How I got the photo: A weird teleportation device?

We encountered this unusual structure in a ghost town in the Sonoran Desert. Here’s how I got this unusual night photo.

night photo of abandoned smelter
Is it an abandoned smelter? Or an ancient teleportation device? You decide!

Imagination run amok

During the waning light of the sun, my friend Mike Cooper and I came across this unusual structure. This was a 100-year old smelter. But to me, who watches a lot of “Star Trek”, I instead thought of it as some sort of weird transporter. This is what would inform the way I went about photographing it.

I find that when photographing at night, looking at things as if they were something else often makes for more creative photographs. For example, instead of a wrecked car, I might look at it like a strange space monster. Instead of a tree, it might be a giant human-shaped inflatable wind puppet. This smelter would be an eerily glowing teleportation device.

Setting up the photo

behind the scenes smelter
Behind the scenes, photographing an abandoned giant smelter in a ghost town in the Sonoran Desert.

When it grew dark, I placed my Pentax K-1 camera directly in front of the smelter, using a Feisol CT-3342 tripod for stability. I took great care to make sure it was centered. I thought it might look more odd and “sci-fi” with a straight centered photo. I focused on the building itself by shining some light and using auto-focus. I use this technique quite a bit for night photography. 

Checking out the smelter

The smelter is a very large structure. Someone had placed a wooden pallet in front, presumably to climb in. I climbed up the pallet, considering everything carefully. It was dark. But more than that, my vision was not great, as I was experiencing flashes and floaters as well as increasingly hazy vision. Soon after this trip, I had surgery for a detached retina.

Mike had successfully climbed in and out to illuminate this from the interior. I battled my impulse to also climb inside, deciding not to do it, given my wonky vision.

Lighting the interior

I had to devise another way to make it look like the interior was glowing with an eerie energy, ready to “beam” someone to a distant land or spaceship. I decided that I would remove the pallet, hop up on one of the stones hidden behind the creosote plant, and wave my ProtoMachines LED2 light painting device back and forth to pick up the texture inside, blocking the light with my body. Then, still blocking the light, I would wave it up and down around the sides of the opening to make it look like the light was emanating from within.

I ended up doing this with numerous colors so I could picture how it looked. I did red, blue, green, and warm white. I ultimately decided on a color known among a few of us as Gas Station Teal (™), developed by night photographer Tim Little.

Lighting the exterior 

I used a warm white light. Using a 90-degree angle from the structure, I skimmed the light gently on the front to pick up some of the texture. This also made the smelter “pop” a little more compared to the rest of the photo.

Streaks of light

I let the star trails streak across the sky. I did this by taking two minute exposures and letting the camera run for twelve minutes straight. The star trails would be reasonably long since I was using a Pentax 28-105mm f/3.5-5.6 lens at a focal length of 34mm. After all, the longer the focal length, the more I am zoomed in on everything – including the stars. When I would share the photo later, I would propose that the streaks of light may have been created during the dematerialization process. I did have two people “correct” me, saying that they thought it were star trails. There’s no fooling some people.

Stacking the six photos

I took the six photos and “stacked” them in Adobe Photoshop, changing the blending mode to “lighten”. This allows the lighter parts, including the light painting and star trails, to shine through all together as if it had been a single photo with a twelve-minute exposure. You can also “stack” photos in this manner using StarStax, a free program for Mac, PC, and Linux.

We encountered this unusual structure in a ghost town in the Sonoran Desert. Here’s how I got this unusual night photo.

night photo of abandoned smelter
Is it an abandoned smelter? Or an ancient teleportation device? You decide!

Imagination run amok

During the waning light of the sun, my friend Mike Cooper and I came across this unusual structure. This was a 100-year old smelter. But to me, who watches a lot of “Star Trek”, I instead thought of it as some sort of weird transporter. This is what would inform the way I went about photographing it.

I find that when photographing at night, looking at things as if they were something else often makes for more creative photographs. For example, instead of a wrecked car, I might look at it like a strange space monster. Instead of a tree, it might be a giant human-shaped inflatable wind puppet. This smelter would be an eerily glowing teleportation device.

Setting up the photo

behind the scenes smelter
Behind the scenes, photographing an abandoned giant smelter in a ghost town in the Sonoran Desert.

When it grew dark, I placed my Pentax K-1 camera directly in front of the smelter, using a Feisol CT-3342 tripod for stability. I took great care to make sure it was centered. I thought it might look more odd and “sci-fi” with a straight centered photo. I focused on the building itself by shining some light and using auto-focus. I use this technique quite a bit for night photography. 

Checking out the smelter

The smelter is a very large structure. Someone had placed a wooden pallet in front, presumably to climb in. I climbed up the pallet, considering everything carefully. It was dark. But more than that, my vision was not great, as I was experiencing flashes and floaters as well as increasingly hazy vision. Soon after this trip, I had surgery for a detached retina.

Mike had successfully climbed in and out to illuminate this from the interior. I battled my impulse to also climb inside, deciding not to do it, given my wonky vision.

Lighting the interior

I had to devise another way to make it look like the interior was glowing with an eerie energy, ready to “beam” someone to a distant land or spaceship. I decided that I would remove the pallet, hop up on one of the stones hidden behind the creosote plant, and wave my ProtoMachines LED2 light painting device back and forth to pick up the texture inside, blocking the light with my body. Then, still blocking the light, I would wave it up and down around the sides of the opening to make it look like the light was emanating from within.

I ended up doing this with numerous colors so I could picture how it looked. I did red, blue, green, and warm white. I ultimately decided on a color known among a few of us as Gas Station Teal (™), developed by night photographer Tim Little.

Lighting the exterior 

I used a warm white light. Using a 90-degree angle from the structure, I skimmed the light gently on the front to pick up some of the texture. This also made the smelter “pop” a little more compared to the rest of the photo.

Streaks of light

I let the star trails streak across the sky. I did this by taking two minute exposures and letting the camera run for twelve minutes straight. The star trails would be reasonably long since I was using a Pentax 28-105mm f/3.5-5.6 lens at a focal length of 34mm. After all, the longer the focal length, the more I am zoomed in on everything – including the stars. When I would share the photo later, I would propose that the streaks of light may have been created during the dematerialization process. I did have two people “correct” me, saying that they thought it were star trails. There’s no fooling some people.

Stacking the six photos

I took the six photos and “stacked” them in Adobe Photoshop, changing the blending mode to “lighten”. This allows the lighter parts, including the light painting and star trails, to shine through all together as if it had been a single photo with a twelve-minute exposure. You can also “stack” photos in this manner using StarStax, a free program for Mac, PC, and Linux.

We encountered this unusual structure in a ghost town in the Sonoran Desert. Here’s how I got this unusual night photo.

night photo of abandoned smelter
Is it an abandoned smelter? Or an ancient teleportation device? You decide!

Imagination run amok

During the waning light of the sun, my friend Mike Cooper and I came across this unusual structure. This was a 100-year old smelter. But to me, who watches a lot of “Star Trek”, I instead thought of it as some sort of weird transporter. This is what would inform the way I went about photographing it.

I find that when photographing at night, looking at things as if they were something else often makes for more creative photographs. For example, instead of a wrecked car, I might look at it like a strange space monster. Instead of a tree, it might be a giant human-shaped inflatable wind puppet. This smelter would be an eerily glowing teleportation device.

Setting up the photo

behind the scenes smelter
Behind the scenes, photographing an abandoned giant smelter in a ghost town in the Sonoran Desert.

When it grew dark, I placed my Pentax K-1 camera directly in front of the smelter, using a Feisol CT-3342 tripod for stability. I took great care to make sure it was centered. I thought it might look more odd and “sci-fi” with a straight centered photo. I focused on the building itself by shining some light and using auto-focus. I use this technique quite a bit for night photography. 

Checking out the smelter

The smelter is a very large structure. Someone had placed a wooden pallet in front, presumably to climb in. I climbed up the pallet, considering everything carefully. It was dark. But more than that, my vision was not great, as I was experiencing flashes and floaters as well as increasingly hazy vision. Soon after this trip, I had surgery for a detached retina.

Mike had successfully climbed in and out to illuminate this from the interior. I battled my impulse to also climb inside, deciding not to do it, given my wonky vision.

Lighting the interior

I had to devise another way to make it look like the interior was glowing with an eerie energy, ready to “beam” someone to a distant land or spaceship. I decided that I would remove the pallet, hop up on one of the stones hidden behind the creosote plant, and wave my ProtoMachines LED2 light painting device back and forth to pick up the texture inside, blocking the light with my body. Then, still blocking the light, I would wave it up and down around the sides of the opening to make it look like the light was emanating from within.

I ended up doing this with numerous colors so I could picture how it looked. I did red, blue, green, and warm white. I ultimately decided on a color known among a few of us as Gas Station Teal (™), developed by night photographer Tim Little.

Lighting the exterior 

I used a warm white light. Using a 90-degree angle from the structure, I skimmed the light gently on the front to pick up some of the texture. This also made the smelter “pop” a little more compared to the rest of the photo.

Streaks of light

I let the star trails streak across the sky. I did this by taking two minute exposures and letting the camera run for twelve minutes straight. The star trails would be reasonably long since I was using a Pentax 28-105mm f/3.5-5.6 lens at a focal length of 34mm. After all, the longer the focal length, the more I am zoomed in on everything – including the stars. When I would share the photo later, I would propose that the streaks of light may have been created during the dematerialization process. I did have two people “correct” me, saying that they thought it were star trails. There’s no fooling some people.

Stacking the six photos

I took the six photos and “stacked” them in Adobe Photoshop, changing the blending mode to “lighten”. This allows the lighter parts, including the light painting and star trails, to shine through all together as if it had been a single photo with a twelve-minute exposure. You can also “stack” photos in this manner using StarStax, a free program for Mac, PC, and Linux.

We encountered this unusual structure in a ghost town in the Sonoran Desert. Here’s how I got this unusual night photo.

Abandoned smelter night photo
Is it an abandoned smelter? Or an ancient teleportation device? You decide!

Imagination run amok

During the waning light of the sun, my friend Mike Cooper and I came across this unusual structure. This was a 100-year old smelter. But to me, who watches a lot of “Star Trek”, I instead thought of it as some sort of weird transporter. This is what would inform the way I went about photographing it.

I find that when photographing at night, looking at things as if they were something else often makes for more creative photographs. For example, instead of a wrecked car, I might look at it like a strange space monster. Instead of a tree, it might be a giant human-shaped inflatable wind puppet. This smelter would be an eerily glowing teleportation device.

Setting up the photo

Behind the scenes, photographing an abandoned giant smelter in a ghost town in the Sonoran Desert.

When it grew dark, I placed my Pentax K-1 camera directly in front of the smelter, using a Feisol CT-3342 tripod for stability. I took great care to make sure it was centered. I thought it might look more odd and “sci-fi” with a straight centered photo. I focused on the building itself by shining some light and using auto-focus. I use this technique quite a bit for night photography. 

Checking out the smelter

The smelter is a very large structure. Someone had placed a wooden pallet in front, presumably to climb in. I climbed up the pallet, considering everything carefully. It was dark. But more than that, my vision was not great, as I was experiencing flashes and floaters as well as increasingly hazy vision. Soon after this trip, I had surgery for a detached retina.

Mike had successfully climbed in and out to illuminate this from the interior. I battled my impulse to also climb inside, deciding not to do it, given my wonky vision.

Lighting the interior

I had to devise another way to make it look like the interior was glowing with an eerie energy, ready to “beam” someone to a distant land or spaceship. I decided that I would remove the pallet, hop up on one of the stones hidden behind the creosote plant, and wave my ProtoMachines LED2 light painting device back and forth to pick up the texture inside, blocking the light with my body. Then, still blocking the light, I would wave it up and down around the sides of the opening to make it look like the light was emanating from within.

I ended up doing this with numerous colors so I could picture how it looked. I did red, blue, green, and warm white. I ultimately decided on a color known among a few of us as Gas Station Teal (™), developed by night photographer Tim Little.

Lighting the exterior 

I used a warm white light. Using a 90-degree angle from the structure, I skimmed the light gently on the front to pick up some of the texture. This also made the smelter “pop” a little more compared to the rest of the photo.

Streaks of light

I let the star trails streak across the sky. I did this by taking two minute exposures and letting the camera run for twelve minutes straight. The star trails would be reasonably long since I was using a Pentax 28-105mm f/3.5-5.6 lens at a focal length of 34mm. After all, the longer the focal length, the more I am zoomed in on everything – including the stars. When I would share the photo later, I would propose that the streaks of light may have been created during the dematerialization process. I did have two people “correct” me, saying that they thought it were star trails. There’s no fooling some people.

Stacking the six photos

I took the six photos and “stacked” them in Adobe Photoshop, changing the blending mode to “lighten”. This allows the lighter parts, including the light painting and star trails, to shine through all together as if it had been a single photo with a twelve-minute exposure. You can also “stack” photos in this manner using StarStax, a free program for Mac, PC, and Linux.

VISIT ME, VISIT ME!

BOOKS AND PRINTS:
Head on over to the Ken Lee Photography website to purchase books or look at night photography and long exposure prints and more.  My books are available there and Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Target, Booktopia, Books A Million, IBS, and Aladin. If you enjoy the book, please leave a nice review, thanks!

SOCIAL MEDIA:
Ken Lee Photography Facebook Page (poke your head in, say hi, and “like” the page if you would, uh, like)
Instagram

PODCAST:
Behind the Shot video podcast – interview February 2020

VIDEO PRESENTATION:

How We Got the Shots: Five Photographers, Five Stories – Night Photo Summit 2022

VIDEO INTERVIEW:

Ken Lee’s Abandoned Trains Planes and Automobiles with Tim Little of Cape Nights Photography
Conversation about night photography and my book with Lance Keimig of National Park At Night

ARTICLES:
A Photographer Captures Haunting Nighttime Images of Abandoned Buildings, Planes, and Cars in the American Southwest – Business Insider by Erin McDowell
A Photographer Explores Southern California’s Desert Ruins – Los Angeles Magazine article by Chris Nichols

 

Advertisement

Stacking images for brilliant Milky Way photos

Stacking for night sky images

You might hear the term “stacking” in photography. One can stack for focusing or perspective or star trails. This, however, is stacking for starry night skies, including the Milky Way.

The idea here is to take several photos, one right after another, to reduce digital noise that generally occurs when pushing the camera’s sensitivity higher and higher. Then we throw the images into an app such as Starry Landscape Stacker (Mac) or Sequator (PC). The app will perform its mathematics magic to make life easy for you. It will identify the stars on each of your images, align them, and then stack them.

Above: Both images are zoomed in at 200% after they have been prepped for maximum ugliness in Lightroom (more on that later). The first image is a noisier single exposure image. The second image is the image that has been stacked in Starry Landscape Stacker. You can see that it is a noticeably cleaner image.

You may stack them in Photoshop, but these programs simplify the process and are either inexpensive or free. I’ll use Starry Landscape Stacker as the example since I have a Mac. However, the process is about the same for Sequator. Let’s check it out!

 

Out in the field

Yes, we will start with what you do with your camera first. After all, it’s photography, isn’t it? You will photograph the Milky Way with your tripod-mounted camera, taking photos one right after the other. Click! Click! Click! Click!

I like to take at least 15 photos, usually doing between 20-25. The more photos you take, the greater the noise reduction. To a point, anyway. 25 is good. Three, not so much. In this example, I did 20.

 

Prepping the sky images

At home, prep your sky photos. Unfortunately, you sort of need to make them look like rubbish. You may prep them in Lightroom or some other photo editor.  Starry Landscape Stacker has an easy-to-follow tutorial, which you should watch before using.  The basics are below.

Do the following:

-Use Custom WB to keep the photos consistent
-Increase Brightness
-Decrease Contrast
-Increase Blacks (look at left side of histogram)
-Remove Lens Vignetting and Chromatic Aberration
-Mild Color Noise Reduction

Avoid the following:

-Auto White Balance for each photo
-Adding Contrast, Clarity, and DeHaze.
-Adding color through Vibrance, Saturation, and HSL
-Brightening through Highlights and Whites
-Applying lens distortion corrections

You can perform all these later.

After prepping all identically, export these hideous looking images as 16-bit TIFF files. They will then be ready for stacking!

 

Stacking the sky images

In Starry Landscape Stacker, select your ugly looking TIFF files.

An image will appear. The stars will trail and it will be covered in red dots. How fun!

 

Fun with red dots

Your sky should be covered with red dots, each one allegedly representing a star.

You’re going to add more stars. Add some more quickly around the edges of the sky and along the foreground and anywhere else there are stars. Above, I’ve also added some more in the arch of the rock formation. When you are finished, click “Find Sky”.

 

Blue sky mask

Clicking “Find Sky” will result in a blue mask in what Starry Landscape Stacker thinks is the night sky. If the mask is wrong, paint in more of the sky or erase it from the foreground.  You can zoom in to see the actual pixels and control the size of the brush, similar to other photo editing programs.

When satisfied, click “Align and Save”. You will see the program aligning the images with one particular image, which will show in a task bar. This typically does not take very long.

 

The stacked image

After processing, your app will align all the stars and produce an image that should look like your single Milky Way photos, only with a little less noise. That wasn’t so hard, was it?

Go ahead and save your final output image as a 16-bit TIFF file. Starry Landscape Stacker will give you several different options depending on which algorithm you prefer. Toggle back and forth between several of the different options to see what is most appealing.

Looking for distortion and anomalies

I don’t always save the image using the same algorithms. Sometimes, I prefer a different one from what I’ve used before. Look very closely, especially along the horizon line, to see what appeals to you. If the program or your mask creates anomalies or distortions, it will typically be just above the horizon line. If you’re not sure, you can always save several of the choices and closely examine them later.

If it’s an issue with your mask, the program allows you to go back and work on the mask some more, saving what you had previously.

 

Saving the stacked image

When satisfied, go ahead and click “Align and Composite”. This will also save the image with and without a mask. I don’t usually don’t end up using the mask because I create my own masks for blending in low-ISO foregrounds (and this will probably be another article in the not-so-distant future).

 

 

Further post-processing

Above is the completely processed photo.

In post-processing, you can bring out quite a bit of the stars through careful use of contrast, color correction, de-hazing, clarity, and detail. Remember, the other photo had all this turned down to help Starry Landscape Tracker do its magic. Now it’s time to turn them back up to make the image look better. Don’t overdo it.

I also sharpened the image. And I altered the color of the sky from its bland color to more of a blue because it looked more aesthetically pleasing against the rock formation than a warmer night sky for this particular photo. This is admittedly not accurate. The sky was not blue that evening. But for this photo, it felt right. And since I had taken several photos of the arch this evening, it also helped to differentiate it somewhat.

I ended up cropping it to a square for personal aesthetics, so this isn’t perhaps the best example since the stars are not quite as sharp as other photos I took during the same evening. But nonetheless, it gives you an idea of what you can do with stacking software. As mentioned above, this is blended with a low-ISO foreground.  I also light painted this for additional drama.

This is another photo with more of a black sky that was taken just before the photo we were discussing. The same process was used all the way through as well.

I hope this helped describe the process of stacking and encourages you to go out and try one of these programs for yourself.

 

VISIT ME, VISIT ME!

MY WEBSITE:
Head on over to the Ken Lee Photography website to purchase books or look at night photography and long exposure photos.  My latest book, “Abandoned Southern California: The Slowing of Time” is available there and Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Target, Booktopia, Books A Million, IBS, and Aladin. If you enjoy the book, please leave a nice review.

SOCIAL MEDIA:
Ken Lee Photography Facebook Page (poke your head in, say hi, and “like” the page if you would, uh, like)
Instagram

PODCAST:
Behind the Shot video podcast – interview February 2020

VIDEO INTERVIEW:
Conversation about night photography and my book with Lance Keimig of National Park At Night

ARTICLES:
A Photographer Captures Haunting Nighttime Images of Abandoned Buildings, Planes, and Cars in the American Southwest – Business Insider by Erin McDowell
A Photographer Explores Southern California’s Desert Ruins – Los Angeles Magazine article by Chris Nichols

 

 

Mobius Arch Star Trails, Alabama Hills

Light painting and “stacked” multiple exposures during a hot night in the desert near Lone Pine, California.  The stacking was done in Photoshop CS4 to have a little more control over the light painting and to reduce noise.  This also marks the first time I used Noise Ninja to clean up the noise.  While it wasn’t bad at all, I felt that a little cleaning up was better, so I selectively “de-noised” parts of the photo via layer masking.

Title: Mobius Arch Polaris Star Trail
Info: Nikon D90, Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 lens, Feisol tripod. 65 minutes total, composed of 130 30-second photos, all ISO 1600, f/4.5. Light painted with my handy head lamp.
Photography: Ken Lee
Location: Alabama Hills near Lone Pine, California, USA.

A hot evening, especially when running around “light painting”. But I also had a chance to lay on my back and watch the stars. I actually began dozing off when a car pulled up. You can see some of the light from the head lights on the arch.

The swirling stars are magical, a result of the long exposure of the camera capturing the movement of the stars. Polaris, the North Star, is in the middle, and all the stars appear to rotate around it, this movement, of course, primarily a result of the rotation of the earth.

Photo Tip: 5 Steps To Creating Star Trails Photos (Includes Stacking in Photoshop)

If you take night photos, you’ve just doubled the amount of time you can take photos.  I’ll tell you how I created these star trails photo through “stacking”, or combining multiple images into one.  It’s not the only way.  There are even easier ways.  But this method gives you a lot of control and quality that dedicated star trail stacking programs don’t seem to offer.

startrails-templetreezion3-kenleeblend2-700px

Above:  Temple Tree Star Trails.  While this also uses the stacking process described here, I’ve also altered the opacity of the layers to give the star trails a comet-like effect. I will describe this in a May 2013 post. Zion National Park, Utah. This photo was selected as one of the Daily Dozen by National Geographic.

Trona Glow Star Trails

This photo was taken in Trona Pinnacles in the Mojave Desert in California, and was featured in a number of places, also winning the Los Angeles Times Photo of the Year in the Travel Section as an Editor’s Choice. It is a 50-minute exposure in total, stacked in Photoshop CS4.

STACKING
Noise is the enemy of night photography.  Keeping your shutter open for long periods of time is more likely to introduce noise.  Stacking photos was originally developed as a technique in digital astrophotography to reduce noise, but of course, as more artistic photographers can use this technique too.

WHAT YOU WILL NEED
* A camera that with a manual exposure mode that lets you set shutter speed, aperture, and ISO with a Bulb Setting, or at the very least, allows you to set the shutter speed for 30 seconds, and preferably, a camera that shoots in RAW so you can control the processing (but if you can’t, shoot at the highest resolution JPG setting you can).  Most DSLRs will fit the bill, but there are some compact digital cameras that also have these features.

* Lots of batteries for your camera.  Long exposures can really wear down your batteries.

* A remote cable shutter release so you don’t shake the camera by pressing the button

* A tripod for keeping the camera as still as possible.  I used my Dad’s heavy 1970s Sears tripod, which was hard to lug around and got really cold on winter desert nights, but finally got a Feisol carbon fiber tripod with a Photo Clam ball head, which is easier to set up and adjust.

startrails-horses-27min-30sf28iso400-960px

This is a star trails, showing the celestial movements of the stars over Borrego Springs, CA. The total exposure is 27 minutes, using stacked photos, each of them 30 seconds in length. The horse sculptures were created by sculptor Ricardo Breceda.

WHAT’S NICE TO HAVE
* A wide-angle lens.  While you can photograph star trails with just about any lens, a wide angle shows a broader view of what we are seeing, are a bit more forgiving about focusing (which is challenging in night photography), and shows more curvature in the star trails, something I absolutely love. But I’ve shot with other lens too.  Depends on what you are going for.

* a red LED light so you can fiddle without adversely affecting things or experiencing glaring white light.

* An interval timer for your camera.  Really, this should be considered equipment that you need.  Why?  It’s difficult to create a set of images that can be stacked without one of these due to not being able to time your exposures accurately enough over a long time manually. I’ll tell you how I got around this even though it’s probably not considered ideal. Also, since I wrote this in June 2012, I’ve also begun using an app called TriggerTrap, which runs in Android and iOS smartphones, using the smartphone as an intervalometer, among other things. It’s super easy to use.

* Mag lights, flashlights, LED lights, ProtoMachines LED2, or other light sources for light painting the foreground.  Sometimes you might not want a super dark foreground.  Consider “light painting” the foreground!  It’s also a lot of fun and passes the time quickly!  But having the foreground as a silhouette can often be quite striking as well.  You’re the artist.  It’s your call!

STARTRAILS-trinitystartrails-f4iso50030s44-22min-960pxFB

Above: Trinity Star Trails.  While this uses the stacking process described here, I’ve also altered the opacity of the layers to give the star trails a comet-like effect. I will describe this in a May 2013 post. Joshua Tree National Park, California.

SCOUTING THE LOCATION
I look for an interesting foreground.  Star trails are not so interesting artistically by themselves, in my opinion.  Like any photo, it should be about the overall composition.

I often like to face the camera north.  This is because I like to capture the star trails swirling around the north star.  Polaris, or the North Star, remains stationary and in a star trails photograph, the stars will appear to swirl around it.  If you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, locate the North Star by finding the Big Dipper, the grouping of seven stars that looks like a ladle.  The two stars forming the end of the Big Dipper’s bowl point directly at the North Star.  The North Star is the end of the handle of the Little Dipper.  Or you can use your iPhone GPS or a compass.

I try to make sure that if the moon is out, it won’t shine into my lens for the duration of my shot.

And finally, I try to choose a location far enough from the road so cars wouldn’t shine their headlights on my foreground or be interrupted.

And it probably goes without saying that the less “light pollution” from light sources, the better you can see stars.  You can scout locations in the United States from this website, the Dark Sky Finder.

SETTING UP
I use my Feisol tripod, double-check to make certain everything is tight and locked down, and if around sand, jam it down into the sand hard.  After all, we certainly don’t want any movement from the camera. If it’s windy, I’ll hang one of my packs on the center hook to give my setup more weight.

FOCUSING IN THE DARK
There’s a few ways to focus.  One obvious way is to set up while it’s still light and use your Auto-Focus.  You can also take some photos now and blend in the twilight photos with your star trails.  If you focus while it is dark, you may shine your flashlight at the foreground object, use your AF as usual, then switch to manual so your camera doesn’t “hunt”.

And yet another way is to try and find true infinity on your lens.  This method is excellent for getting the stars as sharp as possible, and is particularly good if the foreground elements are 20 feet (7 or 8 meters) away.  However, each lens is different, and finding true true infinity may sometimes not even be on the “infinity” mark, or may be on different parts of the “infinity” mark.  If using this last method, you may need to take multiple photos and zoom in on them on your LED to determine what is the sharpest, or use Live View and zoom in on the stars if you can to make certain they are the sharpest.

PHOTOGRAPHING
Remember before I told you that an interval timer should probably be considered essential equipment?  Sure.  But they can also be expensive.  Getting a good one can often be $100 or $200.  At any rate, I didn’t have one, but needed to time exposures accurately so the exposures would be consistent.  What to do?  Well, it turns out that when my remote cable shutter release is locked and the camera is not in Bulb Mode, the camera will keep shooting over and over if set to continuous drive mode.  So I set my camera for 30 seconds, the longest shutter speed it allows before Bulb Mode, then lock the shutter release. (note: since I wrote this in June 2012, I’ve also begun using TriggerTrap, an app that runs in iOS and Android smartphones, using the smartphone as an intervalometer, trigger, and other things. It’s super easy to use, connecting to the camera with a dongle. Google this for further information).

Click….click….click….click….time to lay back, look at the stars and soak in the beauty of it all.

I also make sure to shut off the in-camera long exposure noise reduction when shooting for “stacked” photos.  Why?  It takes the same amount of time to reduce the noise in the photo as the exposure.  In other words, if I shoot for 30 seconds, the camera takes an additional 30 seconds to apply noise reduction.  This would leave gaps in the star trails. But as I mentioned, the process of stacking photos reduces the amount of noise, so I didn’t get worked up about this.

If you’ve been reading this blog, you know that I love this Michael Kenna quote: “Getting photographs is not the most important thing. For me it’s the act of photographing. It’s enlightening, therapeutic and satisfying, because the very process forces me to connect with the world. When you make four-hour exposures in the middle of the night, you inevitably slow down and begin to observe and appreciate more what’s going on around you. In our fast-paced, modern world, it’s a luxury to be able to watch the stars move across the sky.”

If you wish, you may also take a dark frame image by putting my lens cap on to make sure no light was coming in and took one photo.  Why? Noise reduction.  In Photoshop or another photo editing program, you can add the dark frame photo as a new layer, then change the blend type to “difference”. Next add your foreground image as a layer, create a black mask and paint in the foreground, and adjust to taste. I haven’t really used this, but it’s something you could do if you find it helps.

Big Bend Star Trails

Above:  Big Bend Star Trails.  While this also uses the stacking process described here, I’ve also altered the opacity of the layers to give the star trails a comet-like effect. I will describe this in a May 2013 post.  Zion National Park, Utah.

5 STEPS TO STACKED STAR TRAILS SPLENDOR!
Now, back in the digital darkroom, it’s time to make our star trails photo come to life!  Here’s how I’ve been processing my photos in Photoshop CS4 so far.

1.  PROCESS AND CONVERT NEF FILES TO TIFF: I typically batch-process RAW (NEF) photos in Nikon ViewNX 2 and output them all to TIFF 16-bit files, but of course, process your RAWs however you need to.  I select all the photos, apply adjustments and settings, processing them all the same, sharpening them slightly and adjusting the white balance.  I also rename any photos that had something different about them, marking them if they have a line from an airplane to call attention to it later in the stacking process so I could spot them and adjust or erase them if I wish.

2.  CREATE STACK: In Photoshop, I select File > Scripts > Load Files Into Stack, and then select my PSD files I wanted to stack.  I do not have Photoshop Extended, which has a “Statistics” option that offers greater variety).  This results in an absurdly large file of something like 6G.  When I do this, I have many PSD files that are 73-77MG each, after all!  Relax.  The computer may take a while to process this large of a file.

3.  ADJUST LAYERS:  In the MODE PANEL WINDOW (which is the window that controls the Layers, etc. at the bottom right), I change each layer from “Normal” to “Lighten” or one of the other ones (such as screen, color dodge, linear dodge, lighter color).   You can also create a Photoshop Action to do this if you wish to lessen the chance of carpal tunnel!    I use a Layer Mask and use the Brush Tool on the left to brush away anything I do want.

4.  OUTPUT IMAGE AS FLATTENED HIGH-RES TIFF:  After adjusting layers to your artistic satisfaction, you can output the image as a flattened image with no layers, preferably a high-res TIFF.  From here, you can perform the usual adjustments if you wish, such as dodging, burning, sharpening, or final color adjustments if you wish, just like any other photo.

5.  SAVING THE ORIGINAL .PSD LAYERED FILE:  I’m going to mention this in case it applies to you.  Photoshop CS4 cannot save this large of a group of files if it’s over 2G, so I chose to merge the layers (Image > Merge) to keep it.  I merged four layers at a time.  Since each was a 30 second exposure, merging four layers equaled 2 minutes, still rather manageable, reducing the file size to a quarter of it’s original size of 6G.

StarStax: Since I originally wrote this in June 2012, I’ve begun using StarStax, freeware for Mac OS X, Linux, and Windows. It creates star trails with comet-like tails, and offers gap-filling. It’s also absurdly easy to use. Take the photos as described above, throw ’em in here, and see what it can do. I now try this first, and if I can’t produce what I am envisioning, then I go to Photoshop and stack using the process described above.

If you have suggestions for how I did it, please leave a comment!  I’m not approaching this as an authority, but more as a photographer who has now done it and is really happy with the results!   If you use this technique from reading this blog, please feel free to leave a link to your star trails photo in the comments section! Thanks so much for reading!!

EXTRA: Just because I’m utterly sweet, I am going to show you with an example of a 33-minute exposure at ISO 200, f/11.  You can clearly see the noise. The discoloration is due to the camera sensor overheating since I was shooting on a hot night.  This is what stacking can avoid:

Noisy 33-minute f/11 ISO 200 exposure of star trails

The evening was fairly warm, which accounts for some of the overheating of the sensor.  Some photographers put ice packs wrapped in plastic or other things to prevent the sensor from overheating and thus creating extra noise and discoloration.

The photo below is much better, a far less noisy 14-minute f/2.8 ISO 200 photo:

Joshua Tree Star Trails, Single Long Exposure with Light Painting, 28 April 2012

Single exposures can be beautiful.  It has a lighter ethereal quality that the stacked photo doesn’t have, and also doesn’t have noise issues due to the shorter exposure time.

Noise is the enemy of night photography.

There have been times in which I’ve been able to get away with longer exposures, having done 34-minute exposures without much of an issue in colder weather.  Like anything else, there are many variables.

I hope this helps.  If you have questions (or corrections), please ask in the comments section below!  Thanks for reading!!!!

RELATED ARTICLE:  HOW TAKE PHOTOS OF THE STARS (BUT NOT STAR TRAILS)

Equipment:  Nikon D7000 and a Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 lens for Trinity Star Trails and the photos from Zion National Park.  Nikon D90, Nikon 18-200mm VR II Nikkor Telephoto Zoom Lens for all else.

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