If I were to ask you how long it takes to make a photo, what would your initial answer be? A split second. The press of a shutter. A few minutes. An hour. All of these answers are plausible and undoubtedly would encompass most photos that are created. Now, if you were to ask me, “how long is the longest photo you’ve made?”, without hesitation, I’d recount of the tale of Cyclops Arch in the Alabama Hills.
It all started with Flickr. Well, specifically, the inspiration came from Eric Harness who posted a photo on June 9, 2010 with star trails through a double arch. Eric’s image (go check it out) contained approximately 44 minutes of star trails. Overcome with fascination and intrigue, I wondered what it might look like with longer trails. I felt longer trails would add to the spiraling shapes of the double arch. The seed was planted.
Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery, Right?
I had unsuccessfully tried star trails in Joshua Tree the previous year. Long exposure noise reduction was left on which meant big gaps in the star trails. But my experimentation with light painting did yield this image which wound up being chosen as a double page spread in National Geographic’s worldwide magazine.
Fast forward to November 2011 when I visited the Alabama Hills for the second time, and I knew exactly where I needed to go. I set up camp, got my LED flashlight with red gel, and lugged my trusty Nikon D300 and Tokina fisheye lens out across the landscape. I programmed my remote to take 5 minute exposures at f5.6 and ISO 800. Knowing I was going to merge the images into trails, I used a technique I learned from Floris Van Breugel in his excellent article here. The longer exposure time allows for a lower ISO and smaller aperture which helps overcome some of the shortcomings of typical night photography camera settings: mainly high ISO noise and shallow depth of field from wide apertures. After light painting a few frames with my flashlight, I started my remote and headed to bed for a quick nap.
The alarm woke me from dreams of a greasy breakfast I would have later that day, and I distinctly recall my childish glee to go see how my handiwork had panned out. Much to my dismay, I discovered the crisp, cold weather coupled with old batteries meant only 70 minutes of star movement was captured…not quite according to plan. Not only were my star trails similar in length to Eric’s image, my composition was a direct imitation. I gave Eric due credit when I posted my version almost eight years ago, but I left unsatisfied.
At First You Don’t Succeed, Figure Out Why You Blew It and Try Again
One more trip around the sun, and I found myself in the Alabama Hills yet again on my way to teach a Death Valley photo workshop. This time I was armed with a new camera, the venerable Nikon D800. I added a grip to double its already superior battery life. My lens upgraded to the stellar (see what I did there) Nikon 14-24mm f2.8 with its incredible sharpness even wide open at f2.8.
I focused on finding an original composition as I set up under the archway. I spent roughly 25-30 minutes working in the cramped confines until I found what I wanted. Once the composition was set, I focused on the arch using my flashlight and the camera’s live view to aid in attaining critical sharpness. I then light painted several frames for approximately 25 minutes to get the lighting and settings just right. I ultimately used IS0 800 at f11 for 2 minutes. I used the same little LED flashlight as the year prior, but I after trying red, amber, and no gel, I decided the amber provided the most pleasing color.
For the stars, I again used a magnified live view to check critical focus. I bumped my ISO to 1600, opened my aperture to f2.8, and put fresh batteries into my battery grip. I snapped a dark frame with my lens cap on (more on this later). This time around, I programmed my intervalometer to take continuous photos at 30 seconds each with no limit. The plan was to capture 2.5 hours of trails as I headed off for a much deserved nap, but not before snapping a few frames of the arch with my other camera.
Upon waking in the middle of the night, thoughts of dead batteries haunted me, but my extra preparation paid off as I could hear the shutter clicking away as I approached. I shut down the star sequence after approximately 2 hours and 20 minutes. I fired off one last dark frame for good measure. And now is as good a time as any to touch on dark frames. When using high ISO and long exposures, environmental and thus camera temperature can play a role in how much noise accumulates in each frame. The idea is to take a frame at the same settings as you were shooting, but of complete darkness to record the amount of noise at the time of capture. I honestly haven’t tested using dark frames vs not using them, and Floris even mentions they don’t seem to help much in his findings, but I shot them nonetheless in hopes it would help. Normally for static star images, I would use my camera’s long exposure noise reduction which takes a dark frame immediately after the exposure to subtract the noise. This obviously must be avoided when capturing star trails otherwise you will have a gap in time when the stars aren’t recorded while the camera processes which would lead to dotted trails. Yuck.
Back to the image creation in the field…I shot a few more light painted frames to insure I had plenty of arch images to choose from. The time tally for capture? My first frame was taken at 8:55pm and the final frame at 12:29am. When accounting for finding a composition, image capture lasted close to four hours!
Some Assembly Required
Back home in the digital darkroom, I started by loading my two dark frames and the almost 300 star images into a free stacking software Startrails.exe. Tip: don’t edit the star images before turning them into trails, at least for sharpness, clarity, or contrast. These can lead to smaller stars which wind up looking more like dotted trails. Once complete, I continued the editing process in Photoshop. I edited minor contrast and color for the light painted arch. Next came masking in the star trails by first aligning the two images using Edit>Align Images and then using a simple layer mask to bring the stars into the light painted frame. Up next? An extended relationship with the clone stamp tool. First, there were countless plane trails. Star trails can sometimes mask a few plane trails, but not this time. I spent a good hour cloning out those pesky streaks. And as if that wasn’t enough cloning, read on! One thing to note at this step: when you focus on two different distances and then composite the two frames (in this example the arch and the stars), the closer subject, the arch, will become blurred as your focus shift towards infinity, especially when you open the aperture to something bright like I did at f2.8. As a result, the star trail image has an arch that is slightly larger with soft edges as it was so defocused. And so the cloning continued as I cleaned up the edges between stars and the light painted arch. Lots of edges in there, too. All told, the post processing of this image took about 2-3 hours.
Light Painting Image
Star Trails Image
It’s been almost seven years since I put this image together. Considerable time and effort went into the planning, execution, and presentation. I was fortunate to have the image published in a book Rarely Seen: Photographs of the Extraordinary by National Geographic in 2015 which is the closest to a prize ribbon I’ll get for the longest image I’ve ever made.