Photography: Shooting Stars in Drakensberg, South Africa

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“That’s a great photo – you must have a great camera”

 

Ask photographers of all levels what comment annoys them most and this is probably it.

A great photograph is created from a recipe of mixed ingredients.   And as quality equipment is just one ingredient, having “all the gear and no idea” is unlikely to produce impressive photographs on a regular basis.  Knowing how to use great equipment is what is important.

But what does this have to do with shooting stars in South Africa?

Since buying my first DLSR just over three years ago, I’ve found myself sliding deeper and deeper into the addictive world of photography.  As I’ve begun looking at the world through different eyes, I’ve rediscovered my love for the great outdoors.  And the environment I took for granted, as a child growing up in outback Australia, now features the elements that inspire me as a photographer:  remoteness, simplicity, wide open spaces and atmospheric skies.

And stars.

The opportunity to capture starry skies had eluded me on my recent travels.  They weren’t visible in the polar summer in Antarctica and the Arctic, the clouds and city lights overwhelmed them in London and weather always seemed against me in Australia.

But then I found myself in Drakensberg, South Africa on a weekend break from a photography project I was working on, with a group of other volunteers and professional photographer Emil von Maltitz.

I’d heard a number of times that “star trails are easy – you just need a camera, tripod and cable release”.  But it’s not just about having the right equipment is it?  Is it really that easy?

As Emil says: “The concept is relatively easy.  As with all things though, the reality is a little more complex.  Nevertheless, once the photographer is aware of the complexities of shooting star-trails it actually becomes quite simple in practice.”

And he was right!

“Star trails are not that difficult to photograph.  All it takes is a little patience and a solid tripod with a cable release.  These images are extremely rewarding to capture and are a perfect example of time being conveyed in a static image. “ (Emil von Maltitz – Professional Photographer)

 

Our Drakensberg weekend provided the perfect ‘training ground’ for star photography.  We had three nights of ideal conditions.  We were there with a professional photographer who not only inspires others with his own enthusiasm for landscape photography, but generously shares his own tips and tricks.  And I was with other enthusiastic “star photography beginners” who were happy to pass time with me, sitting outside in the cold and dark, sipping a beer as we wondered if the rustling of branches was wind or wildlife!

And best of all – I had another two weeks under the beautiful South African skies to keep practising.

The First Attempt

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(Canon 5D II, 19mm, ISO 400, f/4, 50 mins, noise reduction off)

My first attempt at a star trail followed dinner, a few glasses of red wine, and a brief presentation from Emil that translated the complexities of star trails into a language we could understand.  My first real decision was whether to shoot a single long exposure or multiple exposures that I would later stack in Photoshop.  Wanting to take advantage of Emil’s presence and help with learning stacking in Photoshop, I zipped up my jacket, refilled my glass of wine and sat with my cable release, ready to re-release it every 5 minutes for the next hour (note to self – buy a intervalometer for next time).

The Single Long Exposure

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(Canon 5D II, 19mm, ISO 200, F/4, 35 mins, noise reduction on)

I didn’t always have the patience for the multiple-image approach, so a few days later at the volunteering camp, I set up my tripod before dinner one night for a single long exposure.  I’d have preferred to have left the shutter open for longer, but as soon as dinner finished, the possibility of another volunteer walking past my tripod with their torch on increased.  One of the downsides of the single long exposure is that you can spend an hour shooting one shot that ends up not working and with noise reduction turned on, it’s another hour on top of that before you can try again!

Light

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(Canon 5D II, 17mm, ISO 200, F/4.5, 35 mins, noise reduction on)

This shot was another single long exposure taken back at the volunteer camp in Kwa-Zulu-Natal and was a good lesson in how light can impact the shot.  Light painting the foreground (which essentially means shining a torch on it for a second or two) can work for or against your, depending on other light in the area.

Star Shots

It didn’t take long for my patience to be challenged with star trails, mainly because I was becoming aware of my time in South Africa coming to an end.  This inspired me to spend more time experimenting with high ISO/30 second exposure shots, primarily to capture the Milky Way.  It also didn’t take long for this to become my favourite way to capture the night skies.  30 second exposures meant I could try different a number of different compositions instead of needing an hour for one shot.  It also meant accidental torchlight, bumped tripods or incorrect settings only lost me a couple of minutes instead of most of the evening!

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(Canon 5D II, 17mm, ISO 6400, F/4, 38 secs, noise reduction on)

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(Canon 5D II, 17mm, ISO 6400, F/4.5, 33 secs, noise reduction on)

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(Canon 5D II, 20mm, ISO 6400, F/4, 28 secs, noise reduction on)

Alone Without Being Lonely

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(Canon 5D II, 17mm, ISO 6400, F/4, 29 secs, noise reduction on)

This is one of my favourite photographs from the Drakensberg weekend, not only because of the photograph itself, but the background to capturing it.  We had tried, as a group, to photograph a star trail earlier in the evening.  But a curious security guard with a strong torch and a road we didn’t see until the first of many cars drove along it, meant our efforts became futile.  The 12 hour hike we’d completed earlier that day, the BBQ we’d just finished sitting in our stomachs and making us sleepy, the cold wind and the unsuccessful star trail hour encouraged most people to head to bed.  But I was stubborn and decided to look for another location and in addition to this shot, attempted a star trail.  I found myself sitting alone, wondering if the rustling bushes was one of the baboons we’d seen earlier in the day, staring up at the sky knowing it was the same sky being gazed upon all over the world.  It was one of those peaceful moments in life where simplicity creates a magical moment.

 

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Kellie is a traveller and photographer who is most at home when exploring the world beyond it. Through the intersection of her travel, writing and photography passions, she shares her experiences to inspire others to create there own. The desire to live life instead of existing through it has introduced Kellie to inspirational locations throughout seven continents and from this a passion for landscape and wildlife photography has evolved. She feels a particular connection to the polar regions and Africa. You can see more of her photography at www.kellienetherwoodphotography.com

Comments

  1. These are terrific shots! I love that you posted your experimentation shots too. Hey, you must have a really great camera to have gotten these shots (Man, do I HATE when people say that!)

    Well done! Keep up the good work.

  2. These pics are absolutely breathtaking!!!

  3. Absolutely amazing photos! I’m not sure if I am patient enough for those 30 min exposures ( I know my camera isn’t) but I love the look of those 30 second shots of the Milky Way! You’ve inspired me to go out and give it a try myself. 🙂

    • Get out there Dan!! And send me a link of your shots if you do, I’d love to see them. I prefer the 30 second shots myself. I do like star trails, but I think the 30 sec star shots really capture the moment and essence of a magical night sky. One way around the ‘patience’ issue (which I myself suffer from) is to use the single long exposure approach. Set up a location where your tripod is unlikely to get disturbed and no light enter your frame, release the shutter speed and go and have a few drinks. Come back an hour later and you have your shot. Of course the risk is something has gone wrong and with noise reduction on, you need to wait another hour before you see your shot. But it can useful if you are camping or somewhere remote.

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