NightScapes: Chasing the Light across the night sky. Exploring the techniques of capturing one of Natures most exciting photographic opportunities. We'll look at still photography, deepsky photography, and time lapse photography. We'll talk about navigating across the Constellations to identify what we discover. We will keep it as simple as possible and try to have some fun along the way as we explore techniques and contraptions, capturing and processing, posting and sharing, and maybe throw in a workshop or two. Join me as I set sail across the ocean of the's gonna be fun!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

A Night Under the Stars

Have you ever stood under the night canopy unobstructed by trees or buildings with nothing around you, no city lights, nothing but open space as if sitting inside a giant bubble with the night sky arched overhead?
If you live east of the Mississippi River, chances are you have not experienced such a moment. Except for a few isolated locations, the eastern half of the United States is more densely populated and the idea of a dark sky is nullified by the ambient glow dome of city lights at night. Even if you live out in the country like I do, the horizon in almost all directions is influenced by that dome of light as it encroaches upwards and spreads above the horizon. It may look dark to your eyes, but the light is there subtly filtering what hovers above us. Further west there are large areas where one can still visit the night sky almost unencumbered by this man made light pollution dome.
Many years ago I spent a year in Denver Colorado and would commute home to Oklahoma two or three times a month. Most of the time I would drive taking route 70 across eastern Colorado and western Kansas. During the winter months it would get dark rather early and by the time I crossed into Kansas the night sky was filled with stars. It was an experience I found fascinating. During one of those drives home, the comet Hale Bopp hovered behind my left shoulder as I drove. It was so clear and bright that the comet acted almost like a mini moon. I even stopped once along the highway and stood alone in the open. At the moment no other cars were insight. Just me and the giant dome of a dark sky filled with uncountable stars, and Hale Bopp glowing against a pure black background.
Before then, I had never witnessed a night in such clarity. Since then, I have rarely been able to examine the night from such a vantage point. I now live in Kentucky which as a location is far from being ideal for observing the night sky. Even so, on rare occasions, the evening will blossom into a clear magical moment when the summer Milky Way sings its melody with such clarity, the light domes along the horizon fail to stifle its mood.
Those are the evenings that make the late nights worth the effort. Last summer I encountered such a moment and found myself standing next to an old barn surrounded by cornfields. The evening was late, but the normal sleepy nature I might have at that hour all but evaporated under that canopy filled with the light of stars. The Milky Way arched high into the night and was so bright I could just make out using just my eyes ‘The Dark Horse’ as it reared above Sagittarius to the southwest. In that part of the sky, save for a distant security light, the light pollution was negligible.  Even though it was deep into the summer season, the evening was cool and delightful having been quenched of its heat and haze by a cold front that passed through the day before. A light windbreaker was necessary to keep the chill out.

For several hours, well past midnight, I pointed the camera toward various points in the sky and ran the tracker to capture the dim glow of distant clouds of gas and stars too faint to see visually. Even with my limited equipment, it was adequate enough to absorb in good detail the few photons of light that had in some cases traveled for thousands of years before falling into and through my lens. For a location better known for summer hazy skies, it was a once in a season opportunity to experience a grand adventure observing what the night sky offers. For a few brief hours, the dark skies became brilliant in their own unique way. What it said was, "There is more here than meets the eye".

I was able to find Andromeda and tracked it for several minutes capturing in a single image its mystical glow. What a treat it was, that evening, to share a few hours alone with sights few venture to find, and even fewer try to capture. A night under the stars, a special moment, and a unique journey involving moment and place when all the elements come together to create a revelation of time and space.


Saturday, June 14, 2014

Sail Away

There are times when I am standing in the middle of a field on a clear moonless night I can almost imagine what it must have been like to sail across the ocean under a sky unencumbered by light pollution. Indeed, I have sailed a number of times several miles off shore many years ago on a clear evening when I was stationed in Oregon during my stint in the U.S. Coast Guard. It was amazing to see the stars above and feel the sea rolling beneath my stance. The emotions lifted me above the moment to where I felt suspended between the earth and the sky. It was as though I was about to sail away toward adventures yet discovered. Here is a video I originally made about a year ago, but revamped recently along that theme I believe you may enjoy. Music is 'Orinoco Flow' by Enya.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

NightScapes - Timelapse

Most of us have probably seen them already. You know, those amazing time lapse videos made of the
night sky. Some of them are simply spectacular and defy the senses. Photographers such Sean Parker, or Mark Gee, just to name a couple, have produced some incredible footage that generates not only awe but envy from other photographers of the night sky.

This season I began to explore what is required to take such footage. Sounds easy enough at first glance, but in reality, there is more to it than what may first appear. As I studied the work of others I tried to piece together some of the visual effects and photographic techiques they were using. What I discovered is that what is most important is timing, time afield, and location, and of course knowing how to capture the night sky from a techical point of view.

You for the most part must have a dark, clear night and in Kentucky finding that on a consistent basis is probelmatic at best. Each month there is a period of a week or ten days so where the moon remains hidden until either the very early hours of the morning or it sets very early in the evening. The trick is the timing. In Kentucky you may have a dark sky night, but odds are you will also have a lot of clouds. Broken clouds by themselves are not a major issue unless of course they completely block the sky. They can also present a problem by reflecting a lot of light pollution from the ground. The worse kind of clouds are the thin hazy type. They tend to act like a mirror and create a lot of reflected light plus they obscure the Milky Way to the point where it becomes difficult at best to photograph it.

Time afield is also important. The very nature of the process requires that you spend many hours out at night...sometimes until the wee hours of the morning. This presents a problem for those of us who must work a regular job. In most cases we are relegated to weekends or vacation time. But to get the shots, you have to make the time and be there when the sky is at its prime.

Location is just as important as the other elements. Most of the time I simply step into my backyard out of convenience. This serves well to perfect the technique but hardly offers one of those great locations that is so important in the presentation. I am often confronted with the neighbors outdoor lights flooding the area, or other security lights down the street arching a dome of light across the trees. Down the road a couple of miles stands an old barn just off the country road. I will on occasion drive over there and step into the field using the barn as my foreground. The location offers at least a measure of visual interest plus a decent view of the night sky and is relatively dark. I have planned on, but have yet been able to make the trip (this thing called work tends to interfere), spending a couple days over at Red River Gorge that appears to offer some spectacular landscapes to join with the night sky. Before the summer is out, I will make that trip and hopfully capture one of those amazing night sky moments.

So how do you capture a time lapse video using a digital SLR camera? Well, you gotta use what is called a intervelometer. This is a remote electonic trigger device that plugs into the remote outlet on the camera. It allows for the setting of the length of exposure plus the interval between exposures and the number of total exposures. They vary in cost, but I found a real good one for under $30.00 for my camera.

Basically the way it works is you set the camera up the same way you would for a single photo...manual shutter (bulb), infinity focus, ISO...all that. Then you set the intervelometer to the length of the shutter exposure say 30 seconds, the interval between the each exposure, say 35 seconds, and how many exposures you want to take...or you can set you camera shutter length to 30 seconds, and set the intervelometer interval to something longer than 30 seconds...just depends on what works easiest.

Place the camera on a sturdy tripod ( no tracking is required ) and point the camera in the desired direction, then fire it off. The intervelometer does the rest. It now becomes a waiting game. The number of exposures required vary depending on what you are wanting to accomplish. Generally speaking it takes 24 individual exposures to produce one second of video. To get five seconds of video, would require about 120 exposures. With one exposure being made every 30 seconds, this will require at least one hour of shooting time.

After you capture all the images, your job is only half done. You must now download these images into some kind of software that allows for the rendering of video sequence. I do not have the space here to discuss what software packages are available, but there are a number of variations available. Some are cheap, some are not. I recommend you do some reading about the subject. I simply use the same software package I use for my slide show presentations...Magix Extreme Photostory. It took some experimentation, but figured out how to make it work...although, the video quality falls a bit short, it is a good package to learn the ropes with.

Capturing time lapse is fun, but labor and time intensive. The amount of time required vs the amount of footage produced does not always equal out evenly. Below I have attached a short segment of some of my early attempts, and also provided a couple of links to some professionaly done time lapse videos. Please enjoy.