One of my favorite nearby places to photograph is a special locale known as Chapel Hill in Shandon, California, about 15 miles east of Paso Robles off Highway 46 East. Chapel Hill is a lovely, private Catholic chapel perched high on a beautiful vineyard-studded hill built by the late famous Shandon resident (Judge) William P. Clark, Jr., former Deputy Secretary of State, National Security Advisor, and United States Secretary of the Interior, who worked with former President Ronald Reagan, his close friend and confidant. Chapel Hill has spectacular views of the surrounding countryside and is located amongst the hills of Clark’s massive private ranch off McMillan Canyon Road. Anyone can make the journey up the hill from the dirt parking lot below. Getting to the top of Chapel Hill is another matter, however, with a very steep climb. The incredible views from the top are well worth the climb with or without your camera equipment. There are beautiful grapevines along the path to the hilltop.
During this outing I wanted to capture star trails in the night sky over the chapel, as it is pointed nearly straight north at Polaris and therefore perfect for producing concentric star trails using star stacking software. The image was shot with my Nikon D800 using an intervalometer (and tripod, of course), and is comprised of 30 individual Camera RAW shots at 150 seconds each (with one second in between each shot), at f4.0, ISO 200 and 24mm. A bit of light painting was used on the chapel due to the foreground darkness (although it could have used more, especially on the chapel’s cross). Not bad for a first attempt at using new star stacking software; however, I hope to return and reshoot the scene with my ultra-wide angle Tokina AT-X 16-28mm f2.8 Pro FX lens in the future. I had mistakenly grabbed my 80-200mm Nikkor lens instead in my rush for the door.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with shooting star trails in photography, the earth’s rotation turns star points into star trails when camera exposure times roughly exceed 30 seconds (sometimes less depending on the focal length of the lens). If the camera is pointed towards the North Star (Polaris) and multiple consecutive exposures are taken – then blended together using star stacking software – gorgeous concentric star trails result that revolve around Polaris. For this composite, I used Lightroom and Photoshop for post-processing, and did the star stacking using Markus Enzweiler’s awesome StarStaX software. StarStaX is not only excellent but is freeware; however, donations are requested and well-deserved.
If you instead wish to capture sharp crisp stars (star points) or the Milky Way in the night sky, you will need to shoot at a very high ISO and wide aperture for less than 20–30 seconds, depending on the focal length of your lens. Unfortunately, the higher the ISO the more the camera noise. So there is a definite tradeoff. The general rule of thumb in determining the maximum length of exposure time to render star points versus trails is 600/lens focal length in mm. This means if you are shooting with a 20mm lens, your exposure time needs to be 30 seconds or less to obtain star points. Above 30 seconds exposure time you will begin to see movement in the stars.
If you are shooting with a 50 mm lens, the maximum exposure time would be around 12 seconds, not nearly enough to shoot at a lower ISO to avoid noise. Or enough time to do adequate light painting. Obviously the shorter (wider) the lens focal length, the more exposure time is available to shoot star points which is helpful to avoid noise at higher ISOs. In addition, you will capture more stars in the sky with an ultra-wide angle fast lens. Note that with some full frame (FX) DSLR cameras such as my Nikon D800, a more conservative formula to use is 500/lens focal length. Using this more conservative formula, a 16mm lens would allow for around 31 seconds of exposure time before rendering star streaks.
Below is a short (14 sec) timelapse video I made from the individual, unprocessed still images used to create the star trails in StarStaX. Since each of the 30 shots were 2.5 minute exposures, you will see the sky, foreground and chapel darken over time as the night progressed. This demonstrates the movement of the earth as it rotates and how the star points appear to move from one location to another in the night sky, morphing into streaks or trails. Of course that is because the stars are being viewed from the ground, which is actually in motion. Note that this timelapse has been purposefully slowed down for demonstration purposes.
If you look closely around the 8 second mark, you will see a big challenge to night sky photographers: a plane streaking across the sky, which needed to be cloned out in post-processing. Minimizing this challenge is one of many advantages to shooting multiple exposures and then stacking them, as opposed to shooting one very long exposure. In addition, noise becomes an issue with long exposures as the camera sensor heats up. For more information on and images of Chapel Hill, see my other posts Starry Starry Night, Photo Excursion to Chapel Hill and Chapel Hill.
If you are interested in learning how to photograph the night sky, I highly recommend the wonderful eBook Shooting Stars: How to Photograph the Moon and Stars with your DSLR by Phil Hart, winner of the 2012 David Malin Astrophotography Award. Shooting Stars, a 129-page eBook with a printable field guide, will show you how to shoot your own stunning images of the moon and the stars with just your digital SLR and a tripod. Another excellent book written by James Martin and elite Canon Explorer of Light Jennifer Wu is Photography Night Sky: A Field Guide for Shooting After Dark.
Updated February 27, 2015 with an additional image. Click on the images to open them in a lightbox for better viewing. Please note that if you are viewing this site on a mobile device, you must switch to the full desktop version in order to have the lightboxes open.
A few years ago, I wrote one of my first blog posts on the creepy abandoned Sunny Acres juvenile detention facility located here in San Luis Obispo, California. This ‘asylum’ (as it is known) lurks high upon a hill above the former San Luis Obispo County General Hospital, affording a view of the city that some say is unparalleled. It has a very dark history and has reinvented itself several times from orphanage to juvenile offender detention facility. Some old-timers even claim it was a TB sanatorium for a brief time. For more information, refer to my original post The Abandoned Historic Sunny Acres Detention Facility.
Boarded up for nearly 40 years, this two-story brick building – known for its exquisite Romanesque architecture – looks quite ominous, haunted and gothic. It is owned by the cash-strapped county of San Luis Obispo, although located within city limits. The county, city and local residents have advocated for preserving the building, but it is nearing collapse and is very hazardous due to the heavy presence of asbestos and lead. In addition, vandalism and neglect have taken their toll.
During an outing with a good photographer friend we decided to shoot the ‘asylum’ at night, in hopes of getting a nice Milky Way shot over the building. The weather conditions seemed ripe, as there was a new moon and the skies were dark and clear. (Well, at least they were when we headed out.) And photo apps confirmed that the Milky Way would be visible over the building. After arriving onsite we discovered a large fence had been placed around the entire perimeter of the sprawling building, preventing close access, limiting vantage points, and interfering with a clean fenceless shot. Nonetheless, we waited for complete darkness to fall (although it was kind of spooky and cold out there), then used several flashlights to do some light painting on the building and front steps. It was very dark out there and hard to find our footing. Unfortunately, clouds and rainy weather quickly moved in and we only got a few shots in as the rain began to fall. You can see the bank of clouds begin to roll in on the upper left side of the top image.
The second shot above was taken on the abandoned basketball court behind the Sunny Acres building. We headed back there to do some light painting with a green colored flashlight. You can see the bank of clouds begin to roll in on the upper left to center portions of this image. And, if you look hard enough, you can see part of a single shooting star to the left of the basketball backboard (sans hoop), just above the fronds of the palm tree. Also there appear to be three spooky faces in the basketball backboard. And these were not graffiti. This single RAW capture was taken with my Nikon D800 and Tokina 16-28mm f2.8 Pro FX lens. The image was shot at ISO 400 for 30 seconds at f5.6, at 24mm. It was processed entirely in Lightroom.
The top shot of the front of the building was comprised of a single RAW capture taken with my Nikon D800 and Tokina 16-28mm f2.8 Pro FX lens. It was light painted with several different colored flashlights and shot at ISO 400 for 30 seconds at f5.6, at 16mm, and processed in Lightroom and Photoshop. We plan to return in the future when better weather conditions prevail. Extra: There is a rather spooky Easter Egg located within the top photograph of the building. If you can find it, you are very perceptive and perhaps a fan of the paranormal!
If you are interested in urban exploration (urbex) photography, I highly recommend a new book (2015) by well-known San Francisco Bay area photographer and UE Todd Sipes, Urban Exploration Photography: A Guide to Creating and Editing Images of Abandoned Places. This superb book not only offers great tips on how to photograph abandoned locations, but has excellent post-processing tutorials. And, if you are like me and especially love shooting abandoned places at night, the granddaddy of nighttime American UrbEx, Troy Paiva, has an excellent classic book with exquisite images, Night Vision: The Art of Urban Exploration. In addition, Troy has a great book on light painting, Light Painted Night Photography: The Lost America Technique, which is available as a downloadable eBook or Kindle book. I own all these books and highly recommend them.