Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Space Exploration

Last year I spent a week visiting my mother in Flagstaff, Arizona. My 7D was still quite new to me at the time and I shot video constantly, resulting in this. This time I dedicated myself to the part of that film which fascinated and disappointed me the most. Night sky time-lapses.

Having not so much as turned on my Neewer exposure timer in over a year, I had to pretty much re-learn everything I'd muddled through the last time. This time, it being November, not September, the nightly temperature averaged around 15 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit.

Every night I'd spend a few minutes finding a decent composition, do a few test exposures and once I was happy, I'd create a new folder on the CF card, set the timer, and go to bed. When I awoke in the morning I'd usually find the camera, now frosted over, it's battery dead and the timer still going.

Below is a compilation of all my time-lapses, start to finish, from the entire trip. By no means a finished product. I'm still working out just what to do with them but I though it important to share.

While it's still fresh in my memory I'd like to list a few things I learned along the way.

  • Open up the iris on your lens all the way. You might think that infinite focus requires a stopped-down lens but there is so little light in that night sky and you need to gather all that you can with your photon collector. In my case that meant opening my Tokina 11-16mm to f2.8 and focusing to just a tiny bit back from the lens's infinity mark.
  • Set your ISO as high as is acceptable. I found that 3200 iso was about as high a noise level as I was willing to accept. I was generally shooting JPEGs at first so the noise was not easily removed. On the later time-lapses I began to experiment with RAW sequences, thus improving the noise situation.
  • White balance at 3800 K. When shooting JPEGs, 3800 K white balance gave me the most accurate results. Again, shooting RAW negates this concern. Your results may vary.
  • Be patient and do the math. If you're doing 1 minute exposures as I was, then you're getting 1 frame every minute. That means that if you leave your camera 'lapsing away for one hour you'll only have  a 2.5 second video (if you're aiming for 24 fps. and you're only a real man or woman if you are).
  • Don't be afraid to go out of your way. The last night of our trip, my friend Sam and I decided to return to a spot we'd seen earlier in the week on our way back from an awesome cave exploring adventure. It was a 30 minute drive which we set out on at 12:30am to coincide with the moon setting. The images were great (though I only 'lapsed for an hour so the final shot wasn't terribly long) but more than that the experience of standing in a completely isolated field in the dead of night under a brilliant celestial display was one I wouldn't trade for all the sleep in the world (I'd make up for it on the flight back the next morning).
See what you miss when you're busy sleeping?
One of the absolute highlights of this trip was visiting the Lowell Observatory. There I was able to peer through the high-powered telescopes at Jupiter, The Moon and the M3 Star Cluster. I also had the privilege of asking the astrophysicists on hand every question I could think of. One such physicist, and experienced astrophotographer gave me insights which vastly improved my exposures thereafter.

The entire experience has left me with a deep passion for photographing the night sky and for learning about the universe itself. I'm currently looking into elaborating on Goldpaint Photography's "delineated" time-lapse methodologies. Specifically it's implementation with musical movements. I'm also planning several more outings to dark-sky locations. I'll be posting my results along the way.

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