Time, the most precious commodity on earth. The irreversible, continual advancement of the present moment. Everything we do takes time, even to stop, pause and be present in the moment takes time. Whether we spend it wisely or wastefully is up to us, but either way, it will be spent. We live in such a marvelous world, the magic of nature and the perfectly woven-together ecosystems that co-operatively exist around us is a such wondrous mystery. Light, and its way of illuminating small parts at a time for us to digest and appreciate. The golden hues of dusk and dawn, and the all the little intricacies in between that operate almost mechanically, like clockwork. However, all these things, both miniature and majestic are irrevocably subject to the decree of time.
One of the many things that I really love about photography, is that it gives us the ability to save a frame on this unstoppable timeline, frames that we can revisit, making such moments some what eternal. We cannot get the moment back, but we can relive those special moments, preserved in a photograph. The breathtaking moments, the rare, powerful and beautiful moments, saved in a tangible form that can become very precious to us.
It’s clear that we as humans have a natural desire to share, commune and interact with one another. Before cameras, we did this by telling stories, that were passed from one generation to the next, stories of adventure and encounters that inspire the new generation to go out and create stories of their own that they too will pass on.
Today, we are able to share photographs that tell stories of our encounters, the moments when the elements align to create a spectacle that some perhaps have never witnessed, or never will have the opportunity to witness if it were not for photography. That’s a goal of mine when I pick up a camera, to tell a story of an experience that many people may never get the opportunity to have, or perhaps inspire them to go and seek an experience of their own! For this article, I am going to share such an experience, captured in both time-lapse and still photography, featuring a natural wonder on the south east coast of Australia; the drinking horse beneath the stars. I can only imagine the stories that were told about this natural monument thousands of years before us.
It was my third time coming back to Horse Head Rock in Bermagui, on the first two attempts the elements did not co-operate with me in any sense of the word. For weeks I kept a close eye on the forecasts, which is a significant skill and part of a photographers work. Waiting for the weather, moon phases, tides, pressure systems, swells, winds and so on, to align harmonically to provide the opportune moment to capture..
This particular night, a light offshore breeze from the west had cleansed the night sky, the swell had dissipated to almost nothing, the moon was sleeping beneath the horizon which kept the tides at bay, and I had been keeping an eye of the position of the milky way each night prior to the night of the shoot, anticipating an opportune moment to happen. Early in the evening, I packed the necessary gear I required into my Manfrotto Pro Light Bumblebee 220L backpack which accommodates a convenient double access system for my two Canon DLSR camera bodies. In goes both my Canon wide angle lenses into the side sleeve that has a zip up protective mesh that stops sand! Then all 5 of my charged batteries along with a few snacks, teabags and a thermos (tea is an absolute essential for time lapses). Strapped to the front are my two Manfrotto tripods including the compact befree compact carbon fibre travel tripod – the sturdiest and lightest little 3 legged friend I’ve used! Headlamp, check, phone check. All set.
I arrived with plenty of light in the afternoon to setup, I don’t like rushing, I used to a lot, always chasing the light somewhere but I’ve learnt that an extra half an hour up the sleeve makes for a much more enjoyable experience! I quickly collected wood and made a fire, primarily to dry my shoes and socks that were victim to a tidal surge along the way, expect that shooting seascapes. Sunset was at 6:05 and the high tide was forecasted for 8pm so I chose a spot to set up my tripod that both framed the shot well and would not be subject to the incoming tide. The ocean is crazy like that, seascapes is one of the most dangerous things to shoot, especially at night! People without a background of ocean knowledge can get in trouble very quickly. I’ve been around the ocean for over 20 years so I had the foreknowledge to take into consideration the swell movement, tidal surges and high tide marks. Setting my camera to Av mode, manual focus and white balance, I began the sequence, shooting in RAW, as I like full control over my image data in post, especially nightscapes. (Shooting in RAW can be processor intensive for your MAC but the extra energy will give you more room to work and a better final product.)
A couple of things to make sure is one: never move the tripod! Lock your shot off and keep it that way for the duration of the time-lapse. The great thing about using a Manfrotto tripod is that it has a very stable and easily adjustable ball head lock for the camera and the legs lock tightly, giving you a confident platform to shoot from. Secondly, ensure the legs are locked tightly into a rock groove or something that provides a little extra stability. Don’t put it close to any edges. The last thing you want is a wave or gust of wind to misalign your images creating an unwanted “bump” in the time lapse.
Another little trick I used and will share with you is additional lighting, how is the horse so well lit? Because there is no moon out when the Milky way is that bright.. Well I used a little portable floodlight setup high on a rock and a considerable distance away from my subject to act on the moons behalf. (As seen in the image below) The long 25-30 second shutter speeds really soak up the soft light and gives you the flexibility to have detail and colour in the foreground of your nightscapes when post processing the shots.
Now it’s time to kick back, make a little fire (well away from the subject to avoid orange flickering) and enjoy several hot cups of tea while the camera and tripod are doing all the work. This is an opportunity to reflect on life and the lengths that us photographers go to for 10 seconds of time lapse photography! In regards to that, we can figure out how long we have to wait. It’s an easy math. If the camera is shooting at 30 second shutter speeds and firing a shot every 40 seconds ( 10 second gap to process the image – having a high speed CF card helps), we’ll have to wait 20 minutes to get 30 frames, which will be the equivalent of 1 second in a project that exports at 30fps. So to conclude, I worked out that I had to wait just over 6.5 hours for 20 seconds of footage. You can choose to sleep, explore, read, tell stories, sing, dance… But do keep in mind battery consumption, checking that every hour or so is recommended.. and also framing – I turn off image review to preserve battery power but you can look through the viewfinder in the 10 second gap between shots to see how the composition changes with the variable elements; that being the tide and milky way positioning in this scenario. After about a 10 second length of time-lapse sequence has been captured (3 hours of shooting), I consider it optional to move positon and reframe like I did in the short clip featured in this article. It can add a very dynamic flavor to the clip if you do it well. Again, be aware of the variables; incoming tide is a big one, we don’t want your camera to be swept away while you are napping. Also, avoid sand, as your tripod will sink overtime if you setup on wet sand.
If your batteries last the night, which mine didn’t quite (it was cold…) you can keep shooting into the sunrise, adding an even more amazing finale to your time lapse. For this, it’s good to keep in mind where the sun will rise that time of year so you can optimize the light hitting the subject. Actually, I had a little left on my second camera and used it for a few quick double exposures at first light using my Manfrotto BeFree Compact travel tripod.
As the golden hues turned into bright whites it signaled my time to head home. Job done! As you can see there is a lot of behind the scenes work in photography, and time-lapsing, but that is the beauty of it. The energy and time spent in creating something wonderful compliments the value on the final product and regardless of this image saturated world, a quality capture shines, and it always will. It’s important to maintain that integrity with your work, don’t compromise the value of your hard work for the sake of the market or state of the industry. Investing your time into documenting beautiful moments like this that can be shared around the world is a precious thing. My advice is to hold true to the beauty that you’ve captured, continually improve your skills through practicing and getting out there in the field, invest in quality equipment like Manfrotto and Canon, and always aim for a high standard in everything you do.
Good luck out there and have fun! – PT.