Tag Archives: photography

From winter to spring

This February I turned 34. I have been writing this blog for approximately a third of my whole life… Crazy. Anyway, back to the story. So around my birthday I spent (with Clio’s help of course) around a week (mainly the evenings after work and one weekend) planning a two week road trip around Iceland. This involved 1) researching (mainly over Google Maps and blogs) all tourist attractions and putting them on an actual physical map, and 2) making a detailed day-by-day planning based on driving distances/durations and approximate sightseeing (walking/photography/nutrition) times for each location, parallel with 3) looking up suitable hotels/lodges for each day. For the 14 days this means a total of 84 rows of data (including ~63 sights outside of Reykjavik, 11 hotels, and 3200 driven kilometres) in an Excel/Numbers sheet. With the flights, rental car (a smaller 4×4), and accommodation included we saved around 50% of the price of similar packages offered by various travel agencies by doing everything ourselves. Of course now I have seen way too many spoilers thanks to Google Street View, but I had to do a bit of looking around anyway to plan a bit ahead in terms of photography locations and so on.

We are leaving on Sunday, so it is getting very close! By the way, we decided to go in May because 1) it is still before the super busy June-August main tourist season, and 2) May is – statistically, at least in Reykjavik – the least rainy and the most sunny month (even though there are more daylight hours during the summer), and it is only 4-5°C colder than the warmest month, July. Let’s hope we will not get a negative outlier May :)

The second half of February brought some very nice weather, so nice that right after the annual visit to the velodrome in Ghent (where from this year on there is digital time-keeping down to the 1/1000th of a second) I went for a ride outside in shorts (and arm warmers and a gilet, but still) before driving home with 132 km in my legs (including the fastest lap on the track from the team with 16.834 seconds, a good 0.5 seconds faster than the next person).

At work we had our annual company lunch at the Restaurant Arenberg this year, and even though it has a Michelin star, it is a bit too classic for my taste, so I still prefer the EssenCiel (where we went for Clio’s birthday last week) from the gastronomic places in and near Leuven. On the other hand the Easter chocolates of TML came from the Bittersweet Chocolatier this year, so it is confirmed: best workplace ever. On the same note, I have eaten so much chocolate during the past two weeks, that it really needs to stop. Luckily Iceland will be too expensive to eat too much, so there is still hope to keep my race-weight for the summer :D

Preparing for Iceland I bought a NiSi filter system (basically for daytime long exposure shots, see example test-shot with silky smooth water from the nearby abbey above), a wide angle prime lens (Fujifilm XF 16mm f/1.4 WR), a backup camera for my Fujifilm X-T3 (a Fujifilm X-E3) and a small telephoto lens (Fujifilm XF 50mm f/2 WR). And a new carbon tripod (Manfrotto MT190CXPRO4), a camera bag (Lowepro FreeLine BP 350 AW), and some small accessories… Advanced stage GAS – Gear Acquisition Syndrome – I know. Truth be told, all my Canon gear (plus the old tripod and camera bag) is either already sold or up for sale, so overall, actually, I own less camera stuff now. (Still GAS.) Everything is already tested and packed nicely in the new camera bag (the whole kit fits perfectly, and the weight saving compared to my old Canon gear is significant), so really looking forward to Iceland now. The plan is to mostly use the X-T3 with the 16mm lens (this is a full weather-proof setup, so even in bad conditions I don’t need to worry about getting the camera out, and I like wide-angle landscape shots the most anyway), and get the X-E3 out with the 50mm lens only if I need to shoot some more distant details or a portrait. I don’t like changing lenses and I prefer the quality of primes over zooms, so this is perfect for me. I wish I did more photography, but cycling is still the number one hobby.

The first half of March had horrible weather (except miraculously for Saturday mornings at least, so I could bike a bit), then on the first better (meaning not constant rain) Sunday we went to Antwerp with Clio to visit the Plantin-Moretus Museum. It is a printing museum focusing on the work of the 16th-century printers Christophe Plantin and Jan Moretus, located in their former residence and printing establishment, the Plantin Press, and it is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Being a typeface-lover and map-geek, I had a really great time walking around the exhibits. Afterwards we made a small walk to the North to have a look at some of the new buildings, but the cold wind was not really suited for anything longer.

Back to work, in the beginning of April I wrote my first proposal outside of astronomy, and – after my steepest ride outside of the Canary Islands (with 3149 meters of elevation gained over only 134 km) – spent three days on a meeting/conference in slightly cold and rainy Aveiro (Portugal). Then winter came back (again) for a weekend (a ride in an average temperature of 2°C on the 14th of April, seriously?)  before the real nice warm spring arrived the week after. Luckily that coincided with the annual Tornado club-weekend, so we could have two beautiful days of cycling in the Southern Eifel region in Germany, with temperature above 20°C. I even had quite good legs (and the pace was friendlier than usual), so this year I was not at all the slowest on the climbs.

On Easter Monday we finally (as we have been planning this for years) went for a walk to the Hallerbos, to see the famous blue and purple carpet of the blooming bluebells. It was definitely worth it, but next time I should be less lazy and take my tripod too.

On the gaming front (besides FIFA 19) I have been playing quite a lot with the Division 2 lately (since I really liked the original Division too a few years ago, up to the point of having to stop because I felt addicted – this time I am taking it much more casual), and I also got Mario Kart 8 for the Switch for an occasional race against friends – as a holiday entertainment.

This time there will be no daily blog posts from the road trip, because it was super tiring in Scandinavia (even though I was happy that I did not have to process three weeks’ worth of photos afterwards), but I will post photos on social media every day, and when we are back there will be one or two posts with the ‘best of’ here too. Keep your fingers crossed for good weather!

Watching and photographing the UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup in Namur

On the 17th of December I went to Namur with Willem, not only because he had VIP tickets to one of the best cyclo-cross races in the calendar, but also because that’s what Belgians do on the weekends during winter (while shame on me, I have never done it before). The whole day was great fun: I got to drive with a manual gearbox again (and I still owe Willem with ~1000 km of driving from our Trans Pyrenees trip :D), we met some interesting people, and of course we got to walk (and here and there slip) around a muddy course while soaking in the atmosphere and taking a few (or ~500) nice pictures. (Yes, we also got to use the VIP shuttle, and got free food and drinks, but that’s not the point.) We saw both the Women and Men Elite races, and while the former delivered a quite unexpected winner, the latter was unquestionably dominated by the reigning world champion, Belgium’s Wout Van Aert. Here is a small selection of the photos, I hope you will like them. (The conditions were not so easy to work with, there was very little light on this foggy, late afternoon, and these cyclists are way too fast even in the mud.)

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DSLR astrophotography from La Palma

I was lucky enough to get one last observing run at the Mercator Telescope on La Palma, so I spent another eleven nights at the telescope last month, bringing up my totals to 139 nights there (and to 232 overall at international observatories). Since my contract at the Institute of Astronomy ended on the 30th of September, this number will not change anymore :(

Anyway, to make the most out of my last payed trip to the Canaries, I decided that it was time to bring my heavy duty photography equipment with me again, but instead of shooting more time lapse movies, I wanted to do some more serious astrophotography, so I also bought (and then brought along) a compact sized motorised equatorial mount (a Sky-Watcher Sky Adventurer). I mounted the tracking mount on my good old Manfrotto tripod, and used an extra Manfrotto ball head to support and enable easy pointing of my Canon EOS 6D. You can also see the Canon TC-80N3 timer I was using to automate the image acquisition sequence so I did not have to press the shutter release button every two minutes. (Small note: I enabled mirror lock-up and used the 2 second self-timer setting in the camera, so when the TC-80N3 timer gave the signal, the mirror locked up, and 2 seconds later the actual exposure started, eliminating any unwanted vibration from the movement of the mirror. This meant setting an exposure time of 122 seconds on the TC-80N3 timer when I wanted an actual exposure time of 120 seconds.)

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While I have done some very basic astrophotography before (and of course time lapse videos), I never had a tracking mount, so I was always limited in terms of exposure time by the Earth’s rotation. Also back then my DSLR was a Canon EOS 7D, that had worse noise levels than my current Canon EOS 6D, which meant that I could not really go above ISO 1600… But now with a better camera, a tracking mount, and a good amount of research before my trip, I was ready to step up my game.

My first few nights were lit by the bright Moon (I arrived just the day after Full Moon), so I spent the short amount of dark time before moonrise to experiment with the mount, my two lenses, and the camera settings. It took me four nights (of very little dark time) to figure everything out, but starting with my 5th night, my camera was outside from the beginning of the astronomical twilight until moonrise (which happened later and later as the days went by). I found out that I prefer taking more zoomed-in photos, so instead of using the Canon 16-35mm f/4 L IS USM lens, I went for the Canon 50mm f/1.4 USM lens. None of these lenses are really made for astrophotography, meaning that wide open they have a pretty bad coma towards the corners of the image on a full frame sensor, therefore I had to stop the lens down to f/4 to get a result that I was happy with. I used ISO 3200 (after reading a lot about ISO levels for astrophotography here), and an exposure time of 120 seconds (to expose the images to a good overall brightness). As a comparison, in 5 to 10 seconds the stars would already move away enough (thanks to Earth’s rotation) that they would appear as short lines instead of circles on the photo without a tracking mount, (see, e.g., my attempt from a few years ago here). After a good polar alignment (which was pretty uncomfortable with such a low mount, but I managed), I had zero issues with the tracking. Even after one hour, there was basically no shift in the stars’ positions, so I was very happy with the whole setup.

To make one picture, I took 30 to 50 120 second exposures of the same spot of the sky (accounting for a total exposure time between 3600 and 6000 seconds), and also ~30 dark and bias frames for proper calibration (no flats since I have no dirt on my sensor, the vignetting at f/4 is negligible, and taking properly illuminated flats with a DSLR is a mess anyway). Then I processed these in AstroPixelProcessor (really great and pretty much self-explanatory software, with a 30 day trial version!), and at the end I saved an average (or median) image to improve the signal to noise ratio of the images. Finally, I used Adobe Lightroom to do some final adjustments mostly on the curves and colour of the photographs. To show how much this process means for the results, here is a comparison of a selected region from a final processed image, and the same area from a single 120 second unprocessed RAW exposure out of the 30 that were used to create it.

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It is a quite impressive improvement. I liked doing this so much that I would definitely get more into astrophotography if I did not live under one of the most light polluted skies of the world here in Belgium… :D :( Anyway, below is a selection of the images I made on La Palma, and you can find more on my Flickr (at even higher resolution). Since even these 8 resized to ~50% weight in at ~40 MB, you will have to click after the first one for the rest.

1) The centre of the Milky Way, looking towards Scorpius, Sagittarius, and Ophiuchus, with Saturn in the very centre of the image, and many bright and dark nebulae visible around the field of view. A sum of 30 exposures of 120 seconds each.

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Panning photography: Eneco Tour 2015 – Stage 4 (ITT)

There are only two (not one day) UCI WorldTour-races (the highest level cycling events) between the Tour de France and the Vuelta a España, first the Tour de Pologne, then the Eneco Tour. The latter goes through Belgium and the Netherlands, so it is not too difficult to go and watch a stage. The last time I took pictures on a cycling race was back in 2010 during the first stages of the Tour de France, so I was happy to go along with Nadia to watch the individual time trial (ITT) of this year’s Eneco Tour just over the border in Hoogerheide, and try my luck in panning photography.

We parked in the neighbouring village towards the southern sections of the 13.9 km long course, so we had no problem with the crowds around the start and finish area in Hoogerheide, and after a short walk, we managed to find a nice section to watch the race. From a photographer’s point of view, we had to be standing on the right side of the cyclists, so the pictures show the chainrings and the derailleurs, and also preferably in the shade, since colours are nicer there when the Sun is high up in the sky. After finding a suitable spot, we just had to wait for the 152 cyclists to pass one-by-one, which took three hours.

I was typically using a focal length of 105 mm (to isolate the cyclists from the background better, and to achieve a sense of speed without the need for too long exposure times), f/7.1 (not wide open at f/4, so a slight focusing error will not produce a totally out-of-focus image), an exposure time of 1/200 seconds, while the ISO was left at auto. Since I always use RAW, white balance and other settings were not taken care of on the spot, only during post-processing. I was shooting in burst mode, which is 4.5 frames/second on the Canon EOS 6D (compared to my more sport-photography oriented old 7D with 8 frames/seconds), using the central autofocus point only, and AI Servo tracking autofocus. The idea of panning photography is to follow the subject while shooting, this way even with relatively longer exposure times, you can keep the subject more-or-less sharp, while the background gets blurred from the motion of the tracked subject in the foreground. The difficulty is tracking the subject: 1) the tracking speed during the approach of the cyclist changes as the subject gets closer to you (think of standing at the side of a road and looking towards a car approaching towards you, while the car is still far, you don’t have to turn your head much, but while it passes in front of you, you will need to turn your head very quickly to follow through). 2) The cyclists were riding at 50 km/h, and I was standing only 5-10 metres away, so the tracking speed was really high when they passed. Even with an exposure time of 1/200 seconds, the cyclists have covered 7 cm during one exposure. For the image to be sharp, you need to track this movement with a half pixel accuracy. 3) The focus distance changes also very quickly as the cyclist approaches, which is very difficult to deal with for the autofocus system. I have taken more than 400 pictures during the stage, and almost 100 of these turned out to be technically all right (acceptably sharp). I would say that 65% of the bad pictures resulted from the tracking autofocus loosing the cyclist, while 35% from me not being able to track the movement precisely enough. Below you can find a small selection of the nicer images. It was a very nice experience, I am glad Nadia (and Clio) convinced me to go.

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Just as an example (or a technology demo), here is one shot with a longer exposure time of 1/60 of a second (so the cyclist travelled 23 cm during the exposure). It is borderline impossible to follow such fast and extensive movement with a much better precision, so I am quite happy with this image too, even though I only tried one series with this setting, because the success rate was clearly lower compared to 1/200 seconds… Actually, you can see that a few cogs towards the top of the front chainring are perfectly sharp, meaning that I followed the movement of that part precisely.

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