Time Till Dawn - a story behind the star trail photo of Matterhorn
Updated: Nov 24, 2021
I had this picture in my mind since I have moved to Switzerland. Matterhorn, a solid, large, untouched, black rock on a bright background full of passing-by stars.
The initial idea was to have it as a black and white photo. Later on, while developing, I decided to change the approach and make it vivid - so the sky of the coming day has something to say. This changed the shot to something more like a pop-art style than a contemporary, minimalistic composition. However, before I reached that moment, It was a pretty long journey.
It took me more than two years to visit Zermatt to take it. There was always something else or somewhere else. And finally, with my girlfriend, we made it to Zermatt. And luckily, by that time, I mastered star trail photography.
For such photos, three crucial factors need to play together. Obviously, the first one is the weather — a clear, cloud-free sky, without any haze or fog. The second one is the moon phase - the best that can happen is the moonrise late in the night. Having that, the moon gives some sparkle of light to the landscape but still, it is so low above the horizon that its light does not pollute the sky. The last part of the equation is the location and timing. It is an easy to access spot, with no obstacles, in which you can spend an hour or two in the middle of a night. Luckily, in Zermatt, you can have a hotel room with a balcony facing Matterhorn (check the the best Zermatt photo spots here) , so this was not a challenge at all! Timing calculation was a little bit more challenging to fit between the sunrise and clouds. For that, a set of apps for the night sky, weather and alarm clock were necessary. All planned. Then came execution.
Taking the photo
Tripod for such shots is a must. A sturdy one, preferably. L-bracket for the camera, so taking a vertical picture did not change the tripod and tripod's head balance. And last but not least, a lens. Because I wanted to take just the upper part - from Hörnli Hut, with Hörnligrat to the Matterhorn peak, a long reach lens was needed. I used Sony FE 90mm F2.8 G lens because it is one of the market's sharpest lenses.
All set up, then shooting time. My approach to star trail photography is simple - 30s exposures with relatively low ISO. A sequence of 100 or more photos done with such settings are then combined in Photoshop and stacked. This allows me to eliminate any unpredicted shakes or accidents that might change the camera's position even by 0.2mm. I took this picture with Sony a7r ii, which has a build-in timelapse app — and done.
Photo development process
Postprocessing and development were done in Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. The first step was to do all colour and tonal corrections, reduce noise and amplify details. After that, all photos were loaded to Photoshop (believe me, you need a powerful PC for that) and merged into one. The final step in star trail photography is to remove all redundant lines caused by planes, satellites or meteors.
Finally, after hours of planning, one sleepless night and, again, hours of processing, the photo is ready. Or, rather I can say, it is prepared only in digital format. Because in photography, the print is the ultimate step. A glossy paper or a print on aluminium are the most suitable for photos like this. Such materials give richness to details and pop up all the colours.
Bringing the photo of Matterhorn to life
This photo of Matterhorn will look splendid in a modern, minimalistic interior when printed on aluminium or behind acrylic glass. For more contemporary living rooms or lunges, I recommend placing it in a simple, black frame with a wide passe-partout.