Monday, September 28, 2009

Photos | After dusk, space station soars high past the moon

The International Space Station made a high pass over eastern Central Florida on Monday night, about 50 minutes after sunset. The low sky was still glowing orange as the station appeared 11 degrees above the northwestern horizon at 8 p.m. on the dot. It reached a height of 77 degrees overhead, as I took several exposures with a wide-angle lens from Pineda Causeway, just south of Rockledge. I chose the causeway because there is no interference from any streetlights. With dry air dominant over the Florida peninsula, the sky throughout Monday was the clearest I had seen it since the spring, which was helpful for spotting the station.

This is a two-image composite showing the station passing east of the moon, which was in its waxing gibbous phase, with 72 percent of its disk visible. There's a slight gap in the streaks of the station, indicating the moment it took me to click the remote for another exposure. The two photos were stacked in Photoshop, resulting in this singular image.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Photo | Once again, anticrepuscular rays, this time sans pavement, power lines

For the third time in a row (at sunset Thursday, sunrise Friday and, now, sunset Friday), anticrepuscular rays appeared in the sky opposite the sun. Now that I know this phenomenon is a common occurrence, my only mission in photographing it was to see the rays at a place other than a parking lot. On Friday night, that finally happened when I was out of work during a break and saw the rays over the Indian River at Rotary Park in Suntree.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Photos | Hanging with the pros for Delta II rocket launch

A Delta II rocket carrying two missile defense satellites lifted off at 8:20 a.m. Friday, after poor weather Wednesday and a technical glitch Thursday delayed previous attempts. Dedicated as I am, I woke up early again and drove to Jetty Park in Port Canaveral, where I set up my tripod next to FLORIDA TODAY co-worker and launch photographer extraordinaire Michael R. Brown. He warned me that launch pad 17B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station was engineered as such that the plume shoots upward at ignition, obstructing the view of the rocket. That indeed was the case, but this shot was taken as the spacecraft had just cleared the column of vapor.

As the rocket moved closer to the sun, I stupidly changed my exposure, resulting in some darker images. I had to lighten this a bit to show the shock wave that formed around the nosecone and solid rocket boosters. This is the first time I have captured such a sight, so it's disappointing to have botched the exposure. I blame the lack of sleep.

The solid rocket boosters separate from the vehicle.

The closed-down aperture that I had adjusted my camera to worked nicely for the contrail, as this shot shows all the lumpy details. The color of the sky, of course, is not accurate (this image actually turned out somewhat monochrome). With strong sunlight hitting the contrail, though, my digital camera couldn't handle the contrast to nail both the details and the sky color.

I set up my video camera along the railing on the opposite side of the pier at Jetty Park, which is a little less than three miles south of the launch pad. I'm in the white T-shirt in the middle, and Mike Brown and his considerably nicer and more expensive telephoto lens are directly to my right. See some of his shots here. We were the first two in a line of photographers, equipped with large lenses, who gathered at one part of the pier with a view that is the least obstructed by towers and vegetation. I usually avoid such groups because I'm not about to pose as a representative of a legitimate news organization, but I made an exception for the sake of positioning.

Some seagulls were stirred off the beach behind us, flying in front of the contrail.

You never know how the wind will blow the contrail from a rocket, but on Friday, the conditions resulted in a corkscrew.

An Air Force helicopter patrolling the airspace around Cape Canaveral was silhouetted against the contrail.

Taken before liftoff, this shot shows the helicopter and a military photographer dangling his feet out the door. He was shooting the pier full of launch spectators.

Photos | Sunrise makes it obvious that anticrepuscular rays are common

Driving through the city of Cape Canaveral on Friday morning, en route to a rocket launch, I noticed yet more anticrepuscular rays, this time to the west opposite the sunrise. Again, large clouds were obstructing the sun to the east, creating these streaks that stretched across the sky. Though I realize now that their occurrence isn't that rare, I still think they're pretty cool, and I'm still trying to shoot them at a better location than a parking lot. I've seen them four times, and every shot of them includes power lines and pavement.

Photos | 20 minutes after sunset, similar sights in opposite directions

Facing west (taken at 7:37 p.m., with sunset at 7:16 p.m.): The Space Coast has seen some great sunsets recently, with large clouds on the horizon filtering the light and sending distinct rays through the atmosphere. On Wednesday night, I didn't bother to take any photos because I had too many newspaper stories to edit. But on Thursday night, I somewhat belatedly stepped outside work to check on the post-sunset sky and took some photos from the edge of a pond behind the building. The putrid body of water has appeared in many other photos I have taken at work. The view of the large clouds that gave rise to the streaks of light, though, was blocked by the trees.

Facing east (taken at 7:34 p.m.): It's amazing that I had never witnessed this sight before moving to Florida, but for the third time in my life and for the second time in as many weeks, anticrepuscular rays appeared in the eastern sky, opposite the sunset Thursday. In Maine, where I had spent my summers before moving to Washington, then to New York, the clouds tend to be much smaller. Thus, I suspect that this phenomenon occurs much less frequently in regions without the cloud-building capabilities of more tropical climes.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Photos | Heron caught snoozing at work

After I got out of work a few Sundays ago, this great blue heron was sleeping while perched on a boardwalk to a gazebo behind my workplace. I attached an external flash to my camera and shot the bird without disturbing it too much. Eventually, when I got up to only a few feet from it, the heron stirred, turned to face the opposite direction, then went back to sleep.

This photo is not cropped, so obviously, I was pretty close.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Woke up early for a launch, got only a rainbow

I first stopped in the empty parking lot of Space Age Books in Satellite Beach, where I used the sign in the foreground to add an element from the whole purpose of getting up early. The rainbow was just extra - but welcome, of course.

There isn't much that stops me from watching a rocket launch, and today's 8 a.m. scheduled liftoff time of a Delta II from Cape Canaveral was of no deterrence. I'm used to waking up around noon each day, but seeing a Delta II from only a few miles off in Port Canaveral was motivation enough for me to roll out of bed at 6 a.m.

The launch pads for Delta IIs are the southernmost at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, affording the general public at Jetty Park in Port Canaveral a breathtaking sight and thunderous noise. This, in my opinion, beats even manned launches unless you're a member of the space press or one of the few residents fortunate enough to get tickets at Kennedy Space Center for a shuttle launch.

When I arose Wednesday morning, though, I heard thunder. I looked out, and it was pouring. I briefly attempted to photograph the lightning, but that was fruitless. The launch, according to its managers at United Launch Alliance and NASA, was still on because the weather was expected to clear. They pushed the time back to 8:59 a.m, though, the last possible window for the rocket to be launched today into its proper orbit. Uncharacteristically, I shaved, showed and left home all before noon - heck, it was before 7.

During the 35-minute commute, the rainfall was steady, but the sun started to break through the clouds. Still, with large clouds lingering, I knew the rocket had a very slim chance of getting off the ground Wednesday.

After stopping at a 7-Eleven just south of Patrick Air Force Base, I walked out of the convenience store and nearly dropped my can of Red Bull. A rainbow arced over the 7-Eleven. Reminding myself of the unlikelihood of a rocket launch at Cape Canaveral, I decided to shoot the rainbow so I wouldn't come up empy in the event of a scrub. I took a few shots from a parking lot near the 7-Eleven, then backtracked over Pineda Causeway for some images of the full bow over the Banana River and ended with a couple of photos from the edge of the river in Cocoa Beach.

The morning's photography ended predictably, though: Five minutes after paying for a parking pass at Jetty Park in Port Canaveral, the launch was scrubbed. We'll do this again tomorrow morning. Looks like another trip to 7-Eleven for a Red Bull is in my future.

With the sun low on the horizon over the Atlantic Ocean behind me, the shadows were long. This is another of my self-portraits, with the rainbow arcing over Pineda Causeway and the Banana River.

The left side of the rainbow faded, but the right still was shining brightly. The secondary bow was faint.

In the first few photos, the apex of the bow is rather difficult to perceive. Here, though, the top is resilient, but the left extreme had almost entirely dissolved at this point.

A close-up of the apex of this natural parabola.

When I entered southern Cocoa Beach a few minutes to the north, the left side of the rainbow, which had faded earlier, came back. Again, I ignored "no trespassing" signs for the sake of a few photos, here with a boathouse on the Banana River as the foreground.

Not a well-composed shot, but I liked the bands of clouds and light leading downward at an angle from the rainbow.

With the Delta II rocket still sitting on launch pad 17B, a sailboat made its way out to sea from Port Canaveral. By this point, the launch already had been scrubbed, and most of the people at Jetty Park had left. I stuck around to see if anything would happen.

Though the sky directly above the launch pad seemed blue and bright, these showers were moving quickly onshore. The large anvil cloud associated with this precipitation was too much of a concern for launch managers.

I shot this just before leaving the pier at Jetty Park and just before it started to rain. The launch pad is on the piece of land to the left.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Always ready to fire: Sunset-moon interaction is gone in 60 seconds

When there are large clouds on the horizon for a sunset, there frequently are these rays of sunlight that shine upward. On Tuesday night, the scene especially struck me when I saw the brightening crescent moon that seemed to be the target of those rays.

For aspiring photographers, the foremost thing I would recommend is to always have a camera on hand. I'm widely known among friends for having a backpack full of equipment by my side or in my car at work, while grocery shopping, even while swimming. I like shooting weather, and that - despite meteorologists' attempts - is utterly unpredictable, especially in Central Florida. If any disaster - natural or man-made - happens close by, I would be ready. Many of the photos on this blog are the result of being prepared for the unexpected. Considerably fewer are results of purposely photographic ventures.

One of my favorite professional photographers - other than my father, of course - is Chase Jarvis, who has completed some cool field-testing work for Nikon's D90 and is doing some now for Sandisk, a maker of media cards for digital cameras. When he doesn't have his high-powered Nikons and Hasselblads on him, though, Jarvis carries an iPhone, with which he has taken some uniquely beautiful, creative images. That inspired a book, a Web site and an iPhone application dedicated to photography with Apple's popular device. The site, which was launched today, is here.

Until I get my first iPhone, I'm sticking with a large camera bag holding two cameras - my D40 and D90 - along with various lenses, accessories and tripods. It again paid dividends Tuesday night when I was running errands. While I was heading home on U.S. 1, the setting sun's rays shot upward at an angle toward a crescent moon. Knowing it wouldn't last along the Indian River, I pulled onto Pineda Causeway, which leads to the beachside communities, and then to the side of the road as soon as I had the room to do so. Less than a minute after setting up my tripod next to the vehicles whizzing by, the scene had faded entirely. The shot is nothing spectacular, but still, it was good that I was prepared.

Florida Keys Day 5, Part 3 (last post) | Anticrepuscular rays seal the deal

I was heading through Key Largo, the northernmost city in the Florida Keys, on my way home on the Monday night during my vacation when I saw a mildly nice sunset. Stopping at a private boat ramp and undeterred by a "no trespassing" sign there, I took a few hand-held snapshots of the sunset. Now that the traffic had cleared - at least in Key Largo - I was eager to get back onto the road and en route for Melbourne. This shot looks west, of course, over Florida Bay.

It's funny that on the previous night of this sunset, I had turned around after shooting the International Space Station and saw the Milky Way in all its light-unabated brilliance. The Keys are alive with meteorological phenomenon. This night, I turned around and saw this for the second time in my life: anticrepuscular rays. Sunlight appears to emanate from the horizon to the east, but it's an optical illusion: They're just sun says being filtered by the clouds to the west and cast onto the high, thin clouds in the east. Of course, light travels in straight lines, but in this illusion, the rays appear curved. This sight made my turnaround in traffic earlier in the day totally worth it. After this, I was home in three and a half hours.

Florida Keys Day 5, Part 2 | From slowdown to cooldown

I was pretty hot and bothered by the traffic late Monday, so I actually put on a swimsuit and took my D90 into the Atlantic Ocean for the first time. Before, I had worried about the integrity of my waterproof case. But after a few uses of it with my D40, it had my confidence. The capture includes a few fish, but the lighting later in the day wasn't so hot, so they're a little difficult to pick out.

No fish in this photo, just grass and light. Too bad the life under the surface off Key Largo wasn't nearly as interesting as it was in Key West.

Florida Keys Day 5, Part 1 | Beginning of a slow ride to nowhere

What's a road trip without a portrait of your wheels? I took this after stopping along U.S. 1 on Duck Key. At this point, I rummaged through my camera bag for the remote control to my camera and came up empty. After searching my entire car, I determined that I had somehow left the thumb-size remote at the motel about 20 minutes to the south. I was considering a drive home on that Monday, but it wasn't starting out the way I wanted it to.

With the help of a nice motel manager, I found my remote and was northbound again. But as I expected, the traffic was bumper to bumper because of all the Labor Day weekenders from South Florida who were heading home. From my crawling vehicle, I snapped a shot of this bunny ear-shaped storm.

Stopping around Layton to admire the storm more, I jumped into the Gulf of Mexico - fully clothed - to get a shot of a buoy with the clouds in the background. The thunderstorm was moving quickly, so I didn't have another option if I wanted to capture the scene I had in mind. But the shot did not pan out. This one was taken from the dryness of the sandy shore.

Late in the day, as I was pretty much out of the Florida Keys after traveling about 50 miles in four hours, I decided to turn around because I thought the day had been wasted in the blistering heat of my Chevrolet (I do not use air conditioning when I'm out taking photos because the rapid change from cool to warm air causes condensation on the equipment). I took this shot showing the line of vehicles in the northbound traffic lane I had been in.

Florida Keys Day 4, Part 7 | Lightning, space station and the Milky Way

After the sunset at Bahia Honda State Park on the Sunday of my vacation, I traveled slightly north to the foot of Seven-Mile Bridge in the Florida Keys. I picked a pullover area, hauled out my equipment and waited for something I could see from most anywhere in Florida: a flyover by the International Space Station. In the meantime, I focused my lens on a thunderstorm over the Gulf of Mexico. There wasn't much lightning, but the storms in the Keys amazed me nonetheless: All of the ones I saw could easily be contrasted in a photo with clear sky.

The space station's 8:23 p.m. appearance lasted about five minutes and started in the southwest, a view that is pictured above. The streak in this 33-second time lapse is not lengthy, mainly because I was worried about overexposing the image at dusk.

I kept the shutter open for a lengthier period and caught the space station streaking above the thunderstorm over the Gulf of Mexico. This space station appearance, because of the clear sky in the Keys, was best I had ever seen.

From the space station's apex of 54 degrees, it began to descend in the northeastern sky, into the lights of Marathon on the other side of Seven-Mile Bridge. For these three shots, I was standing on a pedestrian bridge alongside U.S. 1, and many of the spans throughout the Keys are lined with these rusty guardrails. Also in this shot, you can see the pronounced anvil shape of the thunderstorm over the Gulf of Mexico.

When I turned around and faced the east, over the Atlantic Ocean, the Milky Way stood out. It was the first time since I was in Maine last year that I had seen the galaxy in the night sky. The lights from Central Florida's cities drown out such a sight, depriving residents of the chance to witness the magnificence of our part of the universe. With the shutter open for about two and a half minutes, the stars are quite streaky in this image, in which yet another thunderstorm is visible.

And what's the Florida Keys without a tiki hut? Again with the Milky Way in the sky, this one was located at a small oceanside park in Little Duck Key. The park, of course, was officially closed at night, and it was dark for most of my time there photographing the stars. But a crew of fishermen hauling a boat had stopped for a break, and the lights from their truck lit the hut. This was taken with a 1000 ISO setting, allowing the shutter to be open for only 47 seconds, limiting the streakiness of the stars.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Florida Keys Day 4, Part 6 | A sunset at Bahia Honda State Park

I had meant to spend more time at the popular Bahia Honda State Park south of Marathon, but the events of my final day (Day 5) in the Florida Keys scuttled those plans. Instead, at the end of Day 4, I paid the $4.50 fee for park access and watched the sun go down from a former railroad bridge over Bahia Honda Channel. A large gap prevents walkers from proceeding but affords boats free passage.

I didn't want to see another sunset in the crowded Key West on Sunday, so I made the late-day trip north to Bahia Honda. A couple of foreign tourists had gathered at the end of the span to watch the sunset alongside me. Otherwise, the state park was not crowded with other Labor Day weekend travelers.

Seeing no traffic at all, the disconnected portion of the railway bridge is a haven for pooping birds of all sorts. Gulls and pigeons obviously have made a mess of it.

Florida Keys Day 4, Part 5 | This time, wildlife's a bit more colorful

After shooting a raccoon on the Sunday morning of my Florida Keys vacation, I noticed a few of these yellow prairie warblers browsing for bugs in a pine tree on Smathers Beach in Key West.

When there's nothing obvious, such as surfers on large waves, to photograph, I often get skeptical glances when I'm on the beach with a large camera lens. But I tried to stay focused on the birds rather than the swimmers who were enjoying warm water with little surf at all.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Florida Keys Day 4, Part 4 | Snorkeling, parasailing and seagull-feeding

Two young snorkelers inspect the bottom of a stairway off a pier at Smathers Beach in Key West. This is where I later snapped a few underwater shots. I am also in this photo.

Snorkeling is a popular activity for tourists in much of the Florida Keys. At Smathers Beach, rentals are available, and these three women were complaining that they couldn't see anything spectacular, thus wanting their money back. That's why I don't bother spending the money.

Tourists also spend their dollar bills on parasailing.

Some people are smart enough, though, to take advantage of cheap fun, such as feeding the seagulls.