Yosemite National Park Tunnel View Star Trails Sunrise

The title might seem like keyword spam, but it’s not. Star trails and a sunrise aren’t things that normally go together. If the sun is rising, you have too much light in the sky for star trails. However, if you keep your shutter open for over 5 minutes (339 seconds to be exact) at just the right time starting just before the dawn sky starts to appear, you can capture both in a single frame. That’s exactly what I did here for this image. With the exception of the two trees (that have slightly orange tips) in the foreground, this is a single image. Normally, star trails photos are “stacks” of multiple shorter exposures in Photoshop, but that simply wouldn’t have been possible here–I would have lost the color of the sky had I done that.

This photo was taken early in the morning hours on Saturday, after we all had about 3 hours of sleep. I had shot the Milky Way from Valley View the previous morning, and everyone else wanted to get up really early for that, so I figured, “why not?” Half the group ended up down at Valley View, but the rest of us went directly to Tunnel View, which is without question the most popular photo spot and iconic view of Yosemite National Park. Personally, I prefer Valley View.

Just about every view in Yosemite National Park is awesome, though. Living in the flat Midwest, I’m fairly impressed by just about any mountains, but the ones in Yosemite are all doubly impressive because they have character. They each look unique or have a story behind them, and these distinctive looks set them apart from “regular mountains” for me. So many awesome views means that you really want to be able to be in multiple locations at once.

Some of us tried to do exactly that. After we were satisfied with our pre-sunrise Tunnel View shots, several of us split off from the rest of the group and raced down to Valley View to capture the actual sunrise. This was another feast or famine situation, as there was a pretty good chance that the best color of the sunrise would occur while we were in transit. Luckily, it did not, and we arrived at Tunnel View right as the sunrise peaked…

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While this photo looks like it was taken during the sunrise, it was not (so I suppose the title actually is a bit inaccurate). This shot was taken well before the sunrise, at the start of dawn. The naked eye could only see a bit of color in the sky, so when our camera LCDs started displaying colors like these after our marathon 5-7 minute long exposures, we were freaking out. Stars and sunrise quality color in the same frame?! We were understandably giddy. The downside was that since each image took several minutes to produce, if you accidentally over or under-exposed a photo, bumped your tripod, or had car headlights/human headlamps illuminate portions of the frame, you were out all of that time. In fact, all but one of my photos had bright car headlights illuminating the tops of those two trees in the lower right corner of the frame. They’re partly lit here (as mentioned, I pulled those trees from another image), but not nearly as badly as they are in some frames. The other downside to this long of an exposure is noise produced by the image sensor overheating–even at ISO 100, you can see some noise in this frame. Luckily, it sort of blends in with the stars.

Photographed with a Nikon D600 and the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 Lens. As mentioned above, for all intents and purposes, this is a single exposure that was 339 seconds long. It was still far from easy to process. Obviously I shot it in bulb mode with a tripod and remote, and the exposure time was all guess-work. I guess slightly too high, which worked out fairly well from the perspective of processing, actually. It allowed me to obtain more detail from the dark shadows of the Valley and also a lot of color from the sky.

For processing, I edited once for the stars in Adobe Camera Raw, then opened that as a Smart Object in Photoshop CS6. I then duplicated that Smart Object and reopened it in Adobe Camera Raw, this time editing for the foreground. I did the same thing once more, this time tinkering with the lower sky, making that my third layer. Through masking, I brought these all together. Finally, I opened another image for those pesky trees.

Finishing was an exposure adjustment (gamma) applied only to the upper sky, and a curves adjustment applied throughout. I also tried to reduce noise, but the results didn’t look good, so I undid that adjustment. Actually, there were a lot of edits that I ended up undoing. Despite the explanation that makes this sound like a relatively straightforward edit, I spent a lot of time on this one. Most of that time went to trashing previous edits I didn’t like, stepping away from the computer, and starting over.

Your Thoughts…

Whether or not you’re interested in photography (and if you’re not, there’s obviously no need to go to great lengths described above to capture photos to preserve memories), I’m sure you’ve had similar experiences with people assuming “success” in your hobbies, passions, or career is simple. Let’s hear some of your thoughts on this (or anything else) in the comments!

1 reply
  1. Kevin
    Kevin says:

    Pretty! Having the patience for a 5+ minute exposure would be tough.

    Reading about your processing details makes me curious – is there a book or on-line course you would recommend to learn about Photoshop? I have an older copy that came bundled with some software at work (CS5, I believe), but I have no idea how to use it. I’m reasonably proficient at Lightroom, but there is the occasional time (like combining parts of two photos, like you did here) where it would come in handy to be able to do more.


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