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OUTSIDER DIARIES: Photographic time travel

The only reason for time, Albert Einstein is said to have observed, is so everything doesn’t happen at once. But you can get around theoretical physics with your camera and a little technological wizardry.
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The only reason for time, Albert Einstein is said to have observed, is so everything doesn’t happen at once.

Can’t argue with that. But what if you want to play a little game with time and make everything happen at once? Compress a whole night into a three-minute package, say, and even add a little background music. You don’t need a degree in theoretical physics just a lot of patience, a bit of technical know-how and a decent camera and tripod.

It’s called time-lapse photography you shoot a slew of long-exposure frames of something in motion, such as the constellations that march across the sky throughout the night, combine them using software and if all goes well, you’ve jammed several hours of the night sky into a 30-second or so video

As that video clearly demonstrates, I'm a rank amateur. (I've been checking out instruction books by experts such as Alan Dyer in hopes of expanding my time-lapse horizons.) I threw together those frames of the stars wheeling around Polaris using QuickTime Pro. 

For more advanced time-lapsers like Jerry Black, the hobby can develop into something of an addiction.

“I’ve always been interested in … the concept of showing something that you can’t normally see,” Black told me during a recent chat at his Lower Sackville home. “One of the first videos I did was just clouds going by. But they aren’t going by. They’re actually forming right here and they’re just continuous.”

Jerry and his wife, Judy, are active members of the Halifax Centre of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. So, not surprisingly, the night sky has become one of his favourite time-lapse subjects.

The couple’s interest in astronomy was sparked several years ago while camping at Kejimkujik National Park. As a Dark Sky Preserve, the park offers lovely views of the Milky Way and other subtle aspects of the night sky. Add Keji’s photogenic natural settings such as Slapfoot Beach into the mix and you’ve got an ideal location for astrophotography.

While some people take nocturnal shooting into the realm of deep-sky astrophotography, the cost and technical challenges of that step didn’t interest him. But time-lapses on sites such as YouTube and Vimeo did catch Jerry’s attention.

In scouting out possible locations besides Keji, he came upon the Halifax RASC’s website for its annual star party Nova East.

“It was happening that weekend and ... I showed Judy the site and would you like to come? Judy said, go there and listen to a bunch of people talk about scientific things?" Jerry recounted with a chuckle.

As it turned out, between the lineup of telescopes pointing skyward and astronomy presentations by outreach volunteers such as Paul Heath, “I was hooked!” Judy said. (So much so that she’s now secretary for the RASC’s Halifax Centre.)

Even after several years of time-lapse dabbling, Jerry still considers himself a novice. But he’s produced some impressive videos, so I’m picking up a a few tips over tea and Judy’s tasty cream-cheese rolls.

Going over the basics, Jerry emphasizes planning, equipment and “location, location, location."

“You have to have a camera that’s capable of taking a nighttime exposure,” he said.

That wasn't a problem for Jerry, who uses a full-frame Nikon D800 and already owned an f2.8 lens for low-light photography.

But even basic digital single-lens reflex cameras can take 30-second exposures at a high ISO (Jerry usually shoots at 3200) and a decent f2.8 wide-angle lens from off-brand makers like Rokinon and Samyang won’t break the bank.

You also need a good tripod — your camera must remain rock solid while taking hundreds of exposures. Yes, hundreds. Jerry shoots about 120 exposures every hour.

"It's a huge number of frames and memory," he said, so stock up on your memory cards. To make subtle adjustments to exposures in processing, you’ll want to shoot in raw mode (not the standard JPEG) and that produces huge files. I use either 32- or 64-gigabytes cards, but Jerry has moved into the ultra-high definition 4K realm, so it's 128 gigs for him.

You'll also need an intervalometer a timer that attaches to the camera so it automatically shoots at a particular shutter speed and interval (hence the name). Jerry uses a tiny British-made wireless computer called a Raspberry Pi, which he controls with his iPhone. 

"It lets you go into live mode (so) you’re seeing what the camera is taking and you can get the exposure right," said Jerry, a longtime amateur photographer and retired scientist from the Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Dartmouth. "Then you can tell the camera I want you to take 600 pictures starting now and I want you to evaluate those ... to automatically adjust your shutter speed and ISO as necessary."

He uses apps such as PhotoPills to find out exactly when and where the moon will rise, and on moonless nights, where the brightest area of the Milky Way will be at particular times throughout the night. 

This kind of planning will make things go more smoothly when you're out there in the dark. It's particularly important to make sure you're batteried up — cameras and accessories such as your cellphone suck up battery power really quickly, especially on a cold night.

"I have built a checklist," Jerry said, quickly adding "I just never look at it!"

The final touches in tying all the frames together into a pretty package involves many hours at the computer. Jerry's processing programs include LRTimelapse , as well as Adobe Photoshop Lightroom and Final Cut Pro. He usually sets his videos to music and uses freemusicarchive.org to avoid copyright problems. 

As for location, besides Keji, Jerry is partial to Peggys Cove, St. Margarets Bay and Cape Forchu near Yarmouth. 

"The detriment of Nova Scotia is weather and height," he noted. "A lot of these places (popular with time-lapsers) look spectacular when viewed from above ... . We’re just starting to get organized enough to do more systemically so we can get to as many different places as we can."

To that end, his to-do list includes trips to the Cape Breton Highlands and the Annapolis Valley locations such as the Blomidon Look-off. He envisions a dusk-to-dawn production (known as a Holy Grail among time-lapsers) from the Look-off during the summer when the Milky Way is prominent.  

While locations with a more varied landscape such as mountains make for spectacular videos, there's plenty of natural beauty in Nova Scotia that can be captured with time-lapse, said Jerry, who was born in Timmins, Ont., and moved here 35 years ago. 

It's his long-term goal to create high-definition videos that highlight our province's natural wonders for a wide audience.

"It will have to be over a number of years to get enough new-moon nights that are clear. If you build these (projects) into longer videos, you have to vary the scenery a bit. The process is almost as much fun as the result."

John McPhee (www.outsiderdiaries.ca) is a nature nerd, astronomy enthusiast and web editor for Local Xpress.



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