Capturing Jupiter Opposition 2019

Living in Houston, I don’t do much astrophotography. When I do attempt to capture the night sky, it’s usually with a wide angle lens and a long exposure, like this shot from the Lick Observatory in California a few years ago.

However, this month all of the news outlets in Houston were hyping up Jupiter and claiming that you would be able to see not only the planet, but also its four largest moons with only binoculars June 10. I decided to had to check it out.

I pulled out my vintage Leica R 400mm f6.8 Telyt and stacked both a 2x teleconverter and a 1.4x teleconverter before attaching it to a Sony A7II and bolting it all to a good tripod.

I’m not a big fan of teleconverters since you lose stops of light and some detail, but I was going for maximum magnification, and this rig got me the equivalent of a 1120mm lens.

For reference, this is how close 1120mm gets you to the moon on a full-frame, 35mm equivalent camera.

I have the StarTracker app on my phone, so I knew right where to look in the sky. The hardest part of the evening was waiting until Jupiter made its appearance above the neighbor’s trees about 10:30 p.m.

I took a couple dozen shots at varying shutter speeds and ISOs, but it seemed like f8 (plus the lost stops from the teleconverters, so actually f22), 1/500 second at ISO 1600 gave the clearest results. However, I had to develop the RAW files twice — once to properly expose Jupiter and once to expose the moons. Then I combined the two files into one photo.

There is Jupiter with Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. It’s not going to win any awards, but it’s pretty cool that you can see at least some amount of detail on Jupiter even using old lenses from the 1970s.

5 Tips for Better Writing

Check your facts

You know exactly what you think you know until you look it up.

Hmm, that mango looks like it would make some great guacamole.

Even if you’re positive everything is correct, take the time to utilize spellcheck, check your AP Style Guide, and run any bold claims through sites like Snopes.com or FactCheck.org.

Remember to check your graphics and photos for accuracy as well.

Keep your message focused

Cramming too many messages together causes clutter and confusion.

Those poor children.

Lead with what is important and keep your messages brief and to the point. Rambling is an easy way to lose readers. Make a new post for each topic.

Update your messaging

What was once inspirational can end up being offensive.

First step to helping, stop calling them retarded!

Revisit your strategy. Do the slogans and calls to action used in the past still make sense?

Be aware of cultural connotations

Stay sensitive to the culture and history of your target audience.

Was this craigslist user named Jim Crow?

I doubt this poster was even aware of the cultural history of his or her title, but if a business was to make the same sort of mistake, it could cause major backlash.

Focus your message to each channel

Hot links and video are great, unless you’re working in print.

What is this new paper technology? No batteries required!

Blogs are not the same as Facebook, which is not the same as Instagram, which is not the same as LinkedIn, and you get what I’m saying. Craft your message to best fit each channel, but to complement across all channels. Nothing is more irritating than messages that are cut off, links that don’t work, or the promise of photos or video when there are none.

The difference a dink makes

The wind was a steady 25 knots, gusting over 30, blowing straight off the shore of the small island behind which we were anchored. Both of our dogs, whom refuse to to soil our boat (at least while we’re there) hadn’t relieved themselves in more than 24 hours and looked absolutely miserable.

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I held tight to the standing rigging as I stood on the cabin top and looked over my small kayak trying to decide if I could even make any headway towards the island or if I’d be blown back past the boat and out into the middle of the bay if I attempted the trip to shore.

It wasn’t so much that I was worried about what would happen to me and two dogs in life jackets on a kayak — we’d just be carried ashore somewhere in San Leon. The problem was that if I couldn’t get back to the sailboat, Mary would be stranded there, unable to lift the anchor and leave.

That was the weekend we really began dinghy shopping.

But what type and size of a dinghy did we need and how would we power it?

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Luckily we had many boating friends also looking for dinghies, so we waited and learned from their experiences.

Our friends on the Tina Marie Too had a big double floor West Marine inflatable with a 20hp 4-stroke engine. It was comfortable. It planed up. It held a lot of people. It was way too big for our boat. We ruled out a fiberglass floor inflatable.

Our friends on Escondida had an 8′ slat floor inflatable with a 5 hp. It was small, light and could easily be lifted on and off the foredeck. It could also be rolled up and stowed in the cabin. It didn’t hold much, and it was very slow.

Our friends on Folie a Deux bought a Port-a-bote. It wasn’t too heavy, and it folded flat to tie against the lifelines. However, it was only rated for a 2.5 hp motor, and they got caught with a strong headwind in Matagorda Bay and couldn’t make any forward progress.

What we really thought we wanted was a Takacat. However, actual Takacat inflatables are quite expensive, so we started looking at the generic Saturn inflatable catamarans available. Our friends on Hippokampos got curious about them as well and bought one.

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Not tapering together at the bow makes for a very wide dinghy. In fact, we referred to it as the barge. It was sort of a strange ride because you could feel the flex in the middle when a wave raised one pontoon and then the other. They’ve been cruising with it for over a year now, and you can actually read their entire review of it here. While they had no major complaints, we realized there was no way we could put a boat that wide on our foredeck, and we weren’t sure we’d even have the space to inflate and deflate it anywhere on Gimme Shelter.

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We went back to thinking we would go with an 8′ slat floor roll-up with a 5hp Lehr propane engine. While small and slow, that seemed to be the best option for our 34′ sailboat. We also wouldn’t have to carry gasoline along with the diesel and propane we were already carrying. We started saving and kept waiting for the big sale at West Marine.

However, sometimes the right dinghy finds you.

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Our friends over at SVMimzy.com asked if we were interested in a 10′ AB rigid floor inflatable with a Mercury 9.9 hp 2-stroke. While it was about ten years old, it was in really nice shape. I just didn’t think we could lift it or that we’d have space for it on the boat. I was incredibly surprised when the boat only weighed around 100 pounds, and I could pick it up and move it around myself — and it just barely fit on our foredeck. I have to lift it up and bit to open and close the anchor locker, but it works.

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We’ve anchored out more times this year than in almost all of our past years of sailing combined thanks to being able to easily get the dogs back and forth to shore.

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Of course, it’s been useful for more than just carting dogs around. Mary and I have made runs up and down the ICW from Bolivar to Stingarees.

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We can finally explore islands and anchorages together instead of taking turns on the kayak.

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It’s also been great for carrying my photography equipment to shore. I’d never risk it on the kayak, but now I can get the camera, lenses and tripod all safely to shore to set up for great shots like this.

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While we’re getting by with raising and lowering the dinghy and motor using our halyards, the next question is to davit or not to davit.

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Backpacking Guadalupe Peak

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Our backpacks were too heavy. Nobody had trained. Nobody had even worn their packs before except me, and mine hadn’t left the garage in at least ten years.

On paper, the hike seemed easy. It was four miles up the trail with a 3,000 foot elevation gain, reaching a final height of 8,600 feet above sea level. The logistics of getting to Guadalupe Mountains National Park and back to Houston in one weekend were what had me the most worried … at least until we stepped on the trail.

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We formulated a plan to leave Thursday after work and drive to Kerrville, then get up Friday morning and drive the rest of the way to to the park. Once there we would obtain the limited backwoods camping passes for the Guadalupe Peak Trail from the rangers, then hike up the mountain. After we set up camp, we’d hike the rest of the way up the peak to watch the sunset. Then I’d take some amazing milky way photos, maybe even do some starry sky timelapse videos before heading to bed. Then we’d wake up before dawn to hike back up to the peak to watch the sunrise before walking down the mountain to go explore other things like Carlsbad Caverns or the strange Prada store in Marfa.

Things did not go exactly as planned.

We did leave Thursday night, and we did make it to Kerrville.

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The Holiday Inn Express had a fancy Texas-shaped pool. Unfortunately it was far too cold and late in the evening to try it out. The next morning we were back on the road.

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We made it to Guadalupe Mountains National Park around 1 p.m. and were very lucky to snag one of the few remaining backwoods camping permits. We unloaded our gear and headed up the mountain.

I’d done a fair amount of backpacking when I was in the Boy Scouts, and I was lucky that I still had my gear. However, nobody else had really tried out their packs, some of which had been procured through eBay, so everyone was starting the hike with discomfort.

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I also didn’t have time to open each person’s pack and ruthlessly throw all their belongings back in the car saying, “Nope, can’t take this,” like the guides and counselors did to me back in the old days. No deodorant. No extra batteries. Not even a toothbrush unless you break off the handle. What’s worse is I didn’t even follow my own rules and packed in two camera bodies, three lenses and a tripod in anticipation of all the amazing photography I was going to do. (So glad I brought a tripod for this …)

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Let’s just say it was a very long hike up the mountain.

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We stopped to rest often.

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We really should have paid attention to the fact that the trail was marked strenuous.

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Although we made sure to find plenty of photo ops.

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Five and a half hours later, we finally reached the sign for the camping area.

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Unfortunately that arrow on the sign doesn’t actually point in the right direction. The trail is off to the right of the sign, so the girls took a break while TJ and I wandered the mountain looking for any sign of a camp.

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It turned out to be just over the ridge of lower peak, so we made the last march of day into the camping area and set up our tents.

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We started cooking dinner just as the sun was setting. No, we weren’t going to be able to watch sunset from the peak, but there were times throughout the day when we weren’t sure we were even going to make it as far as we had.

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As I set up my cameras to capture some stars, the brightest full moon I’ve ever seen rose into the sky. I thought it made the night look a bit unique, so I set up a timelapse anyway. Then, since the moon hadn’t been able to dissuade me, the clouds moved in as mother nature had a good laugh about the fact that I’d carried all that camera equipment for nothing.

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The weather in the desert makes massive shifts between day and night, so we all layered up to fight the cold. The dehydrated food never tasted so good. Our friends passed around a flask, and we all took a nip of Scotch before climbing into sleeping bags and quickly falling into a deep, black sleep.

Around 2 a.m. the wind had picked up to better than 25 miles per hour. It had been impossible to drive stakes into the hard ground where we were camping, so Mary sent me out with rope to tie the tent down to whatever rocks and trees were within reach. The moon loomed over me, lighting the work. I never even had to turn on the flashlight.

We slept through sunrise.

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The dehydrated egg scramble had never tasted so good, and spirits were high as we knew we didn’t have to carry our backpacks up to the peak.

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Yes, we’d missed the sunrise, but it would still be a nice hike.

 

I packed some water and my camera into a sleeping bag stuff sack, slung it over my shoulder, and we headed for the top.

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The last mile was full of beautiful scenes. We couldn’t get enough photos, but even without packs, everyone was still having a bit of a struggle.

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Once we passed El Capitan, we knew we were almost there.

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A few portions of the trail crossed steep rock face, which had Mary crabwalking, but she overcame her fear of heights to cross them.

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Despite various threats of quitting, we all made it to the tallest point in Texas together.

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Inside the ammunition box at the base of the monument was a log book, signed by all who make the hike. Some people put serious thought into what they write. The book is full of poetry and quotes. We added our own signatures to the pages.

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Had we had more time, water and a permit, I think everyone would have been content to stay another night before breaking camp and hiking down the mountain, but we didn’t have that luxury. We made a quick lunch and then reluctantly put on our backpacks.

Mary had a sore knee, so it was slow going. Even so, it only took us about two hours to get down the hill — a marked improvement compared to our ascent.

I left my pack with everyone at the base of the trail and hiked over to the ranger station to get the car. Everyone was very excited to sit down.

We drove to Van Horn and celebrated our achievement with dinner and drinks at the El Capitan Hotel.

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We made the long drive back the Houston Sunday with one question in mind, what mountain do we conquer next?

Our Best Photos of 2016

Happy new year and welcome to 2017. I hope all of our readers made it, unlike all those celebrities that didn’t.

I haven’t had time to write anything new for the new year, so I thought I’d kick things off with a photographic retrospective of 2016. Deciding on our “best” photos is very subjective, and I didn’t actually ask Mary’s opinion on these. I just scrolled through all the folders of photos from the past year and picked my favorites. So, in no particular order, here are my favorite photos that we took during our adventures in 2016.

Magic amidst the chaos — sometimes you just have to ignore the weather report

Thunderstorms were looming, and the radar looked terrible, but it had been a hell of a week, and I was dying to get Gimme Shelter out on the water. She hadn’t moved from her slip in more than a month, and I’m positive she was feeling as restless as me.

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We had arrived to the marina in the middle of a downpour, so we just grabbed the dogs out of the backseat and made a run for the boat. Once the rain cleared, we cast off and headed for the bay. It wasn’t until we had passed the Kemah Boardwalk that I realized we’d left the bag full of our clothes as well as my camera in the car.

First lesson of the weekend: Always check that you actually put your bags on the boat before leaving the dock.

However, we were in a race against sunset, and our friends TJ and Kayla on Folie a Deux were motoring along right behind us. Well, they were right behind us until one of their jib sheets fell overboard and fouled their prop.

Second lesson of the weekend: Keep all lines secured on deck.

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But that was only a small delay. As you might remember, Folie’s entire rudder fell off during her last voyage, so a fouled prop was just a small speed bump in comparison.

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We were soon underway and dropped the hook at Redfish Island just as the sun was setting. Well, at least we dropped our hook. As TJ debated whether or not to drop his own anchor or tie off to our stern, he realized his anchor was no longer hanging on his bow. Perhaps it was sitting in the bottom of his slip at Watergate. Perhaps it was on the bottom of the bay somewhere between Galveston and Kemah. Perhaps someone walked off with it. There was no way to know.

Third lesson of the weekend: Make sure you have an anchor on the boat and make sure your anchor rode is tied to something on the boat.

The lack of anchor was still not a problem. We just threw TJ and Kayla a line and tied them off to our stern cleat.

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For the first time ever, we had Redfish Island completely to ourselves. Mary prepped a salad while I grilled steaks, and we sat down to a nice dinner.

While we were in the cabin eating, it got dark — and I mean REALLY dark. Thick clouds had blotted out any sign of stars, and the quarter moon was barely a glow in the corner of the sky. I was about to pull the kayak off the deck to take the dogs to shore when we saw it.

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It looked like fireflies moving underwater. Dozens of small bioluminescient jellyfish were glowing all around us. They would glow especially bright if they bumped against the anchor rode or the hull of the boats. I cursed myself for forgetting the camera, and we attempted to at least somewhat capture the moment with our phones. My video ended up being worthless, but TJ did manage to capture the long exposure above.

I dropped the kayak in the water and took the dogs to shore mesmerized at the way the jellies glowed around my paddle each time it touched the water. It was a truly magical moment.

After the dogs finished their business on the island, we paddled back to the boat and watched the glowing for another hour or so before bed. We went to sleep with all the hatches and windows open, just waiting for the rain to finally hit us — but it never did.

I woke up at sunrise to find storm cells passing on either side of us.

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It looked like Kemah was also getting hammered, so we just stayed put and made some breakfast. Slowly things cleared, and a fantastic rainbow appeared overhead.

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I hadn’t been on Redfish Island all sumer, so I took a minute to explore. After a year of heavy rain, it seems there are actually some plants growing. Along with the usual scrub brush there was a yucca plant.

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And even a baby palm tree.

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Despite predictions of terrible thunderstorms all day Sunday, the weather actually cleared and the sun made an appearance just as we headed back towards Kemah. My crew didn’t sleep well at anchor due to the high humidity, so they spent most of the trip home snoozing.

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The bay was empty and smooth as glass. We were already counting the trip a success when this happened.

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Fourth lesson of the weekend: If you have an outboard, keep a very short, heavy duty strap on it, so if your outboard bracket shears into pieces, the motor won’t fall underwater.

This was a disheartening moment. TJ and Kayla had paid a local machine shop to design and build that stainless steel bracket specifically for their O’day 25 and the new Honda they put on it. Then, after spending money for the “professional” work, it literally sheared into pieces in less than a year. Now they’re out the cost of the bracket and the impending cost of repairs to their outboard.

We stopped to help, and as a team we were able to winch the outboard up out of the water and out of the way of the tiller, but Folie a Deux’s trip ended with a tow home from Sea Tow.

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We hung out until the tow boat arrived and then headed for the marina ourselves.

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As a slight consolation for the outboard disaster, TJ and Kayla were visited by a dolphin who swam alongside them all the way to the Kemah Boardwalk.

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Yes, the entire weekend was a comedy of errors, but it was also filled with unforgettable moments experiencing things you don’t usually see in the bay. I’m glad we didn’t just look at the radar and decide to stay home.

Through which lens do you see the world?

Tonight we’re packing for a week-long charter in the Spanish Virgin Islands. Unlike weekend trips aboard Gimme Shelter where I can bring along most anything I want, space is limited.

Packing clothes is the easy part. I’m throwing in four shirts, two pairs of shorts and two swim suits. Done. However, I’ve been perplexing for more than a week as to which lenses are going into my camera bag.

Once upon a time I used to travel with just a small point and shoot camera in a dive case. Life was simple, and the photos weren’t that bad.

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But through the years I suffered from gear acquisition syndrome, or GAS, as it’s known by most photographers. I kept changing camera bodies and accumulated more and more lenses until traveling with a camera ended up extremely complicated. When you have limited space, how do you decide what to bring along?

The 50mm f1.4 is my favorite lens. It’s razor sharp, it creates a nice shallow depth of field, and it’s my number one choice for video and portraits. It’s also said that a 50mm best replicates a normal human field of view.

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While not my favorite, the 28mm f2 is my most used lens. Sharp as a tack and great in low light, I usually find myself needing the 28mm for landscapes, sunsets, architecture, group photos, photos of people around tables in classrooms or restaurants, and any wide angle video shot.

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However, when you’re on a sail boat, you can’t back up from your subject or you’re in the water. The 28mm is just wide enough to grab the cockpit, but if I want to capture a shot with the entire mast and sails, I’ve got to swap to the ultra-wide 15mm f4.5. The 15mm is also a must for interior shots on the sailboat.

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But lately all my best shots seem to be with an old 90mm f2.8. The 90mm has been giving me some really nice portraits as well as some nice landscape shots when I need to cut out the foreground.

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But the 90mm just doesn’t quite get me close enough for birding or wildlife. While it tends to suffer from a bit of chromatic aberration and weighs more than all the previous lenses combined, my 135mm f2.8 can catch a nice bird shot if the bird is within throwing distance.

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Of course, my new favorite lens has been the 280mm f2.8, which came with its own suitcase and weighs about ten pounds. If I’m in the very back of the boat, I can capture just a person’s face up on the bow. That might make it too long for shooting on the boat, but it’s great for shooting wildlife or people on other boats. The downside is that if I were to take it along, it would count as my carry-on luggage, and I’d have to check my real bag.

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But sometimes the 280mm isn’t long enough, so I’ve got the 400mm f6.8. I carried this lens in Belize to capture exotic birds, monkeys and kinkajous. I caught a few birds, but it turns out the monkeys and kinkajous only came out in the dark, so it was a bit useless in the middle of the night.

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So that’s seven prime lenses that I REALLY need to bring along.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re saying, hey dummy, just get a zoom lens and be done with it.

Well, I have nothing against zoom lenses. In fact, I’m definitely bringing a 16-50mm f3.5-5.6 zoom with the Sony NEX-6 since that’s the lens that fits in the dive case. It’s not as sharp as the primes, and it has some barrel distortion at the wide end of things, but if I want underwater shots, it has to be in the bag.

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I’ve also tried a 70-200 f4.5 to replace my 90mm and 135mm primes. Yes, it was more versatile when it came to framing shots, but again, it just doesn’t seem as sharp as my primes. I also lose a stop of light, so I can’t shoot with it as early in the morning or as late into the evening as I can with the f2.8 lenses.

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I definitely cannot pack NINE lenses, one of which has its own suitcase, for this trip. Even if I could pack all nine, there’s no way I would use all of them in a week. Yes, each lens has a purpose and is a tool for a certain type of shot, but unless I’m hired for that specific job, those lenses are nothing but a security blanket.

As photographers, our choice of lens is our choice of how we see the world.

Do you want the big picture? Shoot your trip with a wide.

Want to live in the moment with a first person view? Slap on a 50mm.

Want to focus on the details of a place or event? Pack nothing but a telephoto.

Discover what you want to say through your photographs and choose the focal length that best conveys that message.

So here’s my challenge. Next time you go out shooting, simplify everything. Decide how you want to see the world, take just one lens, and discover what kind of story you can tell.

Of course, I’ll still be taking at least three lenses to the SVIs. I mean, come on, I’ve got to get some dolphin pictures!