The Trees and the Stars- Star Trails

The Trees and the Stars- Star Trails

April 10, 2006 By Joe Morahan

The Trees and the Stars


Surrounded by monstrous, magnificent trees while camping in Kings Canyon National Park, many opportunities to create great imagery flicker in the imagination. Around midnight while sitting near a campfire, I was inspired to create this picture.

I was gazing up intently through the treetops, amazed by how many stars were in the sky. In the city there are simply not that many stars visible; the ambient lights mask so much of the heavens. But here, away from the city lights, Kings Canyon was the perfect theater for the stars’ light show, and millions made their appearance known, flickering in the night for attention.

I was with my buddy Mike and his wife camping near a river. The tents were only 20 feet up from the bank, which provided a peaceful background noise, and the crackling of the fire made for a cozy, relaxing evening.

I sensed immediately the difficulty of capturing this shot. As a photographer, I know great shots don’t just happen. Mike, his wife and I had been trekking through Sequoia National Park for two weeks, and we’d each shot 30 rolls of film. This shot, however, would take some doing.


INGREDIENTS• Camera: Canon Elan• Lens: Canon 17–40mm f/5.6• Film: Kodak ISO 400 transparency film• Scanner: Nikon Scan 5000• Computer: Power Mac G5• Software: Photoshop CS2• Other: Cable release, flashlight, tripod

I knew I needed a bigger fire to help pump light onto the trees. They were hundreds of feet tall, and I needed light to reach the tops. Mike and I gathered dry firewood near the river. The fallen trees were too huge, but there were branches that made good firewood. As we broke the branches to throw into the fire, a sliver broke loose and shot into my eye. We found the park rangers, and they were able to extract the sliver. With a patch over one eye, I was still determined to get the shot; visiting a doctor could wait until morning!

Back at the campsite, we finished gathering wood (more carefully this time). The fire was now throwing off sufficient light so I could begin the shoot. I grabbed my tripod and camera, and set up. I was having a hard time framing the shot as the eye patch covered my shooting eye. I made the calculations, pointed the camera nearly straight up on its sturdy tripod, and started shooting. I was uncertain how much light was actually hitting the top of the trees, but I was able to approximate it with my light meter.

I wanted at least 45 minutes of exposure so the stars would have time to twist in the sky. I did a total of four frames, each at 45 minutes. I stoked the fire for the first two and let the fire die down naturally for the last two— a roughly calibrated bracketing with less light hitting the tree tops on each progressive shot. To obtain more light, we had backed a four-wheel drive down a slope so the headlights would illuminate the tree tops. They were daytime lights, yielding a color temperature of 5500°K and producing a green shade in the tree tops.

After two weeks of roughing it in the forest, I looked forward to viewing the film back in Santa Barbara. While I was interested in seeing whether certain shots had turned out, I was simply blown away by this one. I could not believe my eyes. The shot was everything I imagined. And to think, all it took was a campfire, car headlights, an eye patch and, of course, a little help from Mother Nature.


Rangefinder Magazine
September 2006

Rf Cookbook by Joe Morahan
The Trees and the Stars- Star Trails

View article on Rangefinder

Joe Morahan