The Making of The Magic Bus Series

The Magic Bus

"The Magic Bus" is one of the more unique images I've made, as it brings together a number of elements that aren't quite the norm for any scene. Between the bus buried in the sand by its nose, and the circular star trails, it's an image that catches the eye. A friend of mine had told me about this place several months before we visited, and when our schedules matched and we found ourselves in Las Vegas for a photography trade show, she and I made plans to head north to the International Car Forest and do some night sky photography and some light painting.

Star trails always make an image special and tend to get a "wow" from viewers, especially when done well.  They take some planning, and also take some work in post-processing, to get the image to look right. First off, if you want a completely circular star trail, you need to get the North Star in the image. If the north star isn't in the image, you'll get trails, but they will be diagonal lines rather than a circle. Once you've determined your composition, you need to determine how long you want your star trails to be. 15 minutes is a good start, but the longer you can make them, the more dramatic they will be. Before digital, doing this on film involved a lot of math. When doing long exposures, film suffered from what's known as reciprocity failure. Reciprocity failure is a diminished response by film to light, and it happens in low light situations when the exposure exceeds a certain amount of time, which varies from film stock to film stock. To correct for this, exposure time needed to be extended, and developing time needed to be adjusted. Lots of math. Thankfully, the digital age has eliminated much of this.

International Car Forest

Through experience, I have found a good base exposure for stars to be about 15 seconds at ISO 1000 and f/1.8. This of course can vary slightly, and many other photographers use various techniques to achieve similar results. For star trails, since the exposure will be longer, you can stop down slightly to f/2.8 or even f/4 and expose for 30 seconds. The star trails in "The Magic Bus" were taken over a period of one hour and 15 minutes. With film, this would have been done in a single exposure. Digital cameras do not handle exposures of this length very well. Thanks to Photoshop, we can create a composite by capturing many photos over that period. So I set my camera to continually take 30-second exposures for that 75-minute period. That gave me 150 exposures to work with once I got back to my hotel room. During one exposure, I used a red LED flashlight to shine inside the bus and create the red glow you see in the image.

Once back at my room, I downloaded my images to my computer and began processing them. The beautiful thing about photographing on a moonless night is that the exposure remains pretty constant, so I don't have to worry about changing light. To combine the images, I used a software called StarStax, which takes the images and combines them, adding in only new parts to the scene, such as when a star has moved to a new position. When the software is done, you have your image star trails. After this process, I then edit the image for color and contrast, and I'm done. 

These images require a lot of patience, as you're just sitting around, watching your camera make images for however long you want. I will often bring a second camera to make other images with while I'm waiting for the camera making star trails. I love when I can bring together the planning, technique, and the beauty of the scene and create an interesting image.

To purchase any of the Magic Bus images, you can find them in my American West gallery.

The Magic Bus II