I remember the eerie calm of Monday night, as we waited for Hurricane Irma, who was barreling toward the Lesser Antilles at approximately 14 mph.
Dominica had been put under a Tropical Storm Watch earlier that day, so I’m sure that many residents were like me… awake at 11:41 PM. However, I doubt that many of them were outdoors.
The approaching Category 5 hurricane drew my photographic interest that night. Storm-chasing photography is a genre of the art form that I had become fascinated with over the last several months.
I had even tried my hand at it about one year ago. Check out this blog post to see my first photographs of lightning.
Even though I live on the western side of the island and the storm was coming from the east, and we weren’t expecting to feel its effects till mid-morning of the next day, I hoped to capture something unique that night.
The moon was high in the sky and very bright, which usually makes for poor shooting conditions for stars or the Milky Way. Had there been any fast-moving clouds, I could have made those the subject of a photograph. But there was hardly a cloud in the sky at the time.
In the past I had observed that on a clear night, the stars above my house would come alive, so I decided to stay close to home and do a time lapse sequence.
Finding the right composition at night can be extremely difficult. With hardly any ambient light to guide you, one is left to fumble in the dark and rely on trial and error. For example, it took more more than an hour to settle on my composition for the Milky Way time lapse at Grand Bay.
Experienced night photographers often walk equipped with headlamps or LED flashlights. I usually just use the flashlight app on my phone.
Please note that using your phone’s app might not a good idea if you plan on shooting a long time lapse sequence. You could run down your smartphone’s battery, leaving you without a phone during the hours-long sequence.
The moonlight allowed me assess my surroundings easily, and I quickly settled on a composition that faced east. Facing east gave me the best of both worlds:
- I got plenty of light and color from the moon that was setting behind me, in the west
- The light from the moon was soft enough that it did not overpower the tiny points of light as seen from the stars
As a landscape photographer, I’m always concerned about the foreground elements in my shots, so I made sure to include some of my immediate urban surroundings in the frame. Shooting the stars in this environment can be tricky, because the artificial light can easily ruin a photograph. There were no powerful direct sources of light within the frame, so my shot was safe.
Night photography often puts the balancing act of Photographer’s Trinity to the test. For those of you who don’t know, as a photographer, there are really three main settings that are within our control when in the field:
- Aperture – the size of the opening that allows light into the camera
- ISO – the sensitivity of the camera sensor that receives the light
- Shutter speed – how long the camera will accept light
Due to dark surroundings in typical nighttime photography, particularly Astrophotography (defined as: photography of celestial bodies or groups of stars), you’ll find many images are created with a wide aperture, high ISO and longer shutter speeds.
However, thanks to the moonlight on Monday, I was able to get away with the following settings: 2.5 seconds, at f/2.8, ISO 2000. Compare those settings and the resulting image (above) with the settings and images from my Milky Way time lapse (below). You’ll notice that even with a longer shutter speed, the second image is much darker. This is primary because I had a lot more ambient light in the first image.
I was also able to use a slightly lower ISO which resulted in an image with less noise, and that in turn made post production easier, leading to a better quality image.
On a logistical level, the much shorter shutter speed allowed me to shoot a longer time lapse sequence. Typically, I would aim for 500 to 700 images. But this time I aimed for 2,000. In total, the sequence would run for more than 2 ½ hours.
I had hoped to get a time lapse sequence to show the rotation of the Earth as the stars moved from left to right above my head. I was lucky to get a thin film of clouds come into the scene, moving more quickly than the stars, which made for a great effect.
Later down in the video (which is over 60 seconds long) you’ll see a few bright flashes coming from lightning as Hurricane Irma came closer. This was a good effect too.
Another noticeable (albeit not-so-cool effect) is the reduction in brightness of the sky as the video carries on. This was due to the moon setting behind the camera, reducing the overall brightness of the sky. There are ways to mitigate against this change in light, but I opted use this natural effect as is.
Take a look at the time lapse video below and let me know what you think.
A Final Image
After completing the time lapse sequence, I began to pack up my gear and then noticed the moon’s height in the sky and the color it was giving off. Also, whereas the western sky had been cloudless approximately 3 hours before, now there were layers of clouds a few of which was fast-moving.
I decided to capture an image of the scene from my backyard, overlooking the ‘Harlem’ section of Newtown. The settings on this shot were relatively simple. My biggest consideration was the brightest point of light – the moon – and making sure its strength did not overpower the other light sources in the image.