I’m always interested in finding new and interesting locations that have impact and haven’t really been “discovered” yet photographically. As much as it’s hard to resist some of the cliché locations where I still try and put my own twist on them there is a certain satisfaction of going to a not well visited location and making your mark, maybe even putting it on the map and on everyone’s radar.
This is where my little Star Disc project comes in, open since 2011 it is still relatively unknown to the public and I only found out about it when asking a friend for local locations that may be of interest. With that said when he told me about it, I penned it in as a “must shoot” and felt it would be good for a sunrise/sunset. However, when revisiting idea’s I then thought it’d be silly not to try it at night, it is after all there to celebrate the night skies.
Just a little bit about the Stardisc first, before the pictures taken from their website. Conceived and designed by artist Aidan Shingler, this 21st Century Stone Circle and Celestial Amphitheatre is intended to inspire, entertain, engage and educate. Aidan says “Throughout my life, I have been enchanted by the mystery and magic of the stars. The inspiration for the StarDisc stems from a vision to create environments where people from all walks of life can gather, contemplate, and connect with whatever lies beyond the sphere of our world. The StarDisc is a temple without walls.” The StarDisc spans 12 metres. Carved into black granite is a star chart that mirrors the northern hemisphere’s night sky. The surface of the stone circle is inscribed with the constellations, their names, and a depiction of the Milky Way. Black stone has been chosen to evoke the darkness of deep space. Contrasting with the star chart is a perimeter of silver/grey granite on which 12 seats are positioned. The seats denote the months of the year. By night, 72 lights illuminate the StarDisc, powered by our nearest star - the Sun.
The Star disc is located in Wirksworth, just outside the Peak District close to Matlock Bath. Finding it is a little difficult and it isn’t sign posted. Approaching from Cromford you need to take a right at the car park after the petrol station. You’ll enter almost immediately a narrow gap which is tight to get through that then allows you to go either left or right, which way you take doesn’t matter as it is a big loop but I recommend left as it’s less narrow and steep and seems to be the general consensus for all traffic. Be warned, both ways are narrow and steep and only allow one way traffic an alternative is to park in the car park at the bottom. The star disc is located by the side of the road Green Hill and is marked by what looks like a gravel drive to a car park with a big solar panel, you can’t however park here. Parking spaces are limited and questionable; you could either park on the road where it is just wide enough for two cars or further back at a large turning point. Of course you shouldn’t park in a turning point but as it is doubtful anything large enough to need a turning point could get up the road in the first place. However please be advised you park at your own risk with no designated spaces to park, if you feel uncomfortable with this please park in the marked car park at the bottom and make the walk up!
On arrival it instantly becomes obvious why it has been built where it has. It has great views (though I have yet to visit in the day!) and while in very close proximity to Wirksworth my fears of light pollution were quickly dispelled because for where it is there are a lot of stars visible to the naked eye.
So far I have visited three times with an aim of getting the shots I wanted. This first shot is mainly to demonstrate the engraved granite map depicting the map of the stars being lit up by the vivid purple solar lights.
This next shot was actually taken on my first visit, showing a view of the star disc from further away with a view of the night sky.
My third visit I intended to nail star trail photography. What isn’t immediately obvious to us is that throughout the night, the position of the stars change. Well that isn’t strictly true, it’s the position of the Earth on its revolving axis that moves and thus appears to make the stars move. With this is chance to be really creative as keeping the shutter open for an extended makes the star “trail” through the night sky. There are a few methods of doing this, the most popular now days is using a number of exposures from a couple of hours shooting and then using computer software to stack them afterwards, layering them up on top of each other to recreate the trail effect. An advantage of stacking is it reduces light pollution and noise in the image as well as saving the cameras sensor from overhearing, There is also the added benefit of removing frames where an unwanted light source appears e.g. a plane.
I had attempted star trails on my second visit to the Star Disc, but due to inexperience I didn’t know where to point the camera and what effect it would give. I ended up with an image where the trails swept through the frame but cut off just before the Polaris star (more explanation coming on the Polaris) giving no direction in composition for the star trails. After processing my image I immediately had my vision for what I wanted and that was an image of the star disc with a big circle of star trails above, creating symmetry in composition.
After a little research into it I found I had to aim my camera at the Polaris star AKA the North Star. This is the star at no matter what time of night remains in a constant place, you can look for this by looking for the bright star near the constellation of “The Big Dipper” or if you’re a little slower like me and want to be sure there is a really good app for the iPhone called “Night Sky” which augments star positions onto the screen to tell you exactly what you are looking at.
The main aim here was to then ensure that I roughly had the Polaris in the centre of the frame while ensuring the composition of the star disc was also centre. A few test shots are then needed to check composition, focus and exposure. It is really worth spending five minutes here to get this right to ensure you don’t waste the following hours to return home and find it was a failed attempt. What you do next is set the camera to take the same exposure over and over again for however long you want your star trails to last, you will need a remote locking timer to do this. My camera settings were f2.8 and 11mm, ISO800 and I put it on bulb mode knowing my exposure was 30 seconds long. I then dialled into the remote timer to take 300 shots, with a 1 second interval at 30 seconds long per shot, I actually came back with roughly 260 shots after 2 hours.
I then returned home happy with what I had captured. I process one image in Lightroom to the level I want and sync the other images to replicate the processing to ensure there is no variation in colours, tone etc. I then export all the JPG’s, named sequentially into a folder on their own. The next step is to stack the images and I use a free program called StarStax. This allows you to select a folder of images and it automatically blends the images for you and outputs the final image. The result was this:
Another little advantage of shooting so many single frame exposures that are short enough that the stars don’t trail is you can then make a time lapse movie, which really shows the movement of the stars in the sky as the earth rotates, as shown below. It’s nice when you get two things from the shoot for the price of one.
I hope you have enjoyed reading about my first and certainly not the last venture into star photography and hope you make an effort to visit the star disc at some point soon.
This blog was brought to you by James Grant