Thursday, 21 March 2013

2013 BP World Ice Art Championships (Fairbanks)

A little off topic for this blog but I'm sure everyone can appreciate the skill and creativity of the artists who produced the sculptures at the world championships this year. There are several categories and our visit coincided with the completion of both the single and multi block competitions. The youth competition was under way but the sculptures were incomplete and the amateurs were also in progress.  

Lighting is a major element in displaying the sculptures to their best particularly for photography. Our visit was in the evening and initially the daylight was too strong and the lighting was not adequate to show the sculptures at their best. By the time we got the single block area the natural light level was low enough for the lights to start having an effect. I shot all of the following hand held with my Canon 50D at ISO3200 using just the available light. I should really have utilised a tripod but time was limited on this visit. I tried flash but that just over powered the display lighting in the same way that the natural light did early on. This had the effect of losing some of the detail in the sculptures.    

The following images are from the single block competition, click the pictures for full size versions:

The above sculpture was incredible, as were many others, and the lighting really brought out the detail. The human figure is life size to give you some idea of scale.

Another jaw dropping sculpture. They weren't all fish, honest, but these 2 were exceptional and really helped by the lighting.

Not great lighting on this one but superb detail and just so life like. I shot this from various angles and have plumped for this one which is a bit of a compromise. Some angles show the rider better but this gives the best overall impression of the composition for me.

Fortunately we had a little extra time to revisit the multi block sculptures once the lighting had improved a bit.  The bear, below, was my favourite but I really struggled to find an angle that showed it at its best. I settled for the one below but really you just had to be there!

This skier sculpture was excellent with the trees looking just like snow covered pines and very realistic skiers. For scale the skiers were pretty much life size!

Another favourite of mine was this mountain goat sculpture. I loved the way the top goat was stepping off into space and the detail on the individual animals was fantastic. I wasn't happy with the photo but I couldn't find an angle to show it at it's best. I think it needed to be a little darker for the displaying lighting to have more effect.

I really loved this squirrel evading the attacking eagle, the detail was superb and it was another where the lighting really helped show more detail in the photograph although I think it is another where you really had to be there to appreciate it.

For anyone interested you can see all of the sculptures at the links below:

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Crazy flights and Alaskan lights

I got back from Alaska on Sunday morning having been away for 10 days in search of the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights. I travelled with Astronomy Tours to Chena Hot Springs, a trip I had previously done in 1999, the previous Solar maximum. The tour was led by Dr. John Mason who gave presentations about the Aurora Borealis on 3 evenings at Chena Hot Springs. This is the 4th tour I have been on with John and he never fails to impress with his knowledge and enthusiasm. The tour group was quite small, just 17 including the local representative, Joseph, who was also a great asset to the tour.

First stop was Anchorage after 20+ hours of travelling including stops at Houston and Seattle. Houston! This was the one negative point of the tour, why Houston? Nobody could answer that one. In 1999 we stopped in Minneapolis, which seemed a more sensible option. Anyway we reached Anchorage just after midnight local time and went straight to bed. In Anchorage the temperature was surprisingly warm, on or just above freezing, and I was surprised at the lack of laying snow compared to 1999.

After a day in Anchorage we travelled to Fairbanks by train, more about that in another post, and then on to Chena Hot Springs the following day. We settled in for 4 nights of Aurora watching and the weather played ball by clearing, and remaining clear for the reminder of the trip. Of course the clear conditions also led to a drop in temperature which ranged from -8C during the day to -22C at night. Fortunately conditions were still until the last night when a gusty wind provided a wicked wind chill!

Aiming to photograph the Aurora I took my Canon 50D DSLR and EF-S 17-85mm lens with my old 20D body as a back up. Sadly I ran into technical issues the first three nights which limited my photography. I can only think these problems were caused by the cold because the 50D was fine during the day but locked up the first 3 nights with an Err50 on the second night. My backup body also locked up, lasting even less time than the 50D. I tried various things including removing the external battery pack and the external shutter release but always ended up having a problem. On the last night I wrapped the body in a fleece and it was working right up to the point where a big gust of wind blew my tripod over! The camera and lens survived and were still working but I gave up as the Aurora was very weak up to that point and the wind chill was beginning to work its way through my multiple layers of clothing. Unfortunately this proved to be a mistake as about 3/4hr later the best display of the trip sprung into life and I missed it!

Back to the first night, which was fairly quiet with a green auroral glow above the hillside, developing some rays later with a little movement in a faint curtain.

Orion over Chena Hot Springs

The green auroral glow shows above the hill.
Night 2 and I managed to get some reasonable images despite a fairly quiet Aurora with the oval again positioned some way north of us. We had set up on the runway with hills to both sides so we could see the glow which developed into some nice rays and a colourful curtain.

I combined the few frames I got, before the camera gave up, into the following timelapse, short and sweet:

The following night I went up the hill on the south side of the runway and found a position with good views to the north. The extra elevation allowed me to view the arc stretching from east to west. This remained mostly green with quite a lot of movement and rays. Again my camera gave up just before the display really got going but I managed enough frames for the following time lapse:

I also managed a few stills after this, having reset my camera and changed the battery:

Having moved down to the runway I managed to grab a few more frames before the camera died again, this being the best of those:

The final night I was back down on the runway as the wind was bitter and I felt it would be worse up on the hill. As I mentioned the display was very quiet early on and around 01:15 I gave up and went to bed, as did several others of the group. A little later the display really got going with the oval having expanded to be directly over head and those hardy souls who remained outside were treated to a very good display, including an auroral corona, for about 20-30 minutes. Had I gone back out I would probably have missed most of the action by the time I had got all of my layers back on. Its not a place to nip outside in inadequate clothing!

The following day we headed back to Fairbanks where we visited the ice carving championships which was amazing. On our final day in Alaska we watched the latest leg of the GCI Open North American Sled Dog championships. Conveniently this started in the road at the back of our hotel! More to come from those two events in a later blog entry.

That evening we began the long journey home, reaching Heathrow early Sunday morning after 4 flights!

Overall the trip was really good with a great bunch of like minded people. The Aurora was a little disappointing when compared to 1999 but we were lucky to be there during a CME impact for that visit so the displays were incredible. Despite the unfavourable conditions this time we still had good displays each night, improving night on night so no complaints. The train journey was new compared to our previous trip and the scenery was superb despite the unfavourable weather. The ice carving championship was also spectacular and the dog sledding championships was a bonus at the end of the trip.

I doubt we will go back to Chena Hot Springs, it has expanded beyond all recognition since '99 and the extra activity makes it less than favourable for aurora photography. The best location is up the hill on the south side of the runway which gives good views to the north. The runway is a popular location at night but vehicle activity makes for frustration when trying long exposure photography.

I was frustrated by technical issues during my attempts to photograph the Aurora which I can only assume were caused by the extreme temperatures. Err50 indicates an electronics problem but that only showed itself on the second night. I stopped using the external battery pack after that but still had the lock up issues. The lock up issues may have been due to the batteries in the cold conditions but changing batteries only resulted in a few more frames before the camera locked up again. Both bodies were failing in similar ways with the 20D lasting even less time than the 50D. I also stopped using the remote shutter release for a while as that was a non Canon item so i thought it might be an issue. The only other linking factor was the lens which may have been a problem as it is at the low end of the Canon range.

Hopefully by the next trip to somewhere with these extreme cold temperatures I will have invested in a better wide angle lens. That said many people were using low end bodies and lenses and had no problems which was rather frustrating for me!      

Friday, 1 March 2013

Kempston Mill: Morning Walk

After months of regular floods preventing access to my local patch the recent drier spell means the flood water has receded.

I had a really good year in 2012 with regular Otter sightings but since October access to the river has been difficult and so Otter sightings have been few and far between. 

I am managing to do do my early morning walk a bit more regularly now, and after 2 previous visits this week I was rewarded this morning with an Otter just upstream from the bypass bridge.

It was a pretty good morning for birds as well:

The Mandarin Duck that has been a regular at the Mill was missing this morning but was seen later up stream between Church End and Box End, associating with a pair of Mallards.

There was a Little Grebe just up stream from the Mill bridge, a regular this week.

A scan of Box End Park returned c50 Lapwings, 22 Canada Geese, 1 Greylag Goose, 5 Egyptian Geese and 10 Cormorants.

Along the Back Channel a pair of Bullfinches and 3 Reed Buntings were seen. A Reed Bunting was singing yesterday morning, first I have heard this year.

Back at the Mill a flock of c50 Goldfinches and a couple of drumming Great Spotted Woodpeckers was a great end to my morning walk.