So, I'm writing this post from Sydney, where I'm living for a few months while working on the Australian tour of Aladdin, the Broadway musical. Early on in the process out here, we had two-day weekends, which are a luxury in the theater world. We even had a couple 3-day weekends! Unheard of! Thank you Australian bank holidays!
Before flying here, I thought about the various activities I might want to pursue while here and star-trail photography was top on that list. I'd made one attempt while on Mauna Kea in Hawai'i. At 9,000 feet of elevation, we were well above the clouds at sunset, and had only a few wisps of clouds as the stars came out. Because of various factors (i.e. it was cold and my parents weren't interested in sitting in the car for hours while my camera clicked away) I only took maybe half a dozen exposures, spanning just over 30 minutes.
I would say it's a fine attempt, but there was lots to be learned from it. I hadn't gone back to try my hand at star trail photography in the two years that had elapsed since this photo, so I hopped on Google and started reading articles. I also started researching exactly WHERE in the Blue Mountains I wanted to go and was lucky to come across Gary Hayes exhaustive guide to landscape photography in the Blue Mountains. Gary, if you ever read this, thank you. Between Gary's website, Google Maps, and The Photographer's Ephemeris app on my phone, I settled on the Blackheath area, specifically Perry's Lookdown, for my star trail photography.
There were three criteria that led to my discovery of Perry's Lookdown: 1. Gary's guide had a number of suggestions for hikes to take, as well as vistas for both sunrise and sunset, so I wouldn't be lacking in places to photograph. 2. Blackheath is further out than Katoomba or Wentworth Falls and, using The Photographer's Ephemeris app's very handy overlay of light polution, it looked like I'd have to get out to Blackheath in order to get a nice dark sky. 3. I used Google Maps to confirm that Perry's Lookdown had a nice clear view of the southern sky. By using their panoramic view and their little compass icon, I was able to visualize my shot before I even left Sydney.
An additional criteria that my trip hinged on: weather. The night of June 25th, the night I was planning to shoot my star trails, was looking like it would be pretty ideal: clear skies, no prediction of rain or cloud cover, and on that night, sunset would be over by 6, but the moon wouldn't rise until 9:40, giving me roughly 3 hours of dark skies to shoot. Bonus: I wouldn't have to stay up late or wake up early!
There was one drawback to my trip's timing. The night of June 25th would reach a low of -2ºC. Oh well, can't win 'em all. I picked up my little hatchback campervan at noon that Saturday and drove off for the mountains. The day was beautiful: cool breeze, clear skies, warm sun. It was a perfect day to be in the mountains! My first stop was Govett's Lookout, where I was planning to shoot sunrise the next morning, for a quick peek followed by a stop at the ranger's station to check in about weather, any local warnings, and rules about camping. Once I had a few maps and some guidance, off I drove for Perry's Lookdown.
I found the campground pretty easily (hard to mess it up when you "just stay on the dirt road until it ends") and cooked a little dinner. As the sun began to set, the temperature began to fall. It got cold that night, and stayed cold. By 6:30 it had gotten sufficiently dark so I set off down the path by headlamp to set up. After a few test shots to get the exposure correct, I was ready to go!
In total, I took 83 photos, each a 90-second exposure, f4, ISO 400, manual focus set to ∞, with a 5 second pause in between each exposure. To control the exposures, I used a Triggertrap cable and the accompanying app. What I hadn't quite considered was that with the temperature hovering around freezing...my phone battery would only last about 20 minutes out in the elements. I had an external battery with me, so I put both my phone and the battery, plugged together, into a breast pocket of a shirt buried many layers below my jacket, hoping that the warmth of my body would improve the battery life. The downside to this whole arrangement was that I was now tethered to my camera by the short cable running from my phone to my Nikon. There would be no wandering for me, I was going to be right next to my camera for the foreseeable future. I couldn't even sit. The things we do for our art.
Now, if you've done the math, 83 90-second exposures, plus a 5 second pause is 7,885 seconds, or 131 minutes...or about 2 hours and 11 minutes, not the 3 hour window that I had allotted myself. And the reason is that I was ill-prepared for the weather. After two hours standing in the dark, I was just too cold, tired, and achey to keep going. I was so cold I was getting angry. You've heard of "hangry"? Well I was "frostrated". (you read it here first, folks)
The photos one-at-a-time aren't particularly exciting:
Then you futz with the white balance and bump up the clarity, vibrance, and contrast...and it still isn't a great photo:
Side note: the glow you see in the lower left part of the image is light pollution from Sydney. Because I was facing south, Sydney to the east is on my left. I don't mind having it, actually, sort of a happy accident, it gives a nice little brushstroke of colour and frames the treeline in front of it.
After dropping all the photos into Photoshop and layering them with an additive "Lighten" mode, I ended up with a more inspiring photo than the individual images I had been looking at...but it was far from perfect. The stars are spinning clockwise and you can see a gap about 2/3rds of the way through, which is when my camera battery died and I had to replace it. Apparently I wasn't paying close enough attention to ALL the batteries... There's also a slight offset in the last couple frames. I think I hit my camera with my forehead while I was hopping around trying to get warm. It was clearly time to get back into the car and turn the heat on.
I decided to nix those last three images that don't line up with the rest of the sequence. I thought about trying to transform them to line up...but it wasn't worth it for only a few frames. The gap left when I changed camera batteries was much easier. I rotated those frames around what I guessed was pretty close to the center of rotation and voilá - no more gap.
My last edit, an artistic one, was to change the opacity on every one of the remaining 80 images. The first images in the stack would be nearly invisible - very low opacity - and I would slowly increase the opacity as the stack went along, finally ending up at 100% opacity with the last frame. This created a "trail" to the stars, which gives a smoothness and a sense of motion to the image.
I'm really happy with this final image. As cold and angry as I was by the end of the 2 hours standing on that little outcropping of rock, the end result makes it all worthwhile. It was a beautiful weekend in the Blue Mountains, and I have this photo (and a few others!) to remember it by.