Saturday, 23 February 2013

Stargazing in The Mendip Hills

Last year I posted about getting into photographing the night sky. Since then I've been doing some research and a little planning. It's all turned out much more addictive than I first thought. This week I was photographing Crook Peak on the Mendip Hills. Knowing that we were in for a clear sky that night I decided to take the opportunity to hang around until after dusk to make a start on my night sky project.

Star Trails Over Crook Peak, Somerset
Star Trails Over Crook Peak, Somerset

The limestone outcrop at the top of Crook Peak made for an interesting foreground so before darkness fell I selected the most interesting looking rocks and then waited for the stars to appear. My research had paid off as once it was dark enough I was easily able to identify the pole star (Polaris) around which all the other stars would appear to rotate. Better still I managed to find it in my viewfinder!

The one thing I was unsure about was whether to go for one single long exposure or several short exposures and stack the images together later. Consensus on the internet was the latter. Certainly my limited attempts at star trails on my old Nikon D2x a few years ago supported the thinking that noise would be an issue with one single long exposure.

I had a Mental block once darkness fell though and was unable to remember where the intervalometer could be found in my camera's menu. That decided it. I had no intention of spending all night searching through a menu on the back of my camera so single long exposures it was!

I tried different exposures of up to 10 minutes and experimented with a small LED torch to paint light onto the rocks. I was pleased with my final image, although a 20 minute exposure would have given longer trails for better effect. As it happens the camera did admirably well with a single exposure and produced very clean images.

This stargazing bug has certainly bitten and the family now has a small 4 inch telescope. We've only used it in the garden so far and this has limits due to nearby street lamps and a restricted view of the horizon. The day before I made the image above at Crook Peak, we decided to go up onto the Mendip Hills which would be free from these limitations. So just before sunset we carried the telescope up to the top of Cross Plain on the Mendips (near Crook Peak).

Stargazing On The Mendip Hills, Somerset
Stargazing On The Mendip Hills, Somerset

Unfortunately once we were set-up we realised that the batteries in the telescope's motorised mount were running flat which made locating objects in the sky a little tricky. Mental note to charge them before leaving the house next time. Our frustration was made worse by the stiff breeze that kept shaking the telescope. A little more planning will be required for our next excursion!

Still, it wasn't a completely wasted trip as I managed to make some nice images of the kids using the telescope in the dusk light.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Duckpool, North Cornwall

A few months back I took the plunge and decided to see what all the fuss was about Adobe Lightroom version 4. Well, it has proved to be particularly good at extracting detail from images made in tricky lighting conditions. For example, this was an image I made hand held while walking along the North Cornwall coast one sunny winters day two years ago.

Rock Formation At Duckpool, Cornwall
Rock Formation At Duckpool, Cornwall

I had been exploring Sandymouth beach near Bude looking for interesting images for a future visit later in the year when the evening sun is better positioned. I wasn't expecting to make any pictures that day as the light wasn't particularly good but I had my little Panasonic GF1 for recording interesting compositions that I planned to re-visit with my large format camera.

When I reached Duckpool I was immediately drawn to this fantastic rock formation. As luck would have it cloud cover had moved in and softened the bright sunlight that had prevailed throughout the day and I saw the possibility of an image. Unfortunately the cloud cover, whilst softening the sunlight, had extended behind this rock and so presented me with a new problem. The bright cloud behind the rock and the dark shadows at the front were at either end of my camera's sensitivity. If I had my tripod I could have made two exposures, one for the sky and one for the rock which could be then combined. I didn't have a tripod and besides, I've never been entirely happy with the results of this technique. I would have to make this image with one single exposure.

Whilst I was able to capture the whole dynamic range on my camera (just), I was not hopeful of being able to extract clean detail from the dark shadows. The camera recorded most of the scene as a black silhouette and from experience I knew that would mean horrible noise and very little detail when I set to work on the image. Later, after downloading the image, my suspicions were confirmed to be correct and I was unable to produce anything usable, let alone close to what I remember seeing that day.

I decided to put this image aside and tackle it another day.

Having become familiar with Lightroom's increased capabilities I recently decided to take another look at this image. The new tools in Lightroom, as well as being more intuitive, made surprising light work of this image. To my delight I was able to extract a huge amount of detail from the shadows and the inevitable noise was easily controlled without any loss of fine detail. Of course, I could have also achieved this using the latest Adobe Raw Converter in Photoshop CS6 which uses the same processing engine as Ligthroom 4, but I personally find the controls in Lightroom to be more intuitive.

I was so pleased to be able to produce this image I remember seeing that day and I am now looking at reworking a few old favourites of mine now that I know what can be done.