Late Night in the Mountains


After two early mornings and one late night shooting the stars in the Shenandoah Mountains I’ve captured some shots that are among my favorites. My longest shutter speed exceeded 20 minutes of exposure time (the above shot is just over 18 minutes) and the best images were captured after 1:30am on a Sunday night. This kind of shooting requires serious camera technique since I’m sharing the shots pretty much out-of-camera (meaning they’re not getting much attention in Photoshop).

The Sunday night I ventured into the Shenandoah Mountains was the third trip I took and I was there only to shoot the stars. I wasn’t worried about the sun coming up before I was done and I wanted to see if any differences existed between shooting in the the early morning (starting at 4:30am) and shooting in the late night (starting at about 10:30pm). It turns out there are huge differences between the two times and those differences will be the subject of the blog entry. Along the way I’ll also talk a bit about the settings I used to get my favorite star trail shot to date.

Shooting Late at Night Compared to Shooting in the Early Morning

Shooting at night and early in the morning are pretty much the same in a lot of ways. The stars look awesome, it’s super dark and it’s pretty cold. But there are a few things that were completely different that I quickly discovered. The three biggest differences were:

1) the moon is out late at night and it totally messes up long exposure shots. The moon is actually pretty darn bright. It doesn’t seem like it to the naked eye but a camera sees it differently than humans do. Any long exposure shot that includes the moon quickly turns the entire shot into a blown out shot with little to no contrast (with a moon that looks like a blurry mess). The moon dipped behind the mountain by 12:30am at this time of year so I was able to shoot in any direction eventually.

2) There was considerably more light pollution from the towns in the valley below. I guess there is more activity late at night than there is super early in the morning. More porch lights are on, more businesses are still open (and well lit) and there’s a lot of cars driving around at 10:30pm compared to 4:30am.

3) There is a TON of air traffic late at night that just doesn’t exist in the super early morning. While that doesn’t sound like that big of a deal, believe me when I say that it totally is. Looking out towards Washington DC I could clearly see a lot of airplanes flying into or out of one of the two super busy airports. With their navigation lights on they were sure to leave streaks across any shots and that would have been a huge pain to remove in Photoshop. Here’s a look at a long exposure shot I took with an airplane flying through my frame:

I don’t see a lot of air traffic when I arrive in the mountains at 4:00am and it wasn’t until after 1:00am that I felt the air traffic had calmed down enough to start shooting super long exposure shots. I also noticed a little more vehicle traffic on the road late at night. I’m not saying there was a lot of traffic on the road late at night, but there was some and in the early morning there is zero.

These three differences between late night and early morning made it super difficult for me to get the shots I was looking to capture. While the moon, additional light from the valley and the air traffic made things a challenge I didn’t let it ruin my night. I had to react to the unforseen problems and that’s something I’ve learned to do with my location portrait work.

Direction is Everything

I had some success shooting star trials with a 10 minute exposure but I wanted to see what increasing my capture time would look like. Because I needed some test shots I started shooting 5 and 10 minute exposures to see if I was happy with my settings (f8, ISO 200) and the direction I was shooting. Most of my star trail shooting up to this point had been with my camera facing east or south.

When I pointed my camera south the arc of the stars had a much larger radius. It gave my shots a really interesting look that reminded me of what it might look like if the stars were falling in a gentle arc towards the ground. When I pointed my camera east the stars still looked like they were falling toward the horizon but the angle looked steeper. Here’s a shot I took with my camera facing southeast (with an exposure time of about 7 minutes):

On this night I wanted to point my camera north.¬†I was rewarded with much tighter arcs that centered well above the horizon. I took some test shots pointing my camera north before I took my longest exposure shot. Here’s a look at one of my test shots (using a 10 minute shutter speed) with the camera¬†facing north:

When I saw the results of the 10 minute shot I instantly wanted to see what doubling the time would get me. When I did I captured my favorite shot of the night. This is a 1,210 second exposure (or 20 minutes and 10 seconds) with f5.6 at ISO 200.

To see a larger version of this shot you can check it out here on 500px.

To capture my shots I used a Sony A900 mounted to a Manfrotto tripod (with a Manfrotto ball head) and I triggered the shutter with a wired shutter release (using the shutter lock button to get long exposures in Bulb mode). To keep track of time I used the stopwatch feature on my iPhone (and I played a little Bejeweled on the same iPhone while I waited for 20 minutes to pass). I also used a Suunto compass I bought at REI for about $25 to accurately locate north. To compose my shot I kept true north just off center of the frame. To read my compass and change settings on my camera I used a mini Maglight LED flashlight that I bought for less than $30 at Home Depot.

This will be the last blog post I’ll write about shooting the stars in the Shenandoah Mountains. I’ll still be going back every so often and if I get any new shots I’ll be sure to share them here or on my Google+ page.

Next up I’ll be writing about how I mount my camera to my car to capture my moving shots on Skyline Drive. Be sure to check back and give it a read.

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