Thursday, March 24, 2011

The best camera is the one that's with you: Giving up an SLR addiction

This photo from an airplane shows a halo around the sun. At high altitudes, where the air is so cold, the light bounces through ice crystals and creates such an effect. My SLR was in the overhead compartment.

Chase Jarvis, a commercial photographer widely known for his work with Nikon, Nike and Mountain Dew, coined the phrase in the headline of this post: "The best camera is the one that's with you." It was part of his movement calling for the embrace of cellphone cameras as the only picture-taking devices people have on them at all times -- because cellphone photos certainly are better than no photos at all.

I understand that everyone isn't like me and doesn't carry a digital SLR everywhere. I often have mine in my lap on an airplane, in my passenger seat in my car or slung around my back while scaling a mile-high mountain -- because, well, you just never know what might happen.

It's not always a good thing, though. Friends have told me that I need to let go: Not everything is worthy of a photograph. I tend to disagree, but quite often these days I'm taking their advice and leaving the Nikon in the car when I watch a ballgame at the stadium, go for a walk down the street or eat dinner at a fancy restaurant, where I'd otherwise be an embarrassment with a large camera.

I've tempered my SLR withdrawal with the knowledge that I'll always have my cellphone, my iPhone. I'll never actually be without a camera. My new iPhone 4 takes 5-megapixel, 2-megabyte images that are easily reproduced into high-quality prints. It's no 12-megapixel, 6-megabyte photo, but it usually tells the story in a somewhat rustic, grainy -- you could say, artsy -- manner. Photos sometimes turn out looking more like paintings than digital images, and that's OK.

This post consists of some images I snapped over the past few months with my phone when my SLR wasn't present, or when I just felt like snapping an iPhone pic to supplement the SLR pics, or when I was simply too lazy to get out the big camera.

Some crepuscular rays broke through the clouds at Patrick Air Force Base before the final launch of space shuttle Discovery. My SLR was around my neck but in a waterproof casing.

Some altocumulus clouds cast a distinct shadow outside my apartment in Melbourne. My SLR was locked in my car in the parking lot -- a good 15 feet away.

I'll take what hints of the seasons I can get here in Florida, such as this shedding tree outside a Target store in Melbourne Village. My SLR was in my trunk as I shopped for presents for a pretty girl.

I thought this was a rather impressive display of fall foliage -- for Florida, in February -- at Sherwood Golf Club in Titusville. My SLR was in the car as I schooled my partner in a rainy round of 18.

I kind of thought these clouds looked like Mickey Mouse. My SLR was in my apartment as I took a jog.

Crepuscular rays shine upward from a cloud near The Florida Today in Melbourne. My SLR was in the back seat as I waited to turn left across traffic.

These rainclouds were a remarkable sight amid a parched winter season here in Florida. My SLR was in my apartment as I jogged.

Smoke rose from the "Iron Horse" brush fire that burned 17,000 acres in northern Brevard County in early March. My SLR was around my neck, but my newspaper prefers cellphone photos from reporters and does not like to print their high-quality, well-composed SLR photos. So I took this photo with my iPhone. And they used it.

I went to a single Washington Nationals game during spring training this year: this matchup with the Mets. My SLR was -- for the first time that I've watched a major league game -- locked in the car.

This alligator looks large in this photo, snapped at the "Viera Wetlands," but it was only a little more than a yard in length. Totally could've wrastled it. My SLR was around my neck, but I wanted to snap a wide shot with my phone to send to someone.

I like the moon. I guess it reminds me that we live in a vast universe and that there are better and bigger things than what immediately surrounds us. I shot this as I returned from a reporting assignment about a protest against Florida's poor rich governor. My SLR was dismantled and not conveniently functional at the time.

This was the "super moon," a full moon at its orbital perigee, that I captured last weekend in Rockledge. My SLR was on my tripod, being occupied with a lengthy exposure that didn't even turn out as good as this photo. Pathetic, huh?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

'Super moon' and all the math that goes with it

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To the left, the moon on Sept. 23, 2010, is 778 pixels wide (cropped from a 12-megapixel image). To the right, the moon on March 19, 2011, is 879 pixels wide. That indicates a 12.982 percent size difference -- close enough to NASA's estimate that the full moon Saturday would appear 14 percent larger than it typically does.

On Saturday, March 19, the full moon was at its closest approach to Earth since 1993, making it appear 14 percent bigger and 30 percent brighter than usual, according to NASA. This "super moon" was at its perigee -- the point in its oval orbit that is nearest to our planet.

The two above photographs show the size difference.

The size change wasn't necessarily noticeable to the naked eye because there was no great measuring tape in the sky. But the brightness was obvious as I was snapping photographs next to the Indian River in Rockledge.

For the side-by-side comparison at the top of this post, I used similar settings for each photograph -- except for the shutter speed. For the smaller moon, I used 1/1,600 of a second. For the bigger and henceforth brighter moon, I used 1/2,500 of a second.

That works out to a 36 percent exposure difference. While it's certainly not a scientific measurement, it's close to NASA's estimate of a 30 percent brightness increase.

When viewing celestial objects as they rise or set, you're looking through an extensive cross-section of Earth's atmosphere. That creates a magnifying effect, making the moon or the sun seem even larger. That's why the moon looks abnormally large in this photo, snapped with Merritt Island in the foreground.

After it cleared the trees.

I started using less magnification on my lens to get a wider view of the surroundings, including this sailboat moored in the Indian River.

I was technically on private property here, where I pulled over to the side of Rockledge Drive, a narrow and winding route that parallels the Indian River.

This roadway, which I enjoy for motorcycle riding, is lined by nice homes with piers or docks into the Indian River. I had never photographed anything along the route, so I figured it would be a super place to view this full moon.

This longer exposure brings out the blues in the sky. The moon rose at 7:48 p.m. here, 14 minutes after sunset.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Mackerel in the sky

Central Florida had what I considered an interesting display of altocumulus clouds on Saturday, Feb. 12: not wild but neat nonetheless. The weather was fair and kind of cool, but there were lots of variations in the mackerel sky, which indicates moisture in the midlevels of the atmosphere.

This feature broke up the mackerel pattern.

IPhone: Several of the following shots were taken with my phone as I took a walk.

IPhone: I was strolling along Parkway Drive in Melbourne while looking upward. It's a wonder I didn't get struck by a motor vehicle.

IPhone: Nearing sunset, the clouds got a little pinkish over this Baptist church.

IPhone: Features like this leave me somewhat dumbfounded because I'm not sure how they form.

I switched back to my big camera for the sunset.

The fountain in a pond -- considered a lake by many Floridians' standards -- at my apartment complex.

Cloud reflections on the lake.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Space station buzzes my workplace

On March 11, about a half-hour after sunset, the International Space Station made a five-minute flyover of the Space Coast. I kind of forgot about the spectacle until it was too late to set up for a decent photo. Instead, I walked out of my employer's building in Melbourne and made this 33-second exposure as the station made its pass.

Delta IV rocket sails into the twilight

This 13-second exposure shows a Delta IV rocket streak toward orbit at 6:38 p.m. Friday, March 11. That's only nine minutes after sunset, so the light prevented a longer exposure. This exposure was kind of pushing it, as the photo is somewhat overexposed.

I once again had to stay close to work for this launch because of my responsibilities as a breaking-news reporter. Thirty miles south of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, I shot this close-up with a 500mm lens from Rotary Park, along the Indian River in the Rockledge area.

A 1.3-second exposure of the rocket as it carries a National Reconnaissance Office satellite into space.

This United Launch Alliance rocket flew in a medium configuration, meaning it had two solid rocket boosters. The solid fuel gives off a contrail starting at liftoff, and the above photo shows the remnants.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Finding Discovery, then watching it land one last time

Shuttle Discovery begins a loop to further slow its speed before landing at approximately 220 mph at 11:57 a.m. Wednesday.

Space shuttle Discovery landed for the final time just before noon Wednesday, March 9, at Kennedy Space Center.

My newspaper insists to readers that they can't see the shuttle very well as it descends to the Shuttle Landing Facility. Most settle for simply listening to the two sonic booms as the spaceship breaks the sound barrier over Brevard County. Heard throughout Central Florida as the spacecraft bisected the state Wednesday, the racket signaled its arrival on the Space Coast about four minutes before the landing.

The prevailing thought is that the shuttle's descent speed -- 20 times faster than a commercial airliner's -- and angle of approach -- seven times steeper than that of your run-of-the-mill Southwest 737 -- make the relatively tiny shuttle difficult to pick out.

Having viewed several landings from Titusville's Space View Park -- approximately 13 miles across the Indian River Lagoon from KSC -- I can assuredly say it's not too difficult. Especially when you have help.

On Wednesday, more than 200 people were on hand in Titusville, filling up all the various paved parking options in the immediate area. Typically, I've seen only 50 for landings.

But the advantage of more spectators was that they helped pick out the shuttle and discern it from the various airplanes and clouds. The Florida sky is usually bluest in the morning, and that was the case Wednesday. The weather was ideal, nearly perfect. It was easy to find the shuttle against such a blue backdrop. What clouds were hanging around made for more interesting photos.

Just after the sonic booms, people started pointing. I followed their direction, spotted the shuttle, trained my 500mm Sigma lens onto the spaceship and documented its descent.

Photos such as this one are cropped in the middle, making the shuttle a little larger relative to the picture's edges. That's just so you can actually see it. My lens is powerful, but the shuttle still was tens of thousands of feet up when I snapped this shot.

Discovery weaved in and out of clouds hanging from an otherwise blue sky.

Some condensation from the shuttle's wings tips materialized upon descent, creating a slight trail.

I managed to track Discovery fairly well as it approached the runway -- spare for one time when I looked away to remove my sunglasses, then retrained my lens on a shuttle training aircraft instead of the actual shuttle. The airplane's pilot performs various tasks for a landing, including weather reconnaissance.

This is cropped extremely close.

The shuttle's landing gear began to drop as I snapped this photo, which features some islands in the foreground.

People at the end of the pier at Space View Park used binoculars to watch the landing. I'd recommend similar optics or a long camera lens if you want to make your attendance worthwhile.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Long night of covering a 17,017-acre wildfire in Central Florida

A firefighter watches the flames at Parrish Park in Scottsmoor.

I've covered several fires in my year of reporting here in Brevard County. But the one that started Feb. 28 and eventually burned 17,017 acres in Mims and Scottsmoor kind of took the cake.

For me, it was 12 hours (3 p.m. to 3 a.m.) of smoke inhalation as the flames raced from well west of Interstate 95 to just east of U.S. 1, closing down both of those major north-south thoroughfares on the Space Coast.

I saw firefighters somehow protect structures as the flames burned on all sides of them. At one point, I was asked to evacuate from my roadside location five minutes before the fire crossed the street.

Fortunately, only one home and a few storage buildings and small hunting camps were destroyed, though two firefighters did suffer second-degree burns.

These are the photos I snapped within the first half-day of the blaze.

All roads giving access to the brush fire were closed during its initial stages. A Brevard County Sheriff's Office deputy directed traffic on U.S. 1 at Aurantia Road in Mims.

I eventually got through the roadblock and took some photos near a cow pasture well east of the eastbound fire.

There's a small plane in this photo -- above the sun, about an inch from the edge of the photo. The Cessna was monitoring the fire from above and directing firefighters on the ground.

This pasture was just south of Stuckway Road in Scottsmoor, the northernmost exit from Interstate 95 in Brevard.

Yet another at the cow pasture.

From afar, I watched helicopters dump water onto the fire.

The sun went down behind the smoke.

Portions of this land would eventually burn. We haven't heard whether any cattle were injured.

These cows got a little spooked as I walked up to the fence with my camera.

The helicopters were operated by the Florida Division of Forestry, which is very skilled in fighting wildfires.

I got closer the blaze here. Behind this BP gas station is the Crystal Lake RV Park, a large community of recreational vehicles in the flames' direct path.

The overpass on the left is Interstate 95. The blaze was on this side -- the east side -- of the highway at this point (just before 8 p.m.).

This exposure is just a few seconds long.

Trees are silhouetted against the glowing blaze.

Stuckway Road was open for a short time, allowing vehicles to go south on the interstate (not north, where the fire was in the median).

At this point, the road I'm standing on is closed. The flames were pretty intense behind the gas station.

I took this shot, just to illustrate where the RV park was located. Embers were landing around me, prompting the deputies to leave and tell me to leave. The fire crossed the roadway five minutes later.

To the south of the gas station, still in the town of Scottsmoor, the flames burned around a ball field at Parrish Park.

The firefighters stood by but didn't really spray the flames. They were there only to fight the fire if it neared structures. If wind-blown embers started "spot fires," they would douse them as well.

Too bad none of these pictures made the newspaper.

This was the only resident who went into the park with me.

The slight streaks at the top of this image are embers flying overhead.

I wanted to tell him, "Shoot it!"

On a residential street adjacent to the park, bulldozers and firetrucks set up around a mobile home. The fire burned about 20 feet from it. A controlled burn last year was credited with eliminating the fuels it needed to reach the home and others in the area.

This water truck is typically used for agricultural purposes -- orange groves, specifically. But in this case, residents used it to fight the fire, which had just crossed U.S. 1 after midnight.

These residents were protecting their buddy's home a few hundred yards east of the eastbound flames. They also sawed down a burning tree because embers from its top were flying off and landing close to the home. Firefighters said the embers were traveling up to a half-mile from the front of the fire, which burned eight miles in eight hours.

The home they were protecting was a beach house that was relocated from Cape Canaveral when Kennedy Space Center was built. So they were saving a piece of history.

The west side of U.S. 1 was on fire (pictured). The median was on fire. Debris on the roadway itself was on fire. And the east side was on fire. It was all on fire.

This woman smothered a small spot fire on the roadside.

One of the residents heads back to the water truck.

The last photos of the evening were taken south of the blaze. This one shows lights from Florida Division of Forestry bulldozers as they plowed fire breaks. It wouldn't be until Saturday when they finally plowed 30-foot-wide breaks around the entire 48-mile perimeter.

This was the burned landscape along Stuckway Road on Tuesday.