The story behind my Cerro Gordo Star Circles Photograph
Updated: May 29, 2019
My dear friends Mike and Melissa Wilson were the first to ever buy one of my photographs. It was an early rendering of the one below. They recently hung it in their living room and Mike asked me if I could write up the story about how this image was created. That seemed like a good idea to me, so decided to do it in this blog so it could be read, and hopefully found, outside of my limited social media circles.
In 2014 or so when I first decided to try my hand at some basic astrophotography, I had no idea what to do, as tends to be the case with many new things we embrace. I went out and tried to photograph the night skies and came home with out of focus crap. I quickly found that there was a terrific online community of photographers on Flickr, Instagram 500px, and elsewhere and everyone I encountered to a high degree was willing to help on questions that started with “how did you do that” or “how do I do this because this keeps going wrong…” Very seldom did I encounter anyone clenching their secrets. I believe the photography community is intellectually generous and genuinely pedagogical, or at least it has been in my experience. There is a spirit of sharing knowledge and saying “now go forth and take good pictures…”
I started seeing star circle pictures on some of the sites and blogs I followed and they fascinated me. They are at their essence a combination of art and science. It’s the world spinning in those stacked shots, not the sky, and in order to get it right there is actually a lot one has to do with precision. One has to focus their lens on its truest infinity, which turns out isn’t as easy as you’d think on my Nikon DSLR lenses (or others, I believe), and find something interesting in a foreground, but not so close that it’s out of focus. The north star, Polaris, is the center of the star circles, at least from this hemisphere on this planet, so one has to think about how Polaris will be oriented in relation to said foreground object. And your camera has to be level, lest you find yourself having to crop hundreds of photos to straighten out a rookie mistake (which I’ve made).
I didn’t know any of this when I first wanted to photograph star circles, but I would log on to those photo sites, read descriptions of what and how various photographers had done, asked questions, and learned what I could, and tried over and over again. On more than one occasion I came home with hundreds of images that turned out to be useless. Failure is a great motivator. Actually, I’m sure there’s a better word for it because it’s not really failure, but the disappointment of not achieving your ultimate goal is an essential part of the learning process for anything.
I finally figured out what I was doing, and then came the quest of finding somewhere original to do one of these star circle photos, somewhere I hadn’t seen photographed this way in any of my research. I wanted to find a ghost town in a place that was truly dark.
By then I was researching locations with the light pollution map at https://www.lightpollutionmap.info, which is an incredible resource I recommend using even if you’re not into night photography. I started looking for places that were truly dark where there might be old buildings. Someone suggested the ghost town of Bodie in the eastern Sierras. I called to find out about access and was told I could only enter at night with an approved photography group. That sounded boring to me as I wanted to create something original. So I kept looking, found a web site called www.ghosttowns.com, where I read about the old mining town of Cerro Gordo, which is actually in a better place for light than Bodie I think, as behind its peak just below where the town sits is Saline Valley in Death Valley and there isn’t much civilization for quite a long way behind it. I kept digging and found the number for the caretaker of Cerro Gordo, a really interesting guy called Robert Desmarais (hope I spelled that correctly, and if I didn’t, sorry Robert!) whose father worked that mine. He took it upon himself with the blessing of the owner to restore the old saloon, take care of the buildings, guard them from looters and generally look after the place. He did it because he cares about the history. It’s lonely up there at 9,000 feet. The winters are brutal and he can at times only get supplies via snowcat up the 7 mile dirt road to the town which is difficult enough to drive in perfect weather (4x4 only recommended). When I called for the first time in October 2014 and asked if I could come up and take some pictures, Robert said “Sure, c’mon up.” I asked if there were somewhere I could put up a tent and he said I could stay in the old guest house. Kind man, indeed. Mind you, it’s not heated, there’s no plumbing, the bathroom is an outhouse and the mattresses seemed as though they’d been there since the mine opened, but I was and remain grateful. And I’ve been back since to photograph the Perseid meteor showers.
Before heading up there, I wrote down what settings to use on my Nikon D810 (f2.8, ISO 1600, 25 seconds) and I used my widest lens, a Nikon 16-35mm f2.8 at 17mm). I learned how to get my Nikon to take continuous photos until stopped (or the battery dies) with a cable release. Very importantly, I'd read that such shots were best set up while there’s day light, both for framing and setting up infinity focus.
I’d researched the buildings in Cerro Gordo on Google Earth and it looked the church had the best orientation for putting Polaris above it to the left. I downloaded a phone app that would tell me exactly where Polaris was simply by holding the back of my phone to the sky, and that was essential in setting up the shot. Once there, I played around with positioning the camera a bit, and realized the shot was best done as low as I could go with that tripod looking up at the church and Polaris. That was for two reasons, the first being it was less vulnerable to wind closer to the ground, and the second purely subjective artistic preference as I wanted to get as much of the church in the shot as I could while still having Polaris and beyond included for as much circle as I could capture. I did some test shots, got the lens set as well as I could on infinity and waited for darkness. Before dark, I took an occasional shot of the church as I thought they might come in handy when putting this all together. As I’ll reference below that proved to be a good idea.
Also when I was setting up and saw the stained glass on the church I asked Robert if he could let me in to try and set up some light from the inside. He loaned me one of his flashlights as well. I experimented with the light and decided anything other than muting the flashlight a bit with some plastic and bouncing it off the back wall, would appear too bright in the long exposures. Once I was actually rolling, the batteries died, the light kept falling over and I had to replace the flashlight and place it differently, and so on. Suffice to say there was a lot of experimentation, but I knew the stained glass, which I hadn’t anticipated at all, would be an essential part of the finished picture.
As the shots started when it finally darkened, I sat on a long out of use tractor by the camera, listening to it click every 25 seconds. I realized Shadow was digging up rocks, as he does, and kicking up a lot of dust, so I had to leash him to the tractor and get him to relax, dust off the lens and continue. I walked back to the guest house to replenish my drink a few times over the several hours my camera was clicking away with a very muted red headlamp for minimal impact and ruined several photos each time I did that, as I did each time I had to fix the light inside the church. The temperature was in the 20’s up there that night as well, Fahrenheit that is.
After a few hours I figured I’d had enough shots to get the star circles so I took the camera and photographed the milky way to the south over Owens Valley. And then I went to bed. In the morning I did a crude blend of all the pictures, and showed it to Robert. He beamed and said “wow, I’ve never seen anything like that.” When I next went back to Cerro Gordo, I brought him one of the first prints he was delighted and said he’d put it up in the museum.
When I got home I went through all the images, and I dropped frames that had me walking through them or where my headlamp was an ugly distraction. Then there were the airplanes and satellites, the bane of my life in night sky photography. In the early days of doing these images, I would simply drop most of the frames that had them, but in so doing I lose too many of the circling stars. I’ve subsequently learned how to remove them in photoshop, and when I have the energy will go through each image individually and remove and replace the dots of planes going through with dark space or stars. Or I’ll hire someone more patient than me to do that part. And of course, such things can be done on the final edit as well if there aren’t too many. But on this early attempt, I simply dropped most of the frames I didn’t like. I also corrected the lens profiles for the gear I used and changed a few of the values in Lightroom.
I exported all the remaining images as TIFFs (which are giant files relative to the 50 or so megabyte max output JPG’s) and tried rendering the stack in Starstax and Photoshop, trying to find what worked best. There’s a lot of experimentation required and what ‘works’ is substantially subjective. The Tiff’s brought my computer to a screeching halt, so I think I ended up using the highest resolution JPG’s I could output. I ultimately chose one or two frames to work with for the foreground, which I did in Photoshop, and then I made some final color adjustments on the image in Lightroom. I thought it was done, but when I magnified it, I saw thousands of light artifacts on the foreground. It was a nightmare to remove each of them manually though I did it. It was a lot of work, but I had created something original and I was delighted with it at the time. That was October 2014.
The image was well received. The Wilsons bought one right away and it’s now hanging in at their home in Victoria, British Columbia, and there are others hanging in homes in Dallas, Los Angeles, Buffalo and I believe the Cerro Gordo museum if Robert was able to get it hung there.
But the story of this image doesn’t end there.
My first version of this image had a plane going vertically through the center and that bothered me increasingly over time. And the wood on the church doors was muted and the guest house too blackened. I wanted a little more detail in the foreground.
In May 2019, I re-approached that image with what I believe is a more refined eye, though it could just be that I’m going blind, and with the help of a good friend who is an expert at photoshop, we replaced much of the foreground with other images I’d taken before it was fully dark. (remember earlier when I thought those images might come in handy?). We worked the church to make it dark enough, yet light enough to see some detail, and I brought up the background so we could see the guesthouse slightly, but so that it wasn’t distractingly present. We removed that plane trail that had always bothered me.
I’m finally happy with it, nearly 5 years later. This is the version of the image the Wilsons have. I’d originally sent Mike a file to print from the 2014 version. Mike wasn’t sure what size or materials he wanted, and never printed it. When he reached out earlier this month and said they were ready to commit to a size and place for the image, I said “wait, I’ve improved it…” So the version he has hanging is the first large print of the updated 2019 version.
But is this real?
People have asked me many times, is it real? I say yes and no, and then I explain that what they’re seeing is a time lapse of the earth’s rotation with hundreds of pictures stacked with a stationary foreground as we don’t really see the earth turning. But real? Hell yes. I froze my ass off, sitting on top of that mountain taking those pictures. The buildings are real, the stars are real, the colors are all there, all of it. Is it photoshopped people ask, to which I say, of course it is, but there’s nothing in it that wasn’t there. I’ve removed distractions that bothered me, boosted some levels, lowered others. It’s an inherently abstract combination of science and art. No one sees the world like this with the naked eye, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t spinning.