BWCA Star Trails by Rolleicord

I haven’t posted in a long, long time, so I thought I’d restart by digging through stuff I shot in the last year.  The two images below are the result of my first experiment with photographing star trails.  I made four attempts and came out with two nice shots.



Shortly before going to a friend’s cabin last February on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota, I had read something online about shooting star trail images.  I found that my timing on this trip coincided well with a new moon, so the skies would be dark.  I was originally going to shoot with my new-to-me-at-the-time Mamiya 645, because I wanted to shoot in medium format with a good quality lens, but realized that long exposures are a problem with that camera because it relies on the battery to keep the shutter open (even more of a problem since I’d likely be in sub-zero temperatures).  So I decided that a totally manual camera was the way to go.  The Rolleicord fit the bill for this project, as it’s totally manual, has a very high quality lens, and is medium format.  The only problem was that I didn’t have a functioning lockable shutter-release cable (I had several broken ones for some reason) to lock the shutter open on the B setting.  So I tossed a couple of rubber bands in my camera bag to wrap around the camera and hold the shutter lever open.

I brought along my very heavy Bogen tripod, even though everything we bring to the cabin has to be hauled on foot across the lake to the cabin. I knew I’d need a very solid support for this to work, though.

I lucked out and had perfectly clear skies, and shot on two nights.  I think I set the camera to f/5.6 or f/8 for a moderate depth of field.  Focusing a twin-lens reflex (TLR) in the dark is impossible, so I prefocused inside the cabin for just short of infinity using the depth-of-field guide on the lens to make sure the f/8 range went well past infinity.  I wanted sharp stars for sure, but also sharp trees in the foreground.  Another advantage of using this camera is that it’s hard to accidentally change your focus when setting up the camera on the tripod.

It gets dark early in Minnesota in February, so I don’t really remember what time I started my first exposure, but well past dark, probably close to midnight.  I seem to recall trudging out onto the lake and starting one exposure before we gave up on the bottle of scotch for the night, and leaving that one go for about two or three hours.

Framing the photo was very difficult because with the dark skies I could barely see anything in the ground glass of the TLR.  I tried shining a flashlight at the trees to help see them, but it wasn’t bright enough.  I had to mostly guess at where I was aiming the camera and hope for the best.  After the first exposure, I advanced to the next frame, set up a new angle, locked down the tripod ball head, and carefully propped open the shutter lever with the rubber band.  I went to bed and set the alarm for about three hours later, I believe.  Boots, parka, balaclava, gloves back on and out to the lake to stop the exposure and bring the camera back in from the cold.

Two nights of  getting up in the middle of the night to go outside and stop an exposure and/or start another one had my cabin-mates wondering about my sanity, but a long time later when I saw these images, it was well worth it.

I’m surprised by the amount of color in the sky, and the varying colors of the individual star trails.  I’ve done no color correction or color changes to these scans.  I only adjusted the exposure and contrast a bit, as the exposures weren’t perfect.

These were shot on Kodak Portra 160.  I really wish I would have written down exposure info, but I believe they were around three hours at f/5.6 or f/8.  Surprisingly, the negs were a little thin, so I could have gone with even longer exposures or wider aperture or faster film.  I figure it’s a good idea to use a wide-latitude film like Portra to help forgive exposure errors.

I always look at the thermometer outside the cabin when I get up at night up there, and I recall that it was about minus 15 degrees F (about -26 C).  Here’s what my Rolleicord looked like when it came back inside the cabin:


Don’t stick your tongue on that!