Purple Skies

This year, I’ve been trying to wait several days between taking a photo and editing it. I usually try to wait a few more days before doing a final review and uploading them. The wait time allows me to separate myself from the photos a little bit, and view them more critically.

However, I took some this afternoon that I just couldn’t wait on. The sky is distinctly brighter now, and it shows up as this beautiful purple in the pictures. Combine that with a bright and active aurora, and it makes for an excellent scene. Here’s a quick sample of the pictures. You can see the full collection, which I am calling Purple Skies. I’ll probably add more in the next week or two.

I highly recommend looking at these in higher resolution. The blog-sized photos don’t show the smaller, fainter stars. This is the curse of high-resolution images.

Foregrounds in the Background

Continuing with my efforts to create more cohesive photos, I started a set of photos I am calling Foregrounds in the Background. This is a play on the jargon we use in the CMB community. Since we are looking at the oldest light in the world (literally), it is behind everthing. Therefore, anything else is in the foreground. By that definition, I could post photos of anything above a telescope, and it would technically fit in with the theme. However, I was a little more stringent than that. One of the most common foregrounds we worry about is our own galaxy. Yet, when I take a picture of the Milky Way from the ground, it always appears as the background of my picture. Hence “Foregrounds in the Background”.

This set of photos was taken over a period of about 6 weeks beginning on July 1st. During that time, the South Pole went from full dark to the early stages of twilight. That is why the sky appears more purple in the later photos. We are going to enter what is known in most of the world as the “blue hour” very soon. Since we only get one sunrise and one sunset per year at the South Pole, the blue hour is more like the blue week (see this post for a discussion of lighting at the South Pole).

Here are a few photos that I think particularly stand out.

For this photo, I set up my camera on the root next to the telescope. After I had everything set, I let the camera go for about 10 minutes (after which the battery was frozen). This particular shot was taken as I was walking back inside, using my red head lamp. I like the way the red light highlights the telescope. I have a similar photo without the light.
This is one of the few pictures I have taken with my fisheye lens. It made for a nice effect, though. The fisheye helped distort the aurora so that it is nearly circular, and allowed a lot more sky to fit into the frame. I wish I had taken this picture without the foreground objects, but it’s too late for that.
Another rare fisheye photo. This one was taken very recently, and you can see how much brighter the sky is. In fact, I believe the sun is directly behind the telescope in this image (and 15 degrees below the horizon). I particularly like this one because of the interesting structure at the top of the aurora

Projects: Camera Modifications

Remote trigger:before and after
One of the most common camera accessories at the South Pole is the remote trigger. Remote triggers provide an alternative to using the shutter button mounted on the camera which gives the operator a few advantages:

  • For long exposures (longer than one-tenth of a second, but shorter than two seconds) or very long telephoto lenses, moving the trigger off the camera prevents any camera movement from pushing the button.
  • Many remote triggers have can be locked in the “on” position, meaning the camera will continually take pictures as long as the trigger remains plugged in.
  • The buttons are often larger, making them easier to use with gloves (or many layers of gloves and mittens, as the case may be).

For me, the first point is not very important. Over a 20-30 second exposure, some small movements in the first second are unimportant. However, the ease of use and the lock are very useful. Unfortunately, the standard insulation used on the vast majority of cables will freeze and crack at standard South Pole temperatures, so I replaced it with a cold-resistant cable.

The cable

The wire I used is a coaxial cable with two conductors. In the picture above, you can see one in the center, and one spread around the outside (this configuration is very useful when you need to transmit high-speed signals over long distances, but it is overkill for my use). The outside is a silicone insulator. The insulator between the conductors is silicone as well, but much softer, so the cable remains flexible. Silicone maintains its flexibility to temperatures well below anything we see at the South Pole (or any natural environment in the world). I got a small section of this cable from Robert Schwarz, the Keck Array winterover.

My initial intention was to just replace most of the original black cable with a short section of silicone cable. However, I decided that was too boring, and that I was going to be ambitious. I replaced the entire cable. That meant I had to open up the trigger itself to detach the original cable from the contacts, and solder mine in place. That was relatively easy. The hard part was removing the original cable from the plug and replacing it with my own.

Nikon uses a very complicated plug for its remote triggers (in fact, it uses about seven different plugs, depending on which camera you have). This plug is not only capable of triggering the shutter, but it can also communicate with GPS devices and other complicated electronics. So, instead of a simple three-contact plug, I had to work with something the size of a mini-usb plug that had eight contacts. In order to even access the contacts, I had to dig through several layers of plastic. After that, it was easy to solder on the new cable.

However, I was then left with a plug that had almost unprotected wires. It would have broken in the course of one walk to or from DSL. I needed some sort of strain relief. Again, I got ambitious.

I could have done something as simple as wrap the base of the plug in electrical tape, but I made an epoxy covering instead. Before it hardens, epoxy is quite runny, so I had to make a mold for it (see the picture to the right).

Naked plug

Unfortunately, the mold was a bit leaky, so I ended up with only a partial covering (the picture to the right shows the plug after sanding the epoxy). So, I had a make a second mold that didn’t leak.

The second mold was much easier to make, as I had already laid down the base. I simply used some aluminum tape.

The second mold

The final step was to sand down the epoxy to create a more finished look.

The finished product The finished product
Remote trigger:before and after

The finished product (bottom) and the original (top).


You might have noticed that the site looks a little different. I changed the wordpress theme because the old one was too narrow for my tastes. I like to share my pictures in a relatively large resolution (800 pixels wide, for landscape shots), which was wider than the column of text in the old theme. This is part of a larger effort to improve the aesthetics of my corner of the internet, and perhaps unify my two sites. Over the last two days, I also put some pretty significant effort into revamping my photo website.

The remainder of this post is going to be rather off my usual topic, but it may foreshadow the direction I intend to go in the future. On the other hand, it might just be a few ideas that are itching to get out that will subside after I write this.

First, I’m going to say a few words about copyright, and the particular licensing I use on my photos. First of all, any photo that I take is my property, and, by default, I reserve all rights to it. That means that almost any use of it is prohibited without my written permission. I find that restrictive and stifling. If I was getting paid (or intended to sell) my work, I might feel differently. However, as a complete amateur, I’d rather allow some use of my photos, by default. So, I license them under one of the Creative Commons licenses. The particular license I use allows for non-commercial use (including derivatives) as long as you give me credit. The main thing I’m trying to block is other people making money off of my work. That seems unfair, especially since I’m not getting any money for it myself. Otherwise, I don’t much care what people do.

You may have noticed that I’ve been much less prolific with my photos this year. Which is odd, given that I came down with two to three times as much photo gear. However, I’ve been relatively frustrated with my photography recently.

At some point, I decided that my photos were missing something. I was getting the technical aspects right, in the way I wanted them, but the content was lacking. In short, I was displeased with my composition skills.

Technically decent, but boring
There certainly have been photos that I’ve been very pleased with (the one to the right, for example). Granted the auroras are pretty, but the overall image is relatively boring. This particular picture would have benefited from an interesting foreground, possibly something that ran parallel to the central aurora stripe (as it turns out, the flag pole that was about 10 feet behind me would have worked quite nicely). Most of the pictures I was particularly happy with came about through sheer luck. Recently, I’ve been trying to think about the composition before pressing the shutter release, and I’m finally starting to get some decent results. Here are a few examples:

This photo was taken at the open mic night after our midwinter celebration. I particularly like this one because the lights have nicely highlighted the people. The background had the decency to remain either dark or unlit. Getting that focus on my subjects has been hard for me, because real life tends to be cluttered. If I remember correctly, I actually darkened the background in post-processing to help the effect along.

This is another shot where I got lucky (although the version that is exactly what I intended worked out pretty well, too). In order to take this self-portrait, I had to set up my camera on a tripod, and then set it to take a long series of pictures. I then walked into the frame. For this picture, I walked into the frame about halfway through the exposure. The railing in front of me was partially exposed, before my body covered it.

On this one, I was slightly less lucky, but the fore ground is interesting enough to hold the image together (barely). I wish the auroras had been slightly higher, and in a place where they would show through the structure better.

My satellite connection is about to go down, so I have to conclude quickly. I’m beginning to see composition elements in my photos before I take them. This is a good thing, but it does slow me down. It’s particularly difficult in this environment- carefully positioning a camera on a tripod can be quite difficult with three layers of mittens. Nonetheless, you’re going to start seeing more carefully thought out photos. You’ll probably see more posts that are not South Pole-centric, or do not involve the South Pole at all. 30 seconds to post!