The early bird… (in the snow)

It has been a bit quiet on this Blog this year. My apologies for that. I have taken a lot of photographs this last month, but not much that I considered worth sharing. Yesterday, however, was a day full of snow. Snow! Last year we got a little sprinkle in Januari, and that was it. This year it’s a full 20 cm in the garden, and the cold weather is expected to last for at least another 6 days. The word iceskating is on everybody’s lips. The Elfstedentocht has been cancelled in advance because of Corona, but the expectations are rising. I could not resist this opportunity and went into the city centre yesterday to document the wintery landscape.

I was looking for a mix of snow, ice and lamplight to give it a bit more ambience than just a white blanket over the streets. Therefore I had to get there early. The added advantage is that you are mostly the first at the scene and are not hindered by large groups of people or snow that is already disturbed. As I couldn’t sleep I was even earlier than the alarm clock and I was out of the front door at 5:15. The main roads had been cleaned somewhat and I had no problems navigating the snow with my bike.

[Geartalk] In my enthusiasm I may have brought a bit too much gear. In addition to my main camera these days, the Fujifilm X-H1, and 2 weather sealed lenses (16-55, 50-140 mm) I brought a wide angle 12 mm lens. Because I really like how the lens renders nightscapes I also brought the Voigtlander 15 mm f/4.5 Heliar in a last minute decision. I also took along the Fujifilm X-T2 as a second body, and to top it all of the Leica M9 and Fujifilm X100 just for fun. It turned out that because it was snowing (and blowing) the entire time, I did not use the non weather sealed lenses. I did end up using the non weather sealed 15 mm Voigtlander. A lot! It worked magically!

First stop: the Leidse Sterrenwacht, or Leiden Observatory. To render the lights in the photographs as ‘sunstars’ I wanted to photograph at a smaller aperture. The voigtlander has the most beautiful stars of any lens I ever come across (one of the main reasons for me to take it along). Because of the hard wind and snow I ended up changing lenses as little as possible, with the 16-55 and 50-140 on the X-H1, and the Voigtlander stuck to my X-T2. I took several shots at the observatory at f/16, ISO200 and a shutter speed of 2 minutes. This long shutter speed also caused the water to ‘glaze over’. A visage not dissimilar to ice, although a more thorough glance would probably fool nobody.

The Leidse Sterrenwacht. f/16, ISO 200, shutter speed 2 minutes. Notice the water and the sunstars in the lamps.

The next stop was a small alley off the singel with a lot of old houses and traditional lamps. A very nice spot, but with the hard wind and horizontal snow, the 16-55 soon got issues with water on the front lens that even the most thorough wiping could not remove. It was also a bit useless to clean the lens if 2 seconds later it would be wet again by new snow. Photographing at larger apertures was useless at this stage, as the flare on these droplets was horrible. The voigtlander curiously appeared unaffected by the snow. I switched to a larger aperture on the X-H1 and zooms, but kept the small aperture and sunstars on the X-T2.

A picturesque side canal of the Singel, also with the Voigtlander. f/16, ISO 200, shutter speed 2 minutes.

The Rapenburg, one of the famous canals of Leiden, was only a few minutes walk away, but there the winds were funnelled through the streets and even my 50-140 mm with its massive lens hood managed to get its front lens wet in seconds. I did capture a good example of the snowdrifts through the canal though.

Showing the hard wind and snow combination. The 50-140 mm could not be kept dry in this kind of weather.

My main aim of the trip was the Burcht and Hooglandse Kerk, a medieval fortification and church on the other side of the city centre. I hoped to arrive there around dawn, so that the light would be better, but the streetlights were still on to give me the ambience I was looking for. Planning this was a bit tricky, as my watch was hidden under 4 layers of clothing and my phone did not work through two layers of gloves, so my only indication of time were the church-bells that rung every half hour. Very old fashioned! En route to the Burcht I came across a few other interesting locations: the Pieterskerk, het Gerecht, de Breestraat and the Koornbrug.

By the time I reached the Pieterskerk it was becoming obvious that it was getting closer to a time a regular guy gets out of bed, as a group of students almost managed to position themselves for a selfie in the middle of my photograph. I offered to take the selfie for them if they could just wait 40 seconds until my photo was done, and continued on to the Breestraat. This usually busy shopping street was white and deserted at what I’m guessing was around 7:30 AM. A very surreal view!

A photo at the Pieterskerk and het Gerecht. It is getting lighter, almost Blue Hour at this stage. f/16, ISO 200, 2 minutes.

Finally around 8:00 AM I reached my final destination, the Burcht. By now dawn was fully here, but with the snow still falling the light was filtered and still not fully there. I took several photographs from my favourite location outside the Burcht, then headed in for some more shots. By this time people were starting to appear who had the same idea, and I had to manage my shots carefully to avoid disturbance. Mind you, the 1 minute shutter speed with the Voigtlander helped in this regard. As long as people would not stand still, they would still not appear in the final image. When I descended the stairs to the plaza below the street lights cut out, and I could congratulate myself with timing it well, and look forward to getting home, getting warm and getting coffee.*

The main prize: the Hooglandse Kerk from the Burcht. The streetlights add ambience to the photo in my view.
Compare the two shots: while I like the second for its composition, it certainly doesn’t have the warmth of the first image. White balance is also in play, of course, but the lack of lights is clear!

I hope you have enjoyed the photographs and story. For me it was a great morning, albeit a cold one!

*The bike ride back along paths not cleaned was a workout..

Startrails in the city center

In my memory these past few weeks have been grey and dreary. Sure, there have probably been a few dry, nice and even sometimes sunny days as well, but on the whole, my impression has not been good. The forecast for the next week and Christmas is just as bad, I’m afraid. However, when my girlfriend took out the garbage on Friday night, she casually mentioned that the skies were clear, and she could see a lot of stars. She didn’t know what she started, but as I hadn’t seen a clear night sky in a long time, I was on my bike to the city center to execute a photography plan I’ve had for some time (fortunately the latest in Corona measures did not include a curfew).

Smack in the middle of the city center of Leiden is ‘The Burcht’. It’s an old medieval castle, and one of the main attractions of the city. I’ve been wanting to capture a milky way shot over this castle, or, if unsuccessful, startrails. However, the weather was threatening to disrupt my plans right from the start. I wasn’t even five minutes out before noticing threatening clouds on the horizon. A quick check of the wind confirmed my suspicions: they were moving my way. I would have to be quick!

On location I quickly fired off a few test shots. Unfortunately, these confirmed my expectations that a milky way shot was not in the cards. The spotlights illuminating the Burcht were so bright, that I would not be able to illuminate the night sky enough to capture a milky way without over exposing the building. Plan B then: Startrails. I had brought both the 9 mm Laowa and the 12 mm Samyang but decide to stick to the 9 mm to capture as much sky as possible. After quickly deciding on a composition, I put the camera on continuous shooting, plugged in my remote shutter release, and the appropriate exposure settings (in this case: f/2.8 and 30 seconds, at ISO200) and started the exposures.

And then we wait…

In my experience, a total exposure of an hour is a good length for startrails. 90 minutes would be better, but I almost never can get myself to wait that long. Fortunately, I brought a second body (the X-Pro1) and could entertain myself shooting in the vicinity while my main camera (the X-T2) was busy with the startrails. The clouds I had seen moving in arrived after about 10 minutes, but were thin and disappeared quickly, giving me a total exposure time of an hour before I decided to pack up, go home and go to sleep.

The next morning, I started to process the photographs. Because one photograph exposed for one hour would have been hugely overexposed the building of the Burcht itself because of the bright spotlights, I chose to take 120 separate exposures of 30 seconds and combine those in photoshop. There is an easy way to place the images into a stack, convert them into a smart image, and merge them with only the brightest parts (the trails) of an image showing in the final photograph. All it takes is patience and a large hard drive. Because of white balance differences between the lighting on the Burcht and the surrounding area, I also merged a photograph of the Burcht with a different (correct) white balance to the combined startrail image and got my final result.

I was a bit sad to see that Plan A could not succeed, but from the start I had feared as much. I’m happy Plan B did succeed, and the weather did not sabotage my plans. The final image is what I had expected and I’m happy with it. The only thing I think I could have done better in hindsight is setting the lens to a smaller aperture. This would have had 2 advantages: the image quality would have improved (the Laowa is not at its best at f/2.8), and two: the shutter speed would have increased. This is an advantage because with a longer shutter speed less photographs would have been needed to fill an hour, leading to less processing time in photoshop. A lesson for next time. You never stop learning.

So what’s the fuss al about? See below..

The final image: startrails over The Burcht. A total of one hour of exposures with the Fujifilm X-T2 and the Laowa 9 mm f/2.8 @ f/2.8.