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The International Car Forest of the Last Church, in Goldfield, Nevada
Before I upset purists, I would like to state that this image did not come straight out of my camera. This is a composite of more than 200 images that I captured over the course of a couple of hours. I spent several hours putting it together in Photoshop. Now I will grab my Wacom pen and tablet, get my “Bob Ross” on, and walk you through my creative process.
It's always somewhat of a juggling act setting up a composition for star trails. Having the best possible angle on the foreground subject doesn't always work with capturing the night sky the way I would like. The first thing I always consider is placement of Polaris (North Star). Polaris will always be stationary as the Earth rotates. The rest of the stars in the sky will appear as if they're spinning around it, creating a vortex.
Locating Polaris is easy. There are many smartphone apps available that will point you in the right direction, such as Google Sky Map. However, I prefer the old-fashioned, foolproof compass to point me north. Then I look for the Big Dipper. The two stars on the outside face of the dipper point to Polaris, which is actually the tip of the Little Dipper's handle. The Little Dipper isn't as easy to spot, though.
Many times when I'm scouting a location, I use Google Earth. It has a great feature that shows how the night sky looks and moves at any time, from anywhere. All you need to do is go into "Ground-Level View," click on the "Sunlight" icon, and slide the "Time Slider" to view a time-lapse sequence. This enables you to visualize what the star trails will look like. It's also a great way to plan a Milky Way composition, once the moon has set and it is visible.
Another thing I keep an eye on is the moon phase, and when it rises and sets. Ideally, I would like for the moon to be at about 15% luminosity. This will light up the foreground nicely, and illuminate the sky enough to pull some color out of it. As the moon gets brighter, the more stars it washes out. I usually like to keep the moon behind me, and make sure it won't start creeping into the frame within a few hours.
I always keep a close eye on the weather forecast in hopes of clear skies. I live in New York, and only had one night planned at the car forest. Watching the forecast from home made me nervous, as they were calling for mostly cloudy skies all week. I was hoping to do a three-and-a-half-hour set of trails. Luckily, on this night, they were calling for clear skies with clouds rolling in around midnight, so I knew I had to get started right away.
To help me nail down my composition in the dark, I set my camera to Bulb mode, open my aperture up to f/2.8, and use a ridiculously high ISO of 20000+. I just hold down my cable release for a few seconds. This is a super-fast way to get a bright image, so I can see what I'm working with. (In the end I was here to capture this incredible art installation. So the placement of Polaris was not a priority. I'm quite happy with how everything lined up here, and I was able to capture two hours’ worth of star trails before total cloud cover set in.)
Then I was ready to take my first picture. The first thing I always take care of is capturing all of the images I will need for the foreground, in which I will mask into the final image in Photoshop.
I set focus manually on the foreground by using Live View, and digitally zoomed in 10x on my LCD while shining a flashlight on the subject. I have found this method to be the best for getting tack-sharp images in the dark when autofocus is useless.
First, I took care of the light painting. I placed green LED glow sticks in the wheel wells. Then I set my camera to Manual Mode, used an aperture of f/5.6, ISO 500, and a 30-second exposure. I set a 10-second timer and pressed the shutter. I walked behind the truck and shined a blue LED flashlight up through the windows of the limo, and painted the ceiling for around five seconds. Then I went inside the truck and shined a green LED flashlight around for a bit. I took a few more exposures while doing various light painting on the outside, some with white light, some with color. I wasn't sure exactly what I was going for. I just wanted to give myself some options for when I would be painting this picture in Photoshop. I may or may not choose to dip my brush in some of these files.
I highly recommend the book Light Painted Night Photography: The Lost America Technique to anyone who wants to learn light-painting techniques from the master, Troy Paiva.
Soon it was time to capture the star trails. Sometimes, I'll use long bulb exposures like around five minutes, with a one-second interval using an intervalometer. Here, I chose to stick with the same exposure I used for the foreground. The 30-second exposure will ensure that the stars won't start to trail in each frame, and look sharp. This gave me the option of using some of these images to create other pictures without star trails, or even a time-lapse video, in the future. The forecast of clouds rolling in after a couple hours made this a no-brainer.
I set my focus ring to Infinity, which is actually just shy of the lens marking. I took one shot and reviewed my LCD by zooming into the stars to make sure they were sharp.
Next, I just set my camera to Continuous Drive and locked down the shutter on my cable release. The camera was set to take 30-second exposures continuously until I stopped it. This method gives you a much shorter interval than one second, which is the shortest most intervalometers are capable of. This will result in smaller gaps in the trails. Yeah, it may seem crazy, but one-second gaps are very noticeable at high magnification.
One thing I would like to add is that exposing for stars possesses an element of flexibility. Some people choose to use the widest aperture their lens offers. This will naturally take in more light and capture more faint stars in the distance. Personally, unless I'm trying to capture the Milky Way, I prefer to stop down a little bit from somewhere between f/4 - f/6.3. This will render a sharper image, and greatly reduce vignetting. Plus, it helps you capture the color of the stars, and prevents overexposing them.
I probably captured more than 300 images, but I chose to use 200 to create the star trails, because the cloud cover started getting too heavy toward the end of the set.
I select all of the images I'm using in Lightroom. Right click, choose Edit in > Open as Layers in Photoshop. Once in Photoshop, I select all the layers and change the Blending Mode to Lighten. Now you will see the star trails. You will also see every plane that has flown by. I start turning off layers, sometimes five or ten at a time, looking for the layers that contain planes. I remove the planes with the Spot Healing Brush from each layer individually. This is much easier to do at this stage, instead of removing them from the completed trails.
I find using a pressure sensitive tablet really comes in handy here. I work with a much larger brush than needed, and use pen pressure to control the width of the tip. In other words, a light amount of pressure will only apply a tiny amount in the center of the brush. Pressing hard will fill the whole brush.
At this point, I decide to add an effect to the trails by fading them out. You can make them look like comets if you fade them in one direction, but here I faded them on both ends. This is done by changing the opacity of each layer. Starting from the top, I set the opacity of the first layer to 1%, then the second layer to 2%, and so on. Once I got to 100%, I started reducing by 1 all the way down to the last layer at 1%.
I flattened the image, and then opened all the images I shot for the foreground. I took my time masking in bits and pieces of the various images, until I was happy with how the lighting looked.
A good example of composition
I used the comet effect mentioned above in this image, titled Partly Cloudy with a Chance Of Meteor Showers, in which the star trails are faded in one direction. When I was setting up this composition, I knew I wanted to face toward the East or West, so the trails would come down on an angle. I was trying to make it look like these vehicles fell from the sky. As you can see, Polaris is just out of the frame on the top left. I was facing northeast here.
Additional Gear Used (for the Partly Cloudy image)
Mike Orso is a New York-based fine art photographer and digital artist, with a passion for using his camera and editing software to create images that can't be seen with the naked eye.