Rf Cookbook: 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
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