Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Another attempt at photographing stars

Sunday evening had a rare combination of clear skies and no moon.

Although to be honest, over the past few months of one of the windiest and wettest winters for decades, if not centuries, it's the clear skies bit of that statement which was the rarity.

So I headed out into the Galloway Forest Park with my camera to attempt a little bit of astro-photography, determined to try and capture The Milky Way. I've seen various photos online of it, and they always look spectacular, but I've yet to manage it. In theory it ought to be possible - I have a pretty good camera, and I understand things like f-stops, shutter speeds and ISO settings - but it's always eluded me.

The Galloway Forest Park - only about 20 miles from where I live - is an official "Dark Skies" area, which means light pollution is much lower and you can therefore see many more stars in the sky than elsewhere.

But even with all these advantages, it's still damned difficult to do. The principle problem is in order to allow enough light onto the sensor to create a photo you can see, you have to have the shutter open for a long time - many seconds, perhaps minutes at a time. A tripod is essential because it's impossible to hold the camera steady enough not to cause motion-blur for that long.

However, when the shutter is open for more than a few seconds, the rotation of the Earth means the stars are not in exactly the same place, relative to the camera, by the time the shutter is closed - and this creates "star trails". There are various ways to try and get round this, but all have other disadvantages.

This is all aside from standing around in sub-zero temperatures where you cannot wear thick gloves because you won't be able to press the right buttons to adjust the settings.

One of the other things that becomes noticeable with long exposures is the distant glow of street lights from villages or towns becomes exaggerated, and what you thought was a black sky turns out to be quite orange.

This one shows my car parked at the side of Clatteringshaw's Loch, and I'm guessing the glow is either Creetown or Newton Stewart, which wasn't visible to the naked eye.

click on the image for a larger version

Just above my car, you can make out Orion's Belt - the 3 horizontal stars in a row, and another strip of stars just below it, which is his sword. We'll come back to that shortly.

The bright star near the top of the photo, is Jupiter, and that slightly paler patch of sky running diagonally between Orion's Belt and Jupiter is The Milky Way. But it's nothing like as impressive as I was trying to get.

Eventually I gave up and swapped the wide-angle lens for my 70-200mm zoom lens, which allows me to zoom in closer to the stars. Unfortunately this exaggerates the star-trail effect considerably, however, I did still get a couple of results I was pleased with.

This is Jupiter and I'm pretty certain the wee dots of light off to the left are some of its moons. Which for me, is kind of awesome - these moons are a similar size to our own, but are about half a billion miles away, and yet I'm still able to catch their reflected light in my camera.

click on the image for a larger version

For something even more awesome, we need to return to the sword hanging from Orion's Belt. To the naked eye it looks like 3 or 4 bright stars, but zooming in we can see they are clusters and the middle one is the Orion Nebula. And that is about 1,344 light years away - approx 8 quadrillion miles - 8,000,000,000,000,000 miles

click on the image for a larger version

Now I know there are stunning photos of the Orion Nebula that have come via super powerful telescopes and all I've got to to show are a few reddish pixels, but I didn't use a super powerful telescope and I'm not an astrophysicist. This was me, with my camera - with the same lens I use for taking photos of bands performing on stage at music festivals.

And it gives me a thrill like I was 7 years old again.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Rebecca Writes...

In the last post, I wrote about the photo shoot with Rebecca and put up the first of two images we shot, along with a behind-the-scenes video. In this post, not only can you scroll down and see the second photo we did with the same set, but you get to read Rebecca's account of being photographed by me.

Rebecca doesn't have a blog of her own (although I'm trying to make encouraging noises), but she rather wonderfully offered to write me a post about being on the other side of the camera.


"So," Kim said with his characteristic optimism, "the possibilities are endless. You can be anything you like!" I nodded (I hoped) thoughtfully. Meanwhile, the voice inside my head was screaming, "Anything?! You’re never going to come up with anything. Never mind anything.”

I got off the phone and quietly panicked. I started a tentative list of things I could dress up as. Then the mischievous voice whispered, "You could be a can-can dancer". This was the starting point and from here I looked online at photographs of dancers, Toulouse Lautrec and Degas paintings and film stills from Moulin Rouge and Black Swan.

The next week, we had a long chat over the most delicious hot chocolate I’ve ever tasted (In House Chocolates, Castle Douglas); in fact, I’d had difficulty concentrating for the first part of our meet-up. Through talking with Kim, I realised it wasn’t the bright lights and glamour I was drawn to, more the backstage, off-duty side where things were darker and less perfect.

After calling in a huge number of favours from family and friends, we were ready to go. I was pretty nervous on the morning of the shoot, wondering if this would turn out to be a daft idea after all. Me, a performer? Who was I kidding!

However, Kim couldn’t have been more calming and encouraging. We built up the set with various props and costumes that I’d borrowed and it already began to feel like I was backstage in a seedy theatre. One of the most useful things Kim had suggested over hot chocolate was writing a paragraph about my character.

My friend’s five-year-old puts on her pirate costume and immediately knows who she is, how she spends her days and the name of her cat. Most of us lose that ability to play and free our alter egos. It was fantastic to have this opportunity to daydream and create a different reality.

This really was a collaboration. I’d never have explored this fully on my own and at the end of the shoot it was fascinating to look back at the 60 or so shots Kim had taken and see the journey of the day. Each subtle change in lighting, pose and angle brought us closer to the final image. Kim has a gift for building rapport and trust so that I felt comfortable at every stage of the process. As a result, the final images are so much more than I could have imagined. Thank you, Kim.


As always, click on the photo for a slightly bigger version. And do feel free to leave a comment - I'll be letting Rebecca know to come and read them.

In Preparation - the second of the photos we did last week - shot through a net curtain on the same set

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

After The Show

At the end of January I was aware my Facebook photography page seemed to have plateaued at 996 "likes." I decided to run a competition for a free photo shoot if people shared and liked, and thought I could tie it in with Valentine's day too.

A couple of weeks later, I put all the qualifying names into an online random name selector and the winner was Rebecca Giblin. At this point we had to discard any Valentine's theme as Rebecca is single. I did suggest we could run another competition to find a lucky partner but this was met with a stern look and a single raised eyebrow.

However, once we started to discuss themes and ideas it all became quite exciting. Rebecca has a love for the film Moulin Rouge. But it wasn't the bright allure of the stage that grabbed her, rather the run-down, backstage - behind the glamour after the show is over - that appealed.

We emailed each other inspiring images we found online and chatted to friends to acquire costumes and props and to find a suitable place to construct a set and do the shoot.

The day came and Rebecca's nieces did her hair and make-up, we created the set and did the shoot. As always, plenty of unforeseen problems had to be overcome, but that's part of being a professional photographer - it's 95% problem solving. The first outfit didn't look anything like we expected it to; the lighting I began with wasn't doing what I needed it to, and so it went on. However, eventually it all came together and I was rather delighted with the final image.

For a long time I've quite fancied a short video of what it's like doing a photo shoot, but of course I can't be a photographer and a film maker at exactly the same time. Fortunately Rebecca's brother, Dave, was on hand and took lots of little clips which I spent all Sunday editing together into a wee 2 minute video, which you can watch below.

Thanks go out to Bill & Caro for providing us with Bill's workshop to do the shoot in - and for giving us lunch, which included still-warm freshly baked bread. Also to Dave for filming and for tying, hooking and adjusting things at heights unattainable by us short-leggedy people; Alice for outfits and props; David for more props; and Rosie and Meg for hair and make-up.

And not forgetting the superb music - "So Fine" from the album "Chase The Night" by Sean Taylor - www.seantaylorsongs.com

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

The Cracked Man

Marcus and I finally settled on a name for our new musical venture - The Cracked Man. I was looking for a name that wasn't clean and polished, but had something of a used and lived in quality to it. And then, in these days of social networking and promotion, we also needed something where we could get hold of the matching domain name, and there weren't already 20 bands out there with the same name - and that isn't particularly easy. All this in addition to making sure your band mate likes it too...

The Cracked Man

For the past few weeks we've been constructing enough songs to give us a half hour set so we could be the support act in 2 different gigs. We decided from the start that we would only do songs we both felt enthusiastic about. Experience in previous bands has taught us both that performing songs we weren't that keen on because of compromises and politics within a group dynamic isn't very fulfilling. So if I introduce something that doesn't do it for Marcus, or vice versa, then we won't develop it and it can be kept back for a different situation or collaboration with other musicians. The upshot of this is I'm loving the music we've produced so far.

Our first outing as The Cracked Man was last Thursday at The Crown Hotel in Newton Stewart, supporting Chris Mills and The Distant Stars - a superb act all the way over from America. Marcus had been booked to support on his own, but as we started developing our sound he suggested we do it together. Although I would love to have had another half a dozen rehearsals first, at some point you have to have your first gig, for which you will never feel ready. I was far more nervous than excited and had a great big knot in the middle of my chest for most of the performance. However, mistakes were minimal and the crowd seemed genuinely enthusiastic, which was a huge relief. Shortly afterwards, Chris Mills walked past humming our last song and was full of praise.

One of the drawbacks of being both a photographer and musician is that I can't photograph myself while playing. Fortunately David Moses, a Newton Stewart based portrait and event photographer, was there to shoot Chris and his band and took some shots of us. David's a sound guy and we had a good long blether about photography afterwards. I even gave him him a hand when he was photographing Chris by holding an off-camera flash unit for him so he could get some cool shots with side or back light, depending on where I stood.

The Cracked Man, courtesy of David Moses

Then on Saturday we were the support act for the amazing Sean Taylor, who was kicking off The Mill Sessions season. This was the 3rd time I've seen him play live and I'm always blown away by his skill and musicianship. Having survived the Chris Mills gig, this time I was more excited than nervous and was able to enjoy playing more.

I handed my camera to my friend, Susi, who was kind enough to video us playing. Unfortunately the low light meant the quality wasn't that great, and as the colours had an appalling yellow shift (I'd forgotten to adjust the white-balance on the camera before handing it to her), I decided I'd better put it in black and white when I edited it. So, it's not a brilliant video, but I did promise I'd try and get something up for you and it does give a flavour of the kind of music The Cracked Man is producing.

If you'd like to show us your support, please head over to our new Facebook page and click "like" - https://www.facebook.com/thecrackedman

Further links:
Chris Mills and The Distant Stars - http://chrismillsmusic.com/
Sean Taylor - http://www.seantaylorsongs.com/
David Moses - http://davidmoses.photoshelter.com