Photography and AllisonHouse

Train in the fog

A foggy train. Using (or not using) weather data from AllisonHouse to determine weather conditions in real-time can help you make or break your photographs. Photo (c)Gilbert Sebenste.

In my free time, one of the things that I have come to enjoy doing is photography. Now, mind you, I’m on a budget: a used Canon t3i with a broken focus motor for my stock 18-55 mm lens is some of my basic equipment, but at least my 75-300 mm stock lens focus motor works, as do my entry-level wireless flashes!

Since I work day and into the night on at least a few nights every week, I only can get out at night during the weekdays, for the most part, to take pictures. But how—and what—I shoot, depends on the weather. And so, let’s start from the beginning, on taking good pictures, and using AllisonHouse to help you do so.

The basic rules of photography are simple: light, composition and subject. You have an object or a person (subject) you want to take a picture of, there’s no light all the way up to the blazing bright light of the sun (lighting), and do you want, or does it have shadows? Do you need more light through a flash or multiple flashes…on board the camera, or set up wirelessly and remotely, off-camera? And who or what are you shooting, and how do you want to shoot it? At eye level, or at a large angle? Do you want the background blurred? (composition).

Just 15 years ago, the answer to those questions would be answered by those with expensive SLR film cameras. Sure, there were the Polaroid cameras with instant-developing film, or the 110 cameras with “flash cubes” that only worked once. Back then, my audience for this article would be limited to about 10% of the population—or less, who would be semi-serious SLR photographers. The low-end cameras typically took low-resolution shots.

Then something crazy happened.

With digital technology, not only did digital SLR’s develop, but so did camera phones. At the end of November 2016, per the Pew Research Council, 77% of all Americans owned smartphones (even amongst low-income Americans, 64% have smartphones; and of those 65 or older, 42% had smartphones, a jump from 30% in 2015). And those pretty much all have cameras. In fact, the camera on the phone makes up the majority (in many cases, the vast majority) of the cost of manufacture of a smart phone.

So where am I going with this?

There’s no secret that our core audience since our inception have been storm chasers and weather enthusiasts. But now, most Americans can become photographers. With the iPhone 7 ratcheting up with zoom lenses, and other manufacturers soon to follow, the picture quality can approach DSLR’s in good light. And that means a lot of pictures are happening outdoors.

Where does AllisonHouse fit into this? Let’s say you want to take pictures at a nearby flower bed in a park, or at a lake. Well, on a cloudy day, the colors and the lighting won’t “pop”, or make your pictures look colorful. They’ll be rather dull. How will you know if you can get out to take pictures when the official forecast calls for “variable cloudiness”? Or when there’s a 30% chance of thunderstorms tonight, and you want to shoot lightning (and lightning apps do take excellent pictures of lightning, but be very careful doing that—stay indoors!), or maybe the Northern Lights, or maybe planes or trains, how will you know if it is time to head on out?

AllisonHouse helps take the guesswork out of it. Our GOES-16 images via AllisonHouse maps has 1/2 kilometer per pixel resolution by day, and 2 km infrared resolution at night. With the 1/2 km visible resolution, you can see just about every break in cloud cover clearly, and it can help you determine if you’ll get middle to high clouds for a great sunset shot. If you’re in Minnesota, Wisconsin or the northern tier of states and hear of a solar flare or solar speed wind maximum going by, you can check to see if there’s cloud cover or fog, clearly at night, to get those “Northern Lights” shots. and when you want those animal or plant pictures in just the right light, you can look and see what’s happening. And you can see, from our single-site radar to the fantastic MRMS radar mosaics and ENTLN lightning, where those thunderstorms are, and where they are headed.
This lets you make an informed decision on how or if you want to take a picture of something. Even indoors: if you have light from the sun shining in, it makes the photo look better.

I remember several years ago when an Associated Press photographer was given an iPhone 5 and told to do one thing: shoot pictures of the summer Olympics using the camera phone…with picture quality up to the high photo standards expected by AP staff photographers/journalists. And the pictures that person took passed the test. With the iPhone 7 (as I write this) and the competition from Android and Microsoft, in the summer of 2017, the latest models of smartphone cameras blow the iPhone 5 out of the water in quality. They are aren’t DSLR’s and never will be, but in daytime in good lightning, they will approach the quality of them if shooting without any zoom (shooting at the widest angle possible).

Camera clubs are once again coming back to life as new blood, and new enthusiasts show up with their smartphones. At one of the biggest and most respected county fairs in the country, their digital photography contest featured a smartphone-only category for the first time in 2014, all judged by a local camera club. And to my eyes as a video and production guy, they looked amazingly good for what they are.

So, in the next 1-5 years, I do think the quality of camera phones will level off as physics takes over (the lens is so small, you cannot get more light in, or a better quality lens). But even so, I think the quality is fantastic for what they are, and DSLR’s are coming down in price to make them affordable to many, too!. If you’re into or getting into photography, check out your local camera club on how to make your shots really sing. But don’t forget to take us along! For many of your shots, they’ll be weather-dependent to make them or break them. Let us help you get the shots you could only imagine, by making your outdoor and some indoor shots lighting gold.

Radars across the country are SLEPing…

Every weather enthusiast cannot help but be amazed at how radar technology has evolved over the last 30 years. From primitive, 6-color displays to 16-bit, 256 color displays in super resolution, with dual-polarization radar, we’ve come a very long way in radar technology! But those radars are aging, and getting a whole new radar system isn’t in the budget for now. But what is now arriving this summer and over the next 2-4 years to a radar near you, is yet another step forward.

The National Weather Service is now undergoing a radar renovation at each site called SLEP, an acronym for Service Life Extension Program. What we have now, radar-wise, is excellent, and we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. So, this program is designed to improve what we have now, and indeed, this is an improvement! Basically, think of this as a refurbishment.

Step 1: Replace the signal processor. These things date back to the 1990s, and they are slow! One of the delays in radar data going from the radar to your laptop is right here. Yes, the data is being processed on what is essentially a glorified Pentium 1 computer. But not any more! The replacement signal processor can handle the job with ease. This will be done at all sites by the end of July 2017.

Step 2 is transmitter refurbishment. This will result better accuracy of reflected echoes, amongst other things, and every cable gets to be replaced, since they are all getting old and brittle. This part started in 2015 and will finish in 2019, and will help reduce downtime. This takes about 3 days, plus a 24 hour evaluation period to make sure everything works right. As an example, the KLOT Chicago radar just got this done in the last two weeks of May, 2017.

Step 3: Pedestal refurbishment. They’re getting old: Atlanta’s broke down this spring! That’s what the radar rests on. If it fails, the radar could wobble or worse when scanning. All need to be rebuilt, and this will go on through 2020.

Finally, through 2022, the shelter buildings will be recaulked, painted and cleaned. Roofs will be replaced as well. Getting water into electronics is, well, not good to say the least!

When all of this is done, you’ll see higher reliability of the radars, with a somewhat more accurate display…especially when steps 1 and 2 are done. And it means better, more reliable data for our AllisonHouse subscribers. With many radars already refurbished in steps 1 and 2, I’m noticing that the delay it takes for data to reach my laptop through AllisonHouse from the radar is 2 seconds. When I started at AllisonHouse, that delay was 1-2 minutes! Thus, you are literally seeing the data as the NWS warning and weather forecasters are seeing it at exactly the same time, since they pull the feed from a commercial satellite, as we do. It’s part of our commitment to give you the data just as fast as we can get our hands on it, and we are doing just that!
If you would like to see high and super-resolution radar data without meaningful delay, check out our AllisonHouse Maps and data services we provide. And if you have any questions, contact our support department. We’re very happy to help and serve you!

The need for speed!

The National Weather Service is just about to wrap up a 2-year program known as the NOAA Integrated Dissemination Program, or IDP, to completely redo its network and transmission outlets of data, and it is very fast! The last thing to go onto the new network, the website, will be flipped over this summer. But what does all of this mean for AllisonHouse customers?

First of all, let’s take the new and stunning GOES-16 data. The current GOES-West and GOES-East satellites have a data feed of 2 megabits/second of data, and they just broadcast 4 channels of data..which is delayed by 10-15 minutes to process and get it to you. GOES-16 is a nearly constant stream of 30 mb/second, 15x the amount of data as the other satellites. And, being on brand new servers, processors and the new IDP network, it takes just a FEW minutes to process it and get it from GOES-16 to your computer screen…and of course, it transmits dozens of channels of extremely high resolution data!

We’ve also noticed this: for our Level 3 radar data customers, the data used to be delayed by minutes (and our subscribers let us know that). But now, thanks to their fast network connections, a fast radar processor at the radar site, and a fast data transmission broadcast known as NOAAport that we receive off of our satellite dish—we get the data 2-3 seconds after it starts to leave the National Weather Service forecast office, If you have GRLevel3 version 2.60, fire it up. Look at the base reflectivity at the lowest tilt. See those two times in the top right corner? The delay from the radar site to you should be 3 seconds or less!

All this to say: with the IDP switchover, as an AllisonHouse subscriber, you are seeing the data at essentially the exact same time the National Weather Service is, minus a mere few seconds. And with our extremely fast network systems and servers, we give you delays on our end that are on the order of milliseconds!

So, when you need the data…NOW…you see it as the Weather Service sees it, with negligible delay (I mean, we can’t overcome that speed of light delay, sorry!). But when you need to make weather decisions right now, and the data can’t be old…join us at AllisonHouse! We won’t delay in giving you everything in just about real-time. And that’s good, because we know for you, seconds count!

And if you want more information on the National Weather Services new, redundant and high speed networking and dissemination system that we tap into directly, click here: