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How To Find The Milky Way

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At Bulb mode, 57 seconds, F2.8, ISO 1000 with contrast adjusted for you to see the ”˜band.’

Recuperating from a weekend of chasing birds at the Wings of KKB Selangor Bird Race 2013, I came home with the 3rd prize of a trophy, a Deuter Pulse 40 EXP waistpack & a certificate. Seizing the day of high pressure in the atmosphere, I decided to have a go at astro photography again, now that I live so far out from the city. After dinner, we set out to look for a dark spot in the countryside in Semenyih. We set up our tripods & in the total darkness, we fumbled as the lights from our LED torches temporarily blinded us whenever we switched off for shutter release. Remembering I had the red LED setting on my Petzl e+Lite headlamp, it made it easier to operate in the dark without causing dizzy spells.

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As Earth is part of the Milky Way, we can only see speckles of dust or what our eyes can make out as haze or clouds. Looking for the ever-so-familiar sight of the Milky Way, I could only guess which part of the sky it was. I had my Google Sky Map app with me & it provided a very precise location of the constellations in the sky, relative to where I was. Here are the instructions on how to equip yourself & find the Milky Way with your eyes!

 

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The equipment I brought along with me:-

1) Camera – I used the Samsung NX200 mirrorless hybrid for this.
2) Samsung 20mm F2.8 lens
3) Manfrotto MKC3-H01 tripod with movie head
4) Asus Padfone Station
5) Petzl e+Lite headlamp (Get it from Lafuma!)
6) Folding chair

And essentials that you should have with you:-

1) Mosquito repellant.
2) Snacks & drinks to quell hunger pangs when you get too excited.
3) Blinkers to mark yourself in the dark.
4) A multitool to operate quick-release plates/screws etc.
5) Hammock & pillow if you get too sleepy waiting for clouds to pass.
6) An entourage.

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‘When observing the night sky, the term “Milky Way” is limited to the hazy band of white light some 30 degrees wide arcing across the sky (although all of the stars that can be seen with the naked eye are part of the Milky Way Galaxy). The light in this band originates from un-resolved stars and other material that lie within the Galactic plane. Dark regions within the band, such as the Great Rift and the Coalsack, correspond to areas where light from distant stars is blocked by interstellar dust.’ – wikipedia.

At different times of the month, you might be able to see it if you find Pluto & a great way to do so is to do a search in Google Sky Map app on your Android device or any other star gazing apps such as Stellarium on your laptop, to point you to the exact location in the sky relative to where you are standing. Make sure your GPS is also turned on in your device.

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At Bulb mode, 60 seconds, F2.8, ISO 800, only brightness adjusted.

If you have a bright wide angle lens, use that instead. Telephoto lenses are good for taking pictures of planets, not constellations unless you have a specific constellation that you want in a frame. I have yet to experiment with other lenses & will post an update here once I do. Depending on your settings, the general rule is, the bigger your aperture (smaller F-stop), the more light it allows but to keep the image sharp, you need to keep ISO low (800 or 640) in order to keep the blacks. A minute or less should be sufficient but then again, experiment with stopping up on the ISO or time to get the desired results.

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Then I tried to take just the stars at F8.0, 37 seconds at ISO 2000 & all I got were the constellations!

I couldn’t adjust my tripod head to tilt any further as this cluster was already too high up in the sky. Your camera may or may not allow you to have priority release of shutter regardless of whether you can focus on anything or not. In my case, my camera has to be set on Manual mode, Manual Focus & Multi Point Focusing. Adjusting the focusing ring on my lens through the CCD & LCD in the dark is a great pain. Literally, my neck was craned as I had positioned my tripod over my seat to look into my screen as it pointed upwards to the sky. A lot of the aim, is GUESSWORK. Pressing the shutter release was the start, waiting for a minute or so was expected but as soon as you press the shutter again, the camera went into a processing mode which took another minute & during this time, you shouldn’t move your camera or tripod in case the shutter hasn’t really closed yet. I heard a third sound when the processing was done. Through the 4 – 5 hours of shooting, I only managed 30+ pictures, of which only 3 or 5 were usable so don’t fret if you don’t get your pictures on the first try!

Here are some of my fluke shots, the frustration that you get after waiting for the picture to be processed…..

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Best time to plan for a starry night, weather & elements dependent, is to use a Moon Phase widget on your Android device to help you decide on the days where the moon would be below the horizon. The best time would be when it’s at waxing crescent or waning crescent, what we know as new moon. Search for an ideal spot to include some trees or landscape in your picture BEFORE your actual night of shooting. This would help with any impromptu decisions to go stargazing whenever the skies are clear. Be aware of your surroundings though. You may not be able to see what’s around you but it doesn’t mean that you are not being watched. Nocturnal animals are out & about too. I found a Terrapin crossing the road & stopped to take a photo of it!

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Let me know if you have succeeded in taking any photos of the Milky Way!

The Oriental Diving Bird of Borneo

The Oriental Darter (Anhinga melanogaster) is a magnificent bird that hunts for fish underwater! Listed as a threatened specie, this bird is also known as the Snake Bird, contributed by the way it moves its head on its elongated neck. When it dives down into the water, it can stay submerged as it hunts for fish & reemerges to toss the fish in the air before it swallows it. The most impressive sight would have to be when it takes off from being in the water. Only its head breaks the surface as it swims to gain momentum for the lift. At Kinabatangan River, this specie can be spotted on treetops when not in the water.

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While cruising on North Borneo Safari’s quiet, electric engined boat, Alex Tiongco, Marts (speakers from Phillippines) & Hamit Suban, our brilliant nature guide, pointed out a flock of them on a skeleton tree. Unable to contain ourselves, we were rocking the boat with excitement. Each time either one of us did that, none of us could get a focus on the bird with our cameras & binoculars but it didn’t matter! Shaking from excitement is part of the fun. Thankfully for my Manfrotto 055CXPro4 tripod, much of our shakes were minimised & I could still take pictures on the flat bottom boat.

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Count the Darters!

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A Darter emerging from underwater! Used with permission from Cede Prudente.

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Grooming.

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These were taken from at least 100m away.

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A fishing Darter! Used with permission from Cede Prudente.

That was our first sighting on our first cruise. Eight of them in one frame! Sighting of a lifer is something that birders get extremely excited over especially when the specie doesn’t exist in my part of the world (Peninsular Malaysia), what more seeing eight of them. Their sheer size was also noteworthy & Cede Prudente had the opportunity of capturing this diving bird fishing as well as emerging from the water & it is truly an aspirational picture for me to document it one day……if I get to stay long enough in the river stalking this Darter.

My Wild Encounter With A Living Legend At Sukau, Kinabatangan River

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Bukit Melapi Resort – private dock.

When we left Labuk Bay, we headed straight for Sukau. In the interiors of Sabah, the ride itself was an interesting one because Hamit, our guide kept spotting birds for us to see. We stopped several times for the Greater Coucal that walked on the fringe of the jungle. We tried to ambush it from the car with my lens sticking out of the window but this bird outsmarted us. Even the journey gave us several species of Kingfishers & Herons. I was wondering what Kinabatangan would be like.

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The crew.

Soon as we got into Bukit Melapi Resort, we headed out on a cruise. Then a boat with foreigners sailed by asking us permission if they could fly a helicopter overhead as they wanted to film. There was a boat tailing this one & looking at the solitary person sitting in front, I did a double take. I asked the foreigners, “Where are you from?” to which they replied, “We are from the BBC!” proudly. As I couldn’t hold my excitement further, recognising the lone ranger on the boat behind, I asked, “Is that Sir David Attenborough???” And they nodded excitedly. Before you know it, Alex, Marts, Hamit & myself were waving frantically saying hello to the living legend! Then I turned to the crew & said, “Sure! Fly whatever you must & take as much footage as you need to show the world what Kinabatangan is all about!!!” And the crew politely thanked us in their thick British accent.

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Sir David Attenborough himself!!!

He smiled & nodded, acknowledging our frenzy before continuing their journey. I shot the helicopter alright, with the cameraman sitting precariously over the edge as they filmed.

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Later, the helicopter parked by the open space next to our resort & we went over to ”˜inspect’ the machine as all curious creatures do when there are subjects of interest in the area. Couldn’t resist the pose with the flying machine!

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We didn’t think that we would meet him face to face after seeing tons of his works on TV & being such a fan of them. Saying we were star-struck was an understatement. He was a real-lifer! What else did we find at Kinabatangan? Find out in my next post….. 🙂

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The Challenge of Bird Photography In The Rainforest of Borneo

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Panorama shot of the trails within the Sepilok Forest Reserve.

Pictures do not tell a thousand words when the eye of the beholder does not know the behaviour nor the habitat of the bird the picture was taken in. The level of effort corresponds with the level of commitment to obtain the shot given the probability of  most conditions that are not favourable to photographers. With a very small window of opportunity in the thick foliage of Sepilok jungle, you have a few seconds to respond to adjusting your lens to frame the bird & get it into focus before firing the shutter.

Most times, you need to be up early & light is usually not favourable to you. Making the best of these situations, you either use fill-in flash on 2nd curtain sync or bump up the ISO to the max, depending on how capable your camera is. Pictures shown here are the exact lighting conditions without any adjustments.

Venue:- Rainforest Discovery Centre, Sepilok Forest Reserve, Sandakan, Sabah.
Heat & Humidity – This place must be the most awesome creation of tropical foliage in the rainforest of Sandakan but having so much thick cover, the humidity can reach well above 90% on an average day. It’s almost like the foliage on the canopy had trapped a massive amount of moisture for the life below that lingering inside is like a mist-cooker, you would be melting without even moving an inch. Lugging your gear with you & walking in the trails can cause you to be drenched wet with perspiration within your first half hour into your excursion. Solution: Get a Cobber, an expandable water-activated gel tube scarf to tie around your neck, cooling your carotid nerves as the day gets hot & hotter. Wear quick-dry & light attire to wick off moisture & sweat.

Hilly Terrain  – Be prepared to trek uphill as well as downhill. Carrying your mounted tripod if you have a 400mm lens or above would test your stamina & endurance but that’s just the beginning. Your essentials are almost always needed on an expedition like this so add it on to what you will be carrying on your photo backpack. Apart from carrying the right bag, an airtight/moisture-tight container is recommended for your batteries, memory cards & any peripherals which you think might be subjected to the humid air. A mini trolley would be an ideal partner for your bag & tripod as walking to the hotspots (spots with rare bird sightings) from one location to another can really drain you. Bring a 1.5litre bottle of water to rehydrate. You would not want to move from your spot for water only to discover from your birding buddies later that the bird landed, courted, fed & possibly mated when you were gone.

Wet Ground – Bring a foldable chair. Camouflaged preferred. I had to resort to sitting on the ground with my Manfrotto carbon fibre tripod shortened to fit into the little window. Alternatively, bring a small piece of spongy, exercise mat to sit on. Wear shoes with traction. I had my Timberlands Chocorua Trail on & it has served me well for the last 6 years.

Here are the shots, unedited, a few of them just cropped to give you clarity.

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In this picture, there is a hole in the tree. What we didn’t know was that this hole, is a secret bathtub for the birds!!! Note the twigs & branches obstructing the view.
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Close up shot of the bird bath…..
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And I managed to capture a Leaf Bird! I took videos of this bird & will upload them when I have better internet connection!

Updated! Video of secret bird bath!
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See the full frame picture……
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….and this section here where I pointed my lens!
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Here the bird sits quietly as it hunts for food. And a twig was in my way! Grrrr…..!
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Sometimes, you get lucky. There were two Kingfishers in this shot! Unfortunately, they were too far in even for my 500mm lens’ reach.
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To get a shot of the Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher (8cm in size only & this male was in a feeding courtship!), there was only one window around the leaves.

 

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This is the ‘window.’ The blurred parts of the picture are leaves obstructing my view.
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See the leaves again?
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Courtship in action! I gotta find a male who would feed me too! LOL!
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I think marriage is on the way…….yay! (Chan Pak, the HK veteran birder, eventually got the mating shot of these OD KF!)

 

The jungle is filled with sounds of bugs & birds. We were so engrossed with the little Dwarfs that we missed the big red Trogon behind us. The Diard’s Trogon has a red chest but always remain hidden with its back facing us so any opportunity to take a frontal shot is a shot in the dark…..

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See what I mean??? Obscured, I managed to get an ID shot of its chest.

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Still obscured despite me shifting position & angle.

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Getting a little frontal shot is still not considered good enough for any birdmasters, who will never show shots like these.

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Finally after a strained neck, a twisted back & wobbly legs from contorting myself to get the shots, I got the Diard’s Trogon!

My foray into bird photography in 2006, was attributed by my best friend, Chien, (who passed away on the 24 August 2011) when he talked to me about how he got those waders by staking out in the water to wait for the right moment. His pictures are astounding. His passion was even more infectious. He was born to teach & by sharing what he knows, he had enlarged his circle of influence to emulate what he did. And everyone enjoyed doing what he taught us to do, birding & learning about the habitat of birds to get the right time & capture the right shots. He had been a great friend & I am a product of emulating what he did with bird photography. I will share with you my discovery along the way just as Chien was so enthusiastic about sharing his discoveries when he was alive. Whatever challenges in bird photography that comes my way, his teachings would always echo in my head.

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Nature’s umbrella In the jungle – even the yam leaves are taller than I am!

The people behind the Borneo Bird Festival were fantastic & the resort I stayed in (Sepilok Jungle Resort) gave me a lot of opportunities to shoot birds in their compound. Being appointed as one of the judges in the Bird Photography Contest of the Festival, I want to thank the organisers for that honour & opportunity although it blew my cover as The Wannabe, I still think I do better stalking & reporting in my profession! Make Sepilok Forest Reserve as your next birding destination & be thrilled!

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A Sunbird in natural lighting.

Why You Need A Tripod

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From L to R:- Me, Sree, Adrian, the late Chien, Kam Su, Alagan & Philip.

It comes a time when amateur photographers or those aspiring to go pro, make a decision to get a tripod to complement their setup. You may have asked yourself the same question everyone of us asked before acquiring our first, “Why do I need a tripod in the first place,” and “Why do I have to spend money getting a premium tripod when there are lots of tripods that are a fraction of the cost???” Let’s address these questions as we run through what, when, how, where & why you need one.

Why You Need A Tripod:-

  • You can’t take steady shots no matter how you hold your breath when you press the shutter button.
  • You want to take HDR photos – bracketed shots of over & under-exposed ones to be recombined in HDR softwares.
  • You want to do bird photography.
  • You want to shoot video & not want your motion pictures turn into a Blair Witch Project kinda production.
  • You have a giant setup.
  • You want to free your hands to eat/drink/talk on the phone while monitoring your subject.
  • You want to shoot from a vehicle/boat & need support for your gear.
  • You want to shoot remotely.
  • You don’t want to be called an amateur.
  • You want to rely on a support that’s not called ”˜a man.’
  • It doubles up as a defence weapon when confronted by thugs/wildlife/crazy neighbour/over-amorous monkeys in parks.

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Birders at work.

When You Choose A Tripod:-

  • Select one that has the right height. If you are tall & the tripod is short, you end up bending in the wrong places & craning your neck to accommodate the camera rather than vice versa.
  • Determine the make. Manfrotto is the world leader company in the production and distribution of supports for photography and videography such as tripods, heads and monopods. And Manfrotto is Italian. Italians are sexy. So are the tripods they make. ? For some founding history, read here.
  • Quality over price. Determine a budget. A good rule is knowing how much your camera+flash+battery pack+lens cost. If you spent in excess of RM2,500 & above for your system, does it make sense to get an el-cheapo, flimsy/wobbly, sub-standard RM50 tripod that run the risk of collapsing & ruining your gear??? Surely not. Protect your investment & make a wise choice. My birding setup cost me RM10,000 & this is small compared to what the birdmasters spend on their gear. I’m the Wannabe birder so I can shoot with whatever I please but I do get the best with whatever I can afford. You don’t need a Gitzo if you are starting out & you don’t need to conform to the norms of society. I will show you equipment that are equally good but costs much less.
  • Determine your kind of travel, by road or by air. If you fly often, it would be good to get a light but sturdy tripod made of carbon fibre.
  • Determine the weight of your camera+lens+flash+ball head before you choose the right tripod for your system.

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Ian Liew & myself at Kuala Selangor Nature Park

Setting A Standard:-

  • Be creative. Paint your tripod. Put decals on. Make your tripod standout from the rest. If you are a birder like me, you ought to put camouflage tape instead.
  • Everyone thinks they ought to use to top range products but my Manfrotto 055 Nat Trekker (for birding) & Manfrotto Modo (for travelling) have served me so well. With the recent acquisition of Manfrotto 055CXPro4, I think I’m quite ready to become Manfrotto’s official fan.
  • Manfrotto is readily available locally & all spare parts too. I need not wait forever for a part to arrive from the other side of the world should anything go wrong.
  • Did I mention Italians are sexy?

Watch out for more posts on tripod usage as I begin the tour with My Selangor Story! Readers of Pummkin’s Pitch will get a special price on selected tripods so check back here often! (Visit my sponsors on the right of this blog.)