Chomrong sits at what could be described as the crux of the Annapurna Sanctuary trek. It’s a small hillside town, much like many others in the Conservation Area, and is characteristically spread over a vertical kilometre of mountain, connected by a broad, steep and uneven staircase that has broken the heart of many a would-be trekker over the years I don’t doubt. It’s a crux (quite literally) in that the road forks here, running back south towards Landruk and Dhampus one way, or west towards Ghorepani and Poon Hill another. It’s also the last major permanent settlement on the route to the Annapurna Base Camp. During the trekking season there are half a dozen more tea-house settlements along the trail, but come the snows, these will almost all empty save for one or two hardy little hamlets that manage to cling to life through the winter here.
We arrived at the hilltop overlooking Chomrong in the late afternoon, and it was clouding over. It was one of the only afternoons it did this during the two weeks we were out in Nepal, and it was certainly disappointing as the view looked as though it had the potential to be spectacular. As it was, Annapurna South, Huin Chuli and Macchapuchare were all swallowed by the cold, damp grey. We explored the town, then tramped our way back up the hill to our guesthouse and settled into the little restaurant to enjoy some warmth, dhal bhat and gurung bread with honey.
Darn I miss those tea-houses.
I awoke at 4am. I don’t remember whether I set my alarm or whether my body got me up. I was sleeping in a funky little panorama room by myself, an unconvincing structure tagged onto the outside of our guesthouse which seemed to overhang the hillside. But from it I could roll back the curtains and peer out into the night from deep within the confines of my sleeping bag.
The Milky Way glared back at me.
I arose. I dressed quickly but thoroughly. November in mountainous Nepal is a tad chilly. Fleece pants, outer leggings, polyprop base-layer, fleece and Gore-Tex shell, boots, gloves, hat, and sleeping-bag to boot. An iPod. And my Canon EOS 350D, complete with 17-85mm lens, polarizing and ND400 filters, remote shutter release, and a tripod. Good to go.
I ventured out onto the patio.
Pemba, our Sherpa, had done us proud. He knew from day one that I was keen about my photography so he always booked us into guest-houses with a view, and for that I’ll always be grateful to him. This one was a real winner. Not ten paces from my room, the vista opened up before me. Annapurna South, Annapurna I, Huin Chuli, Macchapuchare, all laid out in the still, breathless night. And above them all the stars burned like tiny pinpricks poked into a sable canvas.
Stars are one of the great beauties of mountain nights, and few places as wonderful as the Himalaya. Up at 2,000m (6,000 ft) and higher, the atmosphere is largely free of dust and smoke, and out here, many miles from heavy population centres, the light-pollution is minimal. The cold air keeps the water-vapour at a minimum, and with the afternoon clouds having slunk away for the night and the moon bedded down for another cycle, I had what was undoubtedly one of the more beautiful nights I have ever seen. And as someone who would much rather be sleeping at 4am, it has to be a pretty special night to get me excited about it.
(Incidentally, the moon, optically speaking, acts as a giant mirror to the light of the sun, so that when you’re shooting long-exposure night-shoots with a moon present, you are effectively catching reflected sunlight and therefore so long as you leave the shutter open long enough, you’ll end up with a shot that looks like it was taken in the daylight. When the moon- among other light sources- is absent, however, you end up with a dark foreground no matter how long you leave the shutter open for).
There are two main approaches to starlight photography (at least in my lexicon). One is to increase the sensitivity of the sensor to allow as much light as possible to get it in as short a time-period as possible, while the other is to leave the shutter open for as long as possible. The two shots above demonstrate the two options (while the third shot, at the end of this post, shows a view of Annapurna I from exactly the same viewpoint the next morning when the sun had come up).
Stars move. Well, relative to our position on earth, that is. We know this if we stop and think about it. And of course if we’re into stargazing at all, it’s always fun to watch Ursa Major, the mighty hunter Orion, or the Southern Cross, shift positions during the course of an evening. What I never really realized until I started taking long-exposure night-shots, however, is just how much they move. In fact, if you leave the shutter on the camera open for a minute or so, you’ll already start to see the stars blurring with their own motion.
The motion of the stars (as viewed by us on a nightly basis) is relative not so much to us, but to the rotation of earth, and therefore relative specifically to the axial poles of rotation (i.e. the North Pole and the South Pole). In other words, the stars appear to turn about the poles, as you’d expect if you imagine the earth turning on its axis in the middle of space. So when we take long exposure shots of stars at night, we see two phenomenon. First, the stars appear to be moving (in the sky) around a fixed point notionaly above the pole (in the northern hemisphere marked by Polaris, the North Star). Second, the stars nearest that pole appear to move slowest (shorter distance while the shutter is open) while those further away seem to be moving faster. It’s all just an illusion created by our own movement through space, but it makes for dramatic spinning lines in the sky.
In this case, in the top shot I stacked my ND400 neutral density filter with my polarizer (in a procedure I’ve described elsewhere), closed my aperture right up tight, and basically let in as little light as possible. Like this I could pretty much leave the shutter open for as long as I wanted to. In this instance I left it open for about forty-five minutes- all the while bedded down in my sleeping bag on the stones of the cold patio in an effort not to freeze. As luck would have it, relative to my position the North Star hovered directly above Annapurna I (the main focus of my shot), placing the focal point of the rotation right in the sweet-spot of the shot. This was nothing shy of dumb luck, as I composed for the mountains, not the notional rotation of the stars (though next time I’ll be sure to factor this into my composition).
I was quite chuffed with the result.
The second shot (which was actually taken first) was simply taken at high sensitivity. Maximum ISO, wide-open aperture and no filters meant as much light was coming in as quickly as possible, and I was able to expose for the stars in about 45 seconds or so. If you look closely you’ll see there’s already a little bit of motion-blur going on, but there’s not a lot I can do about that. That said, I may have to take out my 16-35mm lens with my EOS 5D and see what a lens the size of a baseball coupled with ISO 6400 can pull off…
Both shots (obviously) are vastly different but produce very pleasing results (in my humble opinion). The first one in particular tends to get people saying “wow- how did you do that?” (followed by their eyes glazing over as I start to explain). But at the end of the day, neither shot comes anywhere close to capturing just how wonderful it was to be out beneath that icy, star-studded sky, surrounded by the majestic peaks of the Annapurna Himal that night.