Many people have asked me about how to make star trail images in general (it’s ridiculously easy) and how exactly ”Eye of Cyclops” was created in particular. I promised I would do so, so here is that promise kept.
I am going to keep this as short and sweet as possible, straightforward, and direct. I’m not going to dumb it down too much but at the same time, I’ll keep it from becoming too esoteric as well. Some of you will think it’s far too technical and some will think that I didn’t give enough information. That’s a guarantee. I’m just trying to strike a balance here.
First, the location is in the Alabama Hills of California at the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and in the shadow of the highest peak in the continental United States, Mount Whitney. The name of this particular arch is not important, yet it should be obvious to those who know the area. There was lots of pre-planning involved in order for this to work, including a visit during daylight to acquaint myself with the location and it’s surroundings as well as devising my strategy and imagining how the final image would look later. I got a bead on the north star, Polaris, using the iPhone application, Star Chart. I wanted the concentric star circles to revolve around a point that was located inside one of the arch windows. The two arches reveal themselves to the sky when oriented toward the north, so this was easy enough. I chose the desired height of the tripod, the lens (16 mm), composition, etc.
My strategy then was as follows: when it became dark enough, I would first make one exposure while “light painting” the inside of the arch. I could do this with a 30-second exposure and a high enough ISO to adequately record light in all areas of exposed rock, even the deeper crevices. My settings for this exposure were: 30 seconds, f4, ISO 640, Manual Exposure mode. To light paint, I used my headlamp wrapped in a red bandanna. The reasons for the bandana were twofold. First, I wanted to soften the light to avoid ghastly hotspots on the rock. Second, I wanted a reddish tone to the interior of the arch and the red bandana did the trick quite nicely. I could precisely adjust the color and balance the light and dark areas later in Photoshop, but I still wanted it as close as possible. Manual focus is also important so that the camera doesn’t start “hunting” for a focus point in the faint light. Focusing on the lip of the arch at f4 gave me all the depth of field I needed. The result of this first exposure can be seen below.
Then without moving or refocusing the camera, I changed the ISO from 640 to 100 and the exposure mode to “Bulb.” Ideally, I would have preferred to focus at infinity for this second exposure, but it would have created some problems later when I combined the two exposures and also I knew from experience that it wouldn’t have affected the look of the star trails too much anyway. Every other camera setting remained the same. With the Bulb setting, the shutter would remain open as long as the shutter release is being depressed, so a cable release with a locking mechanism is needed.
I then waited for the waxing crescent moon to dip over the horizon and for darkness to fall completely for the maximum number of stars to be revealed. When the time was right, I locked the shutter and left it exposed for just over an hour. The rotation of the Earth did all the work for me. I simply sat on a nearby rock, ate a sandwich and listened to some music. Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” if I recall. Settings: 64 minutes, f4, ISO 100, Bulb. The result you can see below.
The result you see above has some post editing work done, mostly subjective stuff such as adjusting the white balance to make the sky a dark blue tone, increasing contrast to make the star trails more noticeable, and removing most of the color from the stars as well. As I said, these are all my personal preferences and since it’s my little slice of fantasy, I can make it whatever the hell I want it to be. So there.
Next, I blended the two exposures in Photoshop. Since there was such a clear difference in dominant color tones from one exposure to the next – blue and red – I used the red channel as a mask for the first exposure and it nearly blended itself for me. After a little touching up on the mask, a slight crop, and some noise reduction applied to the sky, the resulting image you can see below.
I hope you found this hastily-written post to be of some help to you. It was a very fun, rewarding image to make and I hope you like it.
If this sort of photography appeals to you, we will be doing much more of this during my Arches and Canyonlands Photo Workshop in Moab, Utah this May. Be sure to check it out.