Few days back, one of my readers pointed out that apart from the basics involved in capturing night landscapes, star trails, milky way, etc, I should also write about the challenges and common mistakes. Every other time, whenever I am out photographing the night landscapes, some anecdote or the other happens. From simple mistakes to incidents that have become memories to cherish, every photo-shoot is unique.
(The night sky from Maini’s Hill Cottages)
The Leopard Lurks
This is one of the most interesting anecdotes from my night photography. Last year, one of my friends visited me. He is an avid birder and a superb photographer. His visit was close to no-moon night and the skies were clear. Both of us planned on venturing out away from the comfort of our cottage, to capture some night photographs, without the nuisance of any light pollution. We both loaded our photography gear, tripods and some snacks into his car. Early in the dark night, we drove to a nearby spot, on the edge of the forest. It was a cold and really dark night. A boon for photographers. We could capture star-trails without any worry of ambient light. The low temperature helps in keeping the sensor cold and therefore keeping the sensor-noise low.
We set-up our tripods, mounted the cameras, and dialed in all the settings. I set the timed mode (one press on the shutter-release to open the shutter and the second press to close it), focused the lens manually and set the required aperture to achieve the desired depth of field. (My little secret – I still use DoF preview button and a flashlight helps me set it properly even in the dark of night.). My buddy also did the same. Once we were all set, it was time to work in complete darkness. We pressed the shutter release and waited.
While we were waiting, we heard a growl. Maybe it was just in our minds, but we were scared. We ran back to the car and sat inside. The car was parked just a few meters away facing the cameras. Thankfully, my friend had kept it unlocked and no door-light came on when we got it. Even a slight amount of light could have ruined the exposure. We waited inside for 15-20 minutes. That was the time needed for the exposure. The time passed slowly, while we discussed about leopards and planned on how to collect the camera back. For us, saving the exposure was as important as getting our stuff back. Switching on the car’s lights was out of the question. The plan? It was simple. Each of us was to quickly run down to the camera, end the exposure, and run back to the car! Easier said than done! I gathered all my courage and ran to the camera and back, I was able to switch the exposure off. My heart was racing. It would have taken just a few seconds for both of us to safely return to the car but it was a rush of adrenaline.
Now we could safely switch on the car’s headlights. That was the first thing we did. The reassuring flood of light lit up the scene in front. Still, we were not taking any chances. We just gathered up the gear and returned back to the safety of the car. It was inside the car that we packed everything back into the bags., folded the tripods, and breathed a sigh of relief.
(My Buddy and Me. This was on the following morning, or was it the day before? Can’t say for sure… we did have a terrific time.)
Epilogue – The photographs turned out nice. It had been an interesting night. The next morning, the villagers told us that there actually was a leopard where we had gone and it had killed a wild boar not far from where we had photographed that night.
The Winter Night and a Bottle of Rum… Ho Ho Ho
It had snowed heavily. Throughout the day and it was still snowing on. I sat alone in front of a dying fire, answering some of the emails. My camera bag also rested in one corner. Once the emailing was done, I peeped out of the window. The snowfall was slowing down. The moon showed through one corner of the sky. The clouds were starting to clear up. This was enough to let me make up my mind. Just a few night shots in the snowy landscape never did any harm.
I picked up the camera, mounted a wide angle lens, and took out my tripod. The next thing to do was to cover me up. Maintaining my kind of hairstyle has its own disadvantages. The head gets cold very quickly. I found my old woolen cap that I always trust in such weather. Well prepared to face the below-zero outside, I stepped out. With my feet sinking in the deep snow, I tottered to a place that provided a beautiful night view of the valley in front.
For such nightscapes, when there’s snow all around, getting the tripod steady also is a task. I just press it down into the snow as far as I can. It’s not as stable as it would have been on a rock solid ground but still works fine. I captured a few images and then went back into the warmth of the cottage. It was quite cold and so I didn’t have the will to stand out too long. The solution was the bottle of rum that had been waiting to be opened for a long time now. I took a few gulps of the sweet rum and I was back outside again with the camera. I took a few more shots. This time, I experimented with different compositions. It’s hard to see things through the viewfinder in the dark but major elements can be faintly seen and those help in composing the shot.
After some more shots, I went back to the cottage. It was getting cold outside so I was done for the day. After another drink and after warming myself, I previewed the images. They were all blurred! I had come back to the cottage from the cold for a very short time. This was enough for the lens to get fogged. When I went out again, the fogging didn’t disappear immediately. The photographs were all blurred. I simply formatted the card and let the thing pass.
Did you notice my mistake? The shots when I had first gone out should have been fine. Fogging happens when one steps from cold to hot and not the other way around. However, it was too late. I had already formatted the card. Was that rum or just the tiredness from the day? Whatever it was, there was no going back. So… another sip of rum… and Ho Ho Ho.
(This is from that same morning when the snowfall had just started. This I had processed in the daytime itself. Posting it here so as to not disappoint the readers waiting to see some snow)
Running After the Milky Way
My cousin and her family had come over for a few days. It was just after the rainy season. Clear skies and comfortable weather. They were interested in star-gazing and I had the needed company for enjoying photography. During night shots, some of which take quite a long, it is at times good to have company. It takes care of the free-time between shots. For the first shot, I planned on capturing a star-trail. I still prefer creating the start trail within the camera using a single long exposure shot rather than capturing multiple shots and creating trails using software.
I set everything and pressed the shutter release. I wanted the exposure to be about 45 minutes. So, we left the camera mounted on the tripod, and walked back for an early dinner. After a nice sumptuous meal, we chatted and walked back to the camera. I pressed the shutter release button again to end the exposure. I had mistakenly set the exposure to ‘X’ rather than ‘T’ (Camera modes (PSAM and more)). Result – two dark shots, taken a long duration apart! ‘X’ is 1/200 seconds on my camera, the flash sync speed. Both these times, when I pressed the shutter-release, it just opened for 1/200 second and then closed back again. This mistake had happened to me earlier too. Maybe, it is the way that I turn the shutter speed dial, that somehow I end up at ‘X’ rather than ‘T’.
By the time we came back from dinner, Milky-Way was starting to appear. Now it was time for those milky way shots rather than star-trails. I captured some from my lawn and then we all walked over to their home (not far from my place). The view from their balcony was amazing. I captured some more photographs. The best part about photographing the galaxy was not just photography, but the discussions I had with them about the visible stars, planets and constellations. It’s fun to admire these on a clear sky and point them out to the group… much more than even photographing them without any company.
(That’s when a vehicle passed by on the road in front. The exposure had to be long enough to capture the complete trail and yet not let the stars move)
… and the day when Forest-Patrol caught a dumb animal!
Yet another interesting story that goes back a long time. I still like to tell it because this was my first experience with what bright light can do to a long exposure. This is from the film days!
I had found a nice spot on a hill-top, near the city of Mangalore (a beautiful coastal town in southern India). It overlooked the valley, and every-time I passed by this place, I could see the twinkling city lights and the sea beyond. This was a spot where I had planned on some night photographs, on a day when the sky would turn dramatic. And it happened on one fine day!
After the thunderstorm, the sky was full of dramatic cloud formations. I packed my Nikon FM10 (an inexpensive film camera) and loaded my favorite film from that time – Fuji Velvia. This one always gave superb colors and its reciprocity failure was something I knew how to handle (for those of you who have never used film cameras, don’t worry. Reciprocity failure is long gone as are the film cameras).
I reached the spot at around 8PM in the evening. One of my friends was also with me. The sky was full of scattered clouds with a thin moon lighting them up from one side. The sea was quiet and reflected the lights from some of the ships anchored far away. The lights from the homes were unusually dim but this was to my advantage. My surroundings were completely dark. It was next to a forest area. Somehow, I always seem to end up next to forests on dark nights.
I composed my shot and captured the first one. These were film days. No preview screen or histograms to aid. We had to be sure of the settings before pressing the shutter release. For rich photographers, bracketing the shots (varying the exposure across similar shots) was an insurance against exposure errors. For most of the others, exposure bracketing was an expensive solution. I captured a few more shots.
Next, when I was on my fourth or fifth shot, bright lights from a vehicle blinded me. A jeep came up close to me with its headlights pointed directly at me. Without turning the headlights down, they called me over. Once I explained why we were there, they turned down the headlight. This was the forest-patrol. They said that there were poachers nearby and they were informed that the poachers were planning to kill some wild animals in the forest. We were told to pack our photography equipment and follow them. They loaded my camera and tripod in the jeep and I quietly followed their jeep. They drove to a nearby outpost, where they handed me the camera and tripod.
Come to think of it, those forest-patrol people did catch a dumb animal that night… me. Maybe there were poachers around, maybe some beautiful animals also roamed the forest, but what was sure was that they had made me follow all the way to their outpost.
… and yes, the film was fogged. Even the exposures that I had made before that particular one were also fogged. Till today, I suspect that someone had opened the camera in the jeep but one of my peers tells me that sometimes when the fogging was severe, the effect would get carried on to the neighboring frames too.
(Once again, I don’t have a photograph to share from that night, but this is another photograph of the sea, not far from that forest)
Let us plan some night photography together. Get in touch with me.
… and remember – Stuff Happens!