Rodney Campbell's Blog

Interstellar Signals…

by on Dec.25, 2015, under Life, Photography

Sometimes things don’t go as planned, and in photography that can happen a lot. Sometimes however things just unexpectedly click and the universe smiles and takes pity on you…

This looks like I perfectly planned it – setup in the exact position along this path at the right height and distance at the exact right time of the year… and I wish I was that good… alas luck played a big part :)…

I’d wanted to do some star trails whilst I was on Kangaroo Island – it was the perfect place – super dark skies, nothing to the south of you except Antarctica and no light pollution. Unfortunately most evenings also brought heavy clouds which made it impossible to shoot the stars.

On the previous night things almost came to fruition however the clouds soon rolled in. Tonight however was my very last on the island and I was hoping luck was on my side.

Interstellar Signals

Interstellar Signals

NIKON D600 + 14.0 mm f/2.8 @ 14 mm, 61 sec at f/2.8, ISO 1250 x 92 Frames

I’d setup in this exact position for a couple of reasons…

– the path essentially pointed southward so I knew the centre of rotation of the stars in the sky would be somewhere in this general direction (checking the star app on my iPhone for Sigma Octanis essentially confirmed this). Whilst the app on the phone gives a rough indication, the direction is not this exact. I’d like to say it was amazing planning which ensured the centre of the swirl would be aligned left right with the lighthouse on purpose but that would just be a lie :).

– I put my tripod up as high as it would go. I was shooting with the incredibly wide Samyang 14mm f/2.8 prime. I was expecting to shoot pointing a little upwards to include as much of the sky as possible, but I also wanted the lighthouse to remain relatively undistorted so as high as I could go would be better – the path sloping down a little towards the lighthouse also helps.

– Finally the distance I setup my tripod from the lighthouse. Again I’d like to say it was perfect planning which placed me in this spot so that the centre of the swirl would also be aligned top to bottom with the light… Alas again that would be untrue – it was a more mundane reason I chose this specific distance from the lighthouse. I needed to be back far enough so the building would remain a good shape but not so far back that the light from the lighthouse would be directly visible to the camera (and blow things out) so I moved back just to the point where the light bulb/source was being clipped by main light room wall itself.

Luck obviously favours the – I was going to save “brave” but I think I’ll just go with “insane” :).

When the interstellar stars align, they really do – and so I ended up being in exactly the perfect spot at exactly the right time of the year for all of these elements to line up and we get the perfect swirl of the stars right behind the light itself. I couldn’t have planned this better myself if I’d actually planned it…

OK – that was the setup…

I then proceeded to take some single shots with some light painting to use as the base foreground image of my final result.

Then I worked out what my star trails exposures would be – in this case with incredibly dark skies I settled on 60 sec at f/2.8 and ISO 1250.

I setup my programmable intervalometer and let it go.

Some minor “disasters” along the way…

1) I’m literally in the middle of freaking nowhere… My family were perhaps the only souls within an hours drive and we’re at what almost amounts to the end of the earth.

What I wasn’t expecting just before midnight was a car driving down the hill lighting the whole place up and messing up some frames… Somebody else had arrived to shoot the lighthouse under the starry skies… Of course they didn’t know 🙂

Anyway we proceeded to do some shots for them with a little light painting of the lighthouse (I was going to have to manually edit a bunch of frames and darken the building and the foreground anyway now).

2) Five minutes to midnight (and only just over an hour and a half into my trails exposures) a massive bank of clouds came in from the south west and covered the skies… looks like the party was over. It intermittently cleared soon after but the ten minute gap would likely be a killer. I let things run a little longer but by a quarter past midnight I packed up and headed off to bed. We were getting up early in the morning for the two hour drive to the airport and a morning flight back to Adelaide and then back to Sydney…

I’ve already mentioned some of the post. I performed a number of global edits across the whole set of frames and some careful specific editing of some. I loaded all the frames (109) and stacked them as layers in Photoshop as I usually do. The end result was pretty decent however this time I decided to also try a software package dedicated to stacking star images (StarStaX) for which there is also a Mac version.

This software can’t use RAW files so I had to export my edited images as 16bit TIFF’s and import into StarStaX. I tried a number of combinations but in the end the best set ended up being the shorter 92 Frames taken before the clouds came. I utilised the softwares Gap Filling mode (which works remarkably well – you can’t see it so much in this smaller view but zoomed in to 100% you definitely notice the gaps otherwise). I also used the Comet mode which I think for this shorter set adds a nice touch and gives a real sense of motion to the stars.

Whilst I would have liked another hour or two of clear skies and more interstellar trails I’m still amazingly pleased with the end result – my very last shot on Kangaroo Island turns out to be one of my favourites from the trip. Patience is apparently it’s own reward…

Merry Christmas Everyone!…

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