The magic of star trails:
Star trails photographs are beautiful and absolutely magical when they are taken correctly. They reflect the beauty and the majesty of this amazing planet that we live in. Just think for a second; every star trails photograph you have ever seen and the dream-like sequence that you have witnessed in those photographs. Guess what! They happen EVERYDAY above your own house, you just never saw it or thought of it. I know I never had, until recently.
Let me be honest about this. Star trails photography is hard and I just don’t mean as an art form to learn but as a physical challenge to the human body and mind. You have to be in a location that is dry and VERY cold so that the air is as clear as possible and it also needs to be pitch black (so dark that you can’t even see your own hand). Any amount of stray ambient light is going to ruin your shots and you are going to round up with nothing but haze.
But that shouldn’t stop you from doing great things…right?
It’s hard alright but the results are equally rewarding. So, let me just tell you my way of shooting star trails.
A little knowledge and planning goes a long way in star trails photography. Knowing when the sun is going to rise or when the sunset is helps you plan your trip better. You should also take into account the phase of the moon on that day, this is important. The Photographer’s Ephemeris is a good website that I use all the time. Punch in the date and place; and the website will let you know all the details that you require.
The fundamental idea of star trails photography is to shoot stars from earth as they follow a circular path in the night sky but since there are many things in between us and the stars; we want to eliminate these unwanted influences as much as possible so that we get a clearer and better looking shot.
Here are some prerequisites to remember. Follow them along and you will have great-looking shots to share with your family and friends.
- Find a location which is REALLY REALLY DARK…I mean absolutely pitch black . There should be NO ambient light at all. Street lights, light from the nearby highway, even overuse of the flash light that I would suggest you to carry is a big NO NO. You may use the dark site finder to find out a spot near you that has the least amount of light pollution.
- Cold and dry nights are the best for capturing star trails. Less diffraction of light leads to better focusing and clearer pictures.
- Locations on higher altitudes are better, the air is much cleaner here.
- You need to know the sunrise and sunset timings or your location. Also something that is very important is the moon. The moon would act like the largest source of ambient light if it is there. So plan your trip so that the night is well… moon-less (this is not your romantic trip!).
- You need a sturdy tripod for this. Since the entire length of the shoot is going to be on a tripod; a good tripod is a must. You may even weigh down your tripod using a few pieces of rocks for added stability.
- A camera which allows manual settings. If you are taking such painstaking measures to get a photograph, it is probably reasonable to think that you already have a good camera.
- A wide angle lens. You want to capture as much of the sky as possible and give your photographs that wide and expansive look. Wider the lens, the better the star trails but personally I do not prefer fish-eye lenses much. A 24mm lens with a large aperture would be just fine.
Here are two amazing lenses from Nikon and Canon that you can use.
Canon : Canon EF 24mm f/1.4 L II USM Wide Angle Lens for Canon. (This is a prime lens)
A shutter release remote. The entire star trails shoot is going to be a series consisting of a few hundred shots; where each shot is on a 30sec long exposure. Keeping the shutter button pressed for that long is not possible for anyone, so a remote shutter release may be your best bet. Just get a cheap one from amazon. It doesn’t need to be anything fancy, just check that the intervalometer is compatible with your camera model, that’s all you need.
However, if you have a built in intervalometer in your camera, you do not need an external one. Consult your camera manual on this one.
The actual shooting:
You want to reach your destination early when the sun is still up. Considering the fact that I am asking you to go to a place that is dark, desolate, devoid of light and brilliantly cold; I would advise you to reach early and take all preparation while there is still light. Check your camera, put on the lens, choose a good flat spot with a good looking foreground. You can even dial in the camera settings then. Cold fingers are not very good at work…just saying. Once the sun goes down, the temperature is going to plummet real fast and it is going to be even tougher. Use the light well while it is still there.
Okay now it’s night time and we are finally ready to shoot star trails .
Mount your camera on the tripod and frame your shot. Keeping the North Star at the center is a good idea. Since that is the only star that is not going to trail; it appears that all the stars are revolving round it. It is a nice effect to have in your photographs. But then you are the photographer, make your best shot,your way.
Check the camera levels now; you do not want a crooked shot. If you have not already dialed in your camera settings do it now. Set your lens to manual focus and then turn the focus ring until the infinity line on the focus ring aligns with the mark on the lens barrel.
For your camera use the following settings:
Shutter Speed: 30 sec
Shoot only RAW.
Test out your settings:
Take a test shot with these settings and look if everything looks good. Zoom into your image and see if the stars appear to be sharp and in focus. Refocus manually if they seem even a little out of focus. If everything appears okay…great! If not tweak the settings a bit depending on what the problem might be and then take a test shot again.
After taking your first successful test shot, take a dark frame shot. Don’t freak out, it is just a fancy term for shooting with your lens cap on (how beautiful life is, isn’t it? You get points for even that…). The dark frame shot will help you reduce noise later on in your photographs that may creep in due to the use of high ISO.
Now, set your camera to continuous drive/burst mode. This is important for the star trails to appear well. Attach the remote shutter release and set the shutter speed to 30 sec and start shooting.
You have got all the free time in the world now. Just don’t do anything that would destabilize the camera or cause the camera to move. Whatever you do, DO NOT use your flash light after you have started shooting. Even if the light falls on the lens for a micro second it is going to be logged in since we are shooting really long exposures. Just don’t.
Cold night usually have their fair share of condensation as well. (A real clever trick is to leave your camera outside before you start shooting.This prevents massive temperature difference and causes less condensation later on). Monitor your camera every 15 minutes or so. If you find any condensation, clean it immediately with a lens cloth.
Keep your eyes peeled for clouds as well. You want a clear cloudless night. A cloud, even when it comes and goes away in a couple of minutes is going to introduce a long white streak in your photographs. ( I did mention this is NOT going to be easy). The same thing goes for airplanes as well. However this is easier, generally airplanes follow a definite route through the sky so if you keep a watch for some time before you start shooting; this is easily avoidable.
The last thing to monitor is the battery. Of course you should put in fresh new ones when you start but then the cold and the long shutter may chew them up really fast. Monitor your battery level closely and put in new ones as soon as the old ones get a little low.
The duration of the shoot is totally dependent on you and how much time you have; but anything less than a couple of hours is not recommended. Longer is better, in this case.
Download all your star trails images in one folder and open them up in Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop. Edit the first photograph to your liking. Make the sky look nice and dark while keeping the stars stay bright. You can use the white balance or the levels curve to really make the stars pop. Then apply these settings to all your photographs and export them as jpegs to a folder on your desktop.
You can use Photoshop or Lightroom to stack the photos also but I personally like Starstax a lot. It does a pretty good job at this, maybe because it is specially made for stacking star trails photos.
Open up Starstax and use the first button on the top left corner to import the images from your desktop. Now, import your dark frame as well, this will help with the noise reduction. Go to preferences now and change the blending mode to “Gap Filling” (this help fill up the gaps that you might have had during shooting (stopping when clouds passed or changing batteries and stuff) also choose “Subtract Dark Image”.
You are all set now to process your images. Hit the process button and let the software work its magic. It would take a while to complete.
Once its done adjust the threshold and amount for “Gap Filling” so that just the stars look green and not the foreground.
Finally save your image on your computer and you are done! Personally though, I like to take it to Photoshop one last time and give it some last finishing touches.
Don’t forget to share your star trails images with me….I would love to see them.