Recently I had the opportunity to photograph a stunning residence in Stanislaus County, California. This place was certainly one of the best put-together houses I’ve ever seen; everything was done to a high degree of quality. Inside and out, the design/architecture was outstanding and needless to say I had a great time photographing it!
During the planning sessions with the creative team, the descriptions of the stars kept coming up. “You should see the stars out there!” one person gushed. “The stars are incredible,” said another. The homeowners also brought this up repeatedly. As we discussed shot lists and logistics, this photograph slowly evolved in my head.
Going into a shoot, I usually have at least a vague idea of what I’m trying to do in my head – sometimes the vision is sort of foggy, but other times I have a very complete and vivid picture in my mind’s eye. It’s always extremely satisfying when the actual photograph mirrors that vision perfectly – and this is one of those times. This shot was conceived as a magazine cover – you have to imagine the text that would overlay the sky. The inset might help you to visualize this 😉
The original plan was to produce a twilight exterior, but I wanted to make it an extraordinary twi exterior — something you don’t see every day. The “twilight” shot eventually became this “night” shot.
Star Trail photography exploits the physics of the solar system – as the earth rotates, the stars appear to move across the sky just as the sun does. They describe an arc, rising in the eastern sky and setting to the west. With a long enough exposure, the stars will appear to form a complete circle, with the center being the Pole Star, or North Star.
With the camera locked down on a tripod, you simply hold the shutter open for the appropriate length of time to produce the star trails of the length you want. Of course, this is complicated by the ambient light burning in your exposure near the horizon. A graduated ND filter can come in very handy here.
I used a very solid tripod, and since I was shooting with a zoom lens, I gaffer-taped the zoom ring to ensure that there would be no “drift”.
I used chemical handwarmers held on with bungees to keep the lenses warm, to prevent condensation from forming on the front element, and an AC adaptor in place of the camera’s battery (tethered shooting kills batteries quick, also cold weather). Once, the sprinkler system came on and began dousing my equipment; luckily I caught that in time and was able to just wipe off the camera and laptop!
I spent two nights experimenting with various techniques before settling on the final method. Each night I had two cameras out on the terraces above the pool, tethered to laptops, clicking away on time-lapse, or just making long exposures. Every hour or so I’d go out into the cold night, study the results, and reset the camera for another round. For the truly long-term tests, I’d set the cameras and then go to bed, collecting my results just before dawn.
One of the things I was testing for was the house lights — there were outdoor floods all over the place, and since no one seemed to know how to bypass the system, I had to go around and unscrew the bulbs so they didn’t blow out the exposures. But some of house lights were OK….more tests.
This image is actually a composite of hundreds of relatively short exposures, along with a longer one for the house itself. If you look closely at the inset, you can see two tiny gaps in the bigger star trails – those represent frames when I was walking through the shot with my headlamp on. I had to delete those images, and lost a pixel or two of star in the process. Each exposure was about 4 seconds, with less than a second of pause between frames.
The reason I chose this method, rather than going with a single, long exposure, was twofold — first, I wanted to control noise. Long exposures and digital sensors don’t always play well together, and also the colors can begin to go in directions you hadn’t planned. It’s not exactly color reciprocity, but hues that aren’t apparent to the eye can take over the photo. The second reason was that building the shot out of many short exposures allowed me complete creative control over the length of the star trails – I could simply drop a percentage of frames to shorten the trails, or include all of them to make them longer. This turned out to be very useful in tweaking the final image to mirror my vision exactly.
I put the exposures together using a Photoshop plugin called, cleverly, “Star Trails Photoshop Action”. It adds your exposures to the base image one at a time, flattening layers as it goes, so there’s absolutely no memory issues at all (imagine a Photoshop document with 250 layers!)
The true magic lies in the post-processing – there was some very tricky stuff going on, and it was only with the help of my friend Russell Byrne that I found the right layer blending formula to make this all come together. I learned a lot about Photoshop in the post-production of this one!
In the end, I think I got a pretty striking image – well worth the effort and long nights!