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Bioluminescence Under the Stars

A guest post by Phil Hart – author of the Shooting Stars eBook (use the code DPSTARS for a 20% discount).

Once you have the skills and equipment, great photographs are often the result of being in the right place at the right time and sometimes that involves a little bit of luck. In the Australian summer of 2008/09, I was very lucky.

I’ve spent many weeks down on the Gippsland Lakes running summer camps with Camp Cooinda and bioluminescence is something we’ve seen quite a few times over the years, although it is normally faint and all but impossible to photograph. But in late December 2008 and early January 2009, the bioluminescence was extremely bright. In fact, bioluminescence as bright as we saw it then must be quite rare anywhere in the world, for there are very few other photos like these ones I captured that summer.

Exactly why it was so bright that year is a complicated story of summer bushfires followed months later by winter floods, which caused high levels of nutrients in the water and ultimately an outbreak of the micro-organism Noctiluca Scintillans. You can read more about that story on my website, but this post is about the photos.

Four years ago, I was using a Canon 20D which was relatively early model DSLR, but still performed quite well in low light and many of my images were taken with the standard 18-55mm lens; proof again that you don’t have to have the latest and most expensive equipment to take great night images.

Splashing in Bioluminescence

Canon 20D, 18-55mm lens @27mm, 20 sec, f4, ISO1600

Some of the camp leaders playing in the water provided the first photographic inspiration and a team of us set to work seeing what we could create. The bioluminescence only glows when the water is moved or disturbed, so we started by simply having them splash water in the air, creating a silhouette of somebody standing in front (above). Then they started splashing each other directly – the bioluminescence glowing as it hit their bodies and drained down. This gives a whole new meaning to the term ‘light painting’. The second image shot with a flash on the beach helps explain what was going on, and you can see that the experience was not very pleasant for the person in the middle!

Splashing in Bioluminescent Water

Canon 20D, 18-55mm lens @18mm, 15 sec, f3.5, ISO1600

Bioluminescence Under the Stars

After the people in the water had got cold and headed to their tents, I spent several hours that night and others following it trying to capture as much as I could on camera. The only fast lens I had was a 50mm f1.4, which was not wide enough for nightscape style images under a starry sky, but was great at picking up the fleeting illumination from the bioluminescence as I threw handfulls of sand and pebbles into the water.

Bioluminescent Splashes

Canon 20D, 50mm lens, 4 sec, f1.4, ISO1600

Being an astronomer, my favourite images are the ones that combine the bioluminescence with the stars above. Some people have a had time believing these images are real, but I can assure you they have not had much processing and looked much the same on the back of the camera at the time. But possibly the most popular image I captured nearly cost me my camera. I had placed a flashlight on the beach pointing back at the camera so that I had something to focus on and was setting up my tripod partly in the (salt) water to get a strong view of the glowing waves right under the camera. As I jumped up to retrieve the flashlight, my leg got caught up in the cable release knocking the tripod and camera down to the ground and into the water. I quickly picked it up and rushed off to find a tap to rinse off the salty water. Fortunately the camera itself had not got too wet so I was able to get back to the photos again soon enough. The tripod though has never been the same since!

Image: Canon 20D, 10-22mm lens @10mm, 2 min, f3.5, ISO1600

Canon 20D, 10-22mm lens @10mm, 2 min, f3.5, ISO1600

That same night I finshed off by taking a series of 2 minute exposures, from a safe position higher up the beach this time. I subsequently stacked the frames to create this star trail image, which is my personal favourite.

Bioluminescence and Star Trails

Canon 20D, 10-22mm lens @10mm, 45 x 2 min, f3.5, ISO1600

It’s been nearly four years since I took these images but I fear I will have to wait much longer to ever see bioluminescence like it again. If you want to make sure you’ve got the skills to capture amazing night sky images like these when you too find yourself in the right place at the right time, then I’m very confident my eBook Shooting Stars eBook (currently 40% off at SnapnDeals) will help you a lot!

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Phil Hart
Phil Hart

is an engineer by day and photographer under the stars by night. He is the author of the eBook Shooting Stars and a free Night Sky Photography Newsletter and runs Workshops in and around Melbourne, Australia.

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