Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Pic(k) of the week 2: Shooting for the stars - Star trail photography in the UAE

Star Trail photography has been on my mind for a while now. Finding a dark place to do this type of night photography in the UAE is always a challenge.  While searching for a place without light pollution, Dubai photographer Ajith Gopinathan, was the one that brought me to the Al Hayl fort near Fujeirah (UAE).

Just over an hour drive from Dubai, Al Hayl village is located about 20 km off the main new road between Dubai and the city of Fujeirah at the East coast of the UAE. The area, surrounded by mountains, has an interesting fort dating back to 1830 and a few oasis's at the end of the valley. 

While exploring we discovered that the fort was lit by several powerful halogen lamps at night. Exactly the opposite what I needed for star trail photography!

After a bit of socialising with the watchman, who lives on site, we managed to ask him to shut off the lights later a night. While we couldn't complete our night photography shoot that particular night due to clouds drifting in, I managed to return myself the following day. 

Clear skies and moon which had just set, made for pretty much perfect conditions on day 2. After I asked the watchman to switch off the lights at 9pm (sunset was just after 5pm), I was surprised that there was still a little bit of light at the North Eastern horizon; clearly the result of the street lights of the city of Fujeirah which is quite some distance away.

The most difficult part of the shoot was probably climbing a steep hill covered with loose rocks and small gravel. When one wants the nice circular motion of the stars as in the image below, we need to aim at the Polar star (North star, officially called Polaris) , due North. There are plenty of useful  astronomy iPhone/iPad apps out there and the one I use the most is GoSkyWatch Planetarium.

The resulting image below was shot over a 50 min period and consists of 100 x 30s exposures blended together as well as a single 3 min exposure for the foreground.

After doing some test shots using manual exposure and manual focus, it was time to start the sequence of 30s exposures using a cable release. From then onwards, it is mainly hanging around, keeping warm and waiting… I recommend placing the tripods and cameras slightly away from the photographer as all light used while waiting, will somewhat contribute to the light pollution.

2014 Pic(k) of the week 1: Shooting for the stars - Star trails in the UAE

Image details:
Nikon D800 with the 14-24mm Nikkor lens
ISO 400, 17mm,  f2.8, 100 30s exposures
RAW development in Lightroom 5.3
StarStaX app to blend the 100 images together
Photoshop CC to blend in the foreground image
Nik ColorEfex for contrast optimisation  

I did shoot a total of 6 different images that night, using both my Nikon D800 and the Fujifilm X-E1. Even though I thought the Nikon would be more up for this task, I see very little differences in the resolution and the amount of noise in the resulting images. Totally unexpectedly, with the screen turned off, the X-E1 battery lasted even longer than the D800 one.

A few more Star Trail images from this night can be found here.

As I'm a relative novice when I comes to Star Trail photography, I watched some online videos on the subject. The one I found most interesting was Steve Perry's " How to photograph Star Trails" Youtube video. Thanks Steve for sharing!

Towards the second half of the month, I would like to do some more Star Trail photography in the Dubai desert. Finding a place with no lights at the horizon will however be a challenge…

Remember; Whoever goes to bed before midnight, is a scoundrel" Samuel Johnson 


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