Juniper and Star Trails

Juniper and star trails near Olmsted Point, Yosemite

Juniper and star trails near Olmsted Point, Yosemite

Here’s a new image, made last Tuesday evening near Olmsted Point in Yosemite. My friend Mike Osborne calls this the “Bowsprit” tree. What? I didn’t get it either until he explained that a bowsprit is the bent figure with arms splayed back at the bow of old sailing ships. Okay, yeah, this does sort of resemble that.

Anyway, I “painted” this wonderful tree with a flashlight, and used the image-stacking technique to get noise-free star trails. With image stacking the idea is to take a series of short exposures and blend them together, rather than doing one long one. The total exposure time here is about 90 minutes, but one exposure that long would end up being quite noisy. Instead I took 24 four-minute exposures, with only a one-second interval between them. So each of those four-minute exposures has little noise.

I then stacked all 24 frames as separate layers in Photoshop, and changed the blending mode in all but the bottom layer to “Lighten.” (There’s also specialized software for doing the blending, but I’ve never tried it.) Rick Whitacre used this technique for his beautiful image of Upper Cathedral Lake that I critiqued last October, and you can find links to more information about image stacking in that critique.

Like a lot of night photographs, making this involved considerable work. But the great thing about night photography is that it allows your imagination to take flight. You have to visualize how your lighting and the sky’s motion will come together, come up with an idea that might work—and, you hope, capture some of that nighttime mystery—and then execute that idea. When the result matches your visualization it’s really satisfying.

—Michael Frye

Related Posts: Photo Critique Series: Star Trails and Cathedral Peak by Rick WhitacreTips For Photographing Lunar Rainbows

Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author and photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters, plus the eBook Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom. He has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.

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21 Responses to “Juniper and Star Trails”

  1. Michelle Wilson says:

    Oz has an imagination!!!

  2. Great post Michael!

    This is something I’ve been doing for the last year or so, not only for less noise, but also for risk mitigation (if an airplane flies through the scene 5 minutes into the beginning or end, I can just toss that exposure rather than tediously cloning it out, or if my batteries run out at the end, or if the lens fogs up after an hour, I can still come away with something).

    It’s also great for moonlit (where the moon is front lighting the subject) star trails, where getting a single 90 minute exposure wouldn’t be possible without over-exposing the scene (even at small apertures). An example of that from your neck of the woods:

    Digital certainly opens a lot of creative possibilities with night photography, it also allows you to verify the focus before you dedicate several hours to a single shot :)

  3. Michael Frye says:

    Michelle – yes indeed!

    Ron, thanks, and you make some excellent points. I don’t know that I could have tossed out an exposure here, as then it would look like the star trails had been interrupted at some point. But I did get rid of some plane tracks fairly easily by painting them out with black on a layer mask on the offending layer. This is much easier than cloning – you just have to be careful to not paint over a star trail from that layer.

    And yes, image stacking makes it possible to capture star trails on moonlit nights where a long exposure would just overexpose the scene. You lunar rainbow and star trail photo is a good example – great job! And I think night photography in general offers lots of creative possibilities, but digital definitely adds to your options.

  4. Edith Levy says:

    Michael just an incredible image. Thanks for sharing the technique.

  5. Vivien Stevens says:

    What an exciting photograph! How apt, Mike Osborne’s naming! It does look like a bowsprit, her long carved tresses streaming behind her as the ship plunges wildly in stormy seas, causing the sky to seem to whirl about. (Never mind, Michael, that it was probably dead quiet and still when you took your exposures, that ships and ocean were no doubt furthest from your thoughts.)

    Impressive and beautiful image, even to one who got bored to snores on a one and only, freezing and windy star trails shoot. Terrific post on technique, too. You might just have converted me.

  6. David F. says:

    Hi Mike,

    Excellent image!

    Just a question, which f number and ISO did you use?

  7. Durwood Edwards says:

    “… idea that might work, and you hope …” harkens back to my days with film.

    It’s beautifully successful image.
    I think that Mike meant “figurehead” and not “bowsprit” as that is the boom or spar that extends forward from the bow. (non-photographic nit picking ;) )

  8. Pete says:

    Great shot, I’ve wanted to try this myself but haven’t set out to do so yet. I wonder if the bowspirit tree here is a little hot, did you try bringing it down a little? Might not have worked but something I’d like to try if it were my shot. Maybe just bringing down the bottom of the tree that’s leading you out of the image?

  9. Michael Frye says:

    Thanks very much for your comments everyone. I’m glad so many of you like the photo!

    Vivien, as someone said on Facebook, Mike has a vivid imagination! Indeed he does, which is one reason it’s fun to hang out with him. (And I’m glad he’s assisting my night photography workshop this weekend.)

    David, ISO 400, f/8. Like almost everything in photography, this choice was a compromise. The wider the aperture and higher the ISO, the more star trails you see in the photograph, as dimmer stars get recorded. But I didn’t want to use my widest aperture with this lens, and the corners aren’t very sharp at f/4. And I didn’t want to use too high an ISO lest I get too much noise.

    Durwood, I’m sure you’re right about the sailing ship terminology. But I doubt Mike will change his name, as bowsprit sounds better than boom or spar!

    Pete, thanks – I’m glad you like the photo. The tree looks about right to me, but our perceptions might depend on monitor brightness. I did “bring down” the bottom of the tree, both by giving that area less light in the field, and darkening the bottom further in Photoshop. I don’t want the base of the tree to be completely black, as I think that would look strange.

  10. John W. says:

    Michael, I’m curious about the angle of the star trails since they appear to have two different arcs. In the left half of the frame, the north star would be farther to the left, and in the right half of the frame, the north star would be farther to the right.

  11. Aram Langhans says:

    John beat me to the punch. I was noticing the same thing, but could not figure out how to send a comment from the email I got until just now. It is very disconcerting to this science teacher that I cannnot figure it out. All I can think of is some strange wide angle distortion, but I have never seen that on my star trail photos taken as wide as 12mm on a1.5 crop camera.

    Or, I have always know Yosemite is special, but not so special as to warp time/space in that fashion. Ha.

    But i love the shot.


  12. Michael Frye says:

    John and Aram, I’m glad you noticed this, as this was something I wondered about too, since I hadn’t seen it before in my own photographs. In this photo you’re looking west-northwest. To the right you can start to see the stars forming concentric circles around the north star. After thinking about it, I realized that on the left side of the frame you’re starting to see the stars form concentric circles around the South Pole. Of course we can’t see the stars directly over the South Pole here in the northern hemisphere, but stars on the southern horizon will still curve in that arc.

    I had a similar discussion about this with Jim Riddle over on my Facebook page, so if you head over the you can see more of my thoughts on the topic:

  13. Hi Michael, great image as always! There is a free software available called “”. Here´s a link how I like to do them startrails since I use that great tool: . Photographing startrails is also a good reason being out in nature at nights too;)
    Have a nice week, Werner

  14. Michael Frye says:

    Werner, thanks – I’ve heard of this software, and it seems to work pretty well from what I’ve seen. Although doing this manually in Photoshop is more work, I do like having the option of masking off a part of a particular layer to deal with plane tracks or headlights. But is certainly an easier option – thanks for sharing this info!

  15. Iza says:

    It is a very dynamic image, I like it a lot. The star trail create this feeling, as is the shape of the tree. The tree reminds me of a silhouette of the women with long hair- of some classical painting I saw and now cannot recall details.

  16. Michael Frye says:

    Thanks very much Iza. Now that you mention it, I also have some vague recollection of such a painting. Let me know if you figure out what it is.

  17. Hi Michael,

    just found another freeware for startrails:

    Here´s a link to my startrail images on flickr:

    Have a nice weekend, Werner

  18. Michael Frye says:

    Thanks for the link Werner, and nice startrail photos!

  19. [...] Related Posts: Eclipse; Tips for Photographing Lunar Rainbows; Juniper and Star Trails [...]

  20. [...] As the sun went down, I made a series of images of the smoke and fire, some of which are included below. When the sky got dark enough, I set my interval timer to make a series of exposures, each one-minute long, that I could then merge into a star trail sequence. I made about 80 exposures altogether, so the total time for the sequence was about 80 minutes. I then merged the images in Photoshop by setting all but the bottom layer to the Lighten blending mode. You can see the final, merged sequence above. (Here’s link to a post that explains a bit more about this image-stacking technique for star trails.) [...]

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