As those of you know who read my original 2013 post, Pismo Beach Stairway to Nowhere, earlier this year I received conflicting information as to whether a vintage spiral staircase – long since abandoned – had indeed been demolished. This decaying gem, which once transported happy beachcombers safely down the steep rugged cliffs to a picturesque cove, is a source of fond memories to locals. I am happy to finally report that, as of April 2015, the staircase still stands in all its glory, although plans have been proposed for its partial demolition and restoration. In honor of one of my favorite James Bond movies, I titled the image You Only Live Twice, as it seemed rather appropriate.
According to newspaper articles, Noreen Martin, owner of Martin Resorts, has applied for a coastal development permit to repair and reconstruct the staircase, which can only be accessed via kayak or brave souls who dare swim to the beach. At one time the staircase was connected to the coastal bluffs by a bridge that has long since rotted away, leaving the now disconnected stairway alone and decaying from the salty ocean air. Martin’s plans include preserving the existing staircase core and constructing a new spiral staircase around it.
In addition, the existing seawall would be restored and a new pedestrian bridge would be built from the Ventana Grill – located on hotel row just above the staircase – down to the stairs. For those of you who are interested in viewing or photographing the original staircase, I would recommend a timely visit to the Ventana Grill in Pismo Beach before the restoration work commences. And have a lovely James Bond Vesper martini – shaken not stirred – in the lounge. A heap of thanks to Richard Bryant for sending me the newspaper article.
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.