How to photograph a meteor shower

My good friend Paul Sutherland alerted his Facebook cohort to the upcoming spectacle of the Geminid meteor shower. My immediate thought was what settings do I need to use with my camera having dabbled with astrophotography earlier this week. Thankfully, Suthers has me covered and saves me from having to write a full “HowTo”. Check out his guide to photographing a meteor shower here.

As with astrophotography, you will need a camera on a nice sturdy tripod. The camera must have the ability to control shutter speed and to have a time delay or a remote shutter control/cable release. It also needs to have a manual focus option.

So, what are we going to snap? The Geminids, that’s what. The Geminids are fragments of the object 3200 Phaethon which is probably a Palladian asteroid going around the sun in a “rock comet” orbit. Earth coincides with its path in December and those fragments that enter the atmosphere will burn up as “shooting stars”. Not due to friction but due to their high speed compressing the air in front of them and so heating it up to melting temperatures.

On a clear night, somewhere dark, away from streetlights etc, between December 4th and 17th (perhaps optimal will be 13th, 14th when they peak) point your camera on its tripod towards the constellation of Gemini. Use a wide angle. Live, manually focus on the stars. Set your ISO to between 800 and 1600. Widest aperture (smallest f-stop) possible and shutter speed based on the 500-rule to avoid capture motion of the stars due to Earth’s rotation. For a 20mm focal length, 500/20 = 25s maximum shutter speed.

At their peak, there will be a couple of shooting stars every minute from 10 pm onwards. Keep your eyes peeled, Once you’ve seen a few, you should be able to figure out their point of origin in that part of the sky in which the constellation Gemini lies. Adjust the angle and direction of your camera to capture the shooting star trails emanating from this point.

If you have a DSLR, there will likely be a cable release. If there’s an automated one you could set the camera up to fire a couple of times a minute all night and go to bed. It’ll keep shooting until the battery charge runs out. Some cameras will have Wi-Fi and an app that lets you control the camera via the internet and thus your smartphone, tablet, or PC. I’m just investigating as to whether the app for my Canon 6D lets one set up a scheduled regular shutter release so I can get a good night’s sleep while the camera does the work of watching the meteor shower.

NB Protect your camera from condensation and the weather outside and when you bring it back indoors.

Lobster cola

There’s a piece in The Graun about somebody finding a lobster with an imprint of a drinks can logo on its claw…very strange…and, of course, the paper makes it an excuse to discuss the growing problem of waste in our oceans; which is fine there is a problem.

But, it also reports that the discoverer of this lobster recognised the logo immediately because she: “drinks as many as 12 cans of the [brown, sugar solution] a day”.

[I’ve changed reference to the product to avoid giving them any extra free publicity, obvs.]

But, WTF? 12 cans? Do people really drink that volume of this flavoured water? Didn’t anyone think to check whether the “discovery” was just a PR stunt? Looks like it to me…

That said, it’s not the logo of that particular drinks brand anyway, is it? It looks like there’s the eye from a dollar bill below the blue band…that’s not part of their logo. If it’s genuine perhaps a piece of printed plastic sheeting with that logo on it got pressed against the animal’s claw and the ink came off. They don’t do “Billy Stampers” for marine crustaceans, do they?

Photographing the stars

I blogged and posted photos of starscapes I shot last on a chilly November night this week at about 11 pm. Here’s the executive summary for getting a sharp photo without star trails caused by Earth’s rotation. It was a clear night, but there was a quarter moon so not perfect conditions, best to shoot after moonset or when there’s a new moon. Also, make sure minimal domestic lighting on and away from streetlights. (Protect your camera from cold and damp if you’re outside for a long time and from condensation when you bring it back indoors).

Fix wide angle lens, e.g. 20mm-105mm or prime, to the camera.

Mount camera on a sturdy tripod, pointing up at the stars of interest. Milky Way, a constellation etc.

Set camera’s white balance to tungsten.

Open up the aperture as wide as it will go – lowest f-stop for the lens and camera. f.4.0 was what my Canon lens could manage at 20mm.

Set ISO to about 1600, but lower it, if you get a lot of purple speckly noise.

Make the shutter speed no slower than 500/focal length, for 20mm that would be 25 seconds. That avoids star trails. If brightest stars look too blown out, shorten the shutter time.

Manually focus.

Set a shutter time delay or use a cable release or app to take the shot.

If you can find somewhere dramatic, like a mountain range, all the better. I made do with the roofline of our houses as a context to the sky.

Thanks to Practical Photography magazine for initial stellar inspiration.

A microbe called Rush

There’s an orange-haired huntsman spider that has the scientific name Heteropoda davidbowie…now there’s a triumvirate of microbes (specifically, parabasalian protist flagellates) named after the members of Canadian power trio Rush:
Pseudotrichonympha leei, P. lifesoni, and P. pearti
These symbiotic protists play a key role in the ability of termites to digest wood. These unusual microbes also contain an internal rotating structure that scientists really don’t understand. In the research paper, the team reports that the species form “patterns both so grand and complex” (quoting from the Rush song Natural Science), they also use the phrase “spiral array” later in the same section of their research paper, also a phrase from that song.
The paper is otherwise quite serious and in the taxonomic summary, the team refers to the etymology of the names:
“Species name refers to Geddy Lee [bassist/singer], a musician who, with other members of Rush [guitarist Alex Lifeson and drummer/lyricist Neil Peart], have inspired an interest in natural history and science through art.”
Each microcosmic planet a complete society…

Stellar photography shoots for the stars

We’ve all seen those amazing shots of the Milky Way with some stunning vista, an enormous bridge, mountains, a rainforest…well, there’s not a lot of that around here but I fancied shooting the stars.

Basic things: you need a tripod, a remote shutter control or the ability to set a shutter release timer, and a fully manual camera with manual focus. It’s best to dial in the settings indoors before you step out into a chilly November night. Also, it’s best to choose a moon-free night and to be somewhere with low light pollution. Easier said than done, of course.

Anyway, set the white balance on the camera to tungsten for best results. Choose an ISO of about 1600 and an f-stop (aperture) as low as it will go (bigger aperture in other words). With my 24-105mm on my Canon 6D I could stop it down to f/4.

Now, here’s the science bit. Because you’re going to need a long exposure, several seconds to get a good exposure, the earth will have rotated a little bit during the exposure and the stars will look like short light trails. Now, you could make this a feature of your photo. Aim at the pole star and set a really long exposure and you will get those fancy circular trails. But if you want nice starry pinpoints, you need to use a rule of thumb to avoid light trails. The rule of thumb is to divide 500 by the focal length you’re using and that’s the maximum number of seconds you can expose before star trails will become apparent. I was planning to shoot at 24 mm focal length, so 20 seconds or less would be about right (as it turned out 15 seconds was best with the f-stop and ISO I’d set.

Set your camera up on the tripod, align it with a patch of sky you wish to photograph and manually focus to get the stars looking as sharp as you can (You might have to zoom in and focus unless there’s a particularly bright star in your patch of sky and then zoom out again without changing the focus). Set the camera to timer mode (10s works best rather than 2s, to let the camera settle after pressing the shutter release) or use a shutter cable or wireless remote.

Post-processing can boost a photo. Here’s one I took at the local church with a heavenly backdrop that reveals more of the stars

And, this one is a shot of the Orion Nebula.

Birdlife at Stiffkey Marshes

We made an impromptu trip to Stiffkey on the North Norfolk coast, stopped overnight at the Red Lion Inn, it was almost dark by the time we got there but there were lots of loose flocks (skeins) of geese coming home to roost on the marshes. The initial attractor had been rumours of waxwings around the car park near our old stamping ground High Sands Campsite.

Redshank (Tringa totanus)
Redshank (Tringa totanus)

An earlyish breakfast the next morning had us legging it to that area in search of Bombycilla garrulus, none to be seen but a big flock of linnets was chasing around the neighbouring hedgerows, we could hear lots of curlews (in flight directly below this paragraph) and could see pale-bellied Brent goose, red shank (pictured above), little egret, kestrel, stonechat, snipe, bar-tailed godwit, cormorant, lapwing, fieldfare, oystercatcher, pochard, shelduck, black-headed gull, redwing, dunlin, sandpiper, yellowhammer, skylark, greenfinch, chaffinch, meadow pipit, turnstone, wigeon, and a real mixed bag of other birds spending November on around the marshes.

Curlew (Numenius arquata)
Curlew (Numenius arquata)
Brent goose (Branta bernicla)
Brent goose (Branta bernicla)
Male stonechat (Saxicola torquata)
Male stonechat (Saxicola torquata)
Pochard (Aythya ferina)
Pochard (Aythya ferina)
Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus)
Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus)
Turnstone (Arenaria interpres)
Turnstone (Arenaria interpres)
Male shelduck (Tadorna tadorna)
Male shelduck (Tadorna tadorna)

There are countless other species appearing on the North Norfolk coast according to the proper birders: black brant goose, Iceland gull, glaucous gull*, Lapland bunting, cattle egret*, great white egret*, Slavonian grebe, spotted redshanks*, water pipit, snow bunting*, Tundra bean goose*, great Northern diver*, long-tailed duck*, little stint*, velvet scoter*, hawfinch*, Caspian gull, goshawk, Richard’s pipit, shorelark, rough-legged buzzard, yellow-browed warbler, Sabine’s gull, grey phalarope, little auk, black-throated diver, red-necked grebe, Leach’s petrel, Pomarine skua, black guillemot, ring ouzel, twite, purple sandpiper*, scaup, white-fronted goose*, dotterel.

Now, that list is what sets us apart from the proper birders, not only would I not recognise nor spot the majority of those, I’ve not even heard of a half a dozen of them before.

*We have since seen the asterisked species in various places.

The pelican brief: birds of Australia

Following on from my earlier Australian bird of the year post (no Kylie nor Nicole jokes, purleez), here are a few grainy scans from the albums of Mr & Mr Sciencebase from Oct-Dec 1989.

Top to bottom: Pelican (Pelecanus conspicillatus), comb-crested jacana (Irediparra gallinacea), Australian brush (or bush) turkey (Alectura lathami), sulfur-crested cockatoo (Cacatua galerita), Major Mitchell’s cockatoo (Lophochroa leadbeateri), azure kingfisher (Ceyx azureus), eastern great egret (Ardea alba modesta), Royal spoonbill (Platalea regia) alongside little egret, Eastern great egret (Ardea alba modesta) and gull.

Australian bird of the year

UPDATE: And the winner is: The Australian magpie (Gymnorhina tibicen) with 19,926 votes, second place was the Australian white ibis (Threskiornis molucca) with 19,083 votes and the laughing kookaburra (Dacelo novaeguineae) gets the bronze with just 10,953 votes.

ClassicFM’s @TimLihoreau alerted me over breakfast this morning (via the “airwaves”, that is) that The Grauniad is publicising the vote for Australia’s bird of the year. Now, having visited and traveled several thousand miles through Australia back in October-December 1989, I can vouch for the abundance and have a few photos in my collection.

I mentioned to Tim that I remembered @Mrs_Sciencebase and myself sitting on the harbour wall in Cairns after our day’s diving (snorkelling, actually) on The Great Barrier Reef, when a huge pelican sat down with us…not six feet away. I don’t think we ever saw a Willie Wagtail but she claims to have seen a cockatoo…

Ahem, that aside, in our albums (remember those?) we do have photos of the magpie lark (Grallina cyanoleuca), also known as the peewee, peewit or mudlark. We saw great egrets, pelicans elsewhere (the one pictured above was snapped in Nitmiluk National Park), sulfur-crested cockatoos, and the highlight a salt water crocodile hunting and catching magpie geese. The guide on our boat in that particular billabong told us we would be unlikely to see a croc at all!

More of our photos of the birds of Australia in my blog post The Pelican Brief.

Photographing birds in flight

Unless, you have been avoiding me this year, you will know I have been photographing a lot of birds. Well over 130 native and migrant species in the UK so far. I am stockpiling the best photos for my forthcoming book: “Chasing Wild Geese“.

One thing that everyone but the most experienced photographers struggle with is catching a crisp photo of a bird in flight, specifically as it takes off from a perch. I have managed it once or twice, but the issue tends to be that you need a short shutter speed to catch the action. Unfortunately, that then either means that your depth of field is very short (so focus is in the plane at a given distance rather than spread from near to far, therefore only a point on the bird will be sharp. Or, if you manage to get the f-stop number higher, then the ISO will need to be higher too to allow enough light in to properly expose the shot, which means more sensitivity of your sensor and more noise.

Depending on your lens you’re not going to get good depth of field with a fast shutter speed unless the ISO is really high, but you can try and push it and put up with ISO noise or balance. My Sigma 150-600 on my Canon 6D at full extent will give me 1/1250s with f/9 but the ISO will be into the several thousand if I am lurking among trees trying to photograph goldcrests or treecreepers for instance or well up even out in the open on a sunny day. Shutterspeeds shorter than 1/2000s will freeze wing movements of small birds.

You have to be ready and steady, focused on the bird’s eye, with the bird perched and have the camera in burst mode. Hold the camera in landscape mode and have your frame with the bird to one side so there’s space for it to fly into in the frame. (Select a focus point in your viewfinder to the side and have that over the bird’s eye when you focus). Push the button as soon as the bird flutters (it might be a false alarm, reset your stance) but keep the shutter depressed while it takes flight. You can get some great shots. I don’t think I’ve achieved greatness yet, but I am trying! Another tip I’ve learned fairly recently – use the back focusing button with your thumb, this looks you on, and frees you up to be trigger happy at the right time with shutter release. Speaking of which, sharper is as sharper does – tripod and remote shutter control, might improve your outcome but make it harder to track and focus birds that are already in flight.

The Element in the Room

Festival of the Spoken Nerd’s Helen Arney and Steve Mould have a puntastic pop science book out now. All the science stuff staring you in the face.

From their website:

The Element In The Room takes you on a rib-tickling, experiment-fuelled and irreverent adventure to explain the elements of science that other books ignore, with plenty of DIY demos that you can try at home. Order yours online using the links above — or buy it at one of our live shows and get it signed in person!

And on 14th November 2017, it’s just 99p on Amazon UK/Amazon US (Kindle version). Of course you don’t need an actual Kindle to read that version, there’s a Kindle app for almost every phone, tablet, phablet, laptop, PC, Mac, and presumably even a Smart TV! By the way, you can’t polish a nerd…but you could roll them in edible glitter…let’s not.