hortont · blog · photography


2016.07.03 in photography

My father, for as long as I can remember (I'm sure my mother can vouch for the many years before me), has spent an inordinate proportion of his free time designing and building telescopes, gazing skyward, and publicly educating and advocating a love for space and amateur astronomy. From decades of Stellafane conventions, local astronomy club meetings, and sidewalk observing sessions, to running public telescope building classes, building machines to make grinding mirrors easier, and driving around the state collecting light pollution data, astronomy really is one of his passions.

Growing up in that environment meant a love for a starry night sky was basically a given. That's why I was very surprised back in October, when I realized it had been quite a while — probably years! — since I'd spent any time looking through a telescope (or really even seen a dark sky, living in the middle of a seven-million-person metro area).

A dark sky above San José.

I resolved to promptly fix this lack of starlight, and did some telescope shopping! Given my previous history of DIY projects, I opted for a off-the-shelf solution, much unlike the telescopes I grew up with; this was for the best, though, as it was the only way that there would be light coming through the eyepiece before 2025. Naturally, I also decided to combine this with one of my favorite hobbies, and got all the components needed to attach my camera to the telescope.

A few weeks (and well over one hundred pounds of voluminous packages from Orion, much to the dismay of apartment complex staff) later, Matt and I set out, car filled with mirrors, glass, cameras, and snacks, and … didn't see anything! The telescope didn't even come out of the car. We had headed up Mt. Hamilton, east of San José, with a vague destination in mind, but had not confirmed that it was actually open after dark, which it was not (apparently, the local astronomy group has a deal with the park, but random people like us can't open the gate). So, we bailed out for the day, and awaited another clear night.

The Fiesta, full of bits and pieces, on our most recent outing.

We finally got first light on November 7th, after spending a good portion of the night figuring out how to perform the requisite polar alignment and going through the three-star alignment process at least twice (having the first time aligned with a star that definitely wasn't Polaris, somehow). We had found a workable, dark, quiet spot, south of San José: Coyote Lake, near Morgan Hill. We had previously driven to Coyote Lake for a meteor shower, so we knew it was accessible at night, unlike Grant Park.

Coyote Lake, facing north, before it gets too dark!

The telescope, all set up and ready to go next to the lake.

We peered upwards for a number of hours that night, letting the telescope's software guide us to whatever was visible at the time (any chance of finding things without the computer also sat — or probably slept, given the time difference — three thousand miles away in Vermont). Alternating between looking through the eyepiece and attaching the camera (and refocusing constantly because of this swapping), we saw galaxies, nebulae, clusters, and stars galore:

The Orion Nebula, one of the brightest and easiest to see.

Seeing the picture of Orion pop up on the camera was the first big "wow" moment for me: in the telescope, with my terrible eyes, it looks like a ill-defined grey smudge, but the colors that come out of the camera after just half-minute exposures are totally incredible (if not a bit out of focus).

A very faint image of the Andromeda Galaxy, our closest neighbor.

A number of these pictures have streaks from meteors in them if you look closely; in person, we saw many throughout the night. A pleasant but unplanned surprise!

As the night went on, the temperature dropped — thirty degree nightly swings are no surprise, here, and this night was no different:

Even with warm clothing, eventually the cold got to us and we packed up and headed home! All-in-all, a very successful first evening with the new telescope.

Some of the Pleiades, with their whispy dust clouds just barely perceptible.

The winter and spring went by without going out again; between work, travel, weather, and laziness, many opportunities were missed (I did actually take the telescope out once by myself during these months, but left a critical component behind and had to turn back after getting it half set up — a good lesson never to repeat).

We finally resolved to get out again, and blocked off a new-moon weekend on the calendar: Independence Day weekend, 2016. When I put this on the calendar, I didn't make the connection, but as we got closer to the date I worried a bit more about the camping crowds. Luckily, it seems like San José is not a prime camping spot, because there were no crowds — just a few people fishing nearby (though, using white lights).

Matt doing the three-star alignment procedure — this time, only once!

The telescope setup process, which Matt is now the expert on, remains non-trivial and entertaining. This time I also brought a pair of binoculars to use in the meantime, but without a guide I didn't have much luck finding anything (besides an airplane!).

As soon as we got set up, we pointed the telescope towards the quickly-setting planets: Mars and Saturn. Once we bumped up the magnification a bit, Saturn's rings were readily visible — one of the bigger "wow" moments of the night — sadly, since the current photography setup I am using involves putting the camera directly in place of the eyepiece, the magnification isn't sufficient to make anything out in the picture below. I'm looking into other approaches that put the camera behind the eyepiece and would theoretically allow for high-magnification imaging... we'll see, next time!

Saturn, but you'll just have to trust me on this.

This time, the Trifid Nebula (and the Ring, not pictured here) provided the camera-assisted pop-of-purple, in place of Orion (which is not visible in the summer).

The Trifid Nebula, with its bizarre dark arms.

I really enjoy observing clusters, mostly because they provide something slightly more visible to the telescoped-eye than the smudge of a nebula; it's easy to make out the mess of stars even without a camera.

A globular cluster; sadly, because we haven't gotten into the habit of taking notes, I don't know which one.

We stayed out until past two, once again forced in by the cold (in the middle of July!) and a need for sleep.

The Whirlpool Galaxy, with its companion.

Overall, I'm glad to have revisited this part of my childhood, and I'm excited to get out again! I can't wait to see what more practice will bring to the pictures, and for the fun we'll have out in the dark amongst the stars. (Once we get a bit more experienced and quick with the setup, I intend to take others along — at least Alicia, but... if you want to come, let me know!).

Italy and Switzerland

2015.09.06 in personal and photography

There are a ton of photos over at my new photos site, along with stories. A few highlights of the trip here:







Zurich, continued...

And, back to San Jose.


2012.05.26 in photography

Flickr Top 15

2011.11.12 in personal and photography

There are over 15,000 photos in my Flickr photostream... here are the top 15 (the top tenth of a percent!) in terms of view count (almost all because of posts to reddit!):

#1: The BSG Cake

For my 20th birthday, Amy made me an awesome cake in the shape of the Battlestar Galactica logo. Earlier in 2009, Amy and I had watched Galactica together, inspiring her choice of cake design for my birthday. As you might expect, it was as delicious as it was awesome-looking! This cake tops the list primarily because we posted it to reddit, garnering a comment from none other than geek legend Wil Wheaton (Star Trek's Wesley Crusher) himself!

#2: Ben's Sandwiches

One of my RPI cohorts decided that it would be cool to graduate a semester early; in order to exact our revenge, a few of us got together and made ridiculous sandwiches for his going-away party. Forget Subway, forget all of the gourmet sandwich houses in Troy (note: there are none!), Carol's was the place to be that night, bar none.

#3: Amy's Firefly Cross-stitch

For my 22nd birthday, Amy was 3000 miles away, so a cake was quite out of the question; instead, something much more lasting: a cross-stitch for my wall, comprised of everyone's favorite characters from Joss Whedon's Firefly! It sits in the entryway to my apartment, and has inspired me to vaguely dabble in pixel art.

#4: My Minecraft Animals

Late in the Minecraft Alpha phase, Robb introduced our apartment to it, leading to 48 straight hours of nothing but crafting. While the furor died down quickly, most of us still play once in a while. For our last Christmas together, I made everyone painted wooden renditions of the mobs from Minecraft. Also comes with a reddit post.

#5: Robb and Savannah's Hand-XKCD

Robb, Savannah, Matt, Gino, Andrew, and I visited everyone's favorite east-coast city for the first-ever ROFLCon. Some (Robb and Savvy) were more bold than others (myself), and went up to Randall Munroe (who needs no introduction), asking him to "sign their friendship". Besides thinking that Robb was a girl, and mentioning them in his closing speech, I'd say he did a good job, considering the medium involved. No need to explain why this one is on this list.

#6: gnomines-clutter screencast

For GSoC 2009, I (vaguely) worked on some GNOME Games. One which never totally came to fruition was a Minesweeper/Gnomines clone in Clutter/JavaScript. This video got posted to Planet GNOME, and got up the hopes of a lot of people, only to be dashed by my return to RPI and distinct lack of time.

#7: Amy and I posing with the cake from #1

This is just spillover from #1, people clicking the "next" button on Flickr when visiting that image. It is pretty adorable though!

#8: Matt's Eyeball, Take Two

A few months after taking #11 and posting it to reddit, Matt and I decided (or, rather, I decided, and pinned Matt down 'till he agreed — it's not clear humans enjoy being flashed in the face) to try again. I'd say this one came out a lot better!

#9: Scallops and Chorizo

Another one of my cooking adventures with Carol (adventures which I dreadfully miss now that I'm so far away!); we made scallops and chorizo for dinner one night, straight out of Nigella. Another one with a reddit post... almost like there's a theme here.

#10: Peter and the Cookie

Please don't ask me what this is doing here; finding it here earlier today is what inspired me to do this post. Peter says he posted it to Twitter... I'm not sure that excuses it. Weirdo MobileNotifier fanbois...

#11: Matt's Eyeball, Take One

Inspired by a really cool eyeball picture that I can't find right now, I wanted to see if we could find as much detail in Matt's eye. Turns out... we can't. But that didn't stop us from trying!

#12: Mom's Glowman

There's no story here; I found a translucent Christmas ornament, put it on top of my flash, and took a picture, hoping it would come out looking pretty. It did!

#13: A Hopping Bird, in the San Diego sun

Another victim of reddit. If memory serves me, this was at one end of San Diego's Old Town. I accidentally caught it at just the right moment, hoverhanding the bird bath...

#14: A Spinning Bird, in the San Diego Zoo

It's odd to me that all three of these bird pictures make up the bottom of this list; I guess /r/birdpics is very consistent in view-count! This was in one of the aviaries at the all-around-awesome San Diego Zoo, and was a surprise to me when I got back to sort through my pictures.

#15: A Majestic Bird, in the San Diego Zoo

Of all the pictures from the San Diego Zoo aviaries, this is one of my absolute favorites. I don't know why, it's just a pretty bird and a pretty picture (making good use of my beloved 180mm f/2.8).

Shutter Sounds

2011.07.21 in photography

A few notes:

  • I'm in the middle of writing a blog post about my move to California and various things; I know it's been a while, but it's coming!
  • In the meantime, things are going great!
  • I'm 22 now! And Lion came out on my birthday!
  • I have something that Amy made me that I have to show you all, probably this weekend!
  • First I'll let you listen to what Pepa sent me (using the magic of HTML5 audio, if your browser supports it!!)
  • Click on each camera to listen to its sound...
  • Film is on its way!
Kodak Retina

Ihagee Exa

Ihagee Exacta

And my normal trusty companions, for good measure:

The Pony 828 Experience

2011.05.18 in photography

I recently took a trip with Connor and Carol to the home of both Connor, and the Eastman Kodak Corporation: Rochester, NY. One of the first things I noticed about his house was that it was decorated in the most awesome way possible: with a variety of ancient cameras, on every shelf and coatrack. Apparently his parents acquired a box full of antique cameras at a yard sale years ago, and put them all around their house.

One day while we were sitting at his table, Connor grabbed one of the cameras and started playing with it, trying to figure out how to make it work. We got it working pretty quickly, as even though it's about as old as all three of us combined, the basic concepts of photography haven't changed much.

Connor decided that he wanted to see if we could take pictures with it, so, after shopping around (and after contemplating cutting down some rolls ourselves), I found a single roll of 120 format Kodak Portra-160 which had been cut down to 828 format.

I loaded it up in the dark, accidentally rolled past the first frame, and then took the remaining seven exposures over the course of the following week. PhotoGarden had some fun trying to figure out what to do with it — developing it wasn't a problem, but printing it was going to be impossible. They said they could scan it, but it would be expensive because they'd have to do it by hand because of the odd size... I took it home and scanned it on my film scanner instead.

I very quickly noticed a focus problem: there wasn't any. I'm not sure what's up with this... maybe the camera was dropped at some point in its long life? Maybe I'm using it wrong? I don't know...

You'll note that this picture, at the camera's closest focus (2.5'), has the distant background in focus, which is bizarre (and suggests that the lens is way out of whack):

This only reaffirms my attachment to modern digital photography; the slow turnaround time and expense aren't worth the added romance of film!

I also really don't understand how people use non-TTL-preview cameras (i.e. anything not SLR or EVF); not being able to adjust the focus through-the-lens just seems insane to me, and must have made things — especially macro photography — very difficult to pull off.


Lens Gallery

2011.01.09 in photography

Occasionally people ask me why I have more than one or two lenses; I'm writing this so I'll have somewhere to point them to explain! Down below you can click on each of my Nikkors (I have two others, a 500mm Soligor mirror lens, and a plastic toy fisheye, which I won't talk about here) and see a few shots that show off why that particular lens is awesome (generally showing something that you couldn't do — at least easily — with the others).

The lenses are not to scale, which you probably guessed since they're all the same height. Also, I have no idea if this will work on IE, and I don't really care.

Tomorrow, I'm going to write a post about some code... what a novelty! It's been so long...


This is my widest prime, and the closest-focusing lens that Nikon makes. I haven't spent enough time with it yet to have a lot of awesome pictures nor have a lot to say. However, I have noticed that it is incredibly sharp — notice the 100% crop of the picture of the little crab. Pretty awesome!

This lens is pretty much for any situation where I want sharp, wide, and mostly distant stuff (it has a hard stop at infinite focus, so if I'm sure everything I want in focus is more than 45 feet away, I don't need to worry about it -- this would also be useful for pictures of the stars, though I have yet to use it for this purpose).

As my now-oldest (and second-most-used) lens, I grab my "nifty fifty" any time I'm going somewhere dark (it's the fastest of the set, by more than a whole stop), or for portraits, or sometimes for around the house. It's a little too long to use inside, generally, but can come in handy in some situations.

The most obvious useful characteristic of this lens is that it's sharp wide open, and wide open means wide open, so the depth of field is extremely small. Take the picture of Bongo below as an example of why that can be useful.

This is my favorite lens, bar absolutely none. It's fast, it has beautiful milky-smooth bokeh, and it's supposedly the sharpest lens Nikon has ever made. It's the only lens I'll ever pull out when asked to take pictures of food or flowers. It can be used for walkabout photography (i.e. it does focus to infinity), but I have a somewhat broken model with an exceedingly sticky focuser, which, while good for holding focus while doing fine adjustment on a tripod, isn't that helpful when trying to focus on stuff while walking around, so I don't use it for that much.

Photographing the world of the very small is interesting to me: it provides a world devoid of judgement, sort of like photographing birds... there are no humans in the figurative picture; nobody waiting on me, I can just sit there all day and tweak and compose.

I have an extension ring that gets this lens to 1:1 magnification; I use it occasionally, but 1:1 is just so small that it's hard to control at that point.

This is my bird lens, without question. It has the same milky-smooth bokeh as the 55mm Micro, but at a focal length more amenable to capturing our feathery friends than ladybugs. It's an old "pro" lens, which I got used (for less than a tenth of "new" price, which is rare for lenses, especially Nikkors) and in perfect condition a few years ago, and weighs a ton, but it collects light like nobody's business.

The fact that this opens up to f/2.8 makes it useful in a few other situations: Amy's graduation was a primary one. We were inside, with very little light, and there was no space for a tripod, so I needed something fast. Despite my hands shaking overtime from holding up all of that glass, the extra speed it provides over my telephoto zooms made it possible to get sharp closeups of the graduates without leaving my seat in the audience.

These are the kit lenses for the D80 and D7000, respectively. I sold the 18-135 along with the D80 to Vivian, replacing it with the shorter-but-similar 18-105. More than half of the pictures I've ever taken were taken with the 18-135, because it's ultimately convenient. It has the widest field of view of any of my lenses, and also reaches a good ways into the telephoto side of things, making it ideal for situations where you're just walking around and don't know what you'll run into.

The newer 18-105 — while sacrificing some zoom on the long end — adds VR, which supposedly provides about four stops of handheld-shake reduction. Just like with the 70-300, it definitely helps to some extent, though I haven't measured it.

I got this lens while I was in California; it's pretty awesome, if only as a companion to the other zoom. It has a lot of the same applications as the 180 (plus the ability to change framing without moving) — however, it's much slower, and the bokeh can often be less than ideal (certainly nowhere near as beautiful as the 55 or 180).

It has VR, too, which helps a ton at the 300mm end. You can watch the handheld shake evaporate as soon as you touch the autofocus button, and I'm quite convinced VR is key without a tripod at these focal lengths.

It's quite usable as a walkabout lens, but I often feel constrained by the 70mm end, wishing it would go to 28mm or even just 50, but I'm pretty resolved at this point to never buy another variable-aperture lens (Nikon makes a 28-300, but it's super expensive and variable-aperture), so that'll have to wait a few years. It also won't focus any closer than about 1.4 meters, which is a bit annoying at times.

D7000: Video

2010.12.21 in photography

I have two posts stewing - one about a new project (which will probably be held until 0.1) and one about winter break and such, but I realized I never followed up on my D7000 post. So, here's some video!

It's just clips thrown together, no story or anything. It's also mostly low-light video, so it's rather noisy. I haven't had much chance to be in the sunlight with the camera, since it's so cold. We're going on vacation somewhere warm next week, so I'll probably have a bunch of good video by New Year's.

Definitely crank it up to 720p. It doesn't look as awesome as the original here, but at least that comes close!

Also, mute the audio! I uploaded it with the audio from the clips intact accidentally, and YouTube's audio swapping doohickey wouldn't let me replace it with silence (as far as I could see anyway). So I replaced it with a random song, which doesn't fit at all. Turn. It. Off.

D7000: Introduction

2010.11.30 in photography

I braved the CDTA busses yesterday for the first time in years to get myself over to the Crossgates Best Buy and pick up my brand-new D7000 (thanks to Vivian, who bought my D80 and also helped out tremendously with the new one). It's the first camera I've ever owned around release time — both my Coolpix 8700 and my D80 had been around for about two years by the time I acquired them. Exciting!

The first thing I have to say is... listen to the shutter. At 6fps, I can fill my 16GB card with RAWs in just a handful of minutes; it will also likely help increase the probability that I catch whatever I'm looking for.

Since I didn't have it in my hands until 20:30 or so, it was totally dark when I got off the bus and had a chance to really try it out. I had opened the box on the bus, locating the body and the battery (which had a slight charge, luckily), and attaching the lens I had been carrying in my pocket for the whole trip. I went through the menus on the bus, configuring the zillions of settings to whatever seemed most reasonable. I took a few pictures (and some video!), too, though the combination of the bumpy bus and me not wanting to irritate/confuse the other riders (any more than I already had) didn't really lead to much success there.

When I did finally end up in the E-building parking lot, I walked out to the bit overlooking Troy, and then home, taking pictures along the way:

All handheld, with my cheapest, sharpest, (second) fastest, most pocketable lens, Nikon's AF 50mm f/1.8D. I haven't done any direct comparisons, but from memory it certainly seems like high-ISO performance (noise- and color-wise) is worlds better than the D80 (or any other camera I've ever used).

A side-effect of having an at-release camera is that nothing supports it right now. Aperture just throws up exclamation marks in place of all of the RAWs; I had to download a prerelease version of Camera Raw so that I could at least open the first few pictures I took in Photoshop to post them here. Apparently it sometimes takes over a month for Apple to update Mac OS X's RAW processor, so I've reverted to shooting JPEG until that happens. I'd really forgotten how little post-processing you can do with JPEG, too... it's bizarre that some people actually do this intentionally!

In addition to making really awesome improvements in performance, Nikon has also fixed one of my longest-standing grudges with the D80: if you have instant preview mode on (where the picture is displayed on the LCD immediately after being taken), turning the shutter speed/aperture dials while the preview is still being displayed will result in manipulation of the preview as if you were in playback mode. On the D7000, they manipulate the shutter speed and aperture, exactly as they always should have. That alone will save me endless amounts of frustration...

When I got home, I quickly grabbed some AI-s glass — the stuff that was just begging to finally be popped on a camera that can meter with it. Our room doesn't have much lighting, though, and I needed to get to sleep so I could get up and take a Bio exam this morning, so I just made sure that metering worked and went to bed. It works perfectly — turning the aperture ring instantly updates the aperture on the camera, and metering simply couldn't be better — this makes the majority of my glass so much more useful to me.

This morning, after the test, I took some of those same lenses out for a walk. I was impressed to find that even Papa Cliff's 500mm Soligor mirror-lens meters perfectly now; in addition, the much better high-ISO performance means that I can actually use it now without fear of annoying noise, as you can see in the picture of the power transmission line below.

Anyway, I'm super happy with it, and I'm going to make a few posts over the course of the week detailing interesting things I find, and talking about video (which I haven't touched here, mostly because I haven't had enough of a chance to play with it!), high-ISO performance, and stuff...

I just wish I had a zoo now!

D80: Moving On?

2010.11.05 in photography

It's hard to believe, but almost half of the entire lifespan of the consumer DSLR has taken place since the release of my camera. While it has taken many an awesome picture in its day, the improvements in convenience, image quality, and features in the market overall have slowly been making the thought of a replacement more and more interesting in my head.

For a while, I was thinking about stepping up to the full-frame lines (to whatever the successor of the D700 is next summer), both because of their awesome low-light noise properties and because of their various other features, but... they're very expensive. And then Nikon went ahead and announced the D7000 — the successor to the D90, which is the successor to my D80. Somehow, they picked up every single feature I was looking for from the super-high-end cameras and plopped them down in the same family I'm already accustomed to: much better low-light performance (not as good as a full frame camera, but still much better), a much nicer display, a much faster continuous mode, video recording (with AF!), but, most importantly of all, for me: the ability to use the autoexposure meter with non-CPU lenses.

You see, more than half of my lenses are non-CPU — old lenses without any sort of electronics on them. The D80 (and D90) can't tell the maximum aperture, as they don't have an AI "feeler", so they aren't capable of metering with most of my lenses. The D300 and above lines have always had this feature; even my 70s-era Nikkormat does (though it depended on it, of course)... and the D7000 finally brings this to the cheaper lines! This is a efficiency and reliability boost of epic proportions when doing walk-about photography...

Also, video. The thought of taking video with my macro lens (especially with the extension tube) of really small things is really exciting; as is... having a decent video camera, ever. Certainly worlds better than any of the crap we got to use in Video, and that's somewhat sad considering the comparative prices. Anyway, I think that given the opportunity I'd do a lot more video work, and this would be the most awesome way to get that opportunity!

To top it all off, it (finally) has a built-in intervalometer, invalidating one of my primary complaints about Nikon and also making irrelevant (except experience-wise) a lot of (unfinished) work I did two years ago to make my own...

I made a long list of changes that I find interesting or exciting, to convince myself. It's in rough order of how much I'm excited about things.

So, here's the deal:

I'm only going to make the jump if I can sell my D80 to offset some of the cost. I'd most enjoy selling it to someone who I know and can deliver it to personally (as well as provide bits of advice and support, as I've used it incessantly for the last two years). It's in really good shape (and still takes awesome pictures) considering how heavily it's been used; I take care of my stuff as best I can, but it has been used, and that's something to keep in mind. I'm thinking (based on perusing eBay) something in the 350-400$ range for the body (and two batteries, a 2GB SD card, and the charger, as well as various other bits of plastic), or 500$ for the body plus the kit 18-135mm lens (a very-adequate 7.5x zoom lens with a very reasonable range for walking around and taking pictures), but I'm certainly willing to talk about it. You're certainly welcome to take it for a test drive, too, if you're nearby...

I would post pictures, but my phone camera really doesn't seem up to the task. (ed.: here are some really blurry pictures anyway: 1, 2, 3)

If nobody here wants it, I'll try eBay (that shouldn't be a problem, it's just more work and less awesome)...

EDIT: Second best crop camera currently on the market, and tenth best DSLR in total

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