Star Trails Illuminate the Night

Star Trails Illuminate the Night

April 15, 2006 By Joe Morahan

Star Trails Illuminate the Night


The ability to bring the night to life with photographic magic is a cathartic experience. To the naked, untrained eye, night might seem to be a dark, boring stillness—but this is to miss out on the beauty and motion one can see only at night. From a photographic standpoint, shooting at night is quite difficult because of all the variables. But the results can be exquisite.

My vision was simple—a photograph of a huge, triumphant tree, framed by star trails as they moved through the night sky. Making my vision a reality proved far more complex. Many issues confronted me and thwarted an easy setup.

Finding the right tree on the right hill with the right slope took hours of hunting. At one point, I was about to conclude that no such site existed anywhere near where I was searching. Then, like magic, the perfect specimen appeared right in front of me near Solvang, California.

The next step was more technical, calculating just how I could get the exact exposure I wanted. I would need a moonless night to avoid ambient lighting. Years of nighttime shooting have given me the experience to determine in which direction the stars will rotate by using Polaris (the North Star) as my anchor point. I used this insight to my advantage to support the composition.

From previous photographic shoots, I knew that a good base exposure would be two hours at f/8 with ISO 400 film. Shooting such long exposures requires film, as digital efforts produce digital noise that would ruin the exposure.

It was a tricky setup, and a sturdy tripod was an absolute must— the slightest vibration or movement over two hours will ruin the desired effect. Proper framing of a shot at night is quite difficult, so I brought a flashlight and spent an hour or so framing what I believed would be the perfect setup. I set the focus at infinity and used a cable release to keep the shutter open for the two hours.

I had to wait nearly a month to get the moonless midnight I needed. I set up early and waited for the dark blue sky to fade into black. In the deep darkness I started the exposure, making sure the North Star was framed properly. Then I just waited and prayed all would turn out according to plan.

The next morning produced bad news. I studied the developed film and saw that the star trails through the skies were broken up with huge gaps between them. The gaps were caused by clouds that had passed high in the night sky.

• Camera: Canon Elan
• Lens: EF 17–40mm f/4L USM
• Film: Fujichrome ISO 400
• Scanner: Nikon Scan 5000
• Computer: Power Mac G5
• Software: Photoshop CS2
• Other: Cable release, flash light, tripod

I had no option but to reshoot. I would never have imagined it would take four more attempts to get it right!

Weather predictions on the night of the last shoot called for a clear, cloudless night. This was lucky, as I found out the hard way that Solvang gets a lot of fog. I drove back to what I now affectionately called “my tree” and started the familiar routine.

I had been shooting approximately two hours when I noticed the fog rolling in over Solvang, creating an orange glow over the city. I made a conscious decision to continue the exposure for another 30 minutes, allowing ample time for the film to absorb the orange tint. When I studied the film the next morning I was amazed. It was a perfectly clean exposure and the sky looked incredible. It is in moments such as this that a photographer knows all that work is worth it!


Rangefinder Magazine
July 2006

Rf Cookbook: by Joe Morahan
Star Trails Illuminate the Night


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Joe Morahan