Aiming for the Stars

I don’t mean to abuse that old cliché. I’m actually referring to the act of pointing a camera at the stars. I’ve been interested in shooting the stars for some time (not the Hollywood variety) but did nothing about it until recently. Then in mid-November, I joined up with a small group of photographers for a night workshop in the desert of southeast Utah. Alas, our early expectations were quickly marred by bad weather. The day after we arrived, the region was hit by two consecutive storm systems that dumped rain, sleet, and snow on the desert floor for nearly five days.

In the face of bad weather, several of us decided to extend our stay and wait out the storm. That decision paid off because the sky finally cleared on day five, and we were able to enjoy a few glorious days under the stars. We photographed both star points and star trails. Star points are short exposures that capture the stars and constellations more or less as they appear to the naked eye. Star trails, on the other hand, are very long exposures that record the rotation of the earth.

Southeast Utah is one of the best places in the country for star gazing. On a clear night in autumn, the desert sky dazzles the senses with a primal display that excites and humbles at the same instant.

There’s something profound about being in the dark, under an umbrella of a billion stars, standing on a salt bed deposited 300 million years ago, and with no noise except for the occasional click of a camera shutter. For those of us who have done it, it is a profound experience indeed. And one that I hope to repeat.

Star photography involves being at the right place under the right sky, an SLR-grade camera mounted on a solid tripod, a good grasp of night photography techniques, a childlike willingness to experiment, and a big bucket of patience. But when these elements happen to converge, magic happens and a serious photographer can turn into an excitable child. At least I did.

You may be wondering why the sandstone arch in the included photos appears so bright. That’s because we “painted” it with light — flashlights to be specific. For these exposures, we used handheld flashlights like those you might keep around the house for emergencies. The distance and size of the foreground determines the strength of the light and the painting time needed. It’s part of that experimentation I mentioned earlier. You just have to try a few combinations and see what works best. The “painting” technique involved moving the light around the surface of the rock in rapid zigzag motions, making sure to cover the desired area in a short time. In the case of the star trail photo, the arch was lit for only thirty seconds while the stars were exposed for a full hour.

If night photography is your cup of tea, you might consider reading Creative Night by Harold Davis. His book is chock full of great ideas and techniques. In addition, workshops are available from a variety of sources. Moab Photo Tours (this is the one I took) offers an excellent workshop that features world-renowned landscape photographer, Tom Till. Lance Kemig and his company, The Night Skye, also offer domestic as well as oversees workshops in night photography. To get started on your own, you may want to visit The Nocturnes, an abundant source of information.

You can see more of my night photos here.


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