Dipping into capturing the stars

I’ve always been fascinated by the night sky. I must have learned all the constellations as a kid. Now I can only remember a handful, but I do remember my first night in the High Sierras, looking at the clearest sky I’ve ever seen. It would be years later before I had my own camera that would be capable of capturing the light sent out from the stars, and then a few more years before I bought a tripod actually point my camera at the sky.

Before Jess and I embarked on our Winter four corners road trip, I read up as much as I could on astrophotography camera settings. I was figuratively chomping at the bit to take star photos. Our first stop where I got to give it a try was City of Rocks State Park, NM. I spent hours after dark in the cold cold wind taking exposure after exposure, testing settings, hiking to different locations. Oliver, our boston terrier, wanted to be with me, but was not stoked on standing around in the cold, dark night. I brought him back to the tent and got an idea.

Jess was still awake, so I hung my lantern in our tent, and went back outside. I framed the shot and let the camera work. It took a few exposures before I realized that the lantern in the tent was too bright. I turned it down and stepped back out.


I had fun walking around amungst the rocks taking different shots. Our campsite neighbors had a very cool little camper that I illuminated for a one second of a long exposure.


Pointing my camera at polaris was fun too. I just took a guess and sat in the dark and cold while I let a ten minute esposure


I was able to do some light editing of the photos on my phone and post them to my instagram account while we traveled through the desert, but I really wouldn’t know how they turned out until I got home.

_DEC4292Reflections on camera settings

There are a few things I would change now that I’ve gone through the photos. On my camera’s LCD it appeared that I was capturing lots of detail. This is alright, but I could have grabbed more.

Up the ISO

I thought I was capturing lots of detail even with ISO 1600. I was getting okay, detail. The benefit is that the images are less noisy, but required me to up the exposure during post-processing. This brought up the noise considerably. If I had gone with a higher ISO such as 3200 or even maxing my camera at 6400, yes there would be more noise, but I can always reduce that in post.

I did a little better when I was in Bend, Oregon in January. Still a lot of noise in the photos. I think I could up the ISO a bit more and do more reduction in post. I can’t wait to get back out away from noise pollution to shoot more stars.

Milky Way over Bend, OR
Milky Way over Bend, OR

Thanks for reading. Please leave any tips about astrophotography in the comments.

Old Trails: Hiking Up The Tufa

Hotel-Sized Tuffa, Namibia

We pulled up to the farmyard and stopped at the fence causing the cloud of dust to catch up and swirl past the gate towards the house. We got out, research permit from the Namibian Geologic Survey in hand, walked to the fence and waited. After a couple minutes passed a white farmer with a shaven head and sporty sunglasses stepped out of the house and approached us. We explained we were geologists from McGill University in Canada and asked permission to hike to the tufa, pointing across the graded dirt road which acted as Namibia’s highway system. I don’t remember the farmer saying much, if anything. He nodded, and went back into the farm house.

Recently, I started the gargantuan task of reorganizing and backing up all of my photos. This led me to dig through some archives and to revisit photos that I have not shared with many people. When we visited this tufa I had not yet been introduced to the sport of rock climbing. Looking at these tufa photos now, I see lines, unclimbed, begging for someone to clean and send. We didn’t climb the tufa, we hiked around. Here are some photos from that hike.

Hking through the grass to the tuffa.

After stopping at the farmhouse we pulled off the highway. Christie, my advisor, insisted that she needed a nap and waved us towards the tufffa while reclining the driver’s seat. We crossed the wire fence and made our way into the waist high grass. That two hundred meter walk through the grass was one of the most stressful moments of my life. There are snakes in Namibia. Pofadders, Cape Cobra, Black Cobra, and Black Mambas frequent my field area. At least when we’re out on the hill slopes there is less grass and we can see where we are stepping. Tanya, Ben, and I were all nervous and let out big sighs when we exited the high grass.

Namibian waterfall!

The tufa was gorgeous, huge, and loomed overhead. Yellow-green slim covered wet rock where water dripped down. A little waterfall ran sprinkled and slid over the tufa, collected in a pond, and trickled away in a stream that disappeared into the desert.


We stepped to hike around and up the tufa where we got a special treat. Diamictite. B-E-A-utifully deformed diamictite. Diamictite is a rock that is a mix of rock clasts in a muddy matrix. These diamictites had since been deformed, shown by the elongate stretched, clasts.


We turned and continued upward, following black plastic pipes that ran from some unseen spring above us.

Hiking up.

The hiking was steep, but not strenuous. Before we knew it the incline shoaled and we began topping out over the tufa. The top was like a geologist’s dream. A folded cap-carbonate could be seen on the mountainside framing the valley before us.


We paused to look back towards the car, where our professor lazily dosed, probably dreaming of pseudotachylyte and fault gouge.


Our tufa foray wasn’t over yet, we followed the stream that had built this tufa up. It takes time to build a deposit like this. Calcium carbonate precipitates from the water. We saw breccias too. Head-sized, angular clasts of limestone that had once been shot down the stream, maybe during a rainstorm, only to now be cemented in the tufa.


Outside of the stream we spotted more folded limestone.


The breccias become the tuffa, cemented in the streambed. Other rocks, with the power of water pushing them forward, polish and erode the surface of the cement. Ponds between trickling streams form. Desert life revolves around water. Where it is abundant so is life and green.


Big tadpoles swam in the ponds we passed. I saw something unexpected in the desert: a bullfrog, quietly crouched near submerged rocks.

Namibian bullfrog

What other treasures would we find hidden in the hills? The only thing to do was follow the water.


Finally we reached a point where the stream cut into rocks. To continue following it we had to leave it for higher ground. Unfortunately we hadn’t come prepared for canyoneering on this hike. Ahead and below us we caught glimpses of caves and pools hidden in tufa slot canyons.

DSC_1821 DSC_1834

We ended the hike at this crystal blue pool. The water looked amazing, but strange yellow algae covered the surface of every rock below the water. Swarms of black water bugs oscillated in the turquoises liquid. We tossed a small rock in and watched as they scattered to the edges of the pool, then swam back into pulsing mosh pit.


The pools were gorgeous, but so were the rocks. I’ve always been fascinated by structures in rocks, whether tectonic or diagenetic in origin. The limestone structures influenced their surficial weathering and thus the growth of lichen.

Limestone structures


Time to head back. Christie had sent us up here to check out the tuffa and examine the diamictite, but we’d all become mesmerized by the pools and the life around them.





I don’t remember which way we came down from the tufa. Nor do I recall if we trod through the waist-high grass or followed the stream to the road. I think at that point I was overwhelmed by the beauty of a little desert treasure.



How I Stitch My Panorama Photos

All done!
All done!

Wide Angle lenses make it easy to capture big scenes. Not everyone has a wide lens, so there is a nice work around for capturing those large scenes. It takes a combination of taking multiple photos across the scene and some post-production software to combine the photos together.

NOTE: This method of creating panoramas is not unique or original. There are many methods and software out there for creating panoramas. This is just my process.

Step 1: Take the photographs

This is arguably the most important step because if this gets botched then the whole panorama scene won’t work.

The key here is to overlap the pictures. I typically start at the left side of the scene I want to photograph. Take the photo then pan your field of view slightly right. Roughly 30% overlap with the previous photo seems to work well.

Overlap photos in the scene
Pink boxes show regions of overlap.

Remember, take your time and be sure to overlap the photos. I’ve had a couple times where I was rushing to get the photos and missed the overlap by less than a centimeter and ruined the whole panorama. Take your time and overlap.

Step 2: Load photos

Images are opened in Adobe Photoshop.
Images are opened in Adobe Photoshop.

Once your back home and have your photos on your computer. Open up Adobe Photoshop and open all the photos that you want to stitch. In this example I’m stitching five photos together.

Step 3: Photomerge

Navigate to File> Automate> Photomerge…

File> Automate> Photomerge
File> Automate> Photomerge

This opens the Photomerge dialog. Click the “Add Open Files” button to add the photos you’ve already opened to the photomerge dialog. Alternatively, you may navigate to the folder where the photos are stored and add them.

Next we need to toggle some settings. Select the radio button for “Cylindrical” under “Layout”. Click “Blend Images Together” and “Vignette Removal” if you have vignetting in your photos. You may also want to select “Geometric Distortion Correction“, especially if you are combining many photos (~8 or more) together. Play with these settings to see what produces the best results. When you’re ready to go click “OK” and wait for Photoshop to do all the hard work for you.

Photomerge Settings
Photomerge Settings

Step 4: Clean up


Now that your photos are combined you may notice that there’s some extra space at the edges of your panorama. That needs to be cropped out.

Crop the panorama.

Use Photoshop’s “Crop” tool to clean up the edges of the panorama. This is also the time to check that the horizon is level. Rotate the crop until the guides are level with the horizon and hit “Enter” on your keyboard to finalize the crop.

Step 5: Apply Image



Create a new layer (Ctrl+N). Navigate to Image> Apply Image (Shift+Alt+Ctrl+A) and click Okay. This is to create a new layer that has the complete panorama for editing. To finish up adjust the levels, curves, brightness and contrast as you see fit to create a nice panorama.

All done!
All done! Click for a larger view of Lions Bay, BC.

Did I leave out or gloss over a crucial step? Let me know in the comments and I’ll fix it. Have a better / quicker / easier method for creating panoramas? I’d love to hear it!

The photos in this example were taken with my Nikon D7000 and a Tokina 11-16mm lens during a hike up The Lions in British Columbia with my friends Kent and Kalina. Thanks for a great day guys!


Immersed in rock or immersion learning through rock climbing

Wisdom before the traverse on Skywalker (5.8)

“Yeah, we’re definitely not normal,” Mal stated, BC microbrew in hand in the evening light at the Rec Center campground. One of us asked him to elaborate. “Well, what do you say to someone who asks you what you did for vacation?” He continued, “I got really uncomfortable on the side of a cliff, had to shimmy, muscle, and grunt up a big rock, scared the shit out of myself, didn’t shower for a month, got hot, got sweaty, got cold, and got really stoked. Who does that?”

Finger locks and toe jams
Ryan Cerf crushing Crime of the Century (5.11c)

How time off from work is spent is weird. I spent the month of September living in my tent in Squamish, BC. In addition to my sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and backpacking stove I had two pairs of shorts (one climbing for climbing, i.e. get dirty), two pairs of pants, four tshirts (two are destroyed from climbing), rain jacket, down jacket, light fleece sweater, a handful of underwear, and some socks. Most days I found myself roped in, too hot or too cold, belaying my friends up a cliff. I pushed my climbing ability passed what I thought I could do. In fact, I’ve put myself in some personally terrifying situations that could result in injury, probably not death, but “yeah, don’t fall here” kind of places. I don’t think anyone keeping score would call that a relaxing vacation.

I came to Squamish to learn to trad and crack climb. Trad climbing is a style of climbing where you place cams and nuts in cracks in the rock to protect falls. I had done a small amount of trad climbing before, but how does two afternoons compare with a whole month?

I learned to climb indoors on plastic at Allez Up in Montreal over three years ago. It wasn’t until last summer when I took a two week trip to Tuolumne Meadows that I really started climbing outside.

The best way to learn is by doing. So to learn to trad climb, I jumped in and did. Over and over. For the entire month of September, minus off days to work on job applications, I jammed my hands, fingers, feet, and toes into the best granite cracks in the world, placed cams and nuts, pulled up rope, and swapped leads on multi-pitches to complete the longest climbs I’ve ever done.

Angel's Crest
Above “The Acrophobes” on Angel’s Crest.

Do you want to get better at rope management? Yeah, tying knots in your living room on a rainy day helps, but climbing for 10+ hours straight where the only direction to move your body is up, works. I guarantee that by the end of the day there won’t be any more cases of short-roping your leader because you found a way to make a complete bird’s nest of the rope.

The Chief
The Chief

I am making a case for immersion. On this trip, that 10+ hour day (car to car) where my friend Ryan and I climbed Rambles to Over the Rainbow to Boomstick Crack to Ultimate Everything (21 guidebook pitches in 17) was a turning point for me. Climbing started to flow. This was the longest possible route up “The Chief” It was immersive and although the climbing wasn’t particularly hard, we worked to get up and keep moving.

That long day made me faster and safer in every aspect of my climbing and belaying. I’m a better climbing than I was a month ago. The notion that doing and thinking about something every day for a month straight makes you better at it, might not be very surprising.

Somewhere on Ultimate Everything
My sketch of the topo for Ultimate Everything

Geology students in University are lucky because they cap off their training with an immersive field school. I experienced this during UC Santa Cruz’s summer field mapping course. We camped out at Westgard Pass and for over two weeks mapped the Poleta Fold Belt. This immersive experience of mapping and thinking critically about geology everyday made us better field geologists.

Was there a time in your life where you gained expertise in a skill though immersion? We’d love to hear about it in the comments.