Night Owl Photography Part One - I Get To Know The Skies

January 07, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

I'm not a night-time person. By nine o'clock in the evening I'm ready for bed, and it takes a truly outstanding movie on Netflix to keep me up past ten. So when I came back yesterday from the Kalahari after five days of experimenting with night sky photography, I was exhausted, my mind turned into a half-awake  fuzzball, all because of an alarm clock set for 3.30am, four nights in a row. I feel like I've flown across nine time-zones, that's how disrupted my sleeping patterns are. 

Despite my topsy-turvy biological clock I learnt a lot during those five days about time lapse, long exposures, and what works and what not in night time photography. Thehours of Youtube videos I watched about the basics of time lapse and star trails paid off well - I came home with a few images that, for a first time outing, weren't too bad.

Star Trail - WitsandStar Trail - Witsand

Until very recently I'd never been interested in sky photography, because yes, I'm not a night owl but also, I'm not a star person. I've never been able to understand what's so great about stars - there's lots of them, they all look the same, and, since I live in a city, I can only see five of them at night. Talk about astronomy and I glaze over. 

Over the past few weeks I'd bought a few tech gadgets that changed all that. 

Firstly I bought a TriggerTrap, a very fancy remote shutter trigger, for my Canon 5D Mark III. I wanted to use it to experiment with time lapse for a work-related project, but then saw it had several functions that made it ideal for night sky photography. It even has a dedicated star trail function. Basically the TriggerTrap's a shutter trigger with a built-in calculator, which is a good combination for cutting down on fumbling around in camera bags in the fading light of a head lamp. Call it a camera shutter Swiss knife if you want. And there's nothing like a tech gadget to get my attention, so I became interested. 

Cut a long story short, I persuaded Adeline to take a few days over New Year for a visit to Witsand Nature Reserve in the semi-desert Kalahari. The area is an intriquing natural wonder - an island of high, desert-like sand dunes amidst green bushveld - that's also a good birding and wildlife spot, but mostly I wanted to go there for clear, crisp night skies that would, I was hoping, produce a few interesting photographs and put the TriggerTrap to good use. Since Witsand is 100km from the closest town, and therefore pitch-dark at night, I thought the chances of everything working out perfectly well were good. It did, almost.

So for the next five nights a small open-air zoo of wild rabbits, duikers, civet cats and an assortment of other small nocturnals stared at me from behind the bushes as I fiddled with my cameras, cables, tripods and assortment of other gadgets in the dark among the camel thorn trees, running up and down a gravel road waving a small LED torch wildly about, and skulked around waiting for the hours to pass as the Canon's shutter rhythmically opened and closed. They must have been falling about laughing at me.

Next up: How I got (almost) perfect star trail shots.



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