Sarah Neill Photography
fine art photography | portland, oregon

trip log

Star Trails at The Nelson Homestead | July, 2015

Shoot Dates: July 31, 2015-August 1, 2015 (overnight)

I've been interested in astrophotography for a while now, but was unsure about how to get started. After a ton of research online and in my books, I decided that I just had to give it a shot (pun intended) and see what happens. Below, I'll walk you through the planning and shooting processes and how it all came together. If you're interested in learning how the photos were processed in Photoshop to get the full star trail effect, email me.

Choosing a location

Once I knew I wanted to do a nighttime photo shoot and knew that I wanted to capture "star trails", I needed to find a dark location. The first thing I did was reference this light pollution map to find a nice, dark area. Then, I pulled up Google Earth and started scanning the landscape outside of Portland in an area with low light pollution for something interesting to include in the foreground of my shot. I decided on an old, abandoned homestead north of Dufur, OR. Research told me it is called "The Nelson Homestead", and it was perfect.

I also tracked the weather every day for about 10 days to ensure that the night would be clear (I didn't want cloud trails, I wanted star trails!). The day I went was actually my second attempt - the weekend prior, I headed out to the location and realized about halfway there that it was just too cloudy. The day before the shoot, I realized that it was going to be a full moon. This was not ideal, as the concept of star trail photography requires that the only light in the image is starlight. However, this was a blue moon and it was a clear night, so I figured I should go for it anyway. Next time, I'll check this moon phase calendar much earlier!

Setting up the shot

We arrived at the location a little later than planned, so I didn't get the "moon-rising-over-the-horizon" shot I wanted, but the lighting turned out to be perfect for everything else, and the star trails were my priority, so it all worked out. I did get a couple of nice, crisp images though.


We set up a couple of chairs, a cooler and some snacks, and my tripod and settled in. I had to take a number of test shots to get the right lighting and framing for the picture. Some of them were a little too dark or too light, or slightly out of focus - it took probably 30 shots to get it the way I wanted it. I felt like Goldilocks trying to get it just right! In one of the images below, it even looks like daytime-this was done with a 3-minute exposure to capture the light of the full moon.  

Final Product

Once I found my shot and had everything in focus the way I wanted it, it was time to sit back and capture the passing of time. I set my camera up as follows: f/4.0, ISO 160, manual focus, centerweighted-average metering, and a 30-second exposure. I have a great little remote for the shutter, so I was able to just sit back and press the button every 30 seconds to get continuous shots. I did this for about 45 minutes, resulting in almost 90 pictures. (Fun side note: we spent a few of these minutes debating whether or not we should pack up our stuff in case the coyotes in the area got any closer. We could hear them howling at the full moon, yipping and even growling - they sounded like they were just over the hill on the left of the house, maybe 150 yards from us.)

Below are the first and last photos of this series, followed by the end result.   

Light painting & other shots

Once we had captured all the images I needed for the star trails project, I had my assistant (husband) Luke help me take a few other fun shots using a technique called "Light Painting". All of the below images were made using 30-second exposures.