Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A covert rocket launch

Rotten weather ruined an opportunity to shoot the very large Delta IV Heavy rocket as it carried a spy satellite into space. The only thing visible is a tiny streak on the horizon from the rocket, just before it punched through the clouds. It never reappeared.

A note: For two months, I've taken a rather coincidental hiatus from this blog. Not much has happened. The weather in Florida is dry, bland and not photogenic. I enjoy my friends. I have little spare time to go on aimless hunts for photographs. And, because of a computer failure, I've been without Photoshop for editing images. But now that I have Photoshop, I'm back. And since this story has only one photo, I figured it would be an effortless reintroduction to blogging...

Since I started this blog nearly three years ago, I've never missed an opportunity to shoot a space launch and post the resulting photos -- no matter how awful they may have been. Through trial and error, I've managed to get a handle on what it takes to capture a decent photo in various launch conditions.

The most difficult challenge is darkness. The first time I shot a nighttime launch -- of shuttle Endeavour from Titusville's Space View Park -- I failed miserably. Ever since, though, I've made some pretty decent exposures: up-close, stop-action photos and time-lapse "streak" shots that show the arcing trail of fire during a rocket's or a shuttle's ascent.

But the launch on Nov. 21 of a Delta IV Heavy -- the largest non-shuttle rocket -- was downright impossible to shoot. So the resulting photo, again, was awful. It was the first launch I've witnessed for which the weather was miserable: about a half-hour after sunset, heavy overcast, steady rain.

When you're 30 miles from the launch pad -- like at the Pineda Causeway, my location -- the only shot worth trying is a time lapse. I procrastinated and set up about 15 seconds before liftoff because I expected during the entire countdown that the launch would be postponed for weather reasons. I ran no test exposures. I was wet and -- believe it or not -- cold. And I forgot to change the ISO setting to 100, to limit graininess.

Instead, the shutter was open for 2 minutes, 45 seconds at 2000 ISO, which allows a lot of light into the camera and causes that graininess. The only thing that saved the exposure was the camera's f/22 aperture, the smallest opening possible for the lens I was using.

The resulting photo was raindrop-speckled and underexposed, likely because the orange glow of the Delta IV Heavy was visible for only two seconds. It quickly disappeared into the clouds, and the only trace of the rocket was a loud rumbling from its motors.

Its cargo: a top-secret satellite from the National Reconnaissance Office. Much about the flight -- the rocket's direction of travel, its window for launch -- was never made public. And if people weren't paying attention, they likely would've never known there was a launch in the first place.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Waves from Hurricane Earl

Hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean have been plentiful this year, as predicted. Fortunately, none have struck the U.S. mainland. But many states along the East Coast have felt some of their neater effects: the surf. Hurricane Earl passed 400 miles to the east of Florida, sending high waves to the shore Sept. 1 and 2. For the newspaper, I shot them before and after they peaked on Sept. 2 at 12 feet or so. Above, some tourists from Lithuania awaited a large wave on Sept. 1 near Minutemen Causeway in Cocoa Beach.

On Sept. 2, a Carnival cruise ship sailed from Port Canaveral, as seen from Lori Wilson Park in Cocoa Beach.

A shot down the length of the beach shows the turbulent surf, which presented a danger through rip currents and the waves' raw power.

A Wallenius Wilhelmsen cargo ship left Port Canaveral in this view from Lori Wilson Park in Cocoa Beach.

This 3-year-old, Summer, mimicked a crab for a good five minutes or so. Notice the crab's claws and her hands.

Earl's waves crashed into 9-year-old Sebastian, who was styling on a boogie board at Shepard Park in Cocoa Beach.

Another 3-year-old, Shamayen, falls from the pull of the ocean at Shepard Park in Cocoa Beach.

A couple frolicked at Lori Wilson Park in Cocoa Beach.

Some cousins from Orlando lounged on the sand at Shepard Park in Cocoa Beach.

Most of the serious surfers chose the beach at Second Light at Patrick Air Force Base.

A skilled surfer took advantage of the waning daylight at Second Light.

The surfers I talked with said the conditions were rough and not conducive for beginners ...

... but even the more experienced ones suffered serious wipeouts.

Robert Fuentes, a surfer for 30 years, caught a wave late in the day at Second Light.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The (almost and post) harvest moon, its friend and the autumnal equinox

Early Thursday morning, the moon was 99 percent full, with a sliver missing from the left side. Later in the day, it would rise as a full moon, the first of the autumn season. That's called the harvest moon. I took shots of it before (Thursday morning) and after (Saturday morning) it was full.

Early Saturday morning, a halo in the high, icy cirrus clouds indicated colder air over Florida. I see this phenomenon more often in the wintertime.

The best time to shoot a full moon is when it rises, around sunset. There's enough lighting left from the sun to illuminate surrounding things, such as clouds or buildings. I didn't have that advantage early Thursday morning. The subjects surrounding the moon always were poorly lit. This above shot is the only one that shows some clouds floating by, but with the moon properly exposed.

A sprinkle of magic and a hint of what's to come dangled in the heavens this week.

But it's not really all that magical. It's actually quite natural, and it happens from time to time.

This beauty is difficult to express. Most let it pass without pause. But I keep my eyes peeled for subtle gems, no matter how unappreciated by the rest. Only people who prefer the little things can truly enjoy this.

Outside my apartment early Thursday, an orange cat molested a palm tree by sharpening its forepaws on the trunk. Annoyed, I shot it. Then, crouching beside the arid carcass of a holly bush, I also photographed Jupiter and the moon as the celestial pair perused the sky together and watched clouds barrel off the ocean.

If the view was so good down here, I can't imagine what theirs was like.

It had been a while since I last photographed the night sky. I attempted a shot of the Milky Way Galaxy this summer. But in that instance, my camera was handheld. And the photos were grainy, blurry and totally unsatisfactory.

But Thursday morning, I dug out my rusty remote control and a seldom-used tripod. I wished to do it right. Or at least to try.

The moon wasn't fully matured -- only a 99 percent waxing gibbous. But later in the day, all of it rose at sunset -- an instance of splendor I missed because of work. And when I shot it again Saturday morning, the moon was a 98 percent waning gibbous.

No worries, though. Truth is, celestial phenomena were difficult to miss this week. Each night, the moon has been drawn to Jupiter, which was closer to Earth than it had been all year. It's an attraction that's especially appreciated at the dawn of a new season: The conjunction accentuates the harvest moon, the first full one of autumn. The moon was at its fullest a mere six hours after it officially became the fall.

And the fall season is the best season. I can't wait. Red maple leaves, candy corn, plastic jack-o'-lanterns, pumpkin whoopie pies, apple cider, mulled wine, stuffing. I'm even drinking hot coffee again.

And a snowflake? That's a prize this Floridian can only dream of.

I've been told that it's artsy to cut off your subject's head. So that's why I included only the bottom portion of the halo in this shot. ... Actually, that's not why. I was using an 18mm lens, which couldn't fit the entire halo.

For the halo shots in this post, I hung out near the employee entrance at Florida Today, using a palm tree for foreground.

Here's a behind-the-scenes look: Night photography of the sky in locations with lots of ambient light is difficult to pull off. Before I discovered a solution, many of my shots included horrific lens refraction and ghosts because of all the lamppost light hitting the camera. To solve that, I pulled out my golf umbrella -- which, ironically, I've never used for golf or rain -- and blocked the offending light during each exposure.

Thursday morning was mostly clear, but some clouds moved swiftly off the Atlantic Ocean and under the moon and Jupiter, which had rendezvoused with Earth's natural satellite all week.

A cat was clawing at the base of this palm tree while I was shooting. I subtracted one of its nine lives. This was a longer exposure that completely blurred the clouds, a desired effect.

When moonlight shines through moisture-rich clouds, iridescence often results. Even in the black night, color can be seen in the sky.

The clouds cleared Thursday, and I cleared out.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

A quick stay in Florida's capital

On assignment in Tallahassee, Florida's capital, there was precious little time for gallivanting after the 325-mile drive from Melbourne. After sunset, I snapped one shot -- seen above -- of Apalachee Parkway, which leads to the state's two Capitol buildings in the background. The skyscraper is the new one, and the smaller, traditional-looking, domed structure is for historic purposes. The best part about this photo is that it shows a hill -- in Florida. Go figure.

In search of late-night grub, I strolled around the neighborhood near the Capitol and captured this shot, with my iPhone, of the old building and a half moon.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Storms to the west and the resulting anticrepuscular rays

Tonight, towering anvil clouds on the western horizon filtered the sun's rays, causing a decent display of anticrepuscularays in the east. The thunderstorms were west of Orlando -- quite far off. But whenever there are thunderclouds to the west, the Space Coast sees this atmospheric phenomenon -- though its weather isn't directly affected. Saturday's rays seemed more pronounced than usual. I was enjoying some football and salsa in Rockledge at the time.

I didn't have a clear shot of the storm because of houses obstructing my view. But here's the southern edge of the anvil.

A crescent moon comes close to setting with Venus.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Dinner and a show in the sky

Click for high-resolution panorama. On Sunday -- after the usual 18 holes of golf -- I dined at Port Canaveral's Milliken's Reef, where an inattentive, dimwitted waiter served me a Diet Coke with scallops in a sweet rum sauce. I've had better. In Maine. The Coke was good, though. I went there with some friends and their children, who enjoyed catching the three big cruise ships sail into the Atlantic Ocean. But after the meal was when my kind of show started: a severe thunderstorm that was rolling south. The above panorama was made from 16 photos snapped later at the beach in the nearby city of Cape Canaveral.

We clearly finished eating at the right time. A downpour was imminent.

The wind picked up, and the birds scrambled.

I left Port Canaveral in search of land that offered a better vista of my natural surroundings. There simply were too many ships and restaurants blocking my view at Port Canaveral. So, I found the nearest public beach with free access.

These shots of the storm's underside remind me of the Milky Way at night.

The wind blew sand across one of Brevard County's widest beaches.

An old man watched the sea and the people bathing in it, as thunder rolled.

The beach's curvature signifies the southern reach of Cape Canaveral, the actual geographic feature, not the city. The towers are part of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, where rockets blast off packed with military and commercial satellites.

Light peeked through part of the storm. But it started to sprinkle.

Sea oats swayed in front of a layer cake of color.

A good wide-angle shot was in keeping with the upcoming day of remembrance for 9/11.

This was probably the first time I've noticed the beacon from the 60-foot Cape Canaveral Light. Because the Florida coast lacks rocks and fog, I sometimes have difficulty fathoming the need for lighthouses on it.

Rain was near. The storm tracked on a southerly, almost southwesterly course. It started to pour, so I drove south along the ocean.

Before making it to the mainland, I stopped on the Melbourne Causeway and tried a few six-minute exposures of lightning. It was more than a half-hour before sunset, but the sky was fairly dark. I closed down the camera's aperture to allow such a lengthy shutter speed.

The worst of the lightning was distant, though a bolt did strike nearby as I carried my tripod across four lanes of traffic in the pouring rain. I figured the cars were more of a danger to me at the time. This shot's light streaks indicate that the camera moved during the exposure, likely because it was shaken by the wind. The National Weather Service recorded gusts in excess of 60 mph, and it was the first time I've had to hold onto a tree to stay upright during a storm.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Tranquil sunset as fierceness brews in the Atlantic

Earl, a major hurricane in the Atlantic Ocean, pushed some high waves to the Space Coast this week, and I was charged with covering the conditions Wednesday. 'Tis a rough assignment to drive to Cocoa Beach, stroll on the sand and snap photos. But toward the end of my time on the beach, there was some relief: a beautiful setting sun. Crepuscular rays filtered through the clouds nicely. For the first shot above, a pelican was in the frame.

These were not storm clouds, just some puffy cumulus to the far west. Aside from the horizon, the sky was clear blue: another atypical day in this abnormally arid summer in Florida.

I, and many of the other beachgoers, were fascinated by the shadows cast by the clouds. A woman lying flat on the sand noticed me taking pictures, turned around and saw what I was shooting. She was thrilled. She shook her napping husband quite violently for a minute, yelling at him to wake up. He finally did. I hope he wasn't disappointed at the sight.

The real reason I was at the beach was the danger presented by Hurricane Earl: rip currents and 8-foot waves. Those swells are expected to hit 13 feet Thursday. The most horrible thing in all of this, however, is the poor use of punctuation in the sign to the left. That should be "swimmers," not "swimmer's." There is no need for possession here. And the sign to the right contains an error of fact. "Rip tides" are not the same as "rip currents." The sign meant "rip currents."

This is the last shot as I left the beach.

On my way back to the newspaper, I stopped quickly along the Pineda Causeway over the Indian River, just north of Melbourne. The sun really started to set.

This is one of the best sunsets I've seen this summer. I don't often get out during the golden hour because it's a prime writing period for me at work. Ideally, I'd be roaming around Brevard County all the time for my job.

Earlier, while I was driving, a cloud similar to this one was somewhat in the shape of a certain rodent's ears. The shadow it cast was, of course, magnified, making it look even more like Mickey Mouse. How typical of Central Florida. Hard to describe, but it was cool. Believe me.

In one of my favorites of the evening, sea birds fly through the frame. Oh, and coincidentally, I find it ironic that my home state of Maine has been hotter -- well into the 90s -- this week than Florida and that it's more apt to be hit by Hurricane Earl than this state ever was.

I snapped one last shot as I climbed back over the berm of rocks separating the roadway and the river.