Photographing Star Trails in Simien Mountains, Ethiopia

Photographing Star Trails in Simien Mountains, Ethiopia

Shooting star trails has always been in my to-do list. But living in a city like Lagos seldom gives one a clear night with enough visible stars to form any good image. Therefore, when we were planning our visit to the Ethiopian highlands, I made it a point to include shooting in the night in the clear, pollution free high altitudes.

We were planning to stay at the Simien Lodge, the highest hotel in Africa. Indeed, at 3,260m above sea level, getting there was no joke. Many people trek up, but we, of course, took a ride on a nice 4WD that our tour operator, Armaye Ethiopia Tours, had arranged.

Staying at the Simien Lodge for 2 nights gave me enough time to try taking star trails, as I had desired to do. So, I began work the day we reached the destination.

Preparing for the job

When you are shooting star trails, the first thing you need to do is to look for a good place to shoot from. You would usually be shooting with some foreground to anchor your skies to. So, ideally you would either choose some form of pretty landscapes in the horizon, or simply trees or buildings.

The last time I tried to do it in Tulum, Mexico, I was pretty much under prepared and ended up with unsatisfactory results. So, this time, I had to do better. I had to get a decent foreground to shoot from.

That required some amount of scouting to see where the lights would come from in the night and how the composition would look. So, after walking around a bit I chose this place.

Choosing the foreground for the star trails at Simien Lodge

The huts were right on top of the hill and would be reasonably lit up in the night. There was enough sky visible from the road leading up to the huts. And besides, from here I could point my camera against the cabins towards the east and capture all the star trails I wanted. All I needed now was to set up at a suitable patch, lock in the focus and shoot away.

The failed attempt on the first night

The first night I went for a star trail shoot, I failed. I missed one of the basic steps of preparing for a star trail: to check the weather conditions of the place.

So, there I was, standing in the cold, just beginning to take pics, when clouds floated in and covered the skies. It just dawned on me to check the weather app on my phone and voila! It said, “Cloudy”. To make the matters worse, even the mist drifted in to cover everything around me.

Check the gallery below to see how clouds and mist photo-bombed my attempt.

I felt like kicking myself so hard. How could I have missed checking the weather!

So, after spending a good 1 hour preparing the base, getting the settings right, I had to abandon the attempt.

A desperate second day and success!

The first night left me a bit unsure of what to expect. The next day we went out on an early hike, walking amidst Gelada monkeys and stalking herds of Walia Ibex. The walks in that altitude left us quite tired. But having lost the first night to the mist, I couldn’t afford to slack off.

The weather forecast was still showing cloudy. But the winds were rapid and I would have to try and find a suitable window to take 50-60 shots of the sky in order to have a decent trail.

So, we had an early dinner. Post dinner I went out to see how the conditions looked above.

It was clear! The sky was full of stars. It was a lovely sight.

I ran uphill to our room and brought out my equipment and set it up as fast as I could. But day 2 had to have mistake number 2. That’s lack of experience for you.

It so happened that I chose a busy place to set up my camera. Taking star trails takes a long time and a lot of long exposure shots. Any person walking by or any light interference would disrupt the flow.

Since I was so early, there were still people walking around. See exhibit below.

That’s what a post dinner walk in front of a slow shutter speed looks like!

So, I had to wait it out again, hoping that the clouds don’t appear again like the previous day.

And then finally when the crowd thinned, I was made to realize how big a fool I was again for having chosen that spot. Its a lodge in the middle of the jungle, guards armed with flashlights were on constant prowl. How could I have not thought about it before setting it up on the road!

These patrol flash lights are powerful!

But eventually, after rolling my eyes on myself for the umpteenth time, I resisted the intense desire to just call myself a loser and quit. I just waited for the patrol round to end and commenced the shoot.

Fortunately for me, they took some time to return. And when they did return, they walked briskly away from my spot, trying not to disturb me. So, using a wireless remote control for the camera, I was able to take shots without much gaps. I was so thankful to them.

So, after 2 hours of waiting in the biting cold, I finally had what I needed.

The outcome

Successful attempt on the final day

Finally, I had my star trail. It was not that bad I said to myself. There must be many more things for me to learn to improve myself. I guess I will do that eventually. For now, I just need to keep on shooting and learning from feedback. Any good work requires a lot of perseverance.

The gear I used

Many people have often asked me about my gear. For the uninitiated, taking star trails takes some basic equipment and software. Well, I am about as well equipped as any amateur with a hobby could be. So, here it goes.

  • A stable tripod, (in my case I had to make do with a Gorilla pod)
    • That’s the first requirement because you really need to have a stable mount for your camera at low shutter speeds.
    • I use a Joby Gorilla pod. Why? Because a good tripod is just too heavy for me to lug around. I know some days I regret not carrying one, but in the end, the comfort of traveling light trumps the luxury of having a heavy tripod handy. The gorilla pod is light and quite adaptable to most conditions. Check out the one I use here.
  • A wide angle lens
    • When shooting stars, you would want to cover as much of the sky as possible. So, the widest lens you have would be recommended. The first time I tried doing it, I used a 50mm prime lens. The results were quite ok, sans the wide angle.
    • But now, I use a Nikon 17-35mm f/2.8 AF-S, pretty much the most expensive lens I own. But completely worth it. The wide angle covers a large area and the f/2.8 is a big plus in the low light conditions.
  • A wireless remote
    • If your camera and lens have a supporting interval timer shooting capability, then you do not need this. Otherwise you will need a simple wireless remote to control the shots at frequent intervals. I was taking a shot every 30 seconds roughly, and I had to use my wireless remote to time shots such that I avoided the patrol with their flashlights.
  • Relevant image stacking software
    • I use a software called starstax. Its a free tool available for download here. The set up is quite simple and for people who are doing it for a hobby, nothing works better than a free software. The only things is that it needs jpegs to be put together.

Lessons learned

How do we get better if we don’t learn from our mistakes? So, to summarize my experience, these are the few things that I could have done better.

  • Be aware of the weather forecast to avoid being blocked out by clouds
  • Check the moon position. I forgot to do this also, but I was lucky the moon wasn’t too bright. If it were, then my pics would have had another unnecessary hindrance.
  • Be mindful of the surroundings to avoid interference. If only I had the foresight of avoiding the frequented paths, I would have had a peaceful shoot.
  • Be better prepared for the cold night with warm clothes and maybe something to help pass those long waiting hours. Some music could have helped.
  • Carry something to sit on. Really, I was quite tired and besides, I looked like a fool standing there for hours just pressing a button every 30 seconds.
  • Learn more about how to focus. I used the infinity mark on the focus ring for adjusting my camera on manual mode. But in case my lens didn’t have that feature, I would have to use other means, like focusing on the moon or some bright star. I still am not sure how to do that, but I need to learn that I guess, just in case.

And then of course, there will be more lessons to learn. What is really important is that we keep shooting, being watchful and learning every step. I hope this post adds value to people who have just bought their first camera, or are about to go for their vacation to one of those lovely places with clear skies.

I am always available for feedback and comments from readers. Please do drop a message!

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