The night sky in this area is amazing. There isn’t a major city for miles around so there is NO light pollution. I mean none. When I turn the lights off in the house, everything goes black, which makes for incredible stargazing. When I was a kid, my Dad would bring a telescope up here and we’d head to an open field down the street to have a look. I have a fond memories of these nights, out in the intervale with my Dad.
Knowing this, I decided to try my hand at astrophotography – the formal name for star photography – while I’m up here to see if I could get any decent results. It was harder than I would have guessed, and incredibly time consuming. My exposures ranged anywhere from 30 seconds to 30+minutes, and with “long exposure noise reduction” on, that time was effectively doubled for each shot. Considering I didn’t get to start shooting until 10:30pm when the sky was pitch black, I wasn’t able to get more than an exposure or two each night before I needed to go to bed.
For my very first shot I decided to take a simple star point shot (no trails) to see if my set up looked good. I set the exposure to 30 seconds, got my flashlight out to “paint” the trees with light and took my shot. Here it is:
Alright, everything looked pretty good and I was in business. I decided to recompose to have the trees appear across the bottom of the frame (as opposed to the corner) and set the exposure to “bulb.” This time I would take a 10 minute exposure and get some decent star trails…or so I thought. I pressed the shutter release, painted the trees a bit and walked away from the camera. Here’s the results of that second shot, the first of my star trail exposures.
After this shot it was pretty clear I didn’t know what I was doing. It was pitch black when I tried to recompose the shot, and I couldn’t see anything in the viewfinder. I knew I wanted to include some of the trees across the bottom of the frame, so I composed the shot by putting the blackest blobs at the bottom of the frame and crossed my fingers. I used my flashlight again to “paint” the trees in the foreground with light, but I didn’t know exactly what parts of the trees would be in the frame so I missed some spots. And I also created some really nasty harsh shadows (see lower left corner). I vaguely knew that I should be pointing the camera to the north, but when I saw this result I remembered why. In the northern hemisphere the rotation of the earth is such that star trails will appear to be rotating around the north star. Aha! Now I just needed to figure out how to find the north star in my viewfinder in the pitch black and I’d be good to go. I decided to do some more research on star trail photography and try again the following night.
After reading up on star trail photography, I had a new confidence and a new approach for my second night of shooting. The skies were clear and I’d be able to get my great star trail picture (and maybe even two!). I headed outside with my tripod earlier than the previous night to set a basic composition and focus while it was still light out. I now knew how to find the north star, and as soon as it was dark enough to see it I would recompose to include it in the frame. I still wanted to include some of the trees, but needed to make sure I painted them effectively with my flashlight. And I planned to take a 30 minute exposure to allow the trails to get a little more length. That means each shot would take an hour, so I figured I might get two before I needed to go to bed.
Around 10:30pm I headed back out, found the north star and tried to recompose the shot. I still couldn’t see through the viewfinder and had to guess that my composition was on the mark. I pressed the shutter button and crossed my fingers. Here’s what I saw on my LCD screen an hour later.
Ok, not perfect, but better. The north star was a little too high in my frame, and the light-painted trees looked like crap, but it was definitely better than the night before. I recomposed (simply moving the camera up) and decided to keep my flashlight in my pocket. I pressed the shutter release again and checked my result an hour later.
Shoot. Still not quite what I wanted. This time there weren’t enough trees in the frame, and if you are picky (and I am) you will notice a stray star trail at the bottom of the frame. That’s a satellite flying through my shot. Thanks a bunch, space program.
I’ll be honest, at this point I was really disappointed. I was also exhausted and called it quits for the night. “I guess I’ll try again tomorrow,” I thought.
Unfortunately the next night was cloudy, and the one after that, and the one after that. It was nice to return to my normal sleeping schedule, but I was beginning to wonder if I’d have another chance before it was time to head home. Finally, just a few days before we were scheduled to leave, the sun set over a clear sky. At 10:30pm I headed out to my trusty tripod (which I had set up when it was still light out) and found the north star. Careful not to touch the focus ring on my camera (I had set the focus earlier in the evening, when I could still see), I placed the camera on the tripod and attempted to compose the shot. This time I wanted the north star in the center of the frame, if possible. Knowing I’d only be able to see the silhouette of the trees in the viewfinder I marked in the treeline directly beneath the north star and composed my shot accordingly. Again, I left my flashlight in my pocket, knowing that no additional light was needed. I pressed my shutter release and waited.
Finally, a shot I felt good about. This is more along the lines of what I was looking for. Yes, I would rather the trees only be in the bottom of the frame (I don’t like that one on the right) and I’d rather have the north star higher in the frame, but that could be fixed simply by cropping the photo differently. I headed back into Lightroom and a couple of adjustments later, I had what I wanted.
After three frustrating attempts at astrophotography, I was happy. To celebrate, and to mix things up a little, I decided to take another star point shot.
And then tried one more star trail shot before bed. This exposure was shorter (only 15 minutes) and I faced the camera to the east, including some of the house in the bottom of the frame for context. Unfortunately there was a bit of fog on my lens, so it didn’t turn out as I had hoped.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, the clouds rolled in after this shot, preventing me from trying again. That was fine with me, I needed the sleep anyway.