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.
A wonderful and blessed New Year to everyone! Apologies for my absence of late in adding new blog posts; however, things have been extremely busy here and I have very good news to share. As many of my friends and photography colleagues know, I have been working as an Associate Artist at Studios on the Park, a nonprofit open studios art center in the heart of historic downtown Paso Robles, California. Opened in May 2009 in the old Pioneer Auto Parts store directly across from the city park, Studios is a visual arts center where artists create, exhibit, and sell art.
There are eight studios with 40 working artists and two galleries: Fine Craft, representing the finest in American craft, and The Showroom Gallery, featuring members of the Paso Robles Art Association. By making the creative process open to the public, Studios on the Park provides a creative, educational, and transformational experience to enhance understanding and appreciation of the visual arts.
There are several categories of artists working at Studios: Artists in Residence, Substitute Artists, Associate Artists, and Assistant Artists. Regardless of the category, each artist must submit an application package to the Studios Board of Directors and go through a stringent jurying process. I am pleased to announce that just before Christmas my application for Artist in Residence was accepted, and I am thrilled to now be sharing a photography studio with colleagues Don Eaton and Kabe Russell.
There is much to do to ready my artwork, paint, reorganize space, and decorate, but the rich blessings of working with such a wonderful group of talented artists make these tasks joyful. In addition to exhibiting and selling my fine art photography, plans are underway to teach digital imaging and printing classes and workshops. I will post class information on my website as it becomes available. For more information and a quick tour of Studios, see the introductory video below featuring Studios Founder and artist Anne Laddon.