Star Gazing

I was resting my head against a tree trunk, listening to the steady beat and buzz of music and people laughing off in the distance.  It was 2:30 A.M. on a warm July night in Southern Ireland.  I’d been out there, on the fairway of the golf course for nearly an hour.  It was very still out. No wind, very few noises, save the music from the wedding party going on at the hotel, about a quarter mile up the narrow road that winds through the golf course.

The moon was out that night. Large, close to being full and the yellowed hew of old paper.  It was sitting above a large tree in front of me. I just sat there gazing at the scene, moonlit, still.


I looked to my left, where I’d heard the sound, a mechanical clunk coming from near by.  Next to the road, I saw a red dot hovering about 2 feet in the air, back about 10 feet from the road.  I was still, listening to music and gentle rustle of the branches over head.  about 30 seconds passed before another sound.


I frowned.  I’d never realized how loud the shutter in my camera was. I was a good 40 feet away and it was clear as day.  Oh well, no matter tonight. It wasn’t skittish animals I was taking pictures of, it was stars.

I’d stayed up late, waiting for the moon to go down, which it didn’t while I was out.  I remembered walking home from the road a week ago and gazing up at the incredible view of the stars, and deciding then to get a good star trail picture while I was here.   The moon polluted the sky with its bright light, but there were still a good few stars visible so I decided to give it a try. I needed the practice anyway. I’d done a bit of this kind of photography in the past, and there were two primary ways to do it.

The first, and traditional way (a way I’d done on film back in high school) is to set the camera for a very long exposure. 30 minutes, 45 minutes, an hour or two if possible. This was very simple to accomplish after calculating your exposure settings, and you ended up with a nice one-shot, no hassle photograph with very limited post production needed. The draw back was that the star trails would end up being quite faint, due to using a stopped down aperture. In the digital realm, another draw back was sensor heat noise.  When the cameras sensor is being used for that long, it warms up and causes some of the capturing points (pixels) to fire, creating a seemingly random array of various colored dots to appear in the dark areas.

The second and newer technique, brought on by the digital revolution and editing software, is called image stacking. The idea is to take much shorter exposure shots, 30 seconds for instance, but take many of them. After a bit of post processing, you then add them all together with a separate piece of “stacking” software that lets you leave the foreground relatively in tact, while merging the light trails of the sky.  This resulted in finding many more stars, because the aperture was usually all the way open, letting in the most light, and capturing more and stronger star trails.  The draw back was that it takes a lot more work after the shoot.

I decided to try the second.  I picked a spot on the course where I was facing away from the moon and other light sources, and had a good view of the sky, with some interesting foreground features as well.  I set my tripod low to the ground and set my camera in it.  I set my lens’ aperture to the widest setting, F/3.5 in this case.  I tried to focus on a part of the foreground but found it was too dark for the camera to read. I used the on board flash to help and after some time, managed to achieve a solid focus. I then turned the lens to manual focus to lock that focus in place. Now I set the camera to something I though would give me a decent exposure. In this case I started out a 400 ISO, F/3.5 and 20 seconds.  The first exposure was very close, only requiring a little tweaking.  I bumped it up to 30 seconds, and ISO 800 and tried again.  Perfect.

Next I set up my intervolometer.  This is a shutter release that also has a brain inside.  The one I was using was actually my phone.  Through a cable and small box that converted the signals as needed, the App included was able to trigger the shutter, and in some settings was able to fully operate the camera based on a timer, or motion, or movement (lateral) or sound, or even magnetic fields (Not sure why, but its true!).  I set it up with a build in “Star Trail” option and set it to take 240 images, over the course of about 2 hours. I hit “Go” and stepped back.  Now I just needed to wait.

I was originally going to go back to the room for a while and come back to check on it in an hour, then again when the timer was run down.  I wasn’t worried about someone messing with it or taking it because no one was walking around the course at 130 in the morning except me, and I was away from the road enough that a car passing by wouldn’t notice it.  What I was worried about though, was sprinklers. There were many of the through out the course to keep the grass green and happy, and I wasn’t sure where they all were, or if this was an area that got hit by one or not.  They were on automatic timers, set to water them at night when the sun wouldn’t evaporate all the water away so quickly.

So instead I waited. I walked around. I stared at the moon. I cursed when two cars passed by ruining two frames of my shot. I sat under my tree and contemplated my trip so far. 12,000 miles, 7 months. It all seemed to have gone by so fast. I felt like I really hadn’t gone that far at all.  I thought about my next move.  At this point I was thinking of France. I was also trying to figure out the most difficult part of the journey now, how to get from Europe to Australia. The route through the middle east was much more dangerous, and the visa requirements in some of the countries were extreme. But Russia, while safer, also had a very difficult Visa system, for Americans at least, and no one in the Russian embassy was returning emails.  I really wish that we as a world were more peaceful with each other and could freely roam the country with out the need for permission to visit. It made me feel like a child again.  Needing to ask permission to visit a friends house, hoping to pass their parents inspection to come in.  Even in friendly countries, the process is a little nerve racking, much like going through airport security.

I checked my camera set up, and the time on my phone, now acting as my intervolmeter, as well as my watch.  I decided to let another 10 pictures snap before heading back to my room. I was tired, and the music was starting to wind down at the wedding party, so I figured there would be at least a few cars leaving soon.  The last 5 minutes passed slowly but finally where done.  I put my phone in my pocket, the cords in my other pocket, and put the camera strap around my neck while I folded the tripod up.  I then reviewed the images. The exposure was great, though it darkened towards the end, where the moon had fallen into a grove of trees as it dipped lower in the sky.  Not enough to matter much though.  Only two frames were ruined by the cars passing by, not bad considering. I turned the camera towards the moon, adjusted the settings and snapped a few shots before turning and heading back towards my bed.  As I passed the tee box on the 14th hole, low an behold the sprinklers startled me as they shot to life. Luckily they were aimed at the grass and didn’t hit the road much, so I stayed dry.  I made my way passed a few happy, albeit drunk wedding guests as I made my way to the staff quarters where I was staying.  I checked my email on my phone once more in the staff room then headed in.

The next morning I spent a few hours (Yes hours, plural) downloading the images, editing them and then stacking them together.  After letting the software do its bit – aligning for slight shifts from wind and what not, I then found a good balance for the shots, removed the two where the cars had interrupted me, and saved the image down.  It was a massive file at first, because of the over 100 separate images inside it, but after flattening it down and sizing, it was a modest 10 MB. Still huge for a picture online, but it should make for a very beautiful image to look at.

Star Trails

In other news, I rearranged the pictures on the site a bit. There is now a main button labeled “Photography”  Under this header is Pictures, where all the pictures from the trip are still housed. There is still the two pages for the “Face of a Traveler” and “Guitar Signatures” animations.  There is a new page under the Photography heading, Tips, Tricks, and Tutorials. I will be adding detailed posts under this heading for you to see. I get a lot of questions about photography from people I meet and from people back home, so I thought I’d put up some more solid information for you all to check out.  There will be new stuff there over the next week as I put it together.


Comments are closed.