The stars are coming out tonight, der-der-der-der-der-der-der tonight….

Yes, Tuesday (25/07/17) I went out to my old haunt St. Mary’s Island on the first clear night for quite a while to see the stars. I brought my camera along as well as a pencil and paper, so I could do some observations with my eye and a sensor. This was my first try at picturing the stars so the images aren’t necessarily shining quality but this night just be the start of some more late-night photography shoots (excuse the su- I mean, puns)

I started with some images of the night sky above, studying the constellations (it’s really quite amazing being able to see these shapes in the sky). It was perfect star-spotting conditions: very little cloud, a waxing crescent moon (new moon would’ve been the best when there is no moon but the waxing crescent is a very thin sliver so not too much light is reflected and you can still see a lot of stars).

I pointed my camera, the D7200, to the sky on a tripod with my 35mm f/1.8G lens on the front and manual focussed on infinity. I then took a 13 second exposure at f/9 ISO 4000 to guarantee sharpness and light allowed in. This above image is a merge of three similar starry images, I think at slightly different exposure times (I tried one exposure at 30″ f/11 and a lower ISO that is also part of the final iamge) which I layered together in Photoshop after the RAW editing etc. and changed blend mode to ‘lighten’ so all the stars would all shine through.

As I said, St. Mary’s Island is an old haunt of mine, and as I walked around the tow path it ocurred to me that this old crane that was installed on the island when it was used with the Chatham Dockyard to build naval ships (what’s become known as Cranky to me, named after the crane in ‘Thomas the Tank Engine) would be an excellent subject for a night-time shot.

Here’s my idea: a brightly lit Cranky from my SB-800 speedlight that I paint light onto the crane with, with a starry night filling the background, and I think I’ve started to achieve that with this above image. But here’s a few notes: Cranky is, I’m sad to say, out of focus, as in my giddiness to take the image and expose for the stars etc., I forgot I was still focussed at inifinity so my image turned out soft. I may try and get this image again at some point (when there’s next a clear night!) and would think a bit more when I took the image. Like I said — it’s my first try.

So as I was walking around and the idea for this image came into my head, I neglected to remember one thing: the giant orange lamps on either side of the crane that cast a warm glow onto Cranky’s grey, metal structure. 

You can see from above the orange glow of the lights on either side of cranky shining onto the crane above. So, I played with the white balance a lot to try and balance out the colours on the grey surface.

Only as you can see, when you considerably ‘cool down’ the white balance, eveything gets a bit of a blue glow. Though I knew the blue sky would have to go, I quite liked the blue hues of the stars. So, when I brought in my ‘starry night’ image to replace the background, I set blend mode to ‘lighten’ and was gald to see both the blue stars and the white stars shone through. 

Then, just to darken the sky a bit and make it a nice dark black while maintaining all the stars in the sky, I used the ‘burn’ tool over the sky. This had the same effect as using the ‘exposure’ slider or ‘blacks’ slider but when using those two I found only the brightest stars would remain in the sky. 

Now, you may be able to see some white specks imposed onto the body of Cranky — these are stars that are coming through from the background image due to the ‘lighten’ blend mode. Then, it was just a case of cloning out these stars with the clone stamp tool an ending up with a finished image.

I enjoyed my time snapping at night, so I’m sure I’ll be out shooting stars again soon — and this time I’ll remember to focus!

— Jack Paton