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Moonlit Sunflower Field & Scare Crow Fun - September 5th & 6th 2020

It was one of those uneventful Sunday's with nothing much really happening, the weather was heavy, dry and mild however with a gray cloud deck and spots of mizzle it wasn't the kind of day calling out for any kind of photography or drone filming. Roisin and I decided to drive into Omagh and do a little shopping to pass the day. As we headed west along the Omagh road we noticed a sign a mile or so back from the junction for Beaghmore Stone Circles, it read 'Sunflower Field', I slowed down for a glance, I'm always on the look out for photo opportunities, especially interesting foreground that would work with nightscape photography so I immediately was captivated, I asked Roisin to remind me to check it out on the way back. A few hours later we where heading back, we had stopped off briefly for drone filming of the An Creagan area, the weather had improved, then continued east toward Cookstown, I was determined to check out that sunflower field however we didn't have much time to look as Roisin had an online zoom session to prepare for so I just drove into the yard to get a visual. Turned out the field belonged to 'Old McDonald's Fun Farm' near Kildress, they had the field open for the public, unfortunately there was a death in the family and the farm owners had opened the field to raise money to help out with the local hospital, this was for a great cause so I decided I would return the next day.

September 5th was a day of sunshine and weakly convective showers. I decided to collect my Mum and our dog Rhua and head out for the day and visit the sunflower field. We arrived during the early afternoon and parked within the grounds, a heavy shower was pouring down for a long time so we waited in the van until the rain stopped and with blue sky moving in from the western horizon it was time to go. I introduced myself to the family and asked permission for a night shoot in their sunflower field and much to my delight the owner and family were more than happy to let me get on with it which was very kind of them. I left a suitable donation to cover our visit including my planned night shoots then we made our way into the field.

I love sunflower and rapeseed fields and have always wanted to do a night shoot from inside such a field however for some reason or another I never got the opportunity or the weather didn't work out or I simply made excuses to shoot other subjects, however this time I was determined to do it, but I needed to know the lay out of the land and assess if the location could work for nightscapes as a lot of boxes need to be ticked for success hence why the daytime visit was required. I needed at least one relatively decent vista across the field, preferably free from tall trees, power lines and outdoor lights. The owners informed me the flowers had been growing for three weeks so now was a good time to capture them before they began to deteriorate. We had a fun time checking out the field and walked between the flowers, they were absolutely beautiful and in places clusters of sunflowers had grown to near head height, the blue sky had moved in and the sun was shinning and the flowers seemed to radiate with a glory of their own, I decided this was too good to ignore, I had to shoot these as soon as possible before the chance was gone.

Much to my delight I noticed two scare crows within the field, the bottom one wasn't well placed for shooting due to proximity to trees however the scare crow on the hill was perfectly placed among the highest and most densely concentrated area of flowers and was far enough away from the trees to get sky in the frame, this would make for great foreground. Rhua approached the scare crow sniffing cautiously, she didn't know what to make of it, she thought it was a real person at first with no human scent, she actually was afraid until she saw us being comfortable beside it. From what I could tell the north would not work out due to tall trees and a telegraph pole however the view to the NW, W and SW was decent with enough sky visible to make use of, the above 10mm image was facing north west, I decided on-location that I would likely move across the field to the right and face more to the west with less trees in the frame, other than power lines overhead I considered this location as doable, it would certainly be an interesting challenge and something entirely different so I was very much in the zone and looking forward to this unexpected night shoot.

Later that night I decided I would attempt a shoot since the going was good, the forecast showed clear skies and broken cloud so I had to just make the most with what I was given by nature. I mentioned the location to the guys who also expressed interest however due to work commitments and a somewhat suspect cloud forecast they passed it up for a better night so I decided I would do this one solo then let them know if it had potential. The sun set in a perfect clear sky and as twilight faded the sky was full of stars, I watched the moon rise quickly in the east, I was waiting on this, the phase was one day after full, not a phase I like to shoot with often as the sky tends to be just too bright with very few stars in the sky and on occasion the light can be so bright the landscape can look rather bland and flat. Being the optimist I also factored in that being late Summer the ecliptic was also lower in the sky in comparison to the Autumn and Winter period so despite all the negative things about the moon phase being true the lower elevation could mitigate the glare somewhat and the light could be more contrasty. Either way I needed bright moonlight to illuminate the crop for me, however I didn't know just how well this would work and if I would need to result to light painting, I would find out soon enough.

I left Cookstown under clear skies and as soon as I made my way onto the Omagh road the sky had completely clouded over with a widespread blanket of mid level cloud, I couldn't believe it, typical of N. Ireland I thought to myself and so much for the clear skies forecast. I decided I was committed and continued on, I would shoot it under cloud if needs be, the optimist in me said I might even get clear breaks later. I arrived on location and with two camera bags and two tripods in hand I made my way into the field using my head torch, it felt like walking into another world or a different dimension, a beautiful yet creepy kind of Narnia. I saw breaks and the moon poked through fractures in the cloud blanket, I took test images from various locations in the field and toyed with the idea of using longer focal lengths to pick out individual sunflowers with the stars, however the sky didn't have enough stars and the flowers moved in the slightest breath of wind, I soon figured out that wide angle was the way to go to get as many flowers with the sky as possible. This image was a test when the thicker cloud dominated in the sky, I used my head torch to sweep the crop, even though it was a little harsh and done in haste I ended up rather liking this image, I'm not even sure why, maybe because it was a memory captured or more likely the eerie feeling from the scene with moonlit Altocumulus aloft, but more than that this moment brought me back to the many horror movies I used to watch when I was younger which often seemed to take place in tall corn fields in the USA, I was reminded of 'Children Of The Corn' and other more vivid crop field horrors whose names I can't recall.

Suddenly the moon emerged into a good clear gap, I had forgotten how bright the moon at one day past full can be, this was full moonshine in a 20 second exposure with the crop sensor at ISO1600, you would think that enhanced area was a torch, that's moonshine, I was amazed how vividly the sunflowers showed up in the exposure with vivid yellow colours. I set up the 600D and began shooting a time lapse of this scene, I had to extend the central column of the tripod to maximum height to get the camera above the flowers then I left the camera alone, picked up the 5D Mark IV, and quietly ventured off into the flowers to the right. Within that clear sector are the constellations of Corona Borealis and Bootes.

With the full frame and Irix 15mm Blackstone I began shooting time lapse of the flowers and scare crow, the moon was so bright I was able to stop the lens down from F/2.4 to F/4.5 and reduce the exposure to 15 seconds at a moderately high ISO which did a superb job of picking up all the detail in the field, short star trail from the first time lapse.

Another star trail from the next time lapse, I wish I could have gotten longer trails over this scene however the sky was never clear enough for that to happen, in fact, I'm amazed I got what I did because there were not many stars visible this night. As the two cameras worked away I was able to blend into the field and become one with the night. With the exception of the odd passing car there was little in the way of sound other than the swaying of the flowers in the gentle breeze. I knelt down low and rested, I was surrounded on all sides by tall stalks topped with sunflowers in the twilight darkness, with full dark adaption the field seemed bright and the yellow colours of the sunflowers were easy to see with direct vision, I watched the stars of the Summer Triangle above the flowers. When the moon appeared from behind a passing cloud the field seemed to light up, I watched the moonlight move across the yellow pedals, this experience was so peaceful and surreal. This image actually reminds me of the movie 'Jeepers Creepers', being alone in this field really was magical and in some way it was a little creepy which was pure physiological on my part due the presence of the scare crow, at one stage I was expecting him to turn around and look at me.

After several hours of shooting I decided I had enough for one night, this was my last image, this time facing east. I will admit that I had an absolutely wonderful time doing photography in this field, even though there was more cloud than stars it was still a great experience and at least I can say I ticked this one off my bucket list. I packed up and headed home and was back for 02.00. I decided that if it was clear the following night I would go back again for another go.

September 6th, I re-charged all the gear and got ready for another nights shooting. The Met Office had been indicating that this night could be the best for clear skies all week and with the rest of the weekend looking cloudy this was a night I really wanted to get results from. Plans were arranged, I would be shooting with Nigel McFarland and John Fagan, however the location had yet to be agreed upon, we were considering several other locations but with the models showing inland best for clear skies we decided we would try out the sunflower field, I was eager for another go and John and Nigel wanted to try it out too, I contacted the owners and got permission and the night was set.

We arrived on location and made our way into the field, this time the conditions were perfect, with the exception of some passing cloud the sky was very clear and the breeze was less strong compared to the previous night, also the moon was now two days after full so there were more stars visible in the sky yet the moon was still bright enough to illuminate the field at an elevation of less than 40 degrees, perfect indeed. As before I set up two cameras for time lapse, one shooting over the flowers and the other featuring the scare crow in the frame, this was the 600D at 10mm with cloud rapidly crossing the sky in the exposure.

All three of us had tripods set-up shooting the scare crow with sunflowers, we had to position in such a way that our three wide field cameras didn't appear in our FOVs. Nigel shot stills while John and I shot time lapse, again full frame at 15mm stopped down to F/4 at ISO2000 or more, all light is natural moonlight on the field.

A few stills were taken later, you can just about make out a hint of the Milky Way in Aquila, this was invisible last night and I could see many more stars with the naked eye too, it's amazing what one night of moon phase can do to the sky. While the first night was a tranquil experience this night was the polar opposite, we laughed and joked and chatted and had a great time.

When I was going through the frames shot with the 5D I noticed this subtle moonbow visible in the frame above the head of the scare crow, it was visible in four frames. Quite a cool scene, I was saying to the guys earlier it would have been cool to get a moonbow over sunflowers yet none of us noticed this at the time, turned out John and I captured it quite by accident because we were shooting time lapse. A vivid complete primary and secondary moonbow would be epic over these flowers, maybe I will capture such a scene in the future.

Star trail from the 600D showing the stars over the sunflowers, you can see the multiple trains of cloud originating from the west, their combined paths look like fanning search lights or rays among the stars.

Star trail from the 5D with scare crow and even light trails from a passing lorry, I really like this image. After a couple of hours we ended shooting here, it had been a very successful shoot. John headed home and Nigel and I decided to drive on to our next location, while en route we witnessed a vibrant moonbow through the windscreen which would have been a prize catch on camera but we we let it go until we made it to our next location which was a quarry, however I will save the images from that shoot for another report.

Time lapse of sunflowers and scare crow in moonlight from both nights combined, best watched at 1080p HD with window expanded for the best experience. I hope you enjoyed reading this report as much as I enjoyed being here, thanks very much for your time.


Martin McKenna

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