Humans have always been fascinated by the stars. As far back as we are able to see into the anthropological past, humans have told stories, created myths, and interwoven their beliefs of heaven and religion with the stars. We have used the stars to track time, the changing of the seasons, and have used them to guide ourselves across the seemingly endless expanses of the oceans.
As an artist, I have always been fascinated with stars as well. From a photographic standpoint, not only do they stand as a captivating and beautiful subject matter in their own right, but they also make for an incredible way to breathe new life into oft photographed scenes of iconic landscapes and landmarks.
The image that I chose to accompany this article is of the Currituck Beach Lighthouse located in Corolla, North Carolina. This lighthouse stands watch over the northern most stretch of barrier islands known as the Outer Banks and is one of five lighthouses that stand sentinel along these world famous islands known by many a poor sailor as the Graveyard of the Atlantic.
This particular image is the product of a month long personal project that I undertook last winter to photograph the Currituck Beach Light in a completely new and intriguing way. Like most iconic scenes, they have been photographed countless times by countless photographers. However, lighthouses like this are typically photographed from the same hand full of locations time and time again. A little fact that was unacceptable for me when I began to approach this project.
After realizing that I wanted to photograph this particular lighthouse at night, and there were a number of reasons that I made this decision, I spent many days scouting out the right location. I kayaked into narrow marsh creeks, I donned 5mm neoprene waders and pulled myself through frigid water and thigh high mud. I burned countless gallons of gas navigating my skiff through the Currituck Sound in search of that perfect composition. Once I found what I was looking for, it then became a matter of waiting for the right time to shoot this scene.
Shooting for Stars
When stars are going to factor heavily into your composition, you will find your best opportunities if you wait for a very clear night with little to no moonlight. Clouds of course can add a unique dimension to the night sky, however if you want maximum impact, a cloudless night is your best bet.
Similar to the watching for clouds and how that they might impact your night sky, you will also want to consider the moon as well. The larger the moon is in the sky, or the closer it is to your specific composition, the less stars that you will have to work with. Timing can be everything here if the moon is rising or setting in the same region as where you want to photograph. If this is the case, you will find that sometimes the ideal times to photograph are just one hour after the sun has set, or you may need to come back in at 3am for instance, once the moon has left the scene. For this reason, new moons are a great time to work.
Much like the light from the moon, you will also need to keep in mind the concept of light pollution. Our industrial civilization does a great job at blotting out the beauty of the night sky with our array of artificial lights. Even a distant town can produce a distinct glow to the night sky – especially when shutter speeds begin to approach 30 seconds or more in length.
Now once you have all of the logistical details worked out before hand, you will then have to decide upon a proper exposure for given scene and conditions. When photographing stars like this you basically have two choices. You can either decide to render them as tiny pin pricks of light in the sky, or to really drag your shutter speed down to very long exposures of several minutes or more and create star trails. With this composition I decided that to include star trails would create an image that was far too busy for what I was looking for. Remember, simplicity is the ultimate form of sophistication.
Deciding how and what you will set your exposure to in this situation is really quite simple despite some pretty in depth physics that go into it all. At first glance it can seem pretty confusing. Basically you have to take into consideration the speed of the Earth’s rotation, which is roughly 1070 mph, how exactly such speeds are recorded by the focal length of the lens, and given all of this information, exactly what shutter speed can you push your camera to before the stars begin to trail.
Seem like a lot to swallow? Luckily someone far smarter than I already figured out the basic physics at work here and translated it all into what we call the rule of 600. The rule of 600 basically states that if you divide the focal length of your lens into the number 600 than the quotient will equal the slowest shutter speed possible that you can capture stars without trials with that particular lens and / or focal length.
So in this photograph I used a Nikon 12-24mm lens at the 24mm range. In order to figure out what my slowest shutter speed could be then, I simply divided 24 into 600 which gave me an answer of 25. Well since cameras do not have a 25 second option, but they do have shutter speeds of 30 seconds, I opted to shoot this at 30 seconds and accept the very minute amount of star trailing that occurred instead of breaking out the cable release, photographing on “bulb,” and timing the exposure at 25 seconds exactly. And that is really the idea behind all of this mathematical stuff. The rule of 600, although it can be used with precision, can also be used to get you close enough to what you will need to know.
For another example of how that shutter speed changes with different focal lengths, lets look at a completely different lens such as the popular 70-200. At the short end of the spectrum if I divide 70 into 600 I find that I can get away with an exposure of 8 seconds before trails begin to occur. Likewise, at the long end of the lens, if I divide 200 into 600 than I see that only 3 seconds of exposure is possible before I lose those pin pricks of light.
Personally I shy away from anything to do with math. However, when composing and creating this photograph, remembering this simple formula allowed me to create one of my most popular and best selling images to date. It’s a classic landmark – the Currituck Beach Lighthouse – and one that has been photographed by countless photographers before me. However, what I was able to do by including the brilliance and mystique of the night sky was to move beyond creating a cliché and trite photograph of this lighthouse, and instead create something truly unique and distinctly mine. This notion of thinking creatively and outside of the box is something I challenge all of my workshop participants to do with their photography. And learning to incorporate the night sky into your composition is an incredible tool for doing just that!