Stargazing in Leiden

Somewhere this summer I started developing the idea for a new photography project. My attempt to photograph the Perseids in august showed that it was possible to see at least a few stars, despite the light pollution, in Leiden and surrounding area. In addition, a successful attempt to photograph the milky way in Spain also rekindled my interest in astrophotography.

I decided to see if it was possible to photograph the stars in the centre of Leiden city. The location that I wanted to try this was the Leiden Observatory, as this was a beautiful place on its own, but also closely connected to the stars. Photographing the stars at high ISO, large aperture, and long shutter speeds as I had done in Spain to capture the milky way was not possible in Leiden as it would lead to severe overexposure of the observatory in the foreground. Reducing exposure to an amount not overexposing the foreground would lead to loss of stars in the background. I decided the best course of action would be to do startrails.

The question of timing was also important. During summer and autumn sunset was late, which meant having to wait very long until it was completely dark. The warmth also kept a lot of moisture in the air, which often resulted in a haze above the city. Needing a clear and moonless night also added to the problem of finding the right night. However, last week the temperature suddenly dropped drastically and as the sun set at around 16:40 PM, the sky was sufficiently dark at around 17:30 to start with startrails.

My last startrail attempt had been quite a while ago, and I therefore assumed I would make a lot of mistakes and was glad I had a backup attempt the day after (which was also clear and cold, after that the clouds and warmth would start creeping in again). As a one-and-a-half-hour exposure would also lead to over exposure of the observatory, and in addition cause a lot of noise on the image, I decided to take individual 30s exposure images and stack these later in photoshop.

My setup was the XT-1 with Samyang 12 mm f/2.0. This meant manual focus, but as I was working on tripod and only had to focus once, this wasn’t much of a problem. After some test shots, I set the Samyang to f/4.0 and selected a shutter speed of 30 seconds at ISO 200, set the camera to continuous, attached my remote shutter release, locked the shutter button and prepared myself for 90 minutes of waiting in what turned out to be the coldest November night since 1998.

As my feet slowly froze to a state of numbness I started to see more and more stars and decided that my attempt might actually work out well. Until this moment I had seriously considered that light pollution could ruin the entire exercise. It didn’t, but I did start to notice other problems. In my enthusiasm to photograph the observatory I hadn’t really considered in what direction I was pointing the camera, I had just chosen the best viewing angle. By fortunate coincidence the direction I chose was north, meaning that Polaris was in my image and the stars started circling nicely around it. I was saved by the stars, so to speak (note to self: always check a compass). However, as the minutes on the timer creeped by, one problem that I hadn’t considered presented itself: Schiphol Amsterdam Airport is just north of Leiden, and one plane after another started to make its descent right through my frame. After the third plane went straight overhead and curved gracefully to the northwest, I decide that cursing didn’t help much, and resigned myself to an image filled with not just startrails, but planetrails..

One hour and 15 minutes later found my toes non responsive and my fingers numb, despite the double gloves, so I decided to call it a night. Getting home, my toes slowly returned to a normal temperature while I loaded all images first into Lightroom to convert the raw files and then into photoshop to create the startrail. Google was my friend and after checking up the stacking procedure I started to work. It is possible to merge all images at the same time, but this would also include all trails made by airplanes, so instead I opted for the more time and effort consuming course of merging all images manually after removing the airplanetrails. I also chose the best foreground and made sure that during merging all other foregrounds were lost. In the end I created two images: one with the planetrails, and one without. A very time consuming process, which, to be honest, I had to repeat twice to create an image I was satisfied with.

It was very satisfying to finally being able to complete an idea that had been months in the making and then to see it completed well! When I started in the cold, I had no idea if it would work, and even during the recording there is no way of knowing how the image would work out, as all you see are individual 30s exposures. The final result was worth every bit of effort and time however!

A few notes for next time: do not forget a flashlight. Do not forget to put a lens hood on the lens (I had forgotten to put it in the bag), as light may reflect on the wide angel lens, causing ugly reflections on the photo’s that are difficult to remove. Check the direction to shoot (north is of course best because you see the stars circle around Polaris). Check the lunar calendar: no moon is best. I had a lot of help planning this shoot from the TPE and PhotoPills apps. Also, wear snowboots. And take something with you to keep you occupied during the long exposure. Check the direction of the wind (windless is of course nice for reflections in water) in connection with the runway direction of Schiphol.
I did go again next day, but the image was not as nice as the first one, which is still my favorite! Less wind however, so better reflections and less airplanes. However, this time I was disturbed by a few boats full of people that sailed every 30 minutes through my frame. It can’t be 100% perfect I guess..

Yes, of course I’m going to show you the images, they’re below!

First day, planes removed
First day, planes removed
First day, with planes
First day, with planes
The second day
The second day

 

Perseid Payback

After my not so successful attempt at capturing the Perseids, I decided a little payback was in order. As it happens, I am currently residing in the beautiful village of Sa Tuna, at the Costa Brava. It turns out there’s much less light pollution here (no sh*t), and this week the clouds have only been conspicuous by their total absence. The only drawback: the best view and the least light was at the top of the local 170 meter hill, and I had to assemble the courage to climb it after a copious three course meal, including wine and a dessert containing whisky. Yesterday I finally did it, after putting it off for a few days. I definitely enjoyed the trip, and the results!

Midnight selfie!
Midnight selfie!

Chasing de Perseids

Saturday, 2:30 am. The moment the alarm goes of I heartily curse my notion to go out to see and hopefully photograph the Perseids. For one moment I hope that the weather conditions have suddenly changed, that there is now cloud cover, and that I can go back to bed. A quick look out of the window shows it is not to be. I’m awake now anyway, so let’s do this!

According to the internet, the meteor shower called the Perseids would be on its peak on the night of thursday august 12. Heavy cloud cover and rain ruined any plans for a nightly expedition, but now, 24 hours later, all clouds have disappeared and conditions are much more favourable. A table I found showed that around 3-4 am the meteors would be highest in the sky at around 55 degrees east.

Even at 3 am, the night was pleasantly warm. In the region around Leiden, light pollution is always a major problem for night time photography, so I decided to go to the nearby lake in the hope that light pollution would be minimal there. I was pleasantly surprised that I could see some stars, but not near the horizon, where light was indeed an issue.

During the time I was there I saw perhaps 5, maybe 6, falling stars. It was pretty impressive. Capturing them on a photograph was another matter unfortunately. As this was the night before our holiday, my trusty XT-1 and 12 mm Samyang lens, which I would normally use, were already on the way to northern Spain. So I decided to try out my new Fuji X100..

After some experimentation, I decided to set the camera to around 25 seconds, f/4 at 5000 iso. This did result in star movement, but as I was interested in falling stars I considered this not to be a problem. After setting it to continuous, I could sit back and enjoythe stars.
In all, the camera performed very well. Even in the dark (I did have a red flashlight) I could find most settings fast, and the camera reacted quickly. However, the 35 mm lens is obviously not the best focal distance for astrophotography. Pointing the camera to a section in the sky where the last falling star was seen, did not result in succes, as the next star always fell in another section.

As early next morning I would follow my XT-1 to Spain, after an hour or so, I decides to call it a night and get some leftover sleep. One final shot from a light polluted windmill became the hotshot of the night. In all, it was a useful night to get to know the Fuji X100; not so useful for the photography of falling stars. Let’s try some more in Spain, where there are bound to be more stars visible!

DSCF2166-l
Light pollution can be a beautiful thing

A new FOP portrait

As of this spring, I’m busy with a personal project involving portrait photography. I’ve entered the ‘Dam tot Damloop’, a running competition in Amsterdam, to raise awareness and collect money for the disease FOP (www.fopstichting.nl). By photographing friends in return for sponsorship, I hope to increase my portrait skills (which are near to nonexistent at the moment) and achieve this sponsoring aim at the same time. A few portraits have allready been done, and yesterday another was added: Elise. All portraits can be found here here.

Elise
Elise

Becalmed

Last weekend we encountered some unusual weather while sailing on the Markermeer, near the city of Hoorn. While the original forecast was for sun and zero wind, when we sailed out of the harbour, instead of clear skies and sun we sailed right into a pearly white foggy landscape. The water was like a mirror and almost the same colour as the sky, making the horizon disappear in some places. The few ships sailing before us seemed to be floating in nothing.

It was a beautiful sight in itself, but when a group of geese chose that moment to cross the lake, a photograph that would have been a nice photo because of the weather condition, suddenly became special.

Blog_WIIFIT1 BLOG_WIIFIT2

A trip to the north

Last week my girlfriend and I travelled to the city of Umeå in northern Sweden. Because she is going to live there for a while, most of our baggage space was used for her stuff, but I did manage to cram some of my equipment into the Loka used as cabin luggage. My small insert was filled with my XT-1, the 16-55 2.8, and the 12, 18 and 35 mm primes. A small table top tripod was hidden somewhere in the bag. As it happened, I could have left the primes at home, as I didn’t touch them during our stay.

Photographically speaking, my intentions were kind of vague. I wanted to enjoy the weekend together and not focus on my camera the whole time. I also wanted, if I got the chance, to test the 16-55 a bit in terms of quality, versatility and handling. And I wanted to come back with a few keepers. Turns out I did all that.

My original intention was to bring a full sized tripod in our main luggage, but since both our packs were already close to their maximum weight, we decided to leave it at home at the last minute. Imagine my feelings when on Sunday evening we found out (after consulting several apps and a local facebook group) that it was the perfect moment to try and see the northern lights. After waiting until it was completely dark we walked a short distance to the nearby lake (Nydalasjön), where we imaged the best view would be. And boy were we rewarded.

I had been in northern Sweden before, but cloud cover spoiled every chance of seeing the Aurora on that occasion. This time we hadn’t really prepared, but were just lucky. From the frozen lake we had a beautiful view of the northern sky and from the moment we were there to the moment we left (some 90 minutes later), we were mesmerized by the array of colours displayed. I thanked my impulse to bring the table top tripod with me and managed some decent shots. It was a beautiful night.

The northern lights from Nydalasjön
The northern lights from Nydalasjön
Another shot of the northern lights
Another shot of the northern lights

 

Apart from some nice ice sculptures caused by melting, I didn’t really use the camera much the next days, until during my flight home (sadly having to leave my girlfriend in Umeå) I had an eight hour stopover in Stockholm. Here I could focus on photography, but the keepers were elusive until I reached the royal palace in the Gamla Stan. Pools of water had formed in front of the palace’s façade and it was a nice photographic puzzle to combine the reflection of the palace with the guards in front of it. I ended up with a few keepers. This was also the first time I used the Fuji profile ‘classic chrome’ extensively, and I enjoyed the results.

My first keeper from Stockholm; the Royal Palace
My first keeper from Stockholm; the Royal Palace
The guard in front of the Royal Palace
The guard in front of the Royal Palace

So, how fared the 16-55? Well, the image quality was superb. There is not much to say about it, other than that, since I used it at smaller apertures most of the time, the 18-135 and 18-55 probably could have made similar images. I did enjoy the wider view of 16 mm though, and this was definitely a pro. One of the main reasons I chose the 16-55 instead of the 18-55 (which is, let’s be honest, a lot more portable) is the weather sealing. This could be a huge bonus in the cold and wet north of Sweden, but on this occasion I didn’t really need it.

I used the 16-55 with the large XT-1 grip, so the whole package was rather hefty. I didn’t feel much of a difference with the 18-135 though (although if you weigh the two options, you’ll probably find a few hundred grams difference), and it never became a problem or even a bother. If you really want to travel light, the 18-55 would be a better option, but the relatively slow aperture at tele and the maximum wide angle of 18 mm would be a drawback. If I can find a relatively cheap 18-55 I may decide to add it to my lens collection, since the light weight and compact form make it the ideal travel lens when little space is available (for instance my trip to Rome in june).

Did I miss the 18-135? (I had to sell that lens to finance the 16-55). There were a few times I missed a bit of reach (while photographing wild reindeer in the fields north of Umeå the 135 mm would have come in handy), but all in all: no. The image quality and the 16 mm wide angle (which I found I used more than extreme tele) were to me enough to warrant the switch.

So, a nice stay in northern Sweden, some nice keepers for the collection, mixed with the sad feeling of missing my girlfriend for some time. And the northern lights as a bonus!

Top 15 of 2015

An old tradition, but recently a bit forgotten. Two years ago it started with the top 13 of 2013, now it is time to start compiling the top 15 of 2015. This kind of list is always a problem, as the photographs that I take can be on my shortlist for quite a number of reasons, ranging from ‘I really like this photograph’ to ‘my new nephew smiles so cute in this photograph’. I think, however, that this photograph can be on the list!

Dewdrops at sunrise
Dewdrops at sunrise

A budding relationship: the Fujinon XF 18-135 mm

Although I have owned the Fujinon XF 18-135 mm f/3.5-5.6 ‘superzoom’ for almost a year now, in my mind it never really found its place in my camerabag. While I have used it frequently for my watersports photography, I usually left it at home when I went out for fun or for other – non water related – assignments.

Recently however, it has begun to grow on me a bit. In the past I have stated often that I would rather take my three small primes on holiday than the one big heavy (relatively speaking, that is) superzoom. And the three small primes (18, 35 and 60 mm) were a perfect combination during our trip to Sicily last year. This year, however, our annual holiday was to Curacao, a much more humid climate than Italy. As a result, I somewhat dreaded changing lenses and the 18-135 mm stayed on my XT-1 for most of the time  to protect the sensor that is otherwise exposed during lens changes. In addition, the weather sealing of the 18-135 was extra protection.

How did this turn out? Well, to be honest, quite well! While the images of this lens are not as sharp or clean as those obtained from my primes, for most subjects (non-moving, landscapes, portraits, etc.) the image quality was quite acceptable. Having gotten used to the large apertures of the primes (the 60 mm is ‘slow’ at f/2.4), where the 18-135 has to make do with f/3.5-5.6, I had to get used to cranking up the ISO to get the shutter speeds that I desired. On the other hand, the more than excellent image stabilization made sure much longer shutter speeds could be used than would be the case with the primes.

In the evening, when light faded, I still had to grab my primes to get some decent shots, but on the whole, almost 80% of my shots were done with the 18-135 mm. Using this lens reduced the amount of camera gear I had to carry during the day (after two day’s I didn’t even take my primes with me out in the field any more), reducing the weight of, and space in, my camera bag. It also meant less time wasted changing lenses, which certainly came in handy during our exhaustive climb to  the top of the Christoffelmountain.

Two other things to mention that I noticed are the excellent macro capabilities and the sometimes rather ugly bokeh of the lens. During our trips on Curacao we often stumbled upon dozens of lizards (and sometimes larger specimens like the Iguana). These sometimes posed for us and we could get quite close. At 135 mm the closest focus distance was less than a meter, which I would consider quite good for general photography. On the other hand, the bokeh obtained (greatest at 135 mm f/5.6) was (not unexpectedly) much less pleasing than I was used to with the primes. It is not a reason not to use this lens, but something to consider when using it.

Will it be on my camera more than before?

Maybe. While the image quality may be good enough for holiday ‘snapshots’, for more serious photography that doesn’t require the weather sealing I’d still use the primes. It’s also quite a heavy beast, and much larger than for instance the 23 mm f/1.4 that is usually attached to my XT-1. It is a bit of a workhorse compared to the refined primes. For another holiday like this one, I might take only the 18-135 and the 23 mm f/1.4 and leave the rest at home (but then again, I might lug it all with me again).

Some photographs from last week:

An Iguana at the Christoffelpark
An Iguana at the Christoffelpark
At the northwest side of Curacao, Boca Table
At the northwest side of Curacao, Boca Table
This little fellow posed for us for quite some time
This little fellow posed for us for quite some time
Groupshot at the top of the Christoffelmountain
Groupshot at the top of the Christoffelmountain
Butterfly at the Christoffelmountain; an example of the bokeh
Butterfly at the Christoffelmountain; an example of the bokeh

The Misty Mill

7:00 AM. The temptation to stay in bed was almost great enough to do just that and forget about my photography intentions of last night. The weatherman had predicted thick fog for the morning, but from the window it was difficult to see what state the world was in. A quick peek through the windows to the backyard confirmed the weatherman’s prediction of fog, and since I was already out of bed at this point, I decided to give it a go.

My target for this morning was a windmill not far from the house, but outside the city. Likely, the fog would be denser out in the fields than in the street, but I still hoped to get a nice shot of the mill and the sunrise. My backpack and tripod were already prepared the evening before and I had used the TPE app to determine the location for my shot, so all was set.

However, while biking to my chosen location, the first cracks in my plan were becoming apparent. The weatherman’s prediction of ‘thick fog’ turned out to be an understatement and the visibility was down to 50 yards at some points. I didn’t find the mill until I was nearly on top of the thing, and doubts were beginning to creep in whether the sun would be able to pierce this thick shite soup.

After setting up my camera and tripod at the right spot, my doubts were confirmed. According to google maps, the spot I had picked for this morning’s exercise was approximately a hundred yards from the target, but the mill was not even visible. At this point my “Sunrise and the Mill” seemed a bit pointless, so I decided to try something else instead. Fortunately, I have a habit of taking as much of my photography gear with me as I can carry, and when my eye caught some beautiful spider webs filled with water droplets, my 60 mm semi-macro lens was fished out of the backpack.

While I love macro photography, the lack of a true 1:1 macro lens and patience to fumble with a tripod in the bush usually prevent me from trying extensive projects in this area of photography. This time, however, the tripod was already set up, so I tried some shots. The first shots at f/2.4 were a bit hazy, but changing the aperture to f/4.0 did wonders for the sharpness and I was quite happy with some of the results.

The fog provides a beautiful white background to the drops. Taken with the Fujifilm XT-1 and 60 mm lens.
The fog provides a beautiful white background to the drops. Taken with the Fujifilm XT-1 and 60 mm lens.
More drops. This photograph is taken somewhat lower and the green color of the grass hives it a bit more contrast. Fujifilm XT-1 and 60 mm lens.
More drops. This photograph is taken somewhat lower and the green color of the grass hives it a bit more contrast. Fujifilm XT-1 and 60 mm lens.
I never thought barbed wire could be made beautiful. Fujifilm XT-1 and 60 mm lens.
I never thought barbed wire could be made beautiful. Fujifilm XT-1 and 60 mm lens.

As I was busy playing with my macro equipment, my sneakers (I had unfortunately neglected to fish my waterproof shoes from the closet last night) were getting more and more soaked and I was happy to change location when after a while the sun did manage to make an appearance. For the landscape shots I changed lenses and grabbed my ‘superzoom’ 18-135 mm lens. While I am not always entirely happy with the results this lens produces, when stopped down it is acceptable most of the times. After a few shots of the still barely visible mill and a few sheep that were very patient models, I decided to return home and defreeze my feet. It was at this moment that I realized that the sun would be a beautiful background for the droplet-spotted spider webs, so the tripod was unfurled again and I took one last shot.

After a while, the mill became visible. Taken with the XT-1 and 18-135 mm lens.
After a while, the mill became visible. Taken with the XT-1 and 18-135 mm lens.
The fog lifted somewhat and the mill was just visible. Luckily, the sheep were patient with me and held their position. Taken with the Fujifilm XT-1 and 18-135 mm lens.
The fog lifted somewhat and the mill was just visible. Luckily, the sheep were patient with me and held their position. Taken with the Fujifilm XT-1 and 18-135 mm lens.
The last of the macro-photo's. This one is taken with the sun directly behind the spider web. Fujifilm XT-1 and 60 mm lens.
The last of the macro-photo’s. This one is taken with the sun directly behind the spider web. Fujifilm XT-1 and 60 mm lens.

On the way home it was clear that nearer to the city the fog had lifted considerably. On my way to the mill the opposite side of the river could not be seen, but now it was the perfect spot for a few more photographs of fog-shrouded trees reflected in the water. I nearly decided to cross the river and see if the view from the opposite side was as magnificent as it was from this one, but my feet convinced me otherwise so I went home for an appointment with a hot shower!

On the way back home I came across this view. Fujifilm XT-1 and 18-135 mm lens.
On the way back home I came across this view. Fujifilm XT-1 and 18-135 mm lens.
Last shot of the morning. The absence of wind led to great reflections in the water.
Last shot of the morning. The absence of wind led to great reflections in the water.

Hope you enjoy the results.

 

‘ Neutral?’ density filters?

Al lange tijd stond het op mijn fotografie actielijst om een keer wat dieper in te gaan op het gebruik van filters, en met name de uitgebreide filtersystemen zoals Lee en Cokin. Deze systemen gebruiken vierkante filters in filterhouders in plaats van ronde filters die je voor je lens schroeft.

Het voordeel van zo’n filterhouder is dat je hem kunt gebruiken op al je lenzen. Het enige wat je hiervoor aan moet schaffen is een adapter voor elke lensdiameter in je arsenaal. Daarnaast kan een filterhouder meerdere filters tegelijk bevatten, zoals bijvoorbeeld een grijsfilter, een grijsverloopfilter en een polarisatiefilter, wat mooie effecten kan geven wanneer je ze combineert. Ronde filters zijn hierin beperkter, omdat het stapelen van dit soort filters al snel kan resulteren in vignettering.

Koning van de filterwereld is qua kwaliteit waarschijnlijk het merk Lee. Qua prijs helaas ook. Voor een instapsetje betaal je al gauw zo’n 200 euro. Daarnaast zijn er goedkopere systemen zoals Cokin, waar je voor een filterhouder en een aantal filters ongeveer 50 euro betaalt. Verder vond ik wat websites waar voor nog minder geld filters aangeboden werden (we spreken dan over zo’n 7,50 voor een grijsverloopfilter). Wat de kwaliteitsverschillen dan zijn, dat weet ik niet. Ik vermoed dat een groot verschil zal zitten in de term ‘Neutral’ van Neutral Density filter (grijsfilter). Hoe donkerder een grijsfilter, hoe moeilijker het is om zo’n filter daadwerkelijk neutraal te houden en geen kleurzweem te genereren.

Sinds een paar dagen heb ik een aantal onderdelen van Cokin in huis. De filterhouder, een filterkap (een soort lenskap voor over de filters, een 52 mm adapter, een circulair polarisatiefilter wat in de houder past, en een drietal ND filters (ND2, 4 en 8).

Na wat snelle experimenten is mij opgevallen dat de ND filters van Cokin in ieder geval níet ‘neutraal’ zijn, maar een duidelijke kleurzweem hebben. Jammer, maar gelukkig is dit redelijk makkelijk te corrigeren met behulp van een grijskaart (of in mijn geval een A4’tje uit de printer).

Hieronder wat resultaten. Alle foto’s zijn genomen met mijn 18 mm lens, op ISO 200 en f/16:

Foto ND filters
Deze foto is genomen zonder filters met een zo lang mogelijke sluitertijd: 1/75 sec.
Foto ND filters
Met alleen mijn ronde ND4 filter (2 stops) neemt de sluitertijd toe tot 1/18 sec.
Foto ND filters
Mijn circulaire ND4 filter in combinatie met drie vierkante Cokin ND filters (ND2, ND4 en ND8, samen dus goed voor 8 stops) resulteert in een sluitertijd van 3,2 seconden. Let op de duidelijk aanwezige kleurzweem.
Foto ND filters
Circulair ND4 en 3 Cokin ND filters, sluitertijd 4,2 seconden, nu met manueel gecorrigeerde witbalans (met behulp van een grijskaart)
Foto ND filters
Deze foto is genomen zonder filters, maar met gecorrigeerde witbalans.
Foto ND filters
Circ. ND4 + Cokin ND4 en ND8 + Circulair Polarisatiefilter, sluitertijd 10 seconden. Het CP zorgt voor een verrassend grote lichtafname.

Hoewel het teleurstellend is dat de Cokin filters niet kleurneutraal zijn zoals de naam wel aangeeft, maar gelukkig doen ze hun werk wel. Het is wel zaak om altijd een grijskaart bij te hebben om de witbalans handmatig aan te kunnen passen!