A little over three years ago, I saw some amazing "star trail" photos by Australian photographer, Lincoln Harrison. I was amazed by the color he captured in the night skies and wanted desperately to take pictures like his.
A star trail photograph is essentially an ultra-long exposure. In the days of film, shutters were locked open for hours at a time at night, but in today's digital world of post-processing and editing, I use a remote to automatically trip my shutter open for forty seconds, let it close for one-tenth of a second, then open again. This process repeats as many as 900 times, depending on the length of the night.
In the Northern Hemisphere, by aiming the camera at Polaris, the North Star, our Earth's rotation gives the illusion of stars spinning around it over the course of the night. During each 40-second exposure, the stars "trail" a tiny bit, but by combining all images into one final photograph, I can show an entire night's worth of movement. After editing out the airplane lights, which may appear in as many as 200 individual pictures, the result is a colorful swirl of concentric arcs and a wonder of our universe rarely seen.
For this particular picture, Midnight Express, I needed a clear night (any cloud cover ruins these shoots), and a train parked in the right place. I'd seen this train here three or four times during the past year but conditions were never right for the picture - any more than about half a moon lends too much light to the sky to give a good feel. Finally, things came together and I took what I believe is my best star trails photo to date. I entered it in Fusion Art's second annual Colors Competition, an international contest with participants from 18 countries, and won one of four honorable mentions in the digital film category.
The star trails adventure has been a huge trial and error process for me, with thousands of unusable pictures taken, many nights spent wondering if a cow would tip my camera over or a bear would eat it, hoping the heat from dry-chemical hand warmers that I wrap my lens in would last long enough to ward off dew or frost, and countless hours of learning how to edit multiple photos in post-processing software.
People often ask me if these pictures are "Photoshopped." The simple explanation is no, they are not. The foreground - in this case the train - was exactly where it appears in the photo. No cutting and pasting or "sewing" different pictures from different places together. And yes, the stars really are this colorful. My camera's sensor is much more sensitive to subtle colors than our eyes, able to pull beauty out of the universe that would otherwise go unseen.
It's an odd look in some ways - a freight train parked under a vortex of stars - but for me, always seeking to push the envelope and find new ways to present this world around us all, it works.
You can view the contest winners, including this image, by clicking this link.
The photo is also for sale on this site, in many sizes, and can be viewed here.