"Clear sky, clear sky, chance of cloud, chance of rain, clear sky". After putting my phone back in my pocket I realised that nine times out of ten, weather forecasts for the Isle of Man are about as reliable as... well, any weather forecast. Rather than take the word of a device in my pocket, I'd probably do better to stand outside and hazard a guess for myself.
But yes, clear skies were what I was after this winter break back home. A tall order? Absolutely. Especially so with the weather that frequents the tiny island in the middle of the Irish Sea. Nevertheless, there I was - peering out the window straining to see the sky and hoping it stayed relatively clear for the day. It ought to be mentioned that I've generally got no aversion to clouds, I love them as much as the next guy - but for the purposes of what I wanted to shoot over Christmas, I needed a clear night sky.
Timelapses. Timelapses of stars over the Manx hills is what I was after, to be precise. With the Isle of Man being one of the best spots for clear skies in all of Europe, I'd be a fool to pass up the opportunity to get some footage, I thought. I've shot my fair share of long exposures, sure - but never a timelapse. However, this was now made possible due to my recent purchase: the Olympus OMD EM-10, a mirrorless system compact camera. Without going into boring technical specifics, it's a big move from what I'm used to; smaller and lighter to hold, smarter technology and most importantly, an incredibly sexy appearance. (Yeah, I can't quite believe I typed that either.) Offering the opportunity to shoot timelapse videos, my new EM-10 was the tool for the job; all I needed now was a cloudless sky and some thermal underpants.
Bag packed and underpants sourced, a couple of friends and I set out to the centre of the island. We wanted to scout for a good spot to set up a timelapse rig later on, preferably sheltered from the elements and facing towards hills and away from the moon. With the moon being so bright and high in the sky at this time of year, we would inevitably encounter some difficulties in getting a purely black sky. For the purpose of an initial test however, the moon could stay where it was; not to say that it was going anywhere.
The first day provided many great opportunities to grab some images and videos; taking us on an impromptu detour up a rusted fell named 'Black Mountain', we were delighted to find some hidden lakes and crags that were, up until now, completely unknown to us. The area looked great, rolling hills and miniature lakes underneath what would promise to be an unpolluted clear sky.
However, at this altitude and on this specific day, the winds were too high and the temperature far too low to get any decent footage with the gear we had, not to mention the uneasy trek we made getting there. The thought of making that same journey again in the dark was less than savoury. Still, I had plenty of footage and stills to take away from the trip and it's definitely somewhere I'll be revisiting.
A day later and cloudier skies were paired with high winds. As I previously mentioned, I usually love that kind of weather and in many cases seek it out. Yet Murphy's law would have it that the one time I don't want it - it's there. Cynicism aside, I wasn't going to waste the opportunity to get a few shots of the ginormous bloated clouds rolling in from the coast, so once again a friend and I scouted a new potential location for some night sky timelapses. With the continued high winds and dangerous pathways inches from dooming cliff edges (Sorry mum, I swear I was careful) it appeared that this location would also be a write-off for our after dark expedition.
So another day of hopeful-looking weather later, we packed up the van and headed out into the dark to another new location. Finding a suitable place to park up, we grabbed our gear, flicked on head torches and made a short journey halfway up a hillside to what seemed like as good a spot as any. That's when I noticed something incredibly rare and equally beautiful: pure darkness, chillingly still air and a scene so silent that the only sound to be heard was the whispered ringing of my ears. As if the dark wasn't enough, the lack of wind and noise made the whole scene too perfect to be unnerving, although only by a margin.
However, the cloud was clearing and the air was still, so it was finally time to set up the cameras and begin shooting; tripod out, camera on. 150 images every two seconds at five-second exposures, basically a long time to wait. With that in mind, we stood back and engaged phase two of the expedition, unleashing the secret weapon, hot chocolate.
For the next hour or so, there was no sound but the occasional release of the camera shutter. The smell of damp heather was clinging to the biting cold air while the two of us warmed our bellies with hot chocolate-y delights by the light of the winter moon. Sounds like it could have been a perfect moment I'm sure, but if you've ever had to drink 'flasked' drinks then you'll know my pain in finding the hot chocolate tasted like soup...
Looking back at that night, I managed to collect quite a bit of footage, including three timelapses amounting to approximately thirteen seconds of video. Although it might not seem like much for a night of shooting, I'm quite chuffed with what I got. As with most cases of trying something out for the first time, I noticed a bunch of things I want to change next time around to make the footage even better. Practice and patience are the keys to many successful nights to come (as well as a new Thermos flask).
Watching those few seconds of timelapsed footage on loop allowed me to see the Island from a completely new perspective. With the Earth's rotation visible through the movement of the stars, I began to see where I was once stood within the galaxy. I don't feel I've ever shot something that highlights our insignificance in relation to the universe like I did that night. All of a sudden, Earth seemed like a very small place. If there's one thing to be said about shooting timelapses that night, it's that it is highly addictive and thoroughly enjoyable. Seeing the universe roll past like that really did "put me in my place" so to speak; something I've found to be a significant moment in my journey as a photographer and an experience I will undoubtedly seek out again and again.