Tony McLean's East Yorkshire Wildlife Diary

Wildlife photography in East Yorkshire

Per Ardua ad Astra*

Per Ardua ad Astra

* Through adversity to the stars

[Note: Please double click this image to see a larger version on my Flickr page. Turn down the room light and it will look even better!]

The other day, I popped in to see Richard Hampshire, the warden at Tophill Low. I hadn’t been on the reserve for a couple of months and I wanted to catch up. I mentioned to Richard that I wished to capture a star-trail image somewhere on the reserve, but I wasn’t sure of an appropriate location. As soon as Richard mentioned the new Alfred McBean hide and the surrounding pollarded poplar trees, I was hooked. I could pre-visualise the final image in my mind and if you know what you want, you stand a greater chance of success.

I checked the weather forecast and it all seemed favourable for an evening at Tophill Low: a light wind, clear skies and an early setting moon. I arrived at the ‘Angus McBean hide around 19:30. At the last minute, I had decided to bring along my 500mm lens as well as my 14-24 wide angle zoom. Richard had informed me that there was a good chance of spotting some passing waders and I wasn’t going to waste the chance by not having my long lens with me. As I watched the sun sink towards the horizon, a flock of Greenshank flew in to roost in the shallow pool in front of the hide. I managed to get several shots of the Greenshank in flight, with the photograph below being the best of the sequence.

Flying Greenshank

Actually, if I was going to print this image for my wall, I would have removed the lower bird that is partially ‘out-of-focus’. However, I decided to keep it as it does show the distinctive triangular white patch that is typical of a Greenshank in flight.

After sunset, I packed away my 500mm lens and readied my camera for the time-lapse. I decided to use large Jpegs rather than Raw because I didn’t wish to fill up the memory card. I turned off ‘long exposure noise reduction’ in the menu (otherwise the camera would take two images including a black frame and that would more than double each exposure time). I set my D3s to its lowest ISO (200) and the lens to 16 mm at f4. I then set the camera to manual everything, including the white balance and focus, and lastly, I set the interval timer to to take 120 exposures, each 30 seconds long, with a five-second gap between each exposure.

Selecting the best place to set up the camera was difficult. Obviously, I wanted the camera to point towards the North star, but also include the path to the hide and several of those strange pollarded trees. I tried several positions before settling on the above composition. (This is best done at twilight so you can see the position of Polaris and the controls on your camera). By 21:30, the after-glow of the sunset had largely disappeared and there were sufficient stars in the sky to commence the sequence. I tripped the shutter on my tripod mounted camera and retired to the hut with my flask of tea. I watched the night sky become increasingly black and saw the hypnotic beam of light from Flamborough head light-house scour the horizon with its rotating beam. I also saw a military jet land at the nearby RAF Leconfield and a helicopter take off and land.

The whole sequence ended around 22:30, after about 120 frames. I then chose to make several additional exposures so that I could capture the glow through the partially open door and the window of the hide. I set the camera to delay and used my small torch to illuminate the inside of the hide. I later changed the colour balance of this torch-light in Photoshop to give a much warmer and more satisfying glow and merged it with the results of the star-trail sequence. When I returned home, I ran the downloaded images through an application called StarStax and after a few more tweaks, the job was done.

My photograph of the star-trail at the head of this post was taken outside the new hide that was recently dedicated to Flt Sgt Angus McBean. Please see Richard Hampsire’s blog for the whole story. Flt Sgt Angus McBean died when his Bristol Blenheim MK1 twin-engined aircraft crashed on a night-time training flight his near this spot on 6 May 1942. This is my humble tribute to that brave pilot and the debt we all owe to such brave men & women.

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