Vaishakhi Lahoti


From the Sky

From the Sky

A few things have changed my life the last year. We moved to California, I began working from home, and for reasons I am still trying to fathom, I stopped writing this blog. Its not for lack of creative fodder, we’ve traveled more than we ever have, and captured more beauty with my camera than I had hoped for. I’ve started a post and left it midway. Oh well, lets just hope I get to the end of this post.
And for those reasons I will add one other thing that changed in the last year. I started flying a lot to St Louis. The four hour one way ride gives ample time to look over those little rounded windows and peer down. And what I saw (if the cloud gods were willing) was surreal. Day or night, the views from 35,000 feet or just before landing are nothing short of spectacular. As a shutterbug, I first tried taking some snaps with my phone. Naturally, the results were far from ideal. I had to take my SLR with me, only problem is, that while flying, the lesser you can carry, the better. The Canon 60D with the 24-1o5 lens is as wide as 10″ tablet and heavier than a laptop. I also knew that shooting with a point and shoot would just not satisfy my need for perfect photos. And here in comes the almost miraculous 40mm pancake lens I acquired within last year. At just about an inch in length, its almost within the size of the body. It makes my SLR just about as portable as it can get.

Photo Credit to Digital Story

I will now skip over to the best part of the story. During the last two trips, I was able to get greats shots of LA in the night and St Louis downtown and suburbs. The first time, it did not occur to me to map (or geo tag) them to get an idea of what I was looking at. The route to St Louis is particularly good as it crosses over Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, the Colorado Rockies and  the great Kansas plains. And the view from up high is particularly deceiving about scale. It wasn’t till the last trip that I decided to figure out a way to map the track of the plane. Turns out it was public information and was easily converted into a gpx format file which I could use to geo tag photos. What I found amazed me. I had already known a few of the landmarks I had seen while flying, but what was surprising is that I was miles away from them. The angle of the view is limited to what is far away rather than what is right below.
Below are some of the really cool shots from the last two trips. For fun, you can compare my photo to a satellite image from Google. A full resolution download can be done by clicking on the caption on top of the photos or from the gallery just below. But be warned – the full resolution files are HUGE in the range of 12-18 mb each
I hope you enjoy them as much as I did. Leave a comment below if you do 🙂

Starry Starry Night

Starry Starry Night

It was about midnight, the embers from the bonfire had almost died down. Fireflies danced around our camp to lighten up the pitch darkness. The wind rustled and I looked up to see a clear sky with a dazzling array of stars, sparkling through just like the fireflies. That’s the photographer in my head spoke -“wonder if this beauty could be captured?”
I have had some experience with shooting fireworks so I knew how this might have to be done. Groping for a torch I found my camera from the car and turned it on. The panel LCD was almost as bright as the torch and I really wondered if I had enough light to take a photo.
Lets consider the scenario. In that pitch darkness there was no way the camera was going to auto focus, I had to change the focus to manual and ramp it to infinity. The angle of the lens had to be exactly upright, so I would have either craned my neck  or lied down to hold the camera. Holding the camera in my hand was also impossible as I knew I would need at least 10 seconds of exposure to get any imprint on the sensor. So I set the shutter timer to 2 seconds, and placed the camera on its back on the bare ground (gasp gasp) and took a shot with a 10 second exposure with maximum aperture, widest focal length 24mm and ISO 800.
10 seconds later, the image came out with absolutely nothing.
Increasing the ISO to 1600 and shutter speed to 20 seconds got me to show flickers of the brightest stars but nothing like the beautiful sky above me.

Increasing the shutter to 3o seconds ( the maximum possible without getting into the BULB mode) I finally captured the stars but on closer inspection it turned out that there was a slight wind which had made my stars “move a little”.

Another try gave me better results but I captured a UFO on the screen. Any guesses what those two green lights are? Hint: there is nothing alien about these

Finally, after a few more tries, I got a good view of the sky with quite a few stars and bit of the tree line bring in contrast. I proudly showed the photo on my camera LCD to my friends who agreed that those 20 minutes of my life trying to take photos of the stars were not probably all that in vain.

But wait, these photos dont look like the photo at the top so how did I get there? With a bit of Paint shop magic of course. Back home when I opened my perfect image it looked good, but extremely boring. So I captured a bunch of dots on a grainy background. How would any one know if those were real stars or not? Those beautiful pictures of stars we see in magazines and tv shows are somehow different and sharper. Since I wasnt going back to the camp to take more pictures, I had to rely on post processing to bring those features in to my photo.
First, using Lightroom I created a few versions of my image from the RAW file. One was specifically to bring in a blue background. The other to make the stars brighter with additional contrast and a few others to become the base and masking layers.
Using Paint Shop Pro (or Photoshop) , I stacked up all the layers and started playing with the blend modes. I think I used the Brighten, Luminance, and Screen blend modes to get to a base image that showed a blue sky with bright stars in it.
Then to spruce up things, I used the stars tube brush to bring in some artificial sparkles to the brightest stars. See the difference below when you hover.

Here comes the last part of the challenge. I now have a beautiful pictures of stars that I dont know anything about. It was like looking at beautiful calligraphy of a language I did not understand. Were some of these planets? Or constellations that I knew of (Ursa Major, Orion?). How would I know if the brightest stars were part of the same constellation. Did I capture too small a portion of the sky to ever know. It hit me- this was almost impossible! Unless there was someone who knew better than me about stars I may be totally lost.
Zoom out view of the constellation

I downloaded the Skymap site  this year and looked hard at it. It was a chart of the constellations that would be seen in the northern hemisphere this month. Orion wasn’t around, Ursa Major did not match the pattern nor did Ursa Minor. I must have spent hours looking at the photo and almost giving up. I really didn’t think it would be so hard. And then I got a very lucky break. I found a small constellation, a curve of stars looking just like something I had on the photo. And lo and behold, suddenly all the stars started to match up. It was truly incredible, just like connecting the dots when we were kids except this was unbelievably precise. Once I had figured out one constellation all I had to do was map the different stars. Turns out there were four constellations that I had captured and only two of them were captured in the whole. I was very very lucky. If I had set my camera even a degree in a different angle I might not have captured even one constellation in the whole. For all you stargazers, the constellations you can make out on the photo are Bootes and the beautiful Corona Borealis.
This was undoubtedly the most time I had spent in figuring out a photo even after I was done with post processing. It was also the most rewarding. Do have a look at the star mapped versions Standard and Full size (6.5MB) of the photo here.
And do let me know if you liked it 🙂