This week at Macquarie Island: 12 October 2018

This week at Macca we look at the current state of the 'tiny pine tree' Huperzia, and how photographic techniques show the island at its best.

Experimental Photography

My first experiences of semi-serious photography were at Mawson Station in 2014 with a Panasonic bridge camera and no clue what I was doing. While I was there I figured out that I actually quite like it.

When I was preparing to come to Macquarie Island I bought myself my first DSLR and a couple of lenses that I thought might suit the environment. I like playing with photography; it’s a great use of personal time on station, and I like the technical aspects. Lately however I’ve been trying to push the envelope a little further by mixing all sorts of software, electronic, and photography techniques.

Deep Zoom Panorama

I’m not always a big fan of “big”. Small cars are fine, small TVs, small tents. No dramas.

But there is one “bigger is better” that I’ve been playing with lately: deep zoom panoramas.

Most people have used pyramid based deep zoom photographs in their day-to-day lives. It’s the technique that is used by Google Maps and any number of other web services to allow you to zoom deeper and deeper into a satellite image without crashing your network or computer by trying to load a single stupendously large, high resolution image. Instead, the images are broken into layers and segments, each layer showing more detail in a smaller area. So at the base of the pyramid you have many, many tiny images and the further you zoom out you have fewer, lower resolution images that cover the same area.

I’ve been experimenting with this technique by using telephoto lenses to create landscape or portrait shots. The idea is to lock the camera and lens at manual settings then create a grid of overlapping images that, together, encompass the overall composition that you are trying to produce. Ideally this would be done with a tripod and motorised or mechanical gimbal head, but my limited resources and issues with carrying equipment around the island means that most of my attempts have been made handheld.

After the set of photographs has been taken the real fiddling begins - trying to make a piece of software put them together with minimum distortion, in a digital negative that can be post-processed, and then broken into deep-zoom layers to be hosted on a web server. Honestly my hardware isn’t really up to it, and it crashes more often than not.

Sometimes it works though, and some of my more successful experiments are included below, compressed to show the overall composition of the shot and then the detail of the same image when viewed uncompressed at 1:1. For reference, my camera has a 24 megapixel (MP) sensor; each shot it takes is 6016 dots wide and 4016 dots tall which gives a total of 24,160,256 dots per frame. The smallest stitched example I’ve included is the Lusitania Bay penguins at 77.36MP and the largest is the leopard seal at a whopping 188.93MP.

Holy Grail Timelapse

Timelapses are a popular artistic technique for creating landscape videos. Weather is a dynamic feature of the environment, but it generally changes too slowly to keep human interest when played back in a video. Timelapses are also a particularly effective method for showing auroras, as the aurora often requires long exposure photography to capture, which precludes playing back in real-time.

The 'Holy Grail' timelapse idea is to effectively captures extreme changes in light levels, without flickering or over/under exposing. In essence it’s trying to photograph the transition from day to night, or night to day.

The challenges that capturing a 'Holy Grail' timelapse on Macquarie Island present include:

  weather conditions - salt spray all the time, rain, snow, gale force winds,

  batteries draining when shooting for 12+ hours,

  managing camera exposure levels,

  portability!

To create my timelapses I’ve modified a weatherproof electronics container with a mount for my camera, a glass window, and a power cable port. The power is supplied from a 12V lead-acid battery which is regulated in a second smaller waterproof box. The timelapse management is performed by an app on a smart phone, which is connected to the camera via wifi and powered through a commercial USB battery.

Unfortunately there’s very little I can do for the portability of the system - between the battery, the camera, and the box it weighs a substantial amount and is fairly awkward to move around Macca!

So far I have used this system to shoot several thousand photos over a few nights on station, with reasonable success. Next steps will be improving the fastening system on the enclosure, carrying a second battery to put in parallel, and finding a way to store more photos on the camera.

Here's an example timelapse - enjoy!

Angus Cummings

A panorama of Hurd Point
Hurd Point stitch shot at 50 mm - 114 MP total
(Photo: Angus Cummings)
Detail of the Hurd Point panorama
Hurd Point detail inset
(Photo: Angus Cummings)
A stitch shot of a leopard seal
Leopard seal stitch shot at 500 mm - 189 MP total
(Photo: Angus Cummings)
Detail of a young leopard seal head
Leopard seal detail inset
(Photo: Angus Cummings)
A panorama photograph of Lusitania Bay king penguin colony
Lusitania Bay stitch shot at 50 mm 77 MP total
(Photo: Angus Cummings)
Detail of the king penguin colony at Lusitania Bay
Lusitania Bay detail inset
(Photo: Angus Cummings)
A panorama photograph of the station and North Head
Station stitch at 50 mm - 171 MP total
(Photo: Angus Cummings)
Detail of Station buildings
Station - North Head detail inset
(Photo: Angus Cummings)
An image taken using 'Holy Grail' time lapse captures the isthmus and plateau to the south from the golf tee on Wireless Hill
Holy Grail time-lapse captures the transition from a snow-free evening........
(Photo: Angus Cummings)
The transition to a snowy day is captured in this photograph
- into a very snowy morning indeed
(Photo: Angus Cummings)
An image in the sequence of the time lapse showing a strong aurora in the sky over Macca with the lit station in the foreground
- and plenty of interest in between
(Photo: Angus Cummings)
An image in the time lapse sequence showing the dawn sky colours
- including the dawn sky colour transition
(Photo: Angus Cummings)
An image of the camera equipment used to create experimental photographs
The ingredients for creating a Macquarie Island long duration timelapse
(Photo: Angus Cummings)

Huperzia Update

If you asked me a couple of years ago for my thoughts on the status of this pint-sized epiphyte, I certainly didn't expect to write three stories about it.

To be honest, prior to my first trip to Macquarie Island in 2013, I’d never even heard of the plant.

Huperzia australiana is a species of small terrestrial plant in the Lycopodiaceae (clubmoss) family. It is native to Australia and New Zealand, and was considered rare on Macquarie Island.

Yet here we are, almost seven years since the last rabbit was seen alive on Macquarie Island, and the increasing frequency at which Huperzia australiana is being recorded on the island is truly amazing.

I first wrote about Huperzia australiana in September 2016. I made an offhand comment about a single plant that may be the future source of propagules at a particular site. Opportunistically just recently, I passed by 'Leona’s' plant (now recorded as Huper022).

To my surprise, not much had changed with the single plant – still somewhat yellowed and scorched. However, what had changed was nearby 10 new plants in two separate clusters had emerged. These new plants may well have been very small and hidden deep in the moss layer, but have now emerged from the moss and are easily seen.

A second story that season was a follow-up stop press in January 2017 – we’d just hit the 200 site mark.

The story continues – the latest count in October 2018 records 424 sites.

Chris Howard 

An image of a small Huperzia plant surrounded by moss and a marker taken in 2016 by Leona, a member of the MIPEP team,
Leona's Huperzia - the first observation made of this plant in 2016
(Photo: Chris Howard)
Leona's Huperzia taken in 2018 - the plant first observed in 2016 is remarkably unchanged when compared to images from two years ago. It now measures just over 30 mm
Leona's Huperzia taken in 2018 - the plant appears remarkably unchanged when…
(Photo: Chris Howard)
An image of a larger Huperzia in the vicinity of the plant noted by Leona, one of the MIPEP team, n 2016. Plants of this size are now common across the island
Close to Leona’s Huperzia there are plants of this size
(Photo: Chris Howard)
Huperzia australiana alive and well - a very healthy specimen recorded just recently measured against a 15 cm ruler - this plant is associated with a colony of ~200 plants
Huperzia australiana alive and well - a very healthy specimen recorded just…
(Photo: Chris Howard)
An image showing a patch of vegetated ground on Macquarie Island
How many Huperzia can you count?
(Photo: Chris Howard)
Red circles outlining five clusters of Huperzia
Five clusters of Huperzia marked
(Photo: Chris Howard)
A section of the island showing some of the site records on the island
A section of the island showing some of the site records on…
(Photo: Chris Howard)
The fencing that was required to keep plants safe during the days when there were rabbits on the island
A reminder of life during the days of rabbits
(Photo: Chris Howard)