The night sky

November was probably slightly outside the optimal season for astrophotography in the northern hemisphere but nevertheless finding myself in a dark sky area on a clear(-ish) night it would have been rude not to have a go.

Newton in Bowland

This was the first time I’d tried the Nikon D800E for this type of photography but it handled well and combined with the Nikon 14-24 I was very happy with how it worked. The only problem came when I dropped and broke my torch meaning I had to use the light on my phone to check and change settings which was very fiddly with gloved fingers.

Looking at the EXIF data this was a 30 second exposure at ISO 800.  Now at 14mm this should have meant that the stars did not visibly start to “trail” which causes them to appear as short dashes rather than dots in the image.  This is based on the commonly used 500 Rule: 500 divided by the focal length of your lens = the longest exposure (in seconds) before stars start to trail.  In theory I had 36 seconds to play with but looking closely I think 20 seconds would have been better even though I would have needed to increase ISO to 1600.

Capturing the core of the Milky Way has become the “in” thing in astrophotography in recent years, driven in no small measure by improvements in DSLR technologies and greater availability of accessibly-priced cameras to the enthusiast.  One pre-requisite though is a reasonably clear sky along with an absence of light pollution. A Dark Sky site is ideal and the nearest to where I live is in the Forest of Bowland.  Choosing when to make the attempt it is useful to understand a little about the geometry of the Galaxy, and I found an excellent guide at Andrew Rhode’s website.  About half-way down the page is a really handy diagram which really makes it easy to understand when the best time to be out is and what time of the day/night is best. The explanations are clear and straightforward and I can recommend spending some time perusing Andrew’s site.



Timelapse – a particular pleasure

I write a monthly column for the MENSA Photography Special Interest Groups newsletter and there was some talk in the related Facebook Group a while back regarding time-lapse photography and I found myself agreeing to share my thoughts on the subject in a future column which I did in their November 2017 edition. I’m no expert, and looking at the MENSA Facebook group there are people there with more knowledge than myself but I had promised so I sat down and wrote the piece. I had planned on illustrating it but other things got in the way so it was eventually published with some “stock” images supplied by the Editor.

Firstly, don’t be misled by people who say that time-lapse photography can be achieved simply by shooting a 20-minute video and speeding it up to play back in ten seconds. To my mind that is not a time-lapse, it is simply time sped up and without the lapses. A true time-lapse is a sequence of images taken at regular intervals to record changes that take place slowly over time. When the frames are shown at normal speed the action seems much faster. They have a distinctive look and feel too, indeed you will have seen them used a lot in TV shows or films even if the technique isn’t known to you and they are often used to denote the passage of time.

If you own a camera and a tripod then you pretty much have everything needed to take a time-lapse, however one tool that I wouldn’t be without is an intervalometer, which is basically a shutter release that can be programmed to take a series of images at a set interval apart. Before you rush off to buy one though it’s worth checking your camera manual as many cameras have them built in without the need for additional purchases. My Fuji X-T20 for example has one as does the Canon 7DII and many Nikon, Olympus and Panasonic cameras. I found a partial list on the Lonely Speck website (link below) but your camera manual is the best place to check, you are looking for interval timer or similar.

Consistency and patience are also key with shooting time-lapses. For consistency, I always place the camera on a tripod and use manual settings for focus, white balance, aperture, shutter speed and ISO to ensure consistency between frames. Many enthusiasts will tell you that a slower shutter speed can create smoother footage and I certainly try to keep the shutter speed below 1/60th second where possible although this can be problematic outdoors on a very bright and sunny day so you may need to use a neutral density filter to reduce the amount of light entering the lens. I also shoot RAW files although many proponents of time-lapse would recommend shooting JPEGs, as ever you pays your money you makes your choice. For what it’s worth I usually use the JPEGs to quickly see if it’s going to work before batch processing the RAW files.

I prefer to set a low ISO setting as this usually gives better image quality and should help prevent unwanted noise in your images. It is also important to move the camera off of the Auto White Balance setting. Choose an appropriate preset and leave it there, especially if you’re shooting JPEGs.

Even with fully manual settings, one frame can expose slightly differently from the next frame, especially with rapid or constant changes in the light levels, which can sometimes result in a flickering effect in the final output but I have found that wider apertures can sometimes minimise this although a shallower depth-of-field is not necessarily the look that you are wanting so pragmatism has to rule and there are commercial software options to help reduce any flicker in post-production if desired although I’ve not yet found the need for them in the simple sequences that I produce. If you use filters, such as a graduated filter to hold back the exposure in the sky, then these should be in place and not touched again until you’ve taken the required number of images.

I always take a test shot before I start to make sure I am happy with the composition and exposure. Once I’m happy I take a final test shot but with my thumb in front of the lens so I know where my sequence starts. I do the same when I’ve finished shooting, with the thumb pointing down, to quickly identify the end of a sequence. Sounds daft but believe me if you’ve been out shooting for several days before getting back to the computer it really does save time!

So, compose the scene, focus and then lock it down and switch your lens to manual mode and leave it there – don’t touch it again until you captured all the images for your sequence. Which brings us to how many shots do you need. Well, that’s the typical “how long is a piece of string” question so as this article is intended to get you started I’m going to create a typical scenario and work with that.

So, a sunny afternoon sat alongside a stream in the Forest of Bowland, the sheep are grazing in the field below you and a gentle breeze is slowly wafting the white, fluffy clouds across a gentle blue sky. My first thought is how long do I want the finished time-lapse to run for – let’s say ten seconds will be enough. So now I need to decide how many frames I need, which is simpler than you think. We are essentially going to be creating a short video sequence and a typical video displays 24 frames per second (24fps) to give a smooth look to the footage. Which means that for every one second of finished time-lapse I am going to need twenty four images. I don’t need to tell this audience therefore that ten seconds of video needs 10 x 24 = 240 individual images.

Now, remember I mentioned patience above? The essence of time-lapse is the lapses, the gaps between each frame and for the scenario described here I would typically leave a five second gap between each frame. Different subjects and conditions call for different intervals but five seconds serves me well for clouds on a typical day. Which means that in a minute we will only be taking twelve frames so our ten second video is going to need 240 x 5 seconds = 1200 seconds or twenty minutes! I did say patience was important and when shooting time-lapses I’m normally grateful for a second camera (or a flask and a packed lunch).

So, we have set the camera up on a tripod. We have composed the scene, focused and locked off the lens and camera. We have set our exposure (aperture, ISO, shutter speed) manually and we have chosen an appropriate white balance in preference to the auto setting. We now need to shoot our 240 images (I would usually shoot more than I need to give me a little bit of wiggle room later if needed but it’s not essential) and for this we really do need an intervalometer. If your camera has a built-in intervalometer then it’s a matter of telling it how many frames and how long to wait between each frame, I can’t really cover the precise how-to here as all cameras are different. My Fuji X-T20 has a much more intuitive built-in intervalometer than those I have used on a Nikon for example. Without a built-in intervalometer you will need to purchase one that plugs into the camera and there are plenty of these available to purchase online.

Some cameras I believe will also create the time-lapse automatically in-camera for you but I prefer to do it myself so having captured my two hundred and forty-plus images I then head for my computer to do the next stage.  There are many different ways to create the time-lapse and in a general article such as this it doesn’t make sense to focus on just the one I use, Adobe Lightroom, as many other options are available including Photoshop and Elements. Just type “timelapse with [insert name of your software]” into your search engine of choice and you’ll get plenty of options to choose from.  There are lots of videos and tutorials available online for this aspect and even more opinions on the best way of doing it but for what it’s worth this is my typical work flow for a simple time-lapse.

I import all the RAW files into Lightroom, find the sequence (remember my “thumbs up” above?)  and select them all and then process the first file, copying and pasting these tweaks to all the other images in the selection. I feel it’s important to be as consistent as possible across the entire sequence, we did that by shooting manually and should continue this by giving every frame the same post-processing treatment. I then move to the Slideshow module in Lightroom where I use a preset to combine my 240 single images into a single ten second time-lapse video. I have provided a few links below, including one for the Lightroom preset, to get you started

I hope this has whetted your appetite, be warned though, time-lapse is addictive especially once you start adding movement into the capture of the images!

To finish a time-lapse shot from the bedroom window

Some useful links

An interesting discussion on flickering:

Creating a time-lapse in Lightroom:

Create a simple time-lapse using Lightroom: (this is also where I downloaded the timelapse templates from)

A beginners guide:

Lonely Speck website:

A window sill time-lapse

A frustrating month was December as I’ve already mentioned several times. The only decent snow flurry of the Winter thus far and I’m under virtual house arrest!

I managed to have a little play but have to say being restricted to the window sill of the front bedroom was rather inhibiting! For what it’s worth though, a short time-lapse complete with a few minutes video footage taken simply to check I remembered how 🙂

Welcome 2018

Over recent years I’ve regularly blogged an update or review of the year just gone. For many years I was studying so the review was largely related to progress against academic targets but more personal considerations invariably crept in. Most of those blogs are now closed or set to private as they relate to areas which I am not currently pursuing actively.

© Dave Whenham
Sligachan – late 2016 but processed 2017

This year though I’ve decided to break the cycle and rather than look back I am going to broadly look forward although in doing so will no doubt make a nod towards 2017 which has been quite an “interesting” year, especially its final four weeks.

As I have already trailed over the last sixty-three days I will be starting a 365-Challenge (365-2018) today having got a taste with the 63-2017 Challenge that ended yesterday. I hope to get the results of various medical tests next week and with at least two weeks of medication still to come I am anxiously looking forward to getting out and about with my cameras as soon as possible! I summarised my thoughts on the 63-2017 Challenge yesterday and as I sit here at 8am on 1st January 2018 I’m already wondering about an image to open my 365-2018 campaign.

© Dave Whenham
Newborough Beach – DJI Mavic

One thing I really do want to achieve in 2018 is a step-change in my drone skills; both flying and manoeuvring the craft but also in the image quality of both stills and video footage. I made huge steps during 2017 and produced several images of which I am very happy and this is definitely something I am really looking forward to building upon over the coming twelve months.

Hand in hand with this is of course the use of video. I can look back on a good deal of progress in purely technical terms but less so in terms of creativity or story-telling. The same can be said of audio-visual (AV) sequences primarily driven by the use of still images. If I’m honest I’m unsure about the direction this will take in 2018. Will one start to become more important and push the other to the sidelines or indeed will both drift as I veer back towards my core interest of still photography? As of this morning I am still keen to improve my technical skills both in capture and post-production. On the video front I suspect the focus will move towards a greater sharing of how I approach a particular location or shot, what decisions I make and why. I am not making videos primarily for other people so taking a more introspective look at what and why I do things will help me better understand how my photographic development is progressing.

Personal musings, such as the Nikon-to-Fuji ramblings video (above), may well still feature but as of 1st January 2018 I can see them becoming less important to me.  As for AV I really cannot predict where I see that going in 2018. I am still contemplating joining the Leeds & District AV Society this year and following attendance at an AV event in 2017 I am already looking forward to the next event in the series.

Time-lapse photography will remain a key interest I predict. Whether or not I will be able to incorporate movement, other than rotational, remains to be seen but that is the logical next step. I am busy putting the finishing touches to a blog post on the subject based on an article I wrote recently for the MENSA Photographic SIG newsletter and am indeed rendering a snowy time-lapse in the background whilst working on this blog post.

I made a few new contacts during 2017, some through this blog, and I am looking forward to catching up with what they were up to in December as my social media accounts have been largely neglected during the past four to five weeks as evidenced by the blog posts here. I will also find time to tackle some photographic challenges, such as Forty-Five, once my house arrest finishes and to hopefully get involved in some of the additional challenges that are part of the 365 group I have joined on Flickr.

In summary, I am hoping that 2018 will be a year of consolidation in terms of skills and knowledge in those areas which interest me. One thing I have been coming to realise more and more over the last 12 months is that I should do what interests and appeals to me rather than worrying about peer accolades and recognition. I took some steps along that road in 2017 so lets hope that 2018 is the year when I fully embrace the concept.