Rapid Transit

I was finally able to get a shot I have been after for about 4 years now - the International Space Station (ISS) passing in front of the Moon.

For any given location it's a fairly rare event. If you're willing to drive a bit, it becomes less rare but then there are a number of other factors you need to account for in order to take a decent shot. Cloud cover, phase of moon, altitude of transit and time of day can all make the shot either more difficult or impossible (cloud cover is usually my biggest obstacle). For example, there was other recent transit that would've been viewable from only about 10 miles from my home but it was around 2am on a work week night. If the pass happens at an altitude lower than 40 degrees or so (angle of the transit from the horizon), the ISS probably won't look that great as the solar panels will probably be edge-on. Another factor that a lot of people don't think about is that for most transits, you're probably not going to see the ISS move across the sky until it's in front of the Moon or Sun. The ISS is bright when you catch a flyover during the hour / hour and a half window after sunset or before sunrise, but most of the time it's flying over either in daylight, where it's too dim to see, or it's in the shadow of the Earth. And finally one of the most difficult aspects of shooting a transit is that the ISS is pretty fast...17,500mph. So most transits happen in less than a second.

Thankfully for me, the conditions perfectly aligned for this transit. It happened at a fairly early time at night, 10:05pm. Skies were clear as a cold front had moved through earlier in the day. The altitude of the transit was greater than 55 degrees. The Moon was nearly full - just a day before the penumbral lunar eclipse. The only issue is that I had to drive around 80 miles to Orlando in order to get the shot.

Planning is KEY for getting shots like this. Yes, having the right camera equipment is also important, but having the correct data on the transit is by far the most essential step. For this, I use a couple of different sites: Calsky & Transit Finder. Below is a screenshot of the map from Calsky with the areas on the ground where the space station appears to cross the center of the Moon during last week's transit.

Calsky is a powerful website, if a bit cumbersome, that gives users data on a variety of astronomical events such as eclipses, star maps, deep space objects, meteor showers, satellite flyovers and transits. Unfortunately, the interface can be a bit tricky to use and tends to crash on me from time to time. Regardless, it's a great tool for amateur astronomers and I used data from it to plan my trip. In order to fine-tune the location, I used the more-focused Transit Finder., which has maps that are more detailed than the ones provided by Calsky.

I used two different camera setups in order to capture the transit. My Nikon D500, Nikkor 300mm f/4 VR PF lens and AF-S TC-20e Teleconverter was used for the composite of the transit. In order to make it slightly easier for me, I also put this setup on the SkyWatcher Star Adventurer motorized mount that tracks objects once you align it with Polaris. This allows me to center the Moon in the frame earlier in the evening and not having to worry about re-positioning it closer to transit time. I also have a wireless remote shutter release so I don't have to hold the shutter during the event. I had the D500 set to continuous mode, which allows for 20 seconds of exposures at 10 frames per second. The exposure was set to f/8, 1/3200sec at 800 ISO, which exposes the Moon with pretty good detail and will also freeze any motion from the fast-moving ISS. I started shooting about 10 seconds before the transit, which was happening at between 10:05:38 and 10:05:40 according to the times listed on the sites I used. I was able to get six frames with this setup. Below is the transit in gif format.

The other camera setup I used was with my Nikon D750 and Orion 10" DSE Dobsonian telescope with a 2x Barlow lens. Getting a shot with this was going to be trickier as the field of view is fairly small - you can't fit the entire Moon in frame so I actually had to plan out where I thought the ISS was going to cross. This camera is also slower and has a much smaller memory buffer than my D500. I can only take 6.5 frames per second for about 2 seconds when shooting in RAW or about 5 seconds in JPEG. I decided to use JPEG to give me a little more room in case I don't get the timing correct. I could've gotten away with my original plan to shoot RAW though as I only managed to get one frame with the ISS and it was the first shot in the series...cutting it pretty close with this one. Exposure was set to 1/2000sec at 1600 ISO. The aperture of the telescope with Barlow is probably around f/11 but I'm not 100% certain on that (otherwise I would've liked to have shot it at 800 ISO). I'm going to try to create a high resolution version of this image eventually by combining all of the shots I took of the Moon along with the frame with the ISS. I'll try to upload it here later this week. Here's the one frame I managed.

Hopefully this info is useful to anyone who is hoping to get a shot of an ISS transit. If you really want to see some impressive transit photos, check out Thierry Legault's site. His work is incredible. Oh and here's another transit shot I took in December...another photo I've been after for years. I've gotten other plane/moon shots from a profile view, but I wanted it to be closer and head-on.

The Space Program

Got to watch something pretty special this past weekend. Night launches are always an incredible sight...but watching from a beach on the Atlantic Ocean from only 5 miles away. Speechless. I envy the folks who live close around the Space Coast as this is something I don't think I could ever get tired of.

My buddy Bryan Bennett, a local meteorologist who's recently been getting into photography, and I carpooled over to the Cape...sort of a last-minute trip for me as I had planned to do absolutely nothing this past weekend. I was able to meet up with John Kraus, an extremely talented young photographer who shoots for America Space, along with his family and one of his friends, Marcus Cote, who shoots some pretty amazing surfer pics. If you would like to check out some of their work, they're all three on Instagram - @meteorologistbryan,  @johnkrausphotos & @marcuscote_photo.

There's another launch in less than 2 weeks and I'm already making plans to head back although I think this spot will be closed for that launch. Shame as I didn't get the long exposure shot I was planning for - the arc was cut off due to my lens selection and I missed a good portion of the fade-away due to getting the exposure correct for the stars.

Sound of the Zika

Summer is technically winding down but it'll still be miserably hot in Florida for a few more months. Unfortunately, that means we'll need to watch out for mosquitos and Zika. And it may be too late for me as I got tore up by mosquitos in Pinellas County getting a few of these shots. Thankfully I get my blood tested often as I donate blood and platelets so I'll find out fairly quickly if I got the Zika. And don't think I wasn't using bug repellant...I keep it in my car and use it if I'm shooting after dark. Too bad I think the one I applied lost some of its strength as I was surrounded by a swarm of mosquitos as I walked the beach and back to my car.

Besides mosquitos, Fort De Soto park is currently surrounded by thousands of stingrays. I saw around 20 baby rays during the two days I was shooting at Fort De Soto last week. They literally wash up with the waves, so if you're walking along the beach with your feet in the water you really need to watch your step.

It's also been a fairly active month for evening storms. Got a few decent shots but still nothing as good as the shot I got in July by the lake. Regardless, some of the storms this summer have been the prettiest storms I've ever seen.

Time to Sit Back & Unwind

Summertime is here and it's hot. We haven't been getting our normal evening thunderstorms on the west coast of Florida...it's just miserable most of the day. But every so often we'll get an isolated storm that's worth shooting like the one I shot last night (above). This week our weather pattern is forecast to shift so we'll hopefully get some decent storms.

Here are a few other shots of storms and stars I've captured the past couple of months.

Earth Day, Everyday

It's Earth Day, y'all...for real. Hopefully everyone will get out this weekend and help cleanup a local beach, park, neighborhood, road, etc. I can tell you from experience, most places need a constant stream of volunteers in order to stay clean. Shockingly, some people intentionally litter. I'm far from a hippy but it blows my mind when I see it because I've always made it a point to throw garbage in a trashcan, even if that means keeping a wrapper or bottle in my pocket until I find one.

I noticed just how bad my local beach looked when I was shooting storms back in 2013. So the past couple years I've made it part of my routine to pick up garbage 3-4 days per week at various beaches & roads within the Tampa Bay Area. I keep grocery store & takeout bags in my car along with gloves, walking shoes & a few grabbers...I really, really don't like handling some of the stuff I find (see below, but used diapers, condoms and chewing tobacco spit cans/bottles are the worst). But I can pick up crap for hours as long as I have a good playlist or podcast to listen to during the cleanup...I recommend the podcast Stuff You Should Know if you're looking for something to listen to.

I don't know if there's a real point to this post other than I hope that whoever reads this gets out to clean any part of their community that needs attention. Here are some of the more interesting / disgusting things I've found at my local beaches.

It's not all bad though...I've found money (I think my total is at $42 right now) and some really cool art by diy_dc who leaves his artwork at random places he visits.

Sun 'n Fun!

The Sun 'n Fun Fly-In is one of the largest annual airshows in the world. Not only do they pack in a ton of performances, demos & static displays, but also a significant amount of the attendees arrive by flying in their own aircraft. So at pretty much any moment throughout the day you can watch some really cool vintage & experimental aircraft taking off & landing in the airfield. This year I stayed late enough on Saturday to watch the fireworks display from the astronomy club setup near one of the hangers. A couple of the telescopes there were insanely good...glad the weather cooperated that night. Definitely check out the Sun 'n Fun if you have the opportunity.

Earthshine Moonset

I'm a big fan of shooting the moon when it's around the new moon phase. The crescent phases a day or two before and after new moon are the best days to view earthshine, reflected light from Earth hitting the night side of the moon. With long exposures, you can pick up the same basic details you would get with a full moon (although the sun-lit parts will be overexposed). The best part is that you can get the nearby stars in the exposure.

I use a SkyWatcher Star-Adventurer tracking mount in order to get the long exposures. If I didn't have this hardware, you would get some movement from the moon/stars in exposures over 2 seconds at this focal length (600mm). This mount combats the Earth's rotation by slowly turning east to west in order for you to stay locked in on one point in the sky. It has a setting for the moon's speed as well, which ends up being important if you're taking pics for longer than a few minutes. I was shooting for about 40 minutes last night and within the photos you can see the moon transit past a few stars as it "slowly" moves west to east.

Moonshine Skyway

I've been after this shot for almost two years and finally got it. The Full Moon rises line up with the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in Tampa Bay from a spot along the beach only a few days each year. Plus half of those times happen during our thunderstorm season, so you're not likely to catch the moon at the horizon.

Like some of the other shots I've mentioned before, I used the site The Photographer's Ephemeris to line up a foreground. This is a super handy tool for a good amount of my photography. Here's a screenshot of their site with the approximate location I use to get the shot - it's not perfect as the moon usually rises at a slight angle in the southerly direction in the Northern Hemisphere, so prepare to move around a bit when you're out shooting.

The light blue line represents the direction where the moon will be at along the horizon during moonrise. The other lines represent moonset, sunrise and sunset directions. 

I'm going to be making a donation to their PayPal account as soon as I find a job OR make a big sale with this photo...speaking of which, all of my photos are available for purchase (except for my motorsports work). If you are interested in purchasing a print or license, please use the Contact page.

Here are a few other pics I took that evening during the moonrise. If you look at the differences between the photo at the top of the page compared to the ones below, you can see that I moved from the beach to along the water between the shots (I wanted more reflections as the foreground instead of the sand). I was running around quite a bit - the moon rises faster than you'd think and it was getting VERY close to going behind a bunch of clouds.

The equipment used and settings for the final image:
Nikon D750
Nikkor AF-S 70-200mm f/2.8 G ED VR lens
MeFOTO GlobeTrotter Tripod
Remote Shutter Release
Exposure - f/8, 2 seconds at 400 ISO with some adjustments in Lightroom

100 Miles and Running (barely)

Exhausted. According to my phone I've walked 100.08 miles between March 4th and 21st. The Tampa Pro, Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, 12 Hours of Sebring and the MacDill Air Fest. Not that I'm complaining (well, I am) because it was all extremely fun. But for a guy who's had a hip replacement and still has another bum hip, it's a good amount of sore mornings to fight through. Now back to my normal sedentary lifestyle.

Here are some of my favorite shots from the various events. The Tampa Pro pics are posted here.

Frontside Grind. Anytime.

This weekend is the TampaPro competition and the talent at the Skate Park of Tampa is insane. The annual, world-class event normally lines up with the 12 Hours of Sebring, so this is the first time I've attended. This was also my first time shooting skaters but overall I'm happy with the shots I got during Friday's practice. Unfortunately, tickets are sold out for Saturday & Sunday so I won't be heading back.