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The Tree

by  Mel Brackstone

A first attempt at long exposure night shooting and light painting! These days I would be much better prepared by knowing where the moon would be, when the sun was going to set and what direction was due south. I also would have taken much warmer clothing and a folding chair.
Photographer Garry Schlatter invited me to join his weekend workshop as an observer. That involved a long four-hour drive from Brisbane to Rainbow Beach, in Queensland, Australia. Garry was busy with a young man from Abu Dhabi, and I was lucky enough to tag along. My planning involved deciding what to take for a weekend of shooting, with uncertain accommodation and on a very cold winter weekend. 

Canon  .  Canon 16-35mm f/2.8  .  16mmmm  . 86ss  .  f/3.2  .  ISO400

We had two nights in which to capture this subject, but on the first night I managed to take my one and only usable image. The light of the moon, coming from behind me in this shot, became quite intrusive, so we had to stop shooting when it moved into the frame. I used a wide-angle lens so that, at a shutter speed of 90 seconds or less, I could capture the stars without obvious trails. 

There were three gnarled and crazily shaped trees standing next to each other along the edge of the bay. Behind us was a camping area on either side of the road that led to the vehicular ferry to Fraser Island. This is a popular place to camp during vacations, but is not so busy in winter. Sadly the tree has been chopped down for firewood since this photo was taken. 

"All you cold climate photographers are probably chuckling to yourselves at this point. I was still very new to photography, and this was my first night shoot."

I had never shot in such cold conditions before, so I can tell you what I learned. You must take spare batteries, and you must keep them warm. The spares must also be very reliable, because they won't last in the cold weather. All you cold climate photographers are probably chuckling to yourselves at this point. I was still very new to photography, and this was my first night shoot. 

Garry suggested that we needed to wait a good hour and a half after sunset. That way the sky would be dark enough to show the skeleton of the tree. We shot a quick 3200 ISO image to see how the framing was going, and then began the series of single shots with noise reduction taking place in between. Garry used his flashlight to illuminate the tree. He swung it around along the branches, never letting it sit too long in one place. For a one-minute exposure he used the flashight for about 20 seconds. Shutter speed was set to to bulb mode. It was shot in RAW format with in-camera noise reduction enabled.

Learning how to find focus in the dark was a tough, new lesson. Garry shined the flashlight onto the tree so that our autofocus would work. We then set our lenses to manual focus mode; they didn't need to hunt around while we were trying to synchronize our shooting. The problem with using a flashlight for focus means that you lose your dark adaptation, so we didn't use this method again. 

"It was a lesson in patience. To be honest, I've never used in-camera noise reduction since that weekend."

Our shooting was done in sequence: we shot about the same amount of time for each image, so that Garry could use his light painting technique for as long as was necessary for each shot. Using in-camera noise reduction meant that each 90-second shot would need another 90 seconds to write to the card. The other photographers had Canon 5Ds with battery packs, so they weren't affected by the problems I suffered. After the first serious image I shot, which lasted for 86 seconds, my camera failed to write to the card again in the next three hours. Each time I changed the battery it would take the shot, but stop working once the noise reduction started. So, there was no real chance to fine-tune the framing or the exposure. It was a lesson in patience. To be honest, I've never used in-camera noise reduction since that weekend.
I'm married and in my late 50s, and I am the mother of two grown-up children. My obsession with photography began around 2003, and in 2004 I bought my first digital camera. Since then I've slowly improved both my cameras and my knowledge. I believe that the digital age came along at just the right time for me because I’m too impatient to learn analog cameras, especially after I suffered a severe head injury and lost my ability to concentrate for very long. Photography has restored my ability to learn and create, despite my difficulties. Taking thousands and thousands of photos has developed my skills.

I started with landscape photography, and in 2005 I bought a Lensbaby. Since around 2008, I have been shooting portrait photography and fine art nudes.
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