Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Remember the reason for the season!

23.45° Axial Inclination - that's the reason for the season. The earth's axis is tilted 23.45° from the plane on which it orbits. This tilt is for the most part constant as it orbits the sun. That gives us four seasons as each hemisphere alternates between being angled towards or away from the sun.

Jesus is the reason for Christianity, but winter solstice celebrations are ubiquitous across nearly all cultures and religions.

I don't know why I feel the need to point this out, but I suspect it has something to do with the apparent increasingly outspoken Christian voice here in the Southeastern United States. "Remember the reason for the season!" they keep telling me. So, okay. I did.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Shooting the stars

This month's issue of Make Magazine (12) had a short article titled "Shoot the Stars: Astrophotography with your digital SLR." I have always had an interest in astronomy, but I hadn't really considered just pointing my existing DSLR setup at the night sky without a telescope, tracking system, &etc.

But, as it turns out, a good CCD imager like the one in my Canon Digital Rebel XT is all you really need to start taking some neat pictures of the night sky! As a test I took the following images from the alley behind my house in downtown Atlanta, under a severe amount of light pollution.

I've just scratched the surface of astrophotography once before with my father's Celestron scope and an Orion digital imager, and learned then that having good post-processing software is half the battle. After doing some searching, I decided to give the freeware DeepSkyStacker a spin.

My first target was the Pleiades (M45), as they're relatively easy to spot in the night sky and rose early. I equipped my Canon with my Sigma 70-300mm f/5.6 zoom lens and set it up on the tripod. I took a series of exposures in increasing increments of time until the stars were noticeably blurry when zoomed in, and then backed off one. The following is a composite of about 35 exposures at 4 seconds each. Focal length: 165mm.


(click the image to view)

Next, I got ambitious. I knew the Andromeda Galaxy was directly overhead, about half-way between Cassiopeia and the half-moon. I scanned the sky visually for a few minutes, but the light pollution was such that there weren't really even any stars visible in the general vicinity of the great galaxy. On a lark, I pulled the focal length all the way back to 70mm and pointed the camera straight up. I took a 30 second exposure, and then zoomed in and panned around the thumbnail on the camera display. There it was, a cotton-like disc on the left-center region. So, I panned left and repeated until the galaxy was essentially centered.

1st is a composite of several 15 second exposures @ 100mm, ISO 800, 2nd is a composite of 8 second exposures at 70mm focal length, ISO 1600:

Andromeda andromeda-wide

I'm sufficiently impressed. Next I'm going to have to take the camera out to a dark sky somewhere and do some "real" exposures to see what I come up with!

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Kinkaku-ji Temple, Kyoto, Japan

My second temple visit in Kyoto was Kinkaku-ji, "The Golden Pavilion." Kinkaku-ji is the informal name of Rukuon-ji Temple, but even the bus stop and tour guides have it marked as Kinkaku-ji.

The pavilion at Kinkaku-ji is covered in actual gold leaf, making it quite a sight. The pavilion was burned down several times in its history, most recently in 1950 by a mentally disturbed monk.

It was getting close to sunset, and the intermittent cloudiness had now turned to dark overcast and a fairly steady drizzle. This, combined with the "no tripods" rule, made photography difficult... but I managed.

1 Kinkaku-ji was a lot more serene than Kiyomizu. The pavilion is set in the woods, surrounded by a tranquil pond with small islands decorated with small rocks and trees. The darkening sky and gentle rain made it a suitably relaxing setting.

Flickr link:

Kiyomizu-dera Temple, Kyoto, Japan

On Thursday I took a bullet train (Shinkansen) to Kyoto. The train-ride itself was fun, as it's not often that I get to travel at 180 mph on rails. The route takes you through mountain tunnels and past the breathtaking Mount Fuji. I would have snapped a photo but given the speed of the train and nearby obstacles (telephone poles, wires, stations &etc) whipping by I never really had a clear shot.

After dropping off my stuff at the hotel in Kyoto, it was off by bus to the first temple I wanted to see: Kiyomizu-dera. Kiyomizu-dera was founded in 788, but the current structures were rebuilt in 1633 after a fire. The temple consists of several structures and is named for a waterfall that runs through it.

Kiyomizu-dera is built high up on a hill overlooking the entirety of Kyoto. The scenery was breathtaking.

Flickr set:

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Shinjuku @ night, Tokyo, Japan

After wandering around Akihabara a second time, I decided to also spend a second evening in Shinjuku - this time with my camera. Lugging a DSLR camera and tripod around in Shinjuku provided the distinct advantage of warding off the strip-club barkers. (After all, no strip club is going to let in someone with a camera and tripod.)

Shinjuku has been called the Times Square of Tokyo. It is similar, with the bright lights, the restaurants and clubs, and the constant hustle of tourists and locals alike wandering about. That being stated- Shinjuku is huge, even in comparison to Times Square itself.

Flickr set:

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Ginza and Harajuku, Tokyo, Japan

Anyone familiar with Tokyo will find that title amusing - as Ginza and Harajuku are both shopping districts, but they are as far apart culturally as they are geographically (on opposite sides of Tokyo.)

Nonetheless, I happened by both on this day. Hey - I had an unlimited 1-day rail pass so why not?

Ginza is the Fifth Avenue of Tokyo, with such high-end shoping as Hermes, and Dolce & Gabbana, etc. The Sony HQ building is there, with a showroom I had to see. (It had a 100" flat-panel television!!) I went into D&G, and they treated me like royalty - offering me a seat and rushing to/from racks to pick out clothes for me to look at! And they didn't even seem offended when I didn't buy anything, offering me the same enthusiastic smiles and bows as when I came in.

I also ran across a Japanese local with a very nice Canon DSLR camera and huge image-stabilizing (IS) telephoto lens practicing his Paparazzi technique. He was literally perched at the end of a block around a corner, and would poke around the corner and shoot photographs of customers exiting the stores on that block. I watched and even checked out some of the photos on his camera (he was happy to oblige when he saw me carrying a similar camera myself.) At first I thought he was perched for a particular sighting, but it became clear after a while that he was merely practicing. Poised for the next Paris Hilton visit, I suppose.

On the other side of Tokyo, Harajuku is the "teen fashion" shopping district. The main shopping street is lined with well known western and international stores like The Gap. The side streets and alleys, however, are lined with locally own shops trying to make a name for themselves, each with its own brand of designs for hip Japanese teens.

I had fun wandering these alleys and checking out some of the more amusing stores, many which centered around various aspects of western culture - jeans jackets, leather clothing, hoodies, &etc were all featured. There were also some motorcycle wear shops, tattoo parlors, and numerous skate shops in these alleys.

It was getting towards sunset, so I didn't take many pictures. I would really like to return here on a weekend sometime to see the locals who hang out, as I hear they are a sight.

Flickr sets:

Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo, Japan

Along the Sumida river near Tokyo Bay lies the district of Tsukiji, home of the largest fish market in the world. The Tsukiji fish market handles over 2,000 tons of seafood daily. I've been told you have to get there around 6:30am to see the wholesale tuna auctions. I was fighting jet-lag and exhaustion from over-exuberant sightseeing, so I didn't make it there until close to 8am. As such, I missed most of the auction action, but did have fun exploring the surrounding markets.

Some of the warehouse-alley streets had tiny restaurants nestled within them. I picked a small back-alley sushi place based on the pictures of the food, the price, and the fact that it was nearly full of Japanese people who all looked happy to be there. :) Thankfully, the menus had pictures on them. I chose a sushi-assortment and added a couple of extra pieces at the end that I really liked through a series of pointing and gestures to/from the sushi chef behind the bar.

The sushi was amazing - obviously the freshest sushi I've ever had.

Flickr set:

Monday, November 19, 2007

Akihabara, Tokyo, Japan

Akihabara, or Akiba for short, is the well known electronics shopping district of Tokyo. Akiba's streets are lined with computer stores, electronics stores, DVD & music stores, and comic book stores. It's truly a geek's paradise. Where else can you find vendors putting milk crate "discount bins" on the sidewalk with such treasures as USB hard drives and AGP video cards?

The pictures below are actually from two trips to Akiba, I went back in search of Playstation 3 "Dualshock 3" controllers for some friends.

Ueno Park, Tokyo, Japan

After visiting Asakusa, I walked to Ueno to see Ueno Park. Ueno Park is a very expansive park containing a zoo, multiple museums, and shrines and temples. I wasn't in the mood to wander through museums or a zoo, but the idea of seeing the park itself appealed to me. Even on a Monday the park was alive with visitors and even some musicians.