Sunday, September 3, 2017

Photographing the Total Solar Eclipse in 2024 - Tips I Learned from 2017 - Diamond Ring

Want Stunning Shots of the Next Total Solar Eclipse?

Follow these tips in 2024 that I learned from The Great American Eclipse of 2017.

This photo of the 2017 Solar Eclipse below was a total surprise!  I'd never shot the sun before.  Yet it was the result of following these straightforward tips, practice, and some luck.

total solar eclipse 2017 diamond ring
Total Solar Eclipse 2017 -Diamond Ring - Nikkor 70-300 f/4-5.6 - Natural colors


1.  Location, location, location!   Weather is your biggest challenge.  Stay mobile!
  • Consider the general weather conditions of your chosen location. Some places have a much lower chance of clouds or rain.  Weather sites can give you the skinny. Research not just rain but typical atmospheric "clarity" and "stability."  This is an astronomical event and small differences matter..  Visit Clear Sky.
  • Book your hotel and choose a modest location many months in advance.  Why modest?  See the next point...staying mobile.
  • Stay mobile so you can find good weather last minute if need be!  Does the location allow you to drive a couple hundred miles either way last minute to find good viewing conditions?  If you book a fancy resort you may be tempted to stay put.  Modest and mobile is the key.  Commit to it ahead of time and prepare (everyone in your party) to bug out if need be. 
            In Gaston, SC we were joined last minute by a large number of people who got up, saw the terrible conditions in Charleston, then drove a couple hundred miles to where we had chosen.  It turned out we had some of the very best conditions anywhere in the US.  That's part of the "luck" factor.  But they joined in our luck.
          We had considered staying in Charleston, but realized we would only have one direction to go (away from the Atlantic) if weather were bad.  And we didn't want the conflict of a really cool seaside town vs. packing up and heading out.
  • Do not settle for a partial eclipse.  A 95% eclipse is Zero % like being in the path of totality.  Drive the extra miles.  For best result, get near the center line of the path.  Nearly everyone in my home town were the eclipse was over 90%, but not total, said, "Uh, of."  Not the case a hundred or so miles south in the path.  Everyone there was totally amazed and really couldn't find words to describe it.  Literally, it was like nothing any of us had ever seen before.  Imagine the difference between lighting one little candle in a  dark room, vs. leaving a 60 watt light bulb on.
  • Choose a spot with a toilet nearby.  We found a lovely little strip shopping center with a Wendy's.  Actually it was perfect.  And within 2 hours a hundred friends had joined us just 1 mile from the center of the path.  You don't want the call of nature to hit right at the wrong time.
A 95% eclipse is Zero % like being in the path of totality. Don't settle for a partial eclipse.  It's nothing like being in the path.  Make the short drive, even if just to watch it and take a few snaps with your smart phone.
solar eclipse corona & prominences
Solar Eclipse Corona and Prominences - Nikkor 70-300 f/4-5.6
During the 2017 eclipse hundreds of people drove 150 or more miles that morning to join us in beautiful (but tiny!) Gaston, South Carolina.

They were rewarded with some of the very best viewing conditions in the country--with an amazingly low humidity and high atmospheric clarity.  But in our case it wasn't until the morning of the Eclipse that the weather report confirmed good (actually great!) viewing right in our chosen spot. The night before it looked like we would be driving to Charleston instead!  Again, stay mobile.

2.  Practice, practice, practice your shooting!  Nikon's tip site for the Eclipse was fantastic.  But it's best advice was to get the solar filter way in advance and practice shooting the sun and bracketing with your camera, lens and tripod.

I've done commercial photography but this is a very different subject:
  • The light changes every couple seconds 
  • Your auto exposure is worthless!  You will need to know what the optimal "center" exposure for the sun is at the time of day the eclipse will occur.  Of course this setting only applies BEFORE or after the totality hits.  The settings will be different once the totality occurs, as the moon is in front of the sun.  But again, your auto exposure won't work because it's still a bright objected surrounded by blackness. And the light continues to shift during the totality.  Of course during totality you remove the special solar filter. And you can also look with the naked eye at that time.
  • You need to set auto-bracketing with very wide exposure latitudes and practice until it is second nature and mindless.  You get maybe 2.5 minutes of totality and can't waste time digging in a manual.  (And it's a very emotional experience.  Some have been so amazed they forgot to shoot or they were so distracted they messed up.  And you want your eyes on the eclipse, not your camera.)  Choose 1 full f-stop between bracket exposures.  I use 9 exposures, -4 to +4 and the "center" shot.
  • You must get a cable release and use it.  Otherwise you will get a blurry mess.
  • Lock your mirror up or choose the "Exposure Delay" setting (Nikon) which allows a short 1/2 second or so delay after the mirror flips up before the exposure is taken. This allows vibrations to die.  How important is this?  In the photo above do you see the tiny white dot to the upper left?  That's the star Rigel.  The tiny vibrations from mirror slap would make that a blurry mess!  But practice and testing helped me discover this ahead of time.  And I have a very, very steady tripod by the way.  For Nikon the Exposure Delay is the way to go vs. mirror lock.  And it works with auto-bracketing perfectly.  Every time I pressed the cable release the Nikon clicked off 9 shots each 1 f stop apart (-4 to +4 and the "center" exposure I chose) and each was delayed a half second to allow the mirror slap to die.
  • You need to try to shoot RAW.  Subscribe to Adobe for LightRoom even if you drop it after you process your shots.  It's only about $10 a month.  And it's miles and miles ahead of trying to use Photoshop for RAW.  Far easier (very easy!) and more effective.  RAW gives you a couple more f-stops of adjustment which can save a great shot.
  • The sun also moves.  In 30 seconds it is well out of center on a 300mm lens on a DX camera. And you will have to adjust in both vertical and horizontal directions since the sun makes an arc through the sky.  Practice that weeks and days before as you shoot test shots of the sun with your approved solar filter.
  • And you don't get a retake.  The totality lasts only about 2.5 minutes and honestly you are likely to be emotionally blown away--so practice until everything becomes automatic.
  • Control Vibrations.  At 300mm on a DX or 450mm on a full frame DSLR even the slightest vibrations such as the mirror slapping up, will blur your shots. You absolutely need a very steady tripod, cable release, and do the Exposure Delay or mirror lock.  At one point, just before totality, a teen drove up in a car with one of those giant bass thumper speakers.  He was 100 feet or more away and it was shaking everyone's cameras.  You could see it just looking through the viewfinder!  We had to go over and ask him to turn it down.  I practiced in my studio using a bright light reflecting off a small round plastic object to create some pinpoint reflections.  I was amazed viewing at 100% crop just how used we get to small motion and vibration blur.  The mirror slap would make a pinpoint light look like a hyphen vs. a period.
  • Lens:  recommend minimum 300mm on a DX and 450mm on a full frame DSLR.  I found even the very modest Nikkor 70-300 f/4-5.6G ($169 at B&H Photo) did a great job, largely because I tested well ahead of time to find the optimal f-stop for sharpness and locked it there!  Was plenty sharp at 300mm despite what you might read.  See for yourself above.  Higher megapixel count won't improve the vibration factor.  So shooting 200mm but cropping a 24MP image will still reveal all the nastiness of even slight vibrations.
  • Practice all the settings until it is automatic.  The one thing I could not practice was the sudden cooling effect of the sun going into totality.  My lens cooled rapidly and the focus, which had been locked to pretty much infinity, suddenly went blurry in about 10 seconds!  It was a cheap no frills Nikon 70-300mm lens ($110 refurb from B&H) and had no manual focus ring.  I had used the auto focus to lock in on the edge of the sun then locked it.  But now I had to find the switch, turn it to auto, desperately try to get it to find the eclipsed sun and lock on.  After about 4 attempts it did and I relocked it.  But I lost about 15 seconds.  And had I not been very familiar with the controls I would have missed the most visually stunning part by far.  And that brings me to the last point:
  • Practice with different f-stops ahead of time and lock the sharpest one in.   In your test shots of the sun take note of how sharp the sun spots are.  Assuming you are doing all the vibration control above shutter speeds of 1/15 or faster will work and you will see major differences in sharpness in a subject like the sun depending on your f-stop.  Astronomical objects need pin point precision sharpness for best results--unlike many normal subjects.  Find the sharpest f-stop for your lens.  Set it to that and don't change it.  Repeat:  use aperture priority.  Don't let another site tell you otherwise. I tested both. No contest.  Let your auto-bracket adjust shutter speed alone.  Not ISO or aperture.
  • Use a low to moderate ISO avoid grain.  I used ISO 400 to avoid any grain on my older Nikon.  Newer cameras get better grain performance at higher ISO's than that.  The reason to avoid grain is in case you have to boost exposure post production.  
  • Try your lens with and without vibration reduction.  Believe it or not sometimes the VR can actually make things worse zoomed in at 300-450mm because the motor shakes the camera and creates blur.
I shot about 400 exposures of the eclipse.  But the one that surprised me the most is the one at the top.  This was partly a fluke of timing.  I got lucky:  As the auto-bracket was +3 or 4 the sun was coming out of totality and the second Diamond Ring was appearing.  I just kept firing since I didn't need to look through the view finder.  Why not, eh?  The result was this amazing shot, made better by the bargain Nikkor lens having a more modest optical coating. I've seen thousands of shots of the Diamond Ring but none like this one.  Practice, preparation, tons of shots and some luck.  I hope April 8, 2024 you get some great shots too!

The flare and corona on the top image above are all natural colors.  Rigel appears as a tiny white dot in the upper left.   The diamond ring flares beautifully in this very modest ($110 open box) lens.

Settings for the first image at top:
1/5 second exposure at f/11 at 300mm on a Nikkor 70-300 f/4-5.6G. Shot in RAW.  No solar filter  during the totality of course.  It's safe to look at the sun directly during totality too.  Another reason not to settle for 95% eclipse.

See and download my full sized solar eclipse images at Shutterstock and iStock.

Here is a composite I made of the phases of the total solar eclipse of 2017.
total solar eclipse 2017 phases
Follow my tips and with a little luck you can create images like the above in 2024.

Below - solar prominences (flares).  While not commercial quality, not bad for a plain old DSLR and a cheap 70-300mm zoom
Solar eclipse close up prominences flares
Not bad for an old Nikon DSLR and $110 Nikkor 70-300mm zoom

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Eliminate Unwanted Fragrance From Your Car

If you have the unwanted stench of a cheap auto air freshener that you can't get rid of it can be frustrating.  Auto detailers, especially at used car lots love to toss those pine tree fresheners under the seats, mats, or even under the carpet.   Once they bake for several days or weeks they permeate the car.

Others shoot cheap "smell good" car fresheners into the air conditioning intakes just below the windshield wipers.  If it's oily and they spray a lot it can last for months or even years every time you turn on the AC.

How can you neutralize the unwanted air freshener odor, not just mask it?

First, understand the myths out there on the Web.
  1. Myth - spraying some company's standard "air cleaner" or "odor neutralizer" will eliminate it.  In most cases you will likely put even more unwanted sent in your system.  For many people "clean" equals more perfume.  So watch out!  Few products marketed for auto have any chemical that can actually neutralize odors at the source.
  2. Myth - Febreze will cure it.  While Febreze does trap already air borne sent particles, it does not neutralize the source.  Repeat:  Febreze cannot actually neutralize the source of the smell.  The smell will return unless you treat the source.  You can spray Febreze on a glob of the stuff but as soon as the Febreze evaporates the smell will continue where it left off.
  3. Myth - Baking soda or coffee beans sitting in an open container can eliminate it.  Even a perfect odor absorber could only remove already air borne sent molecules.  So, if the odor was already on it's way out, because the source had evaporated away, then yes, baking soda or coffee beans might help.  But opening the windows would too.  However, it is possible that if the oily auto perfume was sprayed into the carpet and mats that applying baking soda to them and then vacuuming well would remove it.  The same would work with any carpet cleaning method that extracted residue or chemically broke down the cause of the scent in the carpet.
  4. Myth - spraying a germ killer, per se, in the air intakes of your car's air conditioner will get rid of the smell.  It might temporarily cover it up.  But the problem is not bacteria.  It is a substance designed to keep omitting an aroma. 
           But strangely, Lysol brands a wide number of chemicals as "Lysol" these days. Some are literally nothing more than alcohol!  Read the ingredients carefully.  It is somewhat possible that the alcohol version might interact with the gooey source of the auto fragrance and neutralize it.  The same could be said for a hydrogen peroxide based product.  It might possibly oxidize the source, breaking down the molecules into something non-stinky.  But that depends on what they used.  It might do nothing.  
 Think of a lock and a key.  With the right chemical "key" you can unlock the bonds that hold the El Stinko molecules together.  That brings us to our recommended first strike neutralizer...
Try white vinegar and water in a spray bottle.  
One part white vinegar to three parts water.
  • First, it uses chemistry to potentially break down the source of the air freshener inside your car's air conditioners system and probably doused over the evaporator coils.  The same could be said for your mats (though you can just take them out and hose them with some detergent and let them dry in the sunshine) or carpet.  Many of these oily based car fragrances can be broken down by the weak acid in white vinegar diluted with three parts water.
  • White vinegar leaves no residue and within a few minutes it's own smell disappears completely.
  • It is dirt cheap.
  • You can treat the AC several times in a couple hours until it the smell goes away forever or is greatly reduced.  Here's how:
  • Turn the AC on Full and with external venting selected.
  • Raise your hood and spray in the intake vents that are just below your windshield wipers. Spray a generous amount so that the vinegar water can soak any residue of the auto air freshener in the ducts or on your AC evaporator coils.  Let the air run at least 10 minutes on full.  Evaluate.  Better but not gone?  Hit it again.  Let the vinegar smell completely dissipate, maybe 15-30 minutes.  Evaluate again. 
  • You can spray your carpet and very lightly spray some on a paper towel to clean seats and dashboard.  
  • Don't forget to clean all inside glass after you've treated the air conditioner
Our own story
We bought a used Toyota Highlander at a great price from the dealer.  We picked it up the next day after they had "detailed" it.   Gag!  It was totally filled with a mind-numbing level of cheap brothel vanilla sent.  I'm sure the bottle the detailer used said something like, "Smell Eliminator," or "Car Fresh--everyone loves it so spray lots of it!"

My wife has become very sensitive to artificial scents in recent years to the point of being hospitalized on one occasion.  We thought it might die down, but the next day she called the dealer. They were happy to spray some "neutralizer" in it.  They did but it was now far worse.  I'm not at all sensitive to fragrances but after riding in it for 5 minutes we had to roll the windows down and I was just wanting to get home and get out of the car!  A great car ruined!

We cleaned every surface inside and hosed down the mats with detergent.  It persisted, coming out of the AC without any let up for the next week.  She had to drive with all windows wide open and the air off. Even then I could smell it on her when she entered the house.  After two weeks we were talking about having to turn it back in for a credit but knew no other Highlander in the area was as good a deal.  And the dealer had nothing similar.

So I did what all red-blooded DH's do.  I searched the Web:  Baloney.  Baloney.  More "stink to cover up stink," etc.  Even the sites that understood that it would take chemistry usually were just selling more scents--but these were "organic." Wooo!  Did you say, organic.  I must buy it then.  Not.  I did learn how the car AC system worked and the AC "detailing" worked.  And that was crucial.  So, these guys sprayed a ton of "freshener" into the intake vents.  All that goo is in there.

Finally a couple not-for profit common sense sites began to agree on vinegar water spray could be very effective at actually neutralizing it, as well as being a mild germ killer.  I knew my wife had no issued with white vinegar as a cleaner and we had a generous supply.

It can't hurt!  That was my thought as I talked to her and as I mixed up a pint in a spay bottle.  We ran the AC on full with external air.  I raised the hood and spayed in a generous amount to soak the interior surfaces.  Of course it instantly masked the stale vanilla reek.  But was it actually doing anything?  10-15 minutes later the vinegar smell was nearly gone.  Another 5 and we sat in the car.  Definitely better.  Even if temporary this would have been something she could have done each morning.  Since it can't hurt, we did a second treatment and now the smell was nearly gone after three weeks of torture.

Later that evening we drove it and after twenty minutes I realized it was the first time I had not consciously hating being in the car.  Only a faint hint of the vanilla remained.  Just that morning it had been intolerable and just as strong as at the first.

Will white vinegar work for you?  Perhaps!  If an acid is what is needed to break down the source then yes.  It certainly will.

But if not, you might try the Evaporator Core Cleaner below--except try to find one that has no scent of its own.
Evaporator Core Cleaner's - some might work but BEWARE that many contain their own scent.  What is it with "clean" = perfume?

What if mildew or mold and bacteria ARE the problem? 
  • One word:  use a quat cleaner.  Quaternary ammonium salts (they don't smell like ammonia or even have ammonia in them) are absolutely the best time-tested mold eliminators and preventors too.  While hospitals and janitorial supplies use them all the time, consumers are sold lots of other products that do not work so well or at all.  Quat cleaners are cheap.  They kill bacteria and viruses too.  Quat cleaners, unlike bleach, penetrate into each mold spore and kill the root. Bleach only kills the surface.  Mold can regrow very quickly in a moist environment.  Quat cleaners produce little fume compared to bleach.  Very mild.
  • Never use bleach in your AC ducts!  While it is a great oxidizer and germ killer it could ruin your AC evaporators coils.  And it does NOT kill the root system of mold spores like a quat cleaner does.

Friday, May 19, 2017

TESLA Solar Roof Overestimates Potential Income -It's $36 a Year for Floridians

Tesla's new solar power roof tiles look great.  And who wouldn't want to be able to use your roof to generate clean, free electric power and potentially eliminate or greatly reduce your power bills?

I went to Tesla's solar calculator, plugged in my address, and like magic it calculated the cost and potential savings as well as future potential income.

I had to make a few adjustments as Peace River Electric Coop in Florida has considerably higher rates than the other major provider in the area, Florida Power (FPL).  Up to 50% higher in fact.

Plugging in the numbers, though, that higher cost was calculated into a lot more potential future income by selling spare electricity back to PERCO.  My roof went from earning $8k over 30 years to earning $36,500 from the utility.  That was exciting for sure. 

Tesla's Solar Calculator for my house

But then I went to Peace River's Net Metering public report to see how much current solar homes were earning from them.  What I found surprised me.

In 2015 there were 74 solar customers total for the whole utility.  And PERCO paid a total of just $3,136 split among all of them.  That's just $42 average each for the whole year.

But Tesla is estimating I'd earn $1200 a year just myself with their system. Is Peace River being cheap?  Or do these other people have really bad solar systems?

Each customer on PERCO's report is individually listed by name and subdivision (2014) and many of those had 10KW and even 28KW systems, installed within the last couple years.  It showed that they paid out twice as much to the utility as they received back on average.  (Great that their power bill payments are public record, eh?) What about other utilities?

So I went to the Florida Public Service Commissions Summary report for 2015 to check out all providers.  Here is what I found:

For the entire sunshine state of Florida there were 11,600 Net Meter customers, i.e., those who have an agreement to sell extra electricity back to their electric company.

But the total dollars paid by all Florida electric companies to all net meter customers was just $419,551.

Split between 11,600 customers that just $36.16 a year each income!

Maybe your state is different.  But for Floridians, where the sun shines brightly, please don't count on significant income from generating power.  If a 28KW system in a standard home (yes, I looked it up) is not generating $3000 a year just by itself then beware Tesla's figures.  Or maybe that's a "grow house" and they actually use that much power.