Nocturnal Activities

On August 3, 2012 by Simon Fleming

This time of year when the daylight hours are shorter I tend to head out into the night with my camera gear a lot more. Due to work commitments during the day and busy weekends there aren’t a lot of daylight hours left for me and my landscapes… but that just opens the door to experiment with a whole lot of other ways of capturing some of my favourite local haunts. This first image was a 2 minute exposure with a 14mm lens, the second was also 2 minutes but at 200mm – both ISO 400.

 

It can be a real challenge to capture a scene you think you know relatively well, without the aid of the sun. I know that sounds obvious but a whole bunch of new challenges come in to play – simple things like focusing can be downright hard to nail, especially if you don’t have anything of relative size or contrast in your framing. If you have city lights or the moon in the sky it makes life a whole lot easier and having a torch handy can also come in useful if you are shooting wide and need to focus on something in your foreground. Depending on what state the moon is in, and where it is in the sky, you will also get really different results – sometimes helping you out, others sabotaging the sky if you are after stars. The exposure time on this image was four minutes, during which I slowly wandered down to the bottom of the board walk and back with a head torch on – looking down to shed some light onto the floor slats.

This was another four minute exposure where I got into the frame for the last two minutes and held as still as I could (not easy as it was bloody cold and I was beginning to shiver a bit).

Despite having shot a lot of images in the wee hours it still amazes me how much light digital SLR’s manage to suck up on to their sensors. I remember the first time I began to experiment with night exposures on my first DSLR, a Nikon D200, many years ago at a place called Rainbow Valley in central Australia. It was midnight, close to zero degrees, and I was a about to hop into a nice warm swag with my wife. This was the last night of our trip before heading home and I just wanted to milk every last second of the time away that I could, so I decided to go for one last wander out onto a clay pan that lay at the foot of a magnificent rocky outcrop near where we were camping. I thought it would be a good idea to take my camera and tripod and have a bit of a ‘play’. Not expecting much at all I damn near fell over when I gazed at the image on the camera’s display… F4 / 30 seconds / ISO 1600. Holy BeJesus! I suddenly wasn’t cold or tired anymore, and half an hour later I was still making images. It was a moonless night, and being in the middle of outback Australia there was no shortage of stars – perfect ingredients. Since then cameras have improved dramatically in regards to high ISO noise performance but those noisy initial images I shot are still amongst my favourites, and they really got me interested in shooting at night again.

Despite the high ISO noise capabilities I still like to shoot close to my camera’s native ISO – I usually aim to shoot around 200 to 400. Like everything I shoot, there is a good chance that I may want to print it later, and potentially large, so I’m always trying to squeeze as much quality out of my gear that I can. I also set the in camera noise reduction on for exposures longer than 2 minutes as I find it makes a worthwhile difference (it will also double your exposure time though too unfortunately). Unless I’m trying to have no visible motion in the stars, this simply just means that I will be shooting longer exposure times – which is fine. I use a remote release that I can program my exposure time into – this makes life a whole lot easier if you are shooting for longer than 30 seconds, which is generally the longest shutter speed DSLR’s will shoot at on their own. You still need to be in manual mode and set your camera to ‘bulb’ but you don’t have to keep your finger on the shutter button for the entire exposure length – on average 4 minutes for me.

The results can often be hit and miss but it is always fun trying new ideas out and learning from previous mistakes. Some nights I have come back with only a handful of images, all of which are garbage but I have still enjoyed the process. It is a great thinking and winding down time. I often go shooting with my business partner Ros from the Hub Photo Shop (pictured above) and as well as making images we sometimes use this as our ‘office’ to discuss ideas for the business – beats the hell out of the usual office.

Star trails require more time, planning and patience. I have dabbled a bit with them but because of the time they take I don’t always go that way, preferring to get a a bigger variation of images rather than just one for the night. Having said that, when you do put in the effort you can get some really amazing shots. This one was shot at Port Noarlunga, South Australia and was a result of combining about 60 images shot over approximately 2 and a half hours.

This next image was the result of about 90 frames shot over 3 hours at a friends party up in the mid north of South Australia – a bonfire provided the illumination for the gum tree. The beauty of this shot was once I had everything calculated and dialled in, I was able to enjoy a few beers with my friends whilst the camera did all the work for me over the following hours…

A favourite of mine to finish off, about a 3 minute exposure, taken from the boat ramp looking south back at the Port Noarlunga jetty.

 

 

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