The Silence and the Stars

I’ve been thinking of recording the sounds of some of the places I visit and Texas had some really unique sounds.

First there was the nasty javalinas, which are 60 pound hairy pig-like creatures (but they are not pigs). I wish I had a photo but they were too elusive and I only saw one once. It was the time I heard one that was frightening.

Ray and I were on a trail headed for a picnic near a spring, where there were some trees to provide shade, when I heard this click, click, click. It sounded just like when you close your teeth together. At first it didn’t register. Then I heard it again – click, click, click. I turned to Ray, “Did you make that sound?” “No.” I recalled then a ranger had told us about that sound. Then, from inside the bushes, came this nasty growling sound coming from a creature that was very upset with our presence. I don’t know how to describe it. It sounded like an angry badger or a wolverine or some other animal I have never heard before. Well Ray and I high tailed it back to the truck and ate our lunch in safety.

Then there is the sound of the coyotes. I love that sound. Yip yip yip yaooooo in the night as they gather their pack.

But the most memorable sound was not a sound at all, it was the silence.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park is known for its silence and its darkness being so far away from any city lights. We camped at the base of the mountains and I thought it would be a great opportunity to try some star trail photography. Unfortunately the direction where the mountains had the most interesting shape also had some lights from the restrooms that stayed on all night. So I had no choice but to point my camera the other way.

Photographing from right beside the RV is extremely convenient when there are strange animals in the woods (and Ray didn’t want to stay up late that night). I set up my camera behind the RV and got out my lawn chair and my sleeping bag and settled in for an hour of silence and star gazing. Everything was going pretty well until I heard a few clicking sounds – or did I imagine that? I started listening really hard. There are noises. Then the coyotes started yipping. The yipping was kinda close. Are they getting closer? Finally realizing I wasn’t enjoying the silence anymore and I was sitting there in fear, my heart beating faster and faster, I decided to take shelter inside the RV leaving the camera on the tripod outside. I could see the back LCD of the camera so every time the shutter closed the LCD would come on. My handy remote controlled shutter release allowed me to trip the shutter again every time I saw it.

Here is the final result. Please click the image to view a larger version.
Star Trails, Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas

I made this image by taking 55 30 second exposures. I intended for there to be 60, but I didn’t count, I just kept tripping the shutter for what I thought was 30 minutes. I did some minor processing on one image in Lightroom and copied the processing to all the other images. 6 of the frames had UFOs in them (it was really close to New Mexico after all). On those 6 frames I used the healing brush in photoshop to remove the trail left by the plane or satellite or alien starship. Then I exported all the images as jpeg’s. Then I imported all the images into a program called StarStaX which combined them all using the “lighten” blend mode which takes all the brightest pixels from each frame.

The stars in the resulting image looked great, but the foreground was all soft and blurry. When I was making the exposures, I also made one 30 minute exposure just to see how that turned out in comparison with the stacking technique. I like it too, but the star trails were not as bright. However, the foreground looked great in comparison to the stacked image. So I took the foreground from the long exposure and blended in with the stacked image to get some detail in the mountains.

I wish the mountains were a better shape but the added benefit of changing direction was that polaris was in the frame since I pointed my camera north, which is why the stars are going around in a circle.

Have you every tried star trail photography? If you have any tips please leave them in the comments and feel free to leave a link to your images too!

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    • says

      Hi Len, don’t you sit outside at night and listen to the sounds? I guess living by the ocean I always enjoyed listening to the waves at night and the fog horns and any animals that come by. I was a bit afraid of these animals though! Thanks for your comments.

    • says

      Hi Laura, thanks for your comments. You should try it out! I have only tried twice but it is really a lot of fun. I would recommend trying both methods – stacking exposures and doing one long exposure. I find the one long exposure really rewarding on the night because you get to see the result right away. It is amazing to see motion that we cannot see with our eyes.

  1. says

    Thanks for sharing this image. I have been wanting to try this forever, and I think you have given me enough encouragement to get out and do it. Wonderful image.

    • says

      Hi Edith, thanks for your comments. It is really is important to get out far from any city lights and on a moonless night too to get the best stars. Give it a shot!

  2. says

    Anne, since you asked for tips, you know there are those thingies called intervalometers :-) They are great because let the camera do the work by itself.

    • says

      Hi QT! Actually I have heard of intervalometers. When I bought my cable release the fellow at the store tried to sell me one but for the price I thought I would just keep hitting the shutter button :) Maybe if I get into doing a lot of star trail photography I will have to make the investment, but it seems a lot of money for what you get. I hear there might be a non-Canon one I could pick up for less $ so I’ll have to check that out. Thanks for the suggestion!

    • says

      Hi Michael, thank you for your comments. When I first tried it I had the opposite experience, but this time with the new software I tried it was better combining the exposures. However, I have to say that the one long exposure is great for instant (well, not that instant, but short term) gratification since you get to see the stars going around in a circle right away. Thanks too for your email about the intervalometers.

    • says

      Hi Russ, thanks for your comments and suggestion. I really didn’t mind babysitting the camera though, it is wonderful to sit outside at night and watch the stars. Even when I got scared and had to sit inside, we have a big picture window at the back of the RV so I was still able to watch the stars.

    • says

      Thank you so much Andy! You should try it, it is so much fun. Try to get a dark place, a moonless night, and something to put in the foreground. The first time I tried it I used a flashlight to light the foreground and that worked out well. This time my foreground was almost a silhouette and too far away to light with a flashlight.

  3. says

    Awesome star trail Anne! I’ve always wanted to try it, but I just live so close to Boston that there’s no way I could get the darkness required to perform such a task. Maybe, eventually, I’ll have the time to travel out to the desert and really try to capture something like this!

    Thanks for explaining how you went about grabbing the shots and processing the final results – really nice to know how it’s all done!
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  4. says

    Really great image you produced, Anne. I’ve been wanting to do one of these. I’ll have to escape the light pollution of civilization for a few hours. :-)

    I live in a rural area so I know what you mean about the sounds of night.

    Wonderful job on this, you should be proud of the effort.
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  5. says

    Gorgeous image, and great story, Anne! Your description of the scary, clicking animal in the bush reminds me of an experience we had many years ago, when we were tent camping at Big Sur. The park ranger had warned us, when we entered the park, about wild boars, which we had kind of scoffed at in terms of any danger they posed (being very young, naive and sure of ourselves…ha!!). Late at night we were awakened by snorting sounds just outside our tent (which, by the way, had a faulty zipper so didn’t actually close up). It was pitch dark , it was the off season so there was no one else about, and there was no way we wanted to venture outside. We tried shouting but to no avail, they were still there. So we grabbed the only noisemakers we could find in the dark, inside our tent – the aluminum paddles for our inflatable dinghy – and we banged them together while shouting like maniacs. Finally they left. In the morning we surveyed the damage. They had broken into our styrofoam cooler and eaten everything, including – we noted with morbid irony – every scrap of bacon that we’d had.
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