Tony McLean's East Yorkshire Wildlife Diary

Wildlife photography in East Yorkshire

Archive for the category “Stars”

Seeing the light

Aurora - Nyvoll fish-farm

I was sat in a bar in Alta a few night’s ago slowly savouring a rather expensive beer and casually re-reading Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice & Men’ on my iPad. For those of you who haven’t had the opportunity of reading this short but beautifully written novella, I would highly recommend doing so. Essentially, it’s about loneliness and it reflected my mood perfectly.

It was early in the evening and outside the ice-covered streets were dark and empty. The bar was almost empty too and there was little opportunity for my favourite pastime of people watching. A tall Norwegian man entered the bar, dressed in a thick overcoat and white Aran sweater. He was alone and he appeared to be a visitor rather than a resident. I watched him as he ordered a beer and take a seat at the far end of the bar. He drummed his fingers on the wooden table as he scanned the room for someone to engage in conversation. I didn’t really wish to chat so I lowered my head and continued to read and sip my beer.

After five minutes or so, the man shuffled across and asked me in Norwegian if I wished talk. I didn’t want to be rude so I quickly explained that I was from the UK and didn’t speak his native language and hoping that this would suppress his desire to continue. It didn’t. He spoke excellent English and went on to tell me of the reason he was in Alta. It turned out that he was a marine biologist and was marooned in Alta for the night, waiting to catch an early flight the following morning to Tromso and then onto another trawler.

He told me about various boats that he had worked on and places around the world that he had visited. I said very little; just asking sufficient questions so as not to be rude and listened while he told me about his passion for sea-fishing and all things marine. He reached into his coat pocket and produced a postcard that he had written to his daughter and confessed that he much preferred ‘old-fashioned’ postcards to e-mail and any other form of digital communication.

He was a pleasant man and keen to talk about his job. My knowledge of fishing was rather sketchy so I asked him about a fish-farm that I had photographed earlier that week. I opened my iPad and quickly flicked to a photograph and asked him for an explanation of the strange blue lights. He patiently explained that these blue LED lights were commonly used in aquaculture in the Northern Hemisphere. Apparently, he said, and pointing towards his crotch, these blue lights artificially extended the photoperiod and masked the shortening day length that preventing the physiological processes that initiate gonad development. This in turn led to an increase in their growth rate. I was suitably impressed though admittedly, a little uncomfortable at his rather graphic gesture. He asked me whether I would like another beer but I declined, wished him goodnight and a successful trip.

I pondered on the significance of these strange blue lights as I walked slowly back up the hill to the guesthouse. It seemed to me that physics behind the emission of the blue lights was essentially the same as that which produces the phenomena we know as the Northern Lights i.e. electroluminescence. A quick internet search and a few minutes reading confirmed my suspicions.

The following evening, I had another opportunity to photograph a salmon farm, this time just outside Nygoll. Now better informed, I wanted to make another image that better encompassed my recently acquired knowledge. After several minutes of trial end error I finally ended up with the photograph at the head of this post.

Well, I’m sorry to say that I shall be leaving Alta tomorrow and heading home. I have enjoyed my trip immensely and have had the opportunity of making some wonderful photographs. However, if you asked me to nominate my favourite image from my whole trip it would have to be this image. Not because this aurora is by any means spectacular but because of the contrasting lights and their common physics.

One blue, artificial and constant—designed by man to provide food for a luxury market; the other green, celestial and ephemeral.



Aurora over frozen-lake

I arrived in Alta on Monday at 1:30 in the morning. The flight from Oslo had been delayed by three hours and I was tired of travelling and ready for bed. Luckily, Bente the owner of the guest-house, had very kindly stayed up to welcome me. After a brief conversation, I dumped my bags on the floor and retired for the night.

The next morning I awoke with the familiar symptoms of a bout of Diverticulitis. This was not good news. I was a long way from home and the thought of spending part of my vacation in hospital was not part of my plan. The weather was also unseasonably warm. I struggled back to the airport to pick up my hire car and then spent the next couple of days lying on my bed and feeling decidedly sorry for myself.

Yesterday was New Year’s eve and I was feeling marginally better. I looked at the local weather forecasts and it didn’t look inspiring. High winds and partial cloud cover until 8:00 pm then fully overcast for the remainder of the night. I knew that the optimum time for an aurora display is usually between the hours of 10:00 pm to 3:00 am. Maybe I should stay in bed or read a book? Ignoring these doubts, I packed my gear and a flask of coffee and headed north along the E6 towards Hammerfest.

The road was quiet as I drove carefully out of Alta and up the winding pass onto the high plateau. It was already 6:30 pm and I could see the clouds pouring over the mountains from the west. I stopped at a lay-by and peered at the sky. I could make out some weak aurora in the moon-lit sky. I retrieved my camera equipment from the car and set up my tripod on the edge of the road and made a few 8 second exposures of the sky above a frozen, snow-covered lake.

Still dissatisfied, I returned to my car and continued along the road. I passed an automatic snow barrier and a short distance further, the road was partially blocked by a small avalanche. I continued on for a short distance and was met with a snow-plough and a completely blocked road. The high winds were sweeping snow across the carriageway and any further progress was impossible. I turned around and headed back towards Alta.

A few hundred yards in the distance I could see red-lights flashing on the automatic barrier as it swung vertically down into its closed position. I don’t know why but at that point, I thought of the famous scene of Indiana Jones in the Raiders of the Lost Ark. Unfortunately, real life is not like Holywood and I didn’t make it.

I got out of my car to see if there was a manual release for the barrier but no such luck. I poured myself a coffee and listened to the radio and cursed myself for venturing out on such an inhospitable night. I scoured the horizon for approaching headlights but it appeared that most sensible folk were all at home on this last evening of the year. About an hour later, I could see an approaching vehicle.

A tow-truck came to a halt on the other side of the closed barrier and the owner approached my vehicle. He was surprised to see me and asked me why I was not celebrating with my friends at home on New Year’s eve. Once he established that I from the U.K. and on holiday he must have concluded that this was just normal eccentric British behaviour. We chatted about football and he made quick call on his mobile and within minutes the flashing lights ceased and the barrier swung open. I thanked him for his troubles and wished him a Happy New Year.

I arrived back in Alta just in time for the New Year celebrations. Fireworks lit the sky and it seemed that everyone was outside welcoming in the New Year. Bente very kindly asked me if I would like to join the party but I politely declined. I’d reached my limit to the excitement for one evening. A couple of cans of beer later and I was fast asleep.

Photographing the aurora – Alta, Norway

Aurora - Langfjord, Norway

It’s almost a month now since I returned from a wonderful trip to Alta in Norway. I travelled there alone with the sole intention of photographing the Northern Lights. In hindsight, I was extremely lucky. The conditions during my short stay were almost ideal with clear, star-studded skies almost every night during my ten day stay. I don’t believe that the weather over there has been quite as good since returning to the U.K. I guess those ancient Norse Gods must have been smiling down on me.

Perhaps some of you are wondering why on earth I chose Alta in Norway to spend two weeks of my well-earned, annual vacation? I suspect that privately, even some of my friends think I’m border-line certifiable. Well, there is sound (sort of) logic behind my decision. Let me explain…

Last year, I travelled to Iceland with my Squiver friends and enjoyed the experience. Even though we only got to see the northern lights on one evening, it was spectacular. Far better than the best fireworks display you’ve ever seen and without the smoke and the crowds! Perched precariously on steep and loose glacial moraine and watching the light-show unfold was an amazing experience but one I admit, for which I was totally unprepared. I fumbled with my camera controls in the inky blackness and failed to get a sharp focus on the stars. I struggled getting an adequate exposure and had no time to explore alternative compositions. I was so very envious of my Canadian friends to whom this was second nature and who effortlessly snapped away and produced some absolutely stunning images. I was angry with myself but at the same time, I was hooked!

So, during the past twelve months, I’ve been surfing the web, searching for a location that would be both accessible and scenic and with a stable climate, clear nights and with good prospects of an auroral display. The small city of Alta in the arctic circle appeared to fit all of the above criteria. It was further north than the popular Norwegian city of Tromso and and more importantly to me, it attracted far fewer tourists. Personally, I hate being distracted by large numbers of other photographers all getting in each others way and spoiling my images with the light from their head-torches.

I stayed at the wonderful Baarstua Guesthouse, some fifteen minutes from the centre of Alta. The owner Bente lives in a beautiful family home right opposite the guesthouse and was extremely helpful throughout my stay, giving me plenty of advice and organising taxis and car rental. There is no doubt that Norway is expensive but staying at this guesthouse, equipped with its own small kitchen, enabled me to survive within my budget. I even hired my car from the local franchise of ‘Rent-A- Wreck’.

Aurora streams - Alta

I pre-booked a couple of evening ‘aurora hunts’ through a local adventure company Glød, before I visited Norway. This turned out to be a wise move. The local knowledge and experience of the two guides Anton and Katrina, proved invaluable and gave me the confidence to hire a car and explore the landscape by myself for the remainder of my trip.

Winter in northern Norway is cold. I experienced a range of temperatures from an almost tropical -10 C down to -35 C near Suolovuopmi! You need to dress for the conditions. A down-jacket, insulated boots and thermal underwear are essential. Handling your camera in such temperatures can be difficult. I have never yet found an ideal pair of gloves that would give me the necessary tactility and insulation. At temperatures below -20 C, your skin will begin to freeze in minutes. I thought I’d escaped without injury until small blisters appeared on the pads of each of my finger-tips when I got home. Camera batteries are much less efficient in really cold temperatures. I kept a spare battery in my inside pocket each night, just in case.

Witnessing the aurora for the first time is an almost spiritual experience. Yes, scientists have researched the phenomena and can fully explain the physics behind the spectacle. Nevertheless, the feeling of wonder and awe still remains. I admire both its beauty, rarity and its ephemeralness. To me, photography is all about capturing that unique moment in time; so very different from other media such as film or video.

Visiting Alta has also given me the opportunity of experiencing the polar winter with its unique ‘blue-light’; albeit at the tail-end of the season. Winters back home have become boring. Snowy conditions and minus temperatures are rare and are considered a nuisance rather than an event to be embraced and enjoyed. I like the cold and the ice. Everything appears so much cleaner and brighter. Here’s an excerpt from my daily diary that may give you a flavour of my nocturnal adventures…

Aurora and moonlight - Duggelv

Last night’s aurora was a doozie! For a few minutes, I swear I could have read a newspaper from its bright, green light. It was fantastic to see the winter landscape lit by an alien green glow and see its reflections on the surface of the sea. For a short spell, there was so much activity that I didn’t know which way to point my lens. I even wished that I had a fish-eye lens so I could capture the whole sky! It was stunning.

I set off about 8:00 pm, heading south along the E6 to a previously researched location on the shore of a fjord: one of Slartibartfast’s* award winning designs. I set up my camera in the middle of a snowy field and waited patiently in the deep powder snow. I guess it was below -15 C as my nose hairs tingled with each intake of breath.

After about fifteen minutes, I heard a man approaching me from the local farmhouse. He was curious to know the reason I was stood in the dark in the middle of his field. Satisfied that I was a genuine English eccentric, we chatted about the Aurora and the local wildlife, mostly foxes and otters.

Suddenly, I saw a luminous green light out of the corner of my eye and turned to see the stunning arc of an auroral rainbow spanning the whole sky. I reached for my camera and began to photograph this cosmic spectacle. The farmer tried to continue our conversation but eventually retreated to the warmth of his house when he realised I was totally engaged with my photography.

Aurora over the new Alta Bridge - Norway

I stayed and photographed the aurora for about an hour, trying many different compositions and camera settings whilst the aurora continued to wave and shimmer across the moon-lit sky. Eventually, I returned to my car, fingers frozen; as was the grin across my face. I drove back towards Alta, stopping at several previously researched locations; each time the aurora continued to oblige. I even managed to photograph the auroral lights above the recently completed suspension bridge over the fjord at Kåfjorden—perhaps a first?

* A character in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a comedy/science fiction series created by Douglas Adams.

Aurora over Langfjord - Alta

The whole trip was a wonderful experience. My camera equipment (Nikon D4 and D800) operated flawlessly despite the sub-zero temperatures. As I sit here at my desk, listening to the wind blown rain battering against my window, I really wish I was back in Finnmark, Norway.

Aurora - Langfjord, Norway

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.

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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