Night time photography is one of my favourite types of photography. The challenge of shooting in dark conditions is one that takes some adjustments compared to usual daytime shooting, but when it works, it's often absolutely spectacular. Such is the case when looking up at the stars - a challenge to photograph, but when it works...
There are many night time and night sky types of photography, though I only practice a mere handful. Primarily a more basic type of light painting, using the headlights of locomotives passing by to illuminate a subject and act as their own focal point as they shoot across the frame. However, I've wanted to expand those horizons a bit further and try a different type of long exposure photography - by pointing my camera up to the sky.
Star trails are something I've wanted to try for a while now, but committing to actually doing them didn't come easy. They take time and careful setup on the camera side, and it's easy to screw up and waste all that time. All it would take is one tap on the tripod and a few late hours have now been wasted. Learning to use my intervalometer properly was also necessary - for the last year or so I've had all the tools but not the know-how. Thanks to some quick tutorials and tests at home, I had figured out how to work it all properly.
The question then, is what to shoot? Yes, I could just go to a dim parcel of land anywhere and look up, but adding in a subject to a star trail photo takes it to the next level, and I wanted something more than just the trails themselves.
Thanks to light pollution maps and some previous knowledge, I knew exactly where to go. It only seemed fitting to visit my favourite control point on the NS Bloomington District - CP Osman!
The when was another crucial question. Late at night, obviously, but two other crucial components need consideration: the moon, and the weather.
Clouds would ruin any chance of star trails. They block the stars from casting their pinpricks of light onto the Earths surface, so a cloudy night would be no good at all. Finding a clear night was important - but so to is the moon phase. If the moon is too bright - like on a full moon - then that light knocks out stars significantly. You could still shoot that, but the number of stars and thus trails would be significantly lower. So you need a moonless, cloudless night. Not many opportunities for that, eh?
Early in September, I decided to make getting a star trail my photography goal for the rest of the year. It was high time to learn to do it and then just try. A quick google showed that the nearest new moon would be the night of September 25th, a Sunday. Not the most ideal, but beggars can't be choosers and all. I watched the weather forecast for the Mansfield area like a hawk as the days ticked ever closer.
The stars seemed to align, literally and metaphorically. Despite initial partial cloudiness in much of Central IL, the clouds moved away and opened up the sky. Conveniently, ATCS was showing the switch at Bement as having just aligned to send a train north towards Osman. I figured it was high time to get out there.
I'm no stranger to late night driving, I've done plenty of it, but as I neared the CP and hit the gravel roads, the absurdity of the whole thing really started to stand out to me. I had previously said a year ago that I wouldn't come out to a place like this on my own without a gun (coyotes, not people. We've heard them in this area at night before and while they aren't likely to mess with me, I'd rather be safe than sorry!), and the farther back I took my car along the Osman service road, the more unsettling the whole place seemed. Still, I knew what I wanted to go for here. It was just a matter of setting it all up.
When I parked and shut off my car lights, I was greeted with a darkness that I hadn't experienced since Ellis Run in Virginia. There, a 40ft tall CPL stared myself and two friends down with its six eerie red eyes deep in the Shenandoah Valley in the darkness, but here at Osman there was... nothing. The difference between Osman and Ellis Run was that I wasn't alone at Ellis Run, and there were homes very nearby and the occasional car would come through. Here at Osman, though, there was none of that. The nearest homes are three quarters of a mile down the tracks, double that by road and car, and no traffic at all came by Osman. The quiet farm road stayed silent all night, as did the Osman service road. Outside of the distant blinking red lights of wind farms to the north, the lights of a dairy facility to the east and a gas plant to the west, it was true darkness at Osman.
Despite being in the rural farmland of Illinois, Osman felt more cramped than Ellis Run. At the latter, the signal was located just off of a nice paved road and in a wide expanse in the valley. Osman kept me tucked in between the tall corn and grass, and the tracks embankment really made my cars parking place feel rather snug. The wind rustling through the still un-touched cropland was on the unsettling side and I admit to being rather jumpy for that first half hour.
Thanks to the absurdly bright flashlight that we used at the Ellis Run photoshoot a few months back, I was able to light up my working area with ease, which certainly helped. It took the better part of a half hour to get things right - setting up my tripod, adjusting composition and focus, programing my intervalometer, testing the equipment...
Eventually though, I was satisfied with how everything looked. My intervalometers max was 399 photos, so I set it to take 399 shots, and hit start.
Now the waiting game could begin.
The twenty foot tall home signal of Osman is quite a sight. Goembel, the north end of the Osman siding (and once known as North Osman, making the current Osman technically South Osman) retains its own 3-headed home signal. CP Mills to the south, the southern end of the Lodge siding also keeps its US&S H5 searchlight, identical to the rest. Lodge itself held its original 1959 H5 home signal until May of this year. The H5s are rarer and rarer as the days wear on, and with only three remaining on the Bloomington District - formerly the Wabash Forrest District - it makes it a target well worth photographing. While I was told the remaining searchlight signals on the Bloomington are not expected to come down any time soon - words from one of the signal maintainers in May - there's just no way of being totally sure. It's not something you want to risk putting off and never being able to do again.
Of course, at 1:00am, there's not much of the signal to see... All you really get is the faint silhouette against the distant light pollution nearest to the horizon. Unless you have an absurdly bright flashlight, like I do...
I set the camera and intervalometer going just before midnight. With 30 second photos and 2 seconds delay, taking 399 of them would take just over 3.5 hours. So, it was going to be a long wait. I made sure the camera was going, then retreated to my car and... waited. Not much else to do, and I did feel safer sitting in my car even though it was dark as hell out there. I periodically checked ATCS to see where that northbound - NS D32 was - and had my scanner on (low volume, hah) to alert me of anything, but there was little to do except try to nap a little and mindlessly scroll on my phone.
Every so often I popped out of the car and looked across the tracks to watch the red light on my camera. That light signified a photo was being taken, so I'd watch it go, turn off, wait a second, then come back on as my intervalometer told the camera to fire again. It's certainly worth checking to make sure everything is still working - or if the battery on either device were to die. If they did, it'd be time to pack up and go home after all.
Whenever I checked to make sure the camera was still firing, I checked the sky. There were a few times that some faint clouds were covering that brilliant night sky, and when I looked through the photos afterwards I would then have a bad feeling in my gut that the weather may not have been as good as I had hoped. Still, they were moving relatively quick, and they weren't stratus (sheet) clouds, so I let the camera keep going.
Eventually, around 2:20am, I was nodding off when a huge bright light startled me awake. I'd heard radio chatter earlier of D32 working the grain elevator in Mansfield, but I was still surprised. D32, powered by NS7115 and NS7012 (as best I could tell anyway) came racing along the tracks by Osman. I took a clip on my phone, but it being so dark out, yeah, there's not much to see. It's an almost worrisome feeling to see that train go by. My car was nestled between the embankment under the tracks and the tall grasses beside the corn, making it rather close to the 40mph train. Every car that flashed past made me think "if that were to derail right now, I'd never have time to react." The lack of visibility made it more unsettling than a daytime train - I'd shot D36 in nearly the same position plenty of times and not worried much at all.
What that did mean, though, is that the home signal lit up with a high green aspect, and another exposure caught the headlights come racing past. Just as I'd been hoping.
One more hour ticked away, and I stepped out of my car to look back to the camera. It finished its last shot and went quiet. Well timed, no?
I collected my equipment and packed everything back up, then had a quick scroll through the photos after clambering back into my car. The sky did appear to visibly rotate around the signal, and I was able to spot the lit signal and D32 photos, so I was rather pleased with those. I wasn't thrilled with how many shots had clouds visible in them, so I just crossed my fingers and hoped they wouldn't affect things too much.
The unfortunate after effect of this photo was the fact it was taken Sunday night and Monday morning, meaning that when I got home at 4am and crashed into bed, I got just 3 hours of sleep before having to get up for work the next day. It made Monday a very, very long day.
Despite this, when I got home, I immediately set to working on the weekends photos. I'd also shot my friends first official train as a newly certified engineer on the DREI, so I took care of those first. Then it became time to work with the previous nights photos. Had to use and install Lightroom - I edit in PS Camera Raw for everything typically - in order to perform the bulk export necessary.
I ran a quick test stack to see if this was all worth it - and boy, it was. I went back and made minor corrections and re-stacked the photos, then going in and doing some corrective work on the output photo, I got exactly what I hoped for and more.
All in all, it was around 375 photos - 30 second exposures a piece - stacked together in the program StarStax. About a dozen photos were cut out with the signal lit up and with D32 passing by, and and another dozen or so which had my cars tail lights bleeding in too much. With the final stacked photo, I stacked one photo of just the lit signal aspects on top, and an alternate one with D32s light trail overtop, creating a total of three full star trail images. I decided the one with the lit signal was going to be my "hero" image.
Named after the Cure song and the fact it was taken across two days, In Between Days was born.
I can't even begin to explain how pleased I am with the final image. Despite my initial misgivings with the clouds that appeared overnight, despite how utterly exhausted going out that late made me, and also despite how unsettling it was being in the middle of nowhere at such a time was, the results came out brilliantly. I got a better image than what I had been envisioning in my head - things worked out incredibly well.
I call both of the alternate versions of the photo variations, though the silhouetted version is the actual original. However neither lit version is 'fake' per se - they were also captured, and in fact the D32 light trail one is the only true 'correct' photo considering it has all the nights photo layered. Regardless, these are the two alternate versions of In Between Days.
I couldn't be more pleased with what I got. It's my first go at star trails, and it went really well for a first try! I'll definitely be doing more of these in the future and experimenting with them plenty more as well. I definitely learned a good bit following this process to incorporate into future night photography and astrophotography. I think the most important thing I learned is that I'm actually capable of doing it!
That's all for now, more to come in the future.
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