Star Trails in Joshua Tree, March 2011 Print

Following the success Duane and I had with a few star trails trips, we went again in December 2010 with Mark Comon of Paul's Photo to seriously examine the feasibility of putting together a Paul's Photo Star Trails Photo Adventure.  Having determined it was, in fact, feasible, Mark put the trip together and 25 of us went to Joshua Tree for a night of star trails and light painting photography on March 3, 2011.

Note:  For the blog and photos of our first really successful star trails shoot that contains all of the original intervalometer settings and my first good star trails photos, click here.

Mark went out very early in the morning with Bill Shanney to reserve the camp sites at Ryan Campground.  Duane and I followed later in the morning, arriving after eating lunch at the Subway in Joshua Tree.  

Shortly after arrival (and after Duane and I erected our tent), Mark, Duane and I blazed trails to define shooting areas, marking them off by dropping glow sticks in various colors.  These areas were to allow people to shoot photos (1) painting light with flashlights, (2) with short trail south and north orientation, and (3) with long trail south and north orientation.  In the process, I took some infra red images with my IR camera.

In general this plan worked very well.  We required that people use red headlamps when walking around at night to ensure their night vision would not be compromised, and to ensure that they didn't mess up anyone else's photos by using bright light.

Mark held an orientation and then took everyone for a walk on the trails to acquaint them with the locations.

I had previously agreed to cook dinner for Mark, Bill, Duane and me (which turned out well, if I dare say so myself) and we made the fire available to anyone else who wanted to cook dinner.  We discussed in greater detail how we would structure our photography, and we went about helping others in the group who were new at star trails, programming their intervalometers, taping down lenses and confirming details.

I decided on different intervalometer settings this time, just to see how much difference it would make in the trails.  I think it was an improvement;  whether I use these settings again or move on is something only time will tell.  Instead of 40-second exposures at 2-second intervals, I used 58-second exposures at 1-second intervals.  If you have an opinion on which is preferable, I'd love to hear it.

The weather was fabulous--clear skies and abundant stars--but cold.  It went down into the 30s that night, and we found frost on our bags when we returned to camp after setting up our last shoots.  My 15-degree sleeping bag was just barely adequate. 

Many of us had great success and I was pleased with my images.  I was somewhat disappointed that my night vision is bad enough (probably my glaucoma) that I couldn't do my own painting and so had to rely (as did many others) on Duane for help.  That's OK;  there really wasn't an opportunity for everyone to paint alone.

Among many areas for light painting, Duane and I went to the two abobe structures about 1/4 mile from camp.  These had been built in the 1850s but had burned down in 1930 or so and the ruins make interesting backdrops for photography.

Following that experiment, we set our cameras up at about 9:00 p.m. for some 90-minute series.  In my case, that meant setting my D2X and my D3 up for 90 exposures of 58 seconds each.  For these sessions, I set up at the large adobe and aimed mostly northward so I could capture a circular pattern with Polaris in the center of the circle.  They're both loaded with airplane fly-bys but I like them anyway.

We went out after the 90 minutes was up to change CF cards, move the cameras into different positions, plug in the AC adapters, and connect them to the PowerPacks.  I pointed my D2X east to see how the trails would look, and pointed my D3 south looking into a great looking trio of Joshua Trees.  We started the PowerPacks, started the intervalometers, and went to bed (or at least I did).  These worked out very well and because they took place much later in the evening, there were far fewer fly-bys.

Many people had gone home the night before after the 90-minute sessions. Those of us who stayed overnight had the advantage of the best shooting conditions, but had to deal with cold weather.  Duane and I packed up in a leisurely manner after everyone had left and took the long route out the west side of Joshua Tree to Indio so we could meet Sue, Jennifer, Christopher and Brooklyn in Indian Wells for the weekend.  After breakfast at the Country Kitchen in Joshua Tree, we drove back into the park and took the back road, stopping here and there to see a few things up close.

As we continue to fool around with star trails photography, I find that it's a LOT of work but very rewarding, and it's just so damn cool I have to keep at it.