Casa Estrella

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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!

I spent two days and two nights on location, along with Quentin Bacon, who was shooting video. I returned twice more to capture aerials (first flight we didn’t get good stuff due to haze).

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.

THE VISION

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.

THE TECHNIQUE

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.

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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!

9 responses to “Casa Estrella

  1. Wow — and originally here I was thinking you just cheated and used a radial blur! That’s great work

  2. Nicely thought out and executed image.

  3. Wow is the right expression. Not just for this image, which is great, but for the whole package that has been put together for this property’s site. I’d love to know how the budget breaks down, and who was footing the bill.
    The stills are all at the usual ‘Scott Hargis’ levelof excellence, the video is great too, with lots of life to it.

    If I had to nit pick [and I realise these probably aren’t your calls to make] then I’d say that I’m not too keen on the one long page layout as a way of presenting the images.
    Also, the 360’s themselves are good quality, but again I’m not convinced by the presentation, once I’m in a 360 I’d like at leat a set of thumbnails to navigate around, or even a slide out map. By mixing them in with the stills it’s a bit disjointed [I’m guessing you didn’t shoot the 360’s either] and if it’s going to be done this way it would benefit greatly from co-ordination with the stills. When I see one of the stills and then click on the ‘living image’ icon [ too obtuse IMO] it’s a shame that they aren’t taken from the same spot, with the same opening composition.

    Back to the startrails… you mention dropping the frames that had your head torch trails, and the resulting tiny gaps in the startrails. I looked at the action you used and as suspected it uses the ‘lighten’ blending mode. So if you were to use a black brush and paint out the headlight trails, the frames would blend fine using the action. And you’d only have the gaps in the startrails in the places where you painted out your headtorch. Though I guess they don’t show in anything other than a 100% enlargement on screen.
    Overall, a great concept and execution, resulting in a stunning image.

    Marcus

  4. Great work Scott. This looks like a dream assignment to me. I’m sure it was a lot of work, but I’ll bet it was also a lot of fun. The quality of the work really shows in the final products. Kudos.

  5. Thanks, guys.

    @ Charles – oh, please…..like I would do that! 😉

    Marcus, you’re right that I had nothing to do with the website or video. All the content in the video was done by Quentin Bacon. It was shot entirely on a 5DmII (or is it a 5dMii?), mostly with a 24mmTS.
    I liked the video a lot, and I think that if video is appropriate for RE at all, it’s this style of video, where it’s more lifestyle-oriented.

    I’m satisfied, but not completely satisfied, with the images. I would do some things differently if I had it to do again.

  6. Oh — another thing regarding the website — none of the skiing/mountain climbing stuff was mine, that was all stock photography. I did some of the local scenics, Quentin shot some of that too. And some of the best exterior photos of the house were shot by Patti Chandler, who came to help me shoot this.

  7. Very nice shot and what a stunning video!!!! Wow!

  8. Hi Scott, truly awesome image mate and I admire the pains you went to get it, great job.
    Macca

  9. Scott,
    It was once again a real pleasure to have the opportunity to collaborate with you. You captured in one image the emotional appeal of this property and in doing so gave Sotheby’s the key image they needed to draw attention to the property in its marketing. You just don’t see this creativity in Real Estate. Many thanks for giving the first “Living Property Brochure” such impact.
    Marcus,
    Thanks, you points are all well received. This was my first run at integrating so much media. We learned a lot, defiantly going to refine as we progress. If you or anyone has some good examples of a good user interface, send me an email, Quentin@qbacon.com I’m looking at a number of different options for the next one, I’d love to get some specific examples of other creative ways to integrate everything.

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