Sunday, June 2, 2013

Creation of Stars Over Oakland, Part 1 - Getting There...





A few people have asked about how this was created so I thought I'd share my workflow and processing here. This image began with a particular vision I had for it and evolved into something completely different. The shots used for the composite were taken at different times and over 300 miles apart. Kinda fun, eh? We'll start with the trails...

There is an area around Ebbetts Pass on CA HWY 4 in the Sierra Nevada Mountains that I just love. Ebbetts Pass is one of five or six major passes over the Sierra's between California and Nevada. The pass is around 8,700 feet and offers some of the best views I've found outside of Yosemite. The Pacific Crest Trail, which runs from the Mexican border to Canada, skirts just east of the pass.

For this particular adventure my idea was to get a star trail shot with Kinney Reservoir with Ebbetts Peak in the background. I know it wouldn't be a circular trail as the view is almost straight south, but getting a trails shot nonetheless, with the peak as the centerpiece and the possibility of getting a reflection trail in the reservoir would be just fine. The spot where I wanted to setup is just inside the gate.


In a perfect world I would have gotten there when there was still enough daylight to get things setup and focused on the spot I wanted to feature. As it is in my world, the thought to do this really didn't hit me until about 6:00 on Friday night. As is also the case in my world I didn't want to wait until Sat. I'd wanted to do this shot for a long time and now was just as good as any, so I loaded up the new Explorer and headed off. It's about a four-hour drive and really is a visual treat when done during the day.

So, after getting everything set and ready I finally headed out around 8:30 p.m. I stopped for supper in Tracy, and was at the pass by around 1:00 a.m.

To my utter chagrin some thoughtless bastard had decided to camp right in front of the gate. After considering whether or not I wanted to be considerate or not, I parked a bit down the hill, just to the north. As you can see the view effect I was hoping to get with the lake was severely minimized from this spot. I thought about going to the top of the damn but didn't really want to disturb the campers so I set up about in the middle of this little turnoff.


Not having any light to use the auto-focus I wasn't quite sure how this was going to work (hence the perfect-world scenario of getting here when there was still dayight). But I was here and it was time to shoot. I set everything up. I set my 7D with a 17-70 Sigma 2.8-4.5, set at f4.0 and 200 ISO, on the Manfrotto 3-section carbon fiber tripod with a 322RC2 Grip Action Ballhead. To fire the sequence I used a Pearstone Wireless ShutterBoss Timer Remote, set to fire 20, four-minute exposures.


Kids, don't try this at home...or anywhere. If you want to do this get there before sunset. As you can see above, it's dark at night in the mountains and very hard to see through a small view-finder. The shots above of the location are from Google Maps and those folks went through during the day when it's much easier to see (don't say I never gave you any worthwhile tips!). But, what's life without a little challenge now and again, right.

After getting setup I shut off the headlamp and let my eyes get accustomed to the dark. At which point I did my best to get things framed as I wanted. I then fired off one, four-minute exposure to see what I had. The result was this...

Now, the blurry spots are fine, I'll explain those later. The problem is that the mountain is was too dark, and there's not lake reflection because, well, there's no lake in the frame. Once again, if I'd gotten there at sunset I'd have a nicely lit mountain (and most likely my parking spot) to mask into the final image during processing. So, first strike of the night.

I considered packing up and going back to Mosquito Lake to see what I could get there, but wasn't convinced the same thing wouldn't happen there, since there really wasn't any more light in that part of the mountains than where I was. Plus, I knew there was going to be a moon at some point, and while that would have been nice for light, it's not so great for star trails. The location at the reservoir was protected by several peaks so the moon wouldn't be a factor. I didn't have that confidence that the same would apply at the lake. 

I started looking for the Big Dipper. You may or may not know that the BD has what are called "Pointer Stars" which point you towards Polaris - the North Star. Using that as a focus point gives the nice, circular trails you see in the final image - remember, there's an image at the end of all this. I found my prey in the lower sky behind where I was originally shooting, and hence found Polaris. First, it was visible from my location, and second it was situated in the nice valley where the road went so there was plenty of room for a trails shot. I pivoted the tripod and pointed my lens in the general direction, then fired off another four-minute exposure to see where I was and how it would look. 



Polaris was dead-center, and the trees created a nice frame. I wasn't so concerned about those being silhouetted, that wouldn't be an issue in the final. Now that I had things ready I set the time and pressed 'Go,' then settled in the Explorer for the 80 minutes it would take to get all the exposures taken - 20 exposures @ 4' = 80'! See, I paid attention at some point in math class!

The 20 exposures were simply variations of the shot above so I don't need to go into how each of them looked. In any case, this blog post got a bit longer than I anticipated so I'm going to call this Part 1 and get into the actual processing in another post...

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