Startrails in the city center

In my memory these past few weeks have been grey and dreary. Sure, there have probably been a few dry, nice and even sometimes sunny days as well, but on the whole, my impression has not been good. The forecast for the next week and Christmas is just as bad, I’m afraid. However, when my girlfriend took out the garbage on Friday night, she casually mentioned that the skies were clear, and she could see a lot of stars. She didn’t know what she started, but as I hadn’t seen a clear night sky in a long time, I was on my bike to the city center to execute a photography plan I’ve had for some time (fortunately the latest in Corona measures did not include a curfew).

Smack in the middle of the city center of Leiden is ‘The Burcht’. It’s an old medieval castle, and one of the main attractions of the city. I’ve been wanting to capture a milky way shot over this castle, or, if unsuccessful, startrails. However, the weather was threatening to disrupt my plans right from the start. I wasn’t even five minutes out before noticing threatening clouds on the horizon. A quick check of the wind confirmed my suspicions: they were moving my way. I would have to be quick!

On location I quickly fired off a few test shots. Unfortunately, these confirmed my expectations that a milky way shot was not in the cards. The spotlights illuminating the Burcht were so bright, that I would not be able to illuminate the night sky enough to capture a milky way without over exposing the building. Plan B then: Startrails. I had brought both the 9 mm Laowa and the 12 mm Samyang but decide to stick to the 9 mm to capture as much sky as possible. After quickly deciding on a composition, I put the camera on continuous shooting, plugged in my remote shutter release, and the appropriate exposure settings (in this case: f/2.8 and 30 seconds, at ISO200) and started the exposures.

And then we wait…

In my experience, a total exposure of an hour is a good length for startrails. 90 minutes would be better, but I almost never can get myself to wait that long. Fortunately, I brought a second body (the X-Pro1) and could entertain myself shooting in the vicinity while my main camera (the X-T2) was busy with the startrails. The clouds I had seen moving in arrived after about 10 minutes, but were thin and disappeared quickly, giving me a total exposure time of an hour before I decided to pack up, go home and go to sleep.

The next morning, I started to process the photographs. Because one photograph exposed for one hour would have been hugely overexposed the building of the Burcht itself because of the bright spotlights, I chose to take 120 separate exposures of 30 seconds and combine those in photoshop. There is an easy way to place the images into a stack, convert them into a smart image, and merge them with only the brightest parts (the trails) of an image showing in the final photograph. All it takes is patience and a large hard drive. Because of white balance differences between the lighting on the Burcht and the surrounding area, I also merged a photograph of the Burcht with a different (correct) white balance to the combined startrail image and got my final result.

I was a bit sad to see that Plan A could not succeed, but from the start I had feared as much. I’m happy Plan B did succeed, and the weather did not sabotage my plans. The final image is what I had expected and I’m happy with it. The only thing I think I could have done better in hindsight is setting the lens to a smaller aperture. This would have had 2 advantages: the image quality would have improved (the Laowa is not at its best at f/2.8), and two: the shutter speed would have increased. This is an advantage because with a longer shutter speed less photographs would have been needed to fill an hour, leading to less processing time in photoshop. A lesson for next time. You never stop learning.

So what’s the fuss al about? See below..

The final image: startrails over The Burcht. A total of one hour of exposures with the Fujifilm X-T2 and the Laowa 9 mm f/2.8 @ f/2.8.