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How To Guides

How To: Star Trail Photography

With just a few pieces of standard equipment and a couple of hours, you can strengthen your portfolio and wow your friends with gorgeous photography that is literally out of this world!  Long exposure photography and composite imaging is a simple technique to master that yields stunning results and I’m going to show you how to do it in this tutorial.

WHAT YOU WILL NEED:

  • Sturdy Tripod
  • Intervalometer, cable release with lock
  • Dark, clear night preferably with a new moon
  • Photoshop or Image Composite software

The composite method is super easy and most the common.  What you’re doing is essentially the equivalent to time-lapse photography with an end result of one frame instead of a movie. Neat huh?  Personally, every time I shoot a star trail, or star streak as some call it, photo I also convert the still images to a video and upload it to my flickr account in a special Time-Lapse set.

So, you want to make star trails? Let’s get down to the super-chill nitty-gritty, down right easy-peasy ooey-gooey details of this amazing technique.

First and foremost  make sure that you are shooting on a clear night; while I’ve captured some neat effects from the clouds trailing, they can cover the stars which can ruin your shot. I embraced the uniqueness of the process since I’ve not seen too many, if any, star trail photos with clouds. For your first time though and to make sure you won’t be disappointed, try to shoot when it’s not cloudy out.

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Star Moon Clouds

The second most important factor for guaranteed success is to stay as far away as possible from city lights. It’s actually not as important as I make it out to be.. I usually shoot right from my backyard which is surrounded by a shopping center, a 4 lane road, and plenty of street lights without problems, but the less light the better, and the more stars you can see. While on the topic of where you choose to set up your shot, to really kick up the interestingness a few notches, frame your photo with a decent foreground element. On a windy night, trees can be your worst enemy, or your biggest blessing if you’re an adventurer like me. Just make sure you have a wide open space with not a lot of distractions. (Been there, done that) Pro Tip: Make sure there isn’t a huge drop in temperature either, this can cause your glass to fog mid-shoot!

Okay, now that the preliminary bits are out of the way, onto the fun.

Set your tripod up, facing one of the poles. The majority of my readers are in the Northern Hemi, so this means find Polaris (the north star) in the sky. If you aren’t an astronomy major you can use an app like Sky Map (iOS) or Google Sky (Android) on your smart phone to get the job done. You’ll want to use a pretty wide lens, the widest that you have actually,  in order to get a lot of the scene in the frame. Choose a lens around 18 mm or 24mm (your camera’s kit lens should do) as a starting  off point. Pro Tip: If you can, set your shot up before the sunset it’s a lot easier than fumbling around in the dark, trust me!  Pro Tip 2: Wrap your camera strap around the ball head adjustment rod, so it’s not flailing around shaking your camera

Your lens should be manually focused to infinity, start off with an ISO ranging between 200 – 800. The higher the ISO rating the more grain you will introduce into the shot. You should know the limits of your camera, and set it accordingly.   If you don’t know.. don’t ask me — go figure it out!! There is no magic combination of settings, it’s all subject to your specific operating environment. For most situations my recommendations should work for you.  Typically, my Canon 5D Mark II is set as follows: ISO 250, f8, for 30 exp, 1 sec delay.  You want to make sure that the stars aren’t blurred… (or do you?) and your foreground isn’t fuzzy, so setting a small aperture (larger f#) will combat those kinks.  Pro TipMake sure to do a test shot to see if there are any noticeable light sources, and zoom in on your preview to see how many stars your can see. Then, make adjustments as needed.

Hook up your Intervalometer (use your manual to figure out how to use it) and choose an exposure time ranging from 35 – 45 seconds. Set your delay to a second or 2 to make sure your camera has enough time write to the card. The time will depend on the hardware you use, so test it out before it gets dark. If you don’t have an intervalometer, you can use a standard locking cable release. Just set your camera to the longest exposure time before going into “Bulb” mode, which is probably 30 seconds and put the lock on. 

Here comes the hard part…. the waiting game. Okay, so maybe, it’s just hard for me! For a shot that shows a lot of the earths rotation, you should expect to expose for about 2 hours. The longer the better of course, and the more stars the better. A lot of things can happen in 2 hours — like evil clouds! Just kidding. No, seriously, clouds can happen and so can the  moon. You can expect around 200 + photos for a 2 hour session with a 30 second exposure time per frame.  You can do a lot of stuff in that two hours, like light paint your foreground.. or watch a movie.. read a good book.. meditate.. make love.. whatever your fancy, just hang tight while the magic happens. (pun!)

Now that the camera has done it’s part.. it’s time to flex the computer’s muscles a bit. You will need some type of editing software that can stack.  I use Star Stax for Mac, and StarTrails.exe is available for Windows. These specialty tools will take all of your images (convert to .JPG first) and combine them into one neat exposure. Prepare to be amazed with your mad skills.

www.pixelgrin.com

Frame without Polaris.

Questions? Comment below – show me your examples!

Psst! Yesterday I listed a brand new set of my Polaroid Coasters! They are out of this world, Star Trail Photographs from earlier this year!  Check them out, tell your friends, and support me by purchasing a set 🙂

Buy Polaroid Coasters - PixelGrinPhotography

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About PixelGrin

Photography. Punk Rock. Art. Travel.

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Hi Hello I'm Jennifer Jackson. ...and the world is my oyster...

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