist church in Melbourne to watch the lightning. But soon, I remembered my objective for the night, and I was off for Titusville once again.

From the parking lot of the South Brevard Baptist Church in northern Melbourne, I took a few exposures of the lightning before trekking to North Brevard.

The rain and lightning delayed the start of fueling for the launch, but NASA still thought it would be ready in time for the 5:40 a.m. liftoff. In the meantime, I had set up three tripods on the shore of the Indian River at Space View Park, attempting to get photos of the lightning over the launch pad. The storm soon dissipated, and there was no more lightning to shoot. But I still had an idea to keep myself busy.

The International Space Station was to be visible about an hour before the launch, the start of a mission to the station. From my vantage point at Space View Park, the orbiting lab would have streaked across the sky for three minutes, just to the right of Endeavour's location on Kennedy Space Center's pad 39A. The prospect of capturing the shuttle and its destination in one image excited me. But that opportunity was still hours away.

The clouds from the lingering storms - with lightning still flashing far off to the west the whole night - cleared. The stars came out. Jupiter rose. The moon and Venus would soon follow, but first had to emerge from a veil of low-level clouds on the horizon. A meteor shot slowly across the sky, visible for nearly five seconds, as it headed in the direction of the launch pad. It was shaping up to be a gorgeous early morning.

But alas, so to speak, the stars did not align. Another leak of volatile hydrogen gas forced NASA to scrub the launch. The show was canceled, and I just had one thing to say: "It figures." I had a bad feeling all along.

But I was comforted by the fact that it could have been worse. I could have dedicated more than just a weekend and a few 45-minute drives for something that just was not meant to be.

There was a man from San Diego who decided at 8 o'clock Monday night that he would use frequent flier miles to make the trip across the country for a chance to see two launches: Endeavour on Wednesday and an Atlas V rocket on Thursday. He and his wife had been laid off, he said, so he had some free time on his hands to do something he has always wanted to do.

Then there was Mike from Tampa. He has seen launches before but never one in the pre-dawn or nighttime hours. I told him that he would be in for a real treat when, at ignition, the night turns into day. He had Wednesday off from his job with the Department of Homeland Security, so instead of doing some painting on his house, he spanned the state to watch his fellow government employees at work. "Do your job, guys. Do your job," he said when NASA announced that engineers were trying to fix the leak. Luckily for Mike, though, his gas was paid for by the $60 he won after putting $20 into a slot machine at the Seminole Hard Rock before leaving Tampa.

And a family of five - Mom, Dad and kids having set up a mini camp on the concrete - was nearly in tears when their Florida vacation, which revolved around the chance to see the launch, was soured a second time by shuttle Endeavour, which had been postponed Saturday, too. "Try to enjoy the rest of your vacation," another wannabe spectator told them. The mother said, "At least we got to see the Indian River twice."

But we all knew she was being facetious: The Indian River literally stinks. It's rotten. And another scrubbed shuttle launch figuratively stinks to the high heavens.

A trio of lights - the moon, the shuttle's launch pad and Jupiter - highlight a rib of clouds over Kennedy Space Center.

When I arrived in Titusville, clouds had blocked all stars from view, but by the time the launch was scrubbed around 2 a.m., many were visible. The weather was shaping up to be perfect for the launch. What a waste. The launch has been rescheduled for July 11.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Photos | I suppose this is why we call it the Sunshine State

While I was off to run an errand in Viera, a planned neighborhood north of Melbourne, a collection of clouds diffused the sun's light into distinguishable rays.

This is one of many man-made ponds in Viera and one of many man-planted palm trees.

En route, a poor shot taken through my dirty windshield. I just enjoyed the strong, focused beam in the upper right.

Experimenting | Shuttle strategy looks to be a game-time call

The moon and Venus are featured in this test shot along Wickham Road in Melbourne at 5:40 a.m. Tuesday, 24 hours before Endeavour is scheduled to blast into the wild black yonder.

This is what the eastern sky looks like at 5:40 a.m., the time space shuttle Endeavour is set to lift off from Kennedy Space Center on Wednesday. With sunrise only 45 minutes later, the conditions are quite bright. But in this exposure of three minutes and 22.3 seconds, my camera did a good job of stopping a lot light from hitting the sensor. And this is with bright streetlights and car headlights nearby. Because the raw version of this photo was quite a bit darker, I'm thinking that a long exposure - say, two and a half minutes - of the launch will be possible.

Tomorrow's conditions will be different and more challenging, however. There will be another light source - and a rather bright one at that: The shuttle's main engine and two solid rocket boosters turn the Florida night into day. The shot also will be over water, off which a reflection will create even more brightness for my exposure.

The other option would be to take snapshots with my telephoto lens on my Nikon D90, which would be considerably less risky. My backup camera could simultaneously take the long exposure. But because it doesn't have as much leeway in its settings, the D40 probably would overexpose the shot. The ideal thing would be to set those two cameras up for long exposures and to let them run as I operate my video camera.

Decisions, decisions. This is shaping up to be a game-time one.

Photos | Gone fishing, egret beats man

I went to Titusville on Monday to scout out locations for Wednesday morning's shuttle photo shoot. An egret was catching fish after fish in a little cove near Space View Park.

The egret frequently plunged its head under the water of the Indian River, coming up with food in its mouth more times than not.

eating_0127Another catch goes down the hatch.

The egret turned around, allowing for much better lighting as the sun got lower in the sky. It never caught a fish when it was facing in this direction, though. It stuck around until a human angler cast near the bird, which flew off and perched on a tree. The man didn't catch a thing. Eventually, he left, too.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Experimenting | Bluish sky for pre-dawn shuttle launch creates a conundrum

I turned my camera settings way down for this test shot in preparation for shuttle Endeavour's launch Wednesday morning. The aperture was stopped down to f/22, and the ISO (the digital sensor's sensitivity to light) was set at 100. The length of the exposure was seven minutes and 26.9 seconds, which is probably longer than the shutter will need to be open (the launch is quick). This photo shows the camera's response to a prolonged exposure to artificial light from buildings, which I'm considering for my shot Wednesday. The moon is to the left, and Jupiter is up there somewhere in the center of the image. Of course, there's lots of crazy lens refraction with such a long exposure.

In a troublesome twist when it comes to photography, the launch of space shuttle Endeavour is now scheduled to be a pre-dawn night liftoff from Kennedy Space Center. It was set for early Saturday, less than an hour after sunrise, but a hydrogen leak caused NASA to postpone. I had planned to camp out all night for the 7:17 a.m. Saturday liftoff, and I plan to do the same for the new time of 5:40 a.m. Wednesday. When NASA first was considering this new launch time, I was excited: I haven't had a chance to photograph a night launch since I failed miserably at it a couple of Marches ago.

But this particular launch time should create a challenge. The ideal shot would be a lengthy exposure of the spaceship's main engine and solid rocket boosters as they arc eastward over the Atlantic Ocean. It would be a streak unlike any other I have had a chance to capture. At least, that would be the case if it were pitch black at the time of the launch.

Instead, we're approaching the summer solstice, which means the sun rises earliest at this time of the year. At 5:40 a.m., the sun will begin to grace the Space Coast with its light for an eventual rise at 6:25, an unwelcome condition for a streaky launch photograph.

That's why I'm using these few nights before the launch to test my camera's response to the lighting environment. Last night, just after 3 a.m., I took the above photo. At seven minutes and 26.9 seconds, it is a long exposure. The light behind the apartment buildings is emanating from the city of Melbourne. I won't have to contend with an artificial light source in Titusville, where I'll be waiting for the shuttle launch, but I am hoping that this glow on the horizon somewhat simulates a rising sun. Of course, nothing is like the real thing, so tonight, I will venture out at 5:40 a.m. to get a better survey of the natural lighting. Here's to a couple of long nights ahead - all in a quest for a stupid photo.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Photos | Weakening thunderstorm moves over the Atlantic

As a thunderstorm, which had brought funnel clouds earlier to Central Florida, moves offshore, a woman tests the surf at the beach near Patrick Air Force Base in Brevard County.

As the shelf cloud moves southeast, beachgoers scurry out of the water in anticipation of a severe thunderstorm. The shelf was more organized near Daytona Beach, where some Flickr users snapped some cool shots.

People pack up their coolers as the skies threatened to open up and as the strong wind whipped sand into their eyes. After these people made off, I was the sole person left on the beach, except for a few people on the boardwalk.

vertical_front_0050There were some quite low-hanging clouds associated with this storm. There was little lightning, however.

The turbulent underside of the thunderstorm had some definite movement, but I didn't see rotation. I was hoping for a waterspout.

surf_0068Waves crashed the shoreline, as I tried my best to avoid from getting my Nikes wet. I didn't waste the time to take them off after my speedy trip from the mainland during a break from work.

The surf was really getting kicked up as it poured offshore.

sandals_0101Some people left in such a hurry that they seemed to have forgotten their sandals.

Everyone on the beach stayed dry. There were only a few sprinkles.