Somewhere this summer I started developing the idea for a new photography project. My attempt to photograph the Perseids in august showed that it was possible to see at least a few stars, despite the light pollution, in Leiden and surrounding area. In addition, a successful attempt to photograph the milky way in Spain also rekindled my interest in astrophotography.
I decided to see if it was possible to photograph the stars in the centre of Leiden city. The location that I wanted to try this was the Leiden Observatory, as this was a beautiful place on its own, but also closely connected to the stars. Photographing the stars at high ISO, large aperture, and long shutter speeds as I had done in Spain to capture the milky way was not possible in Leiden as it would lead to severe overexposure of the observatory in the foreground. Reducing exposure to an amount not overexposing the foreground would lead to loss of stars in the background. I decided the best course of action would be to do startrails.
The question of timing was also important. During summer and autumn sunset was late, which meant having to wait very long until it was completely dark. The warmth also kept a lot of moisture in the air, which often resulted in a haze above the city. Needing a clear and moonless night also added to the problem of finding the right night. However, last week the temperature suddenly dropped drastically and as the sun set at around 16:40 PM, the sky was sufficiently dark at around 17:30 to start with startrails.
My last startrail attempt had been quite a while ago, and I therefore assumed I would make a lot of mistakes and was glad I had a backup attempt the day after (which was also clear and cold, after that the clouds and warmth would start creeping in again). As a one-and-a-half-hour exposure would also lead to over exposure of the observatory, and in addition cause a lot of noise on the image, I decided to take individual 30s exposure images and stack these later in photoshop.
My setup was the XT-1 with Samyang 12 mm f/2.0. This meant manual focus, but as I was working on tripod and only had to focus once, this wasn’t much of a problem. After some test shots, I set the Samyang to f/4.0 and selected a shutter speed of 30 seconds at ISO 200, set the camera to continuous, attached my remote shutter release, locked the shutter button and prepared myself for 90 minutes of waiting in what turned out to be the coldest November night since 1998.
As my feet slowly froze to a state of numbness I started to see more and more stars and decided that my attempt might actually work out well. Until this moment I had seriously considered that light pollution could ruin the entire exercise. It didn’t, but I did start to notice other problems. In my enthusiasm to photograph the observatory I hadn’t really considered in what direction I was pointing the camera, I had just chosen the best viewing angle. By fortunate coincidence the direction I chose was north, meaning that Polaris was in my image and the stars started circling nicely around it. I was saved by the stars, so to speak (note to self: always check a compass). However, as the minutes on the timer creeped by, one problem that I hadn’t considered presented itself: Schiphol Amsterdam Airport is just north of Leiden, and one plane after another started to make its descent right through my frame. After the third plane went straight overhead and curved gracefully to the northwest, I decide that cursing didn’t help much, and resigned myself to an image filled with not just startrails, but planetrails..
One hour and 15 minutes later found my toes non responsive and my fingers numb, despite the double gloves, so I decided to call it a night. Getting home, my toes slowly returned to a normal temperature while I loaded all images first into Lightroom to convert the raw files and then into photoshop to create the startrail. Google was my friend and after checking up the stacking procedure I started to work. It is possible to merge all images at the same time, but this would also include all trails made by airplanes, so instead I opted for the more time and effort consuming course of merging all images manually after removing the airplanetrails. I also chose the best foreground and made sure that during merging all other foregrounds were lost. In the end I created two images: one with the planetrails, and one without. A very time consuming process, which, to be honest, I had to repeat twice to create an image I was satisfied with.
It was very satisfying to finally being able to complete an idea that had been months in the making and then to see it completed well! When I started in the cold, I had no idea if it would work, and even during the recording there is no way of knowing how the image would work out, as all you see are individual 30s exposures. The final result was worth every bit of effort and time however!
A few notes for next time: do not forget a flashlight. Do not forget to put a lens hood on the lens (I had forgotten to put it in the bag), as light may reflect on the wide angel lens, causing ugly reflections on the photo’s that are difficult to remove. Check the direction to shoot (north is of course best because you see the stars circle around Polaris). Check the lunar calendar: no moon is best. I had a lot of help planning this shoot from the TPE and PhotoPills apps. Also, wear snowboots. And take something with you to keep you occupied during the long exposure. Check the direction of the wind (windless is of course nice for reflections in water) in connection with the runway direction of Schiphol.
I did go again next day, but the image was not as nice as the first one, which is still my favorite! Less wind however, so better reflections and less airplanes. However, this time I was disturbed by a few boats full of people that sailed every 30 minutes through my frame. It can’t be 100% perfect I guess..
Yes, of course I’m going to show you the images, they’re below!