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Mark Humpage, Elemental Photographer turns his attentions to the sky

At least one person could benefit from this year's snow misery, as Mark Humpage explains.

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 Mark Humpage.
Not an Oscar or Bafta in sight. Lots of snow and extremely cold. A recent British February that will stay with memory for a long time no doubt. Nothing to do with the deep snow carpeting many parts, closed schools, frozen roads or lack of gritters. No, for this photographer February 2009 will hold a special memory.
The evening started off with all good domestic intentions. I recall looking at the outside temperature on my weather station, -8C and falling. Grabbing my boots and winter woolies I dragged my mutt from her cosy warm bed and into the Siberian blast of rural Leics for a walk. Reluctantly she sunk, waist deep, into the snow and rolled those 'Do we have to?' eyes at me. It was cold, very cold. I recall thinking the last time I had felt this cold was back in the Norwegian Arctic in 2008. No aurora here tonight, but the dog walk was cut short. She was eternally grateful too, bobbing back through the deep snow like an excited lamb on a Spring morning.
I was witnessing something very special indeed. The nearly full moon was glowing and beaming its nocturnal rays down onto the snow laden fields. It was amazingly bright. I switched off my torch and it was like daylight. It was now 9pm. Pretty scary stuff actually. I looked up and the sky looked intensely black with stars sparkling like diamonds. It was the first clear sky night for a good few weeks and I just had to get the camera out.
Hurrying back to the house I rushed in and grabbed the camera gear. The dog was all ready curled up and back in bed. What a life, I sighed and headed back outside. It was a golden opportunity to attempt a star trail shot. To leave the camera running and capture a two hour period would hopefully yield the effect of earth's rotation via a visible star trail. It was something I had tried before but failed due to overexposure and noise. However this time I had a cunning plan.
The objective was to mount the camera (Olympus E3) on tripod with a good wide angle lens (7-14mm), framing my snow laden property, and composing around the North Star, also called the Pole Star or Polaris (This is the star that the earth's axis points toward in the Northern sky, which means the other stars will appear to rotate around it). I then attached my time lapse controller (PClix) to fire every 60 seconds and set the camera to expose for 60 seconds. I switched the Noise Reduction off (to prevent double time exposure), set the camera in manual mode, the aperture wide open to f/4, manually focused on the property and pressed the go button. I then went back indoors and joined the dog! It was bitterly cold and I hoped the batteries would hold out.
At 11pm I wandered back outside and indeed it was all still working fine. I switched off, disassembled and carried all the equipment back to the house. I wrapped the camera inside a plastic bag and then took it indoors and waited for half an hour to regain ambient house temperature. A good tip that, which prevents condensation forming in the camera.
I recall looking at the images via the LCD first and couldn't understand why they looked so dark. I was expecting something much brighter, if not on the verge of overexposure, for a 60 second frame. I then revealed the info to find each exposure was in fact 15seconds and not 60. Aaaaargh! It took me a while to work out what had gone wrong. Eventually I found out the power pack was slightly loose and the camera had reset itself while setting up, without me knowing.
This resulted in the camera capturing a 15 second exposure in every 60 seconds. I immediately thought disaster and what a waste of two hours work. Half heartedly I downloaded all the full JPEG quality images, just over 120 in total, to my laptop. I was intrigued as to what the end result would look like when all the images are layered together.
Painstakingly, I opened up each image in PS and added each image in sequence to the first. After a couple of hours my eyes were hurting. The output file at this stage was well over 1Gb and the nuts & bolts on my trusty Vaio churned away for half an hour during the save. I was now burning midnight oil, tired so I retreated to bed.
The next morning, after a strong coffee, I resumed. By lunchtime the whopping 3Gb file had eventually completed and saved. There must be an easier method to this!
I eventually opened the final output file, adjusted the levels slightly and blow me I nearly fell off my chair. The result was amazing. I was looking at a beautiful star trail, composed perfectly, sharp and not blown out by light pollution. I had stumbled across the perfect technique for mastering the star trail effect. Reduce exposure times down to 15 seconds, shoot continuous for 2 hours and then bring it all together in one single layer to effect our earth spin, visualised through these amazing star trails. Perfect.
 The finished photograph by Mark Humpage.

I was so impressed that I fired off the image to my usual agency contacts. Low and behold a few days later it made National press and also featured on ITV local news. ITV even came out to film the show from my back yard. How about that for an opportune shoot.
Now where is that Oscar?

For more information visit Mark Humpage's website.

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Metalhead 13 1.9k 2 England
24 Mar 2009 10:31AM
No comments yet? Why not? It's a brilliant and inspiring article.

Might give this a try before the summer nights are upon us. Though there's always next winter...
25 Mar 2009 9:53AM
I had my first attempt at star trails in the winter too. Got a couple of good results, which I'll add to my portfolio this week. One of Polaris, and one of Orion with a radio antenna in the foreground.

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