Tony McLean's East Yorkshire Wildlife Diary

Wildlife photography in East Yorkshire

Heavens above

Heavens Above!

I had been planning a trip to this abandoned church for a few weeks. What I needed was a clear forecast with no cloud cover and a late rising moon. So, on the evening of Wednesday 15 August 2012, with the favourable conditions, I set off with my camera and tripod. The church is situated about a mile from the nearest road and about six miles from the neighbouring town. It’s also located in a deep valley, which I hoped would provide a safe haven from any surrounding light pollution. Those of you that are lucky enough to live in the East Yorkshire area will probably have already guessed the location. Unfortunately, as I do not wish to ‘awake’ or provoke the owner of this historical site, I shall have to remain silent on the subject to everyone else.

Talking of silence, being alone in an old church grave-yard, miles from anywhere in the middle of the night, is something that everyone should experience at least once! The sounds of the birds subsided slowly as the light faded. Even though there was no moon, it was still light enough for me to move around without my torch; and I really wanted to prolong my torch batteries for the walk back to the car. Thankfully, there was also a light breeze that kept the biting insects at bay. I must be honest here and admit that on a couple of occasions, I shone my torch into the surrounding bushes when I heard a mysterious rustle. Mostly, it was very peaceful. I could hear the screech of a Tawny Owl and the odd Bat would fly past, but fortunately, there wasn’t a zombie or a vampire to be seen!

I arrived at the location shortly before sunset. I scouted several promising view-points but kept changing my mind. Eventually I decided to use my 14-24 wide angle zoom at 15mm from inside the church with the lens pointing in a north-westerly direction. It took until around 10:00 pm before I had everything ready and the interval timer set on my Nikon D3s. I adjusted my camera to manual focus, selected Jpeg quality for a change to keep the file size small, opened the aperture to f4 at ISO 200, and set the exposure time to 30 seconds. I’d programmed the interval timer to give me exposures with one second between frames and then I pressed go. A quick calculation convinced me that an hour or 120 frames would give sufficient frames to make a pleasing star trail.

Unfortunately, everything didn’t quite go to plan. After thirty frames, the camera’s sequence suddenly stopped. I fiddled about with the Intervalometer settings but to no avail. Eventually, I just decided to reset the camera after each thirty or so frames. [Note: I eventually discovered that a D3s shutter speed is slightly more than 30 seconds and by using a 1 second interval it would ‘catch-up with itself’ and fill the buffer after 30 frames. [I have since learned that the interval between each frame should be a minimum of 3 seconds]

After an hour of listening to the constant clockwork click of the mirror and shutter, and jumping up to reset it every 15 minutes, the deed was done. I took a couple of ‘black-frames’ with the lens cap on just in case I needed them later for noise removal purposes [I didn’t], and waved my low-powered torch around the internal walls of the roofless church during a couple of exposures. Finally, I raised the ISO from 200 to 800 and opened the aperture fully to 2.8. This gave me an extra three stops additional exposure value, and so I made a couple more exposures at this setting too.

I arrived home around 1:00 am and loaded the images into Adobe Lightroom 4 before I had a beer and retired to bed. Next morning before work, I made several adjustments to the first frame in the sequence, including cropping, and then applied these changes to the rest of these 119 Jpeg images. I then exported these images to a new folder on my computer’s desktop. I downloaded a shareware copy of StarStaX for my Mac and loaded the files. I followed the instructions and moments later I was delighted to see the completed arc of stars. I quickly added a foreground layer in Photoshop [instructions here] using one of my light-painted frames. The result was Ok so I posted it on my Flickr page.

The following evening I took another look at my image. Yuk! I’d stood there for an hour or more and this image did not reflect the location or its ambience. I went back to the original files, recreated the arc of Stars and then chose one of my last frames; where I had increased the exposure by three stops. This time, the shadows were convincing and the image went some way to representing my pre-visualisation of the scene. Of course, it also removed my woefully inadequate attempts at light-painting.

So what did I learn from my adventure? Trying something different is always the key to increasing my creativity. Perhaps next time, I’ll do some research beforehand and practice in my garden first!

Finally, if you downlaod a copy of Time Lapse Assembler, then you can use your original files to make a neat little movie.

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