First Milky Way Outing of 2018

In a previous post I wrote about how I was excited and awaiting the Milky  Way season. I was proved wrong about the start of the season – the Milky Way is already visible! I was under the impression that the Galactic Core is visible starting March. I checked PhotoPills again, and saw that the Milky Way is already visible from 2.30 am to 5.20am.

As a confirmation, I received a photo of the Milky Way that someone shot last week, in a WhatsApp Group. The Milky Way looked glorious – the Galactic Core was clearly visible. So I was determined to see it myself. But there was only one way to do it. I had to wake up early and drive to somewhere dark and arrive by 5.00 am.

Of the many sacrifices that a photographer makes, sleep is one of them. So yea, I was up by 3 am to drive 75km and arrive at the place I had in mind before 5.00 am.  I must have been in the middle of the sleep cycle when the alarm rang. I just could not open my eyes. But it had to be done.

I left home at 4 am on Saturday and drove on NH 948. Traffic was very light, except for slow moving trucks and an occasional taxi. After an hour of driving my destination was not yet in sight. Would I miss the Milky Way? Should I just stop to check the sky or keep driving without losing precious time? I had another agenda apart from shooting the Milky Way. I had a loaner 6D Mark II that I wanted to test out.

By 5.05 am I reached a spot that I was familiar with. It was just beyond a village and beside a small lake. It was not the prettiest of locations. I stopped my car because I did not want to travel further and hit another village. Most villages these days have LED street lamps which cause light pollution in a horrible shade of green. Dogs and curious (or angry locals) are another problem. This was a state highway and the roads weren’t wide. Trees beside the road meant that I could not stop just about anywhere to do my photography. I needed a clearing. The already beside the lake was best I could find.

I stopped my car, fired up PhotoPills and pointed the Augmented Reality projection at the night sky. The Milky Way was supposed to be very close to the horizon, almost blocked by the tree-line. I was disappointed. But I could see a faint line of star dust with my eyes. Was the app wrong? There was only one way to find out.

I took out my camera and tripod and set up a 20 second exposure. The wait felt long. What I saw on the back of the camera after 20 seconds made me jump in glee. The faint star dust was indeed the Milky Way, and it was quite high up in the sky. PhotoPills was wrong.

I took a few steps back and started shooting again. This time, my car was the subject. Each exposure was 20s long. The air was cold, and in the distance dogs were barking. I would have to sound very convincing if someone were to ask me what I was up to. Only someone totally mad would drive that early in the morning just for a few photos. Luckily, no one came by.

I got my photos. For a better composition, I went down to the lake bed. It was semi-dry, even marshy in some parts. I took a few more shots. It was beyond 5.20 and the Milky Way was still visible. So PhotoPills was wrong about the Milky Way setting time as well. I could have driven further to my preferred spot.

After getting a few shots, I watched the orange glow from the eastern direction slowly engulfing the blue sky. It was beautiful. Birds near the lake began to wake up. A few of them probably felt my presence and made screeching sounds. The number of vehicles started to increase. I couldn’t continue shooting because the headlights were ruining my shots. Nevertheless, I was pleased with whatever I got. My first shots of the Milky Way.

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It was 6 am, and I was a little confused about what to do. Should I just drive back to Bangalore? Or should I head to a nearby tourist spot? I chose to drive ahead. I found more interesting places for future Milky Way shooting. I marked them on Google Maps. Beyond the last village and before the popular tourist spot, there was no vehicular movement. I parked my car and simply enjoyed watching the breaking of dawn. Somethings are only meant to be experienced.

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Here is an interesting fact:

You can only see about 2k light-years into the galaxy due to dust and gas. The core is another 50k or so light-years away. Your looking at a very small percentage of the milky way.

My Experience Shopping and Returning on B&H

B&H PhotoVideo is an online e-commerce websites with a physical presence in New York. They have been in the business of selling photo and video equipment since 1973. Although I live in India, I have been a happy customer of B&H since  2013. Over the years, I have purchased photography gear worth several lakhs from them. I generally request someone traveling to India to carry my orders.

In all these years of shopping purchasing remotely from them, I have never had a problem. My packages have always arrived when they were supposed to. I don’t have that confidence with any Indian e-commerce website yet. But things did not go right with the latest order that I made this month. The mistake was mine – I ordered archival paper of the wrong size. I needed 13×19″ sized paper but I incorrectly ordered 17×22″.

The ease of shopping online is only as good as the ease of returns. B&H has a simple 3o-day return window. They have a 3 step process for returns. I just had to request an RMA for the product that I no longer needed and ship it back to them. They require you to pay for return shipping. I was fine with that because the mistake was mine. But how would I to ship it back? My contact in the US was staying in a hotel and did not have the time to visit a post office. The product was 17×22″ and not easy to carry around. It was certainly going to be a bother to have someone coordinate returns.

Nevertheless, I wrote to B&H and waited for an RMA authorisation. Meanwhile, I started looking up USPS and UPS for mail pick up options. I knew this service existed, but I had never used it before. From Wikipedia, “United States Postal Service is an independent agency of the United States federal government responsible for providing postal service in the United States.” I presumed that they would have the best rates and coverage.

My contact in the US was checking out on a Friday, and I started looking up USPS and UPS on Wednesday morning US time. Here is a brief summary of my experiences:

USPS

  • Easy to sign up. Could provide my Indian address for signing up.
  • Confusing mail pick up options. Their website had a different page for Click-N-Ship® and Schedule a Pickup. I couldn’t tell the difference. My best understanding of it is that you can use Click-N-Ship® to print pre-paid shipping labels and then schedule a pickup.
  • Scheduling a pickup was extremely confusing. The online wizard kept telling me that my address was invalid because I had provided an Indian address while signing up. I tried providing the US hotel address but the error message didn’t go away. Finally I changed my default address to the one in US and deleted my India address to make it work.
  • After spending nearly an hour scratching my head on their website, I arrived at the final screen of the Schedule a Pickup wizard. My options for payment were credit card and PayPal. I first tried PayPal and didn’t succeed because PayPal showed me a message that said USPS only accepted payments from US PayPal accounts. I tried to use my card, but couldn’t give an Indian billing address. I tried with the US address and my bank declined the payment.

By the end of this exercise I was pretty frustrated with USPS. So I checked UPS.

UPS

  • Sign up was easy
  • Pickup terms and conditions were simple. But I could not easily find the rates for pickup.
  • I started the process to schedule a pickup. On the payment screen, I was told to pay an additional $6 for a pickup. On USPS, pickups were free. If I did not want to pay for pickup the only option was to drop off the package at one of the UPS stores. This would not have been possible for the aforementioned reasons.

I closed the browser in exasperation. Just then I received an email from B&H saying my RMA was authorised. The good news was that they had included a prepaid shipping label in their email. If I chose to use the prepaid label, the cost of shipping ($11.08) would be deducted from my refund. The fact that they would provide a prepaid shipping label was not mentioned on their website. If I had known before, I would have not spent time on the USPS and UPS website. 

At least the problem of not being able to pay on USPS was solved. So I went ahead and scheduled a pickup for Thursday US time on the USPS website.

The Catch

My friend left the package at the hotel reception and left for work on her Thursday. USPS was supposed to pick it up from the reception during the day. On Thursday evening US time, I heard from my friend that USPS had not picked up the parcel. I checked the status online and it said pickup was successfully completed.

By then I was clueless what to do. Why did the USPS website say that the pickup was complete? How would I get the parcel across to B&H? My friend was checking out and leaving the next morning. I had just my Friday morning to find a solution and I had to do it by evening my time.

That is when it struck me. My palm and face met each other.

The return label that B&H provided was for FedEx. This was not mentioned either in their mail or their website! In all likelihood, USPS did come for the package, but refused pickup because the prepaid label was for FedEx. At least if the USPS website mentioned that the pickup was refused, I would have understood what was going on.

Yes, it was my carelessness that I did not check the return label to see the shipper. It was also silly on my part to assume that the returns could be done by any carrier in spite of having a prepaid shipping label. Nevertheless, by stating all details clearly, either on the website or mail, B&H could have saved me a lot of problem.

Long story short, my return is on the way to B&H via FedEx. It should reach them on Monday and I should hopefully get my money.

Social Mania

Under a billion stars
Faces lit by rectangular screens
All connected, but incoherently
Society’s wisdom measured by posts and tweets.

The hardest I think is when my password expires
Is the world around me ending?
A billion stars above don’t matter
They aren’t what is trending

Between my eyes and my brain I have a 5 inch filter
I don’t care if the polar bears can’t survive
Everything is sorted in the palm of my hands
Even in silent mode I feel so alive

What will happen when the signal grows weak?
Can I still make those connections?
How can I express my patriotism, anger and expert opinions?
I don’t know how to be social without notifications.

Planning and Executing an Astro Photography Workshop

In February 2018, I led a workshop on astro photography for Darter. Read on to understand how we planned and executed this.

Update: See the highlights of the workshop here.

Sometime towards the end of 2016, my interest in astro photography peaked after a vist to The Goat Village in Uttaranchal. Sightings of the beautiful and clear night sky from the cold environs of the Himalayas incited me to shoot the great skies above. With my interest growing, I did not miss any opportunity to shoot more astro photos in the following year, even traveling to the Great Rann of Kutch specially for this purpose. I penned my learning on how to shoot night scapes – stars, star-trails, moon and night timelapses in this article. In February 2018, I led a workshop on astro photography for Darter. Read on to understand how we planned and executed this.

A small clarification before I proceed – astro photography here refers to photography of celestial objects that you can see at night with your naked eye. I am aware that there are purists who believe that looking/photographing through a telescope solely qualifies as astro photography. No offense to anyone, but I would like to move on from that debate.

It goes without saying that astro photography requires very clear skies. Have you ever looked up at night from any of the big metro cities in India? From my house in Bangalore, I can barely look past a layer of smog. No wonder we are 24th in this list of South Asia’s pollution index. Absence of clouds is also important. So it was imperative that to conduct a workshop on shooting stars and star-trails, we had to find a location outside the city.

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Colorful fields along the highway between Badami and Hubbali

My friend and founder of Darter, Arun,  suggested Badami as a location for the workshop. Situated 50o odd kilometers from Bangalore, personally, Badami was not my first choice for the workshop. But on a recce trip in January 2018, we made interesting discoveries.

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Aerial view of fields near Pattadkal

Badami is mainly well known for the remains of the ancient Chalukyan dynasty. It would be an opportunity of a lifetime to photograph the night sky against some of the ancient structures built by our ancestors. But experience has taught me that the probability of the sun rising from the West is more than ASI considering an interesting proposal.

Having visited Hampi several times, I was quite aware of how the ASI of India functions. You cannot even use tripods at any of the sites maintained by ASI, so getting permission to shoot after dark is out of question. The presence of wild animals is another deterrent at Hampi. Leopards and bears roam around freely after dark. I prefer not to disturb them, for they have already lost a lot of their territory to us humans. In spite of the restrictions from the ASI, during my most recent visit to Hampi, I did indeed shoot star-trails. Nevertheless, Badami was a much simpler choice.

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Sunflower fields

On our reconnaissance mission to Badami, we essentially looked for:

  1. Open areas with as little light pollution as possible. We identified at least 4 such spots.
  2. Elements of interest, unique to Badami. We found at least 1 such spot with an ancient temple and several spots which offered interesting natural foreground.
  3. Comfortable lodging so we could relax during the day. Badami Heritage Resort certainly offered this.
  4. Accessibility. Mountain villages and camping sites in the the upper Himalayas are certainly great to make images of the night sky, but it is not easy to get to these places. I still remember how grand the glaciers of Har-Ki-Dun looked under a full moon, but we had to trek three days to get there. Our workshop had to happen somewhere closer to home.
  5. Safety from miscreants and wild animals. At first, I was quite apprehensive about shooting in the fields at night. I did not want to be caught tresspassing. On the reccee we had several encounters with locals in the dead of the night and not once did they cause any altercation.

With Arun’s expertise of the place and a lof of scouting around, we where happy with Badami because it ticked all the right boxes for the workshop.

On the 16th of February, a team of 10 participants of all age groups left Bangalore early on a Friday and reached Badami by evening. We traveled by road, enjoying the change in scenery as we crossed Chitradurga and entered the northern region of Karnataka.

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Night sky against the sunflower field

The workshop started with a presentation on how to photograph the night sky. The session covered gear, techniques and planning aspects.  We then headed out to make some images. The participants were an enthusiastic lot, so all challenges that comes with shooting at night were easily taken care of. In case you weren’t aware, focusing a lens itself is impossible in the dark.

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Shiva Temple in Badami

In spite of having traveled by road during the day, we shot well into the night and retired to bed only after 2 am. On the first field outing, we got to shoot star trails at a dam and a bullock cart against the night sky.

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“Wolf Rock”

The next day we had a session on post processing techniques. We learnt how to process astro photos and create star-trails. After visiting the famous Badami caves, we headed out again to make more images. The sky was clearer on the second night and the experience of staying under a vast canopy of stars was certainly memorable. We even tried our hand at light painting – a genre that one of the participants was really good at.

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Light Painted Self Portrait

Personally, it was a really satisfying experience to conduct this workshop on astro photography. From learning, to planning and finally leading a workshop, my interest in nature and outdoor photography has gone up several notches thanks to the new opportunities offered by astro photography. I am eagerly awaiting the Milky Way season – a short window between March to November when the galactic core is clearly visible. That will be the time to put into practice more new techniques that I am learning. This addiction to learn and create is what keeps me up at night (pun unintended) 🙂

Why I Switched my Website Address

I recently moved my website from pixelshooter.net to pratapj.com – why did I switch domain names?

I said “hello world” from a self-hosted website on Jan 06, 2006. I had purchased a DSLR, the Canon 350D, a month before. Until then I was shooting with a Canon Powershot A75 which was also my first digital camera. I used the handle, “pixelshooter” for my online presence. I first hosted pixelshooter.net on a low budget web host and then moved to ANhosting (now called Midphase).

In the year 2006, self-published photography was a deviation from the trend. Flickr (before Yahoo acquired it) was a rage, and everyone was posting there. FB and 500px were not heard of. I think there was orkut, but I never took it seriously.

The first trip I did with the DSLR was to Kasargod in the same month when I purchased the domain name. This photo of Bekal fort is one of my favourites from that trip.

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In Feburary my friend and I backpacked to Bhutan. It was my first time ever in the Himalayas. Bhutan was not yet commercialized. My DSLR proved to be the best thing that happened to me. After I came back, I wrote a travelogue which I published on pixelshooter.net. Here is a photo from Calcutta, which was my transit point to Bhutan. From early on, my photography was mostly about landscapes.

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Internet connectivity was not great back then, and people still kept in touch through offline means. One of my friends even asked me “how to get an account on pixelshooter.net” because he thought it was a website like Flickr. No one quite understood my obsession with self-hosting a website. Needless to say, the only person who was really interested in pixelshooter.net was me.

The biggest challenge in the world of self-hosting was initially about theme design. Photo blogging, or posting a new photo every day, was a popular trend. I wanted a website where I could post a pic per day, and also write about my travels. With no ready made theme available, I got my hands dirty and learnt how to make my own theme in WordPress. You can see that version of my website on old.pixelshooter.net. Since I did not have a background in coding, it took me a lot of time to get the theme the way I wanted. Later I would realise that web design was not as much of a problem as website traffic.

My thought process behind hosting my own website hasn’t changed from the very begining. It was always about sharing pics, either through my photo blog or my travelogues. I wanted to do this on a self-hosted platform because I wanted to present my work in a unique way. I paid for everything from my pocket and never used advertisements. I always kept a check on the number of assignments that I took up, because I wanted to focus on learning. In the process, I forgot to take into account that people don’t take your work seriously unless you make it glamorous.

Until circa 2009, there was no social media to share my posts, so my traffic was mostly from Google and when friends visited. I joined Facebook very late. I did not bother creating a Facebook Page (when Pages actually mattered) because I had my blog. I was not aware about how Facebook throttles organic reach. I was very late to the party.

I did my first multi-day Himalayan trek to Kuari Pass in August 2009. I never published those photos online though. Post trek, I found myself really short on time to do justice to a travelogue and it never occured to me that I should post on Facebook. The ROI of running a website was limited to self-satisfaction. The hottest place to pimp your work was still on Flickr, and later 500px. I was a lone ranger in the genre of landscape photography. Wedding, portraiture, street and wildlife were the most popular genres of photography in India, and even today. I tried to stake my claim as a travel blogger, but my travels were focused around landscape photography.

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Today, self-hosted blogs have made a come back. But blogging has become a sport. Self-hosted websites are mostly running a rat race for ‘influencer’ campaigns. When brands identify you as an influencer because of your popularity online, you promote them on your blog and social media in return for free stuff. A lot of people are writing blogs hoping to get free trips, hotel stays, goodies and road show invites. I just read an article today about these Influencer campaigns are pointless, but who cares? Likes, views, page hits and everything else that measures your popularity can either be purchased, or manufactured by careful self-promotion and branding and that is all what the marketing agencies want.

Facebook’s ‘Like’ button has hijacked the spirit of sharing anything online. Everyone has a digital presence today. All you need is very polarised opinions about the world or the skill of self-promotion to climb up the social media ladder. The joy of photography as a hobby died the day photographers focused on popularity instead of perfecting their art.

Pixelshooter.net did not stand a chance to become popular. I never shouted on top of rooftops about how awesome I was. My articles were all based on personal experience and I kept away from listicles. I only wrote when I had something to share.  I did not have a network wide enough to keep spamming my social media with links. I hardly posted photos of myself from places I visited, and even if I did, I could never compete against the young women who promoted their blogs with just selfies. I wanted to showcase my work as an artist and content creator. It was too late by the time I realised that I was competing with people who had a completely different set of priorities.

These days, travelogues are not about the joy of discovering a place, but about how you did all the awesome things that you were supposed to do at the destination so you can post on social media. Photography is not about how artistically and technically good your work is, but about how glamourous it is to quit your job and become a full time professional. The word “hobby” has almost become a synonym for “boring”. Being enthusiastic about something does not mean anything unless you have enough Likes to prove it.

Sorry, I went a bit off track. The real reason I moved to Pratapj.com, however, was due to a technical problem I faced when I switched web hosts. One of the important factors for good SEO is page load speeds. I took advantage of a black Friday deal and purchased web hosting with SiteGround in November of 2017. SiteGround servers are faster than those of Mid Phase. I spent most of December migrating the content in the backend (more on that in the next post). I set up a staging environment called pratapj.com on Site Ground for this purpose. After all the backend work was done, I realised that I couldn’t simply point the new web host to pixelshooter.net because of a few technicalities. Pixelshooter.net was deeply tied to Mid Phase. The only way I could let it go was by breaking ties with them. That was not an option for certain reasons. So I decided to simply start using Pratapj.com as my new domain name.

But in more than one way, the change of domain names also signifies a change in my thought process about self publishing. I would like to keep working hard to excel in the space of outdoor and nature photography than be a contender for influencer campaigns.  I’d rather see traffic from visitors who are genuinely interested in my content. I plan to incorporate more video into my work. I want to explore the market for commercial fine art digital prints. I hope do to more real-world product reviews.

I have fond memories of Pixelshooter.net. I hope someday I can find good use for that domain name again.

New Journal!

About my new Wordpress journal – a home for non-commercial thoughts, product reviews and photography talk.

Hello there. Hello world. Hello reader.

This is my new personal journal. I call it, “Life in Manual Focus.” I used to be an active blogger several years ago (circa 2006 – 8). Back then, a blog was where you put in real thoughts and did not make up things for just for page rank.  My old blog is still alive on the Blogger network.

Although the blog died, my website, www.pixelshooter.net continued till December 2017. Then I migrated my domain name. Now it is www.pratapj.com. Why? More on that in the next post. And how I migrated. It was quite a task.

The birth of this journal is to get back to writing. I don’t do a lot of personal writing these days. Posts on www.pratapj.com are always written for a target audience or to compliment my photography.

The internet has no dearth of blogs these days. Most of the ones that you discover via social media are commercial in one way or the other. From “influencers” to “paid reviews”, most blogs out there are just extended product marketing.

This blog is going to be non-commercial. A free flow of ideas, thoughts and learning. I hope to do product reviews, talk about photography techniques and occassionally rant and muse. Let’s see how it goes.