On Star Trails and Pinwheels

By Chris Walker


The road to Lassen was a long one, taking the better part of two hours to negotiate the switchbacks, dirt roads, and one-lane bridges leading to the south entrance of California's Volcano National Park. As choices go, with forty feet of snow engulfing the interior pass, the low road seemed the wiser...

One night earlier, I stood in a clearing north of the park admiring the snow-covered face of Mt. Lassen basking in starlight. As I took in the quiet spectacle, the stars slowly marking their paths across the southern sky, I realized that Polaris had to be behind me.

The North Star, as Polaris is appropriately known, is the only star to hold its place in the sky. Like the deceptively still center of a pinwheel, betrayed only by the array of stars and colors spinning around it, this star and the surrounding heavens offer a wonderful opportunity for both amateur and professional photographers.

While area peaks remained snow capped, the valleys flowing from them channeled spring waters down through the seasons, quenching the occasional copse of scrub oak on the summery plains below. As I drove through this drying summer haven, I mentally assembled an image featuring a snowy ridge or mountain on the left, Mt. Lassen on the right, and a sky filled with spinning stars cradled between them.

Though this sounds like simple daydreaming, the best choice anyone can make while photographing a "starwheel" is to include the local horizon. An interesting foreground not only helps viewers understand where the picture was made, but it anchors them to Earth, creating for them a shared relationship between this world and the one beyond.

So it's best to scout locations before nightfall, using a compass to find that magical point in the heavens. At night, though, Polaris can be found by following the shape of The Big Dipper. Simply slide down the handle, trace the form of the pot, then jump from the lip to a point directly beyond, maybe five times the dipper's "depth" away.

Having reached the park's south side, I ventured inward, still fixating on my romanticized composition. The winding road hugged the mountains' contours as it brought me about, unfolding my idyllic scene before me – a snowy ridge enveloping scattered conifers on my left, Lassen sitting in the distance at the right, and my compass' needle pointing directly in between.

Everything was perfect. And, far from city lights, the single threat to my image was moonrise at 12:15 A.M., leaving only a small window of time for photographs. Strangely, the perpetual enemy of a star photographer is the moon; the problem lies in the time it takes to photograph a star trail.

As the Earth turns on its axis, our skyward view changes one degree every few minutes, depending upon your location and viewing attitude. So, while a star might have thirty seconds to leave its mark on your film, the moonlit sky has an hour to overpower that mark, making those nights under a new moon optimum for star photography.

With twilight settling in, I found myself standing on the road beneath Lassen. I'd selected a 24mm f-2 lens for the photo. In addition to capturing an expansive landscape, this wide angle lens is still long enough to show the stars clearly and, being a non-zoom, there could be no shift in focal-length during the exposure. Finally, I composed the image and set up the tripod, keeping its legs low to the ground to help withstand the night drafts gusting down from the snowy slopes.

Pondering whether the sun had sufficiently set, I loaded a roll of 200 ISO print film into the camera and set my aperture at f-2.8. I chose negative film because it has more exposure "latitude" than slide film, and the aperture setting would accentuate the stars while restraining the brightness of the night sky.

The sky deepened until 10:15 P.M. when, finally, it appeared dark enough to make a photo; I depressed the cable release, having taped it to the tripod to minimize movement from the wind, and began the exposure.

Searching the darkness, I heard a fox sneak up behind me before bounding over the edge of the 500-foot slope. I enjoyed the sounds of the enveloping night, the deafening roar of wind and water rushing from melting snowfields above. The calls of grosbeaks in the pines, and of unknown owls. These elements have always enticed me into the night... At length, though, the cool winds took their toll, and I dragged a gray fleece from my bag – when you stand idly for hours, even moderate temperatures can become chilling.

At 40 minutes, I closed the shutter, placed a fresh battery in the camera, and changed positions for a better composition and a final image.

Ultimately, the first exposure that was made under a sky that appeared dark was dramatically overexposed. The second, though, made from 11:00 P.M. to 12:05 A.M., was not only suitably exposed, but contained a wonderful surprise. The sun, which had set more than two hours earlier, left its fading hue in the darkling sky beside Mt. Lassen; a gift of the trip...

Home once more, with eyes tired from my computer screen, I slide on my gray fleece and step into the chilly darkness of my back porch. Far from volcanic mountains, the sky here in southern Illinois is still an awe-inspiring sight. As I watch Cassiopeia rising, I consider the still-fresh news of a beloved family friend's passing just a few mornings ago. A band of coyotes voice their numbers from a nearby field, breaking my thought train. Back inside, strangely, aptly, Bruce Cockburn sings quietly from my stereo:

Orion's high in the South-west sky --
you're bound to move on and so am I
on this world we've had time to burn --
how come nobody ever seems to learn?
See how the starwheel turns.

Following sunset tonight, in your neighborhood and mine, the stars will make their rounds. So grab your camera – tonight's the night.