Shoot Startrails like a Pro

Star Trails

It was the weekend, I was sitting on the computer editing some photos and the phone began to ring.

“Hello?”

“Hey hey hey Danny boy! Let’s go shoot some star trails! I am finally ready to learn!”

“Is that you Jess?”

“Of course!! It’s time you teach me to shoot some star trails. Tonight work for you?”

“Hey Jess! I would love to. Problem is tonight is not a good night.”

“Oh you’re too busy for your dear friend?”

“No never too busy for you! It’s the moon.”

What I meant was that the moon was causing too much light pollution. Turns out in order to make a great star trail you need a few conditions to come into play. For one you need to have a new moon, or at least a moon that doesn’t rise during your shooting period. Of course you also need to have a clear sky without any pesky clouds. Light pollution from nearby cities is also a deal breaker. While you can still make star trails with some of these nuisances, you will not be able to make that earth shattering wall hanger you have been dreaming of.

A couple weeks later the conditions were perfect and Jess and I found ourselves standing in an open field under the Milky Way.

“Hey Jess! Let me see what kind of gear you brought.”

I was impressed. Jess had come prepared with everything I had told her to bring. She had her DSLR with a 17-50mm lens (Her camera is a Nikon 5100 so her lens is a DX lens), she also had a sturdy tripod, an intervalometer (used to take multiple shots at a predetermined time period with predetermined gaps), a long sock and some foot warmers.

“Dan… I know you are a little strange sometimes, but why on earth would you ask me to bring one long sock?”

“Hahaha? Wow I guess I forgot to explain that one. The fact you still came and brought the sock is why we are friends. I want you to take the foot warmers, put them in the sock and tie them around your lens. That will keep the moisture from fogging up your lens.”

“Ooooh, I really thought you were losing your marbles my friend.”

I just want to mention that there are many devices sold to keep fog off your lens. I am cheap and this technique has worked for me. The idea is that the foot warmers keep the lens just a little warmer than the ambient temperature which in turn keep moisture from collecting on the lens and ruining your shots.

“Ok I think I am ready to start shooting. The sun is setting, should I click that button?”

“What are you aiming at?” I ask Jess. As I look into her viewfinder I see she has composed a shot of a blurry foreground consisting of half a barn and the sky.

“I know you like to shoot landscapes, so pretend that you aren’t going to shoot a star trail for a second and compose a great landscape shot. The only thing to keep in mind is that you want plenty of sky to be in the shot.”

Jess gets to work and frames up a beautiful shot. She has used the rule of thirds and left plenty of sky in the frame.

“Now you are ready to make a photograph! Don’t worry about focusing on the stars. The stars are going to be blurred into long lines anyways. Your foreground should be sharp and the stars will take care of themselves.”

I just want to talk a little more about this. It is my opinion that many photographers that are just getting into star photography are so focused on getting a star trail that they forget they are trying to make an interesting photograph. Everything they have learned about photography goes out the window. Composition is always king! Always make a beautiful composition first, and then add the special elements in after.

“Hey Jess, let me have a look at your settings.”

ISO 400, Aperture 3.5, Shutter Speed 30 seconds, Intervalometer gap of 1 second.

“That looks great, look who is the pro now!”

A little more information on that.

First of all there are a couple ways to shoot star trails. You can shoot one long exposure shot for many minutes or hours, or you can take hundreds of shorter exposures and stack them together in photoshop. I like to stack because it allows me to remove airplanes, satellites, and gives me much more control. (I will make a post on that at another time and link it up here)

That being said let’s start with ISO. I like to keep my ISO pretty low. I shoot with a Nikon D7000 and find that ISO 400 is pretty clean while still letting in a fair amount of light. I then choose an aperture. I like to stick around 3.5 or 2.8. If you have some light pollution, you might want to lower your ISO or close down your aperture so the photo remains dark and not washed out. For my shutter speed I usually choose 30 seconds with a 1 second gap in between shots. You need to have a fast memory card to take that many shots in succession. Mine writes at 60Mb/s. Your card needs to have enough space to shoot hundreds of photos as well. I like to use a 32gb card, which is usually more than I need.

“I see you are shooting in Raw.”

“Of course! I always shoot Raw!”

“Damn straight!”

I also should mention something about this. Shooting in Raw comes in very handy during the editing stage. If you are limited by your computers processing power, and card space, then by all means shoot in JPEG Fine, but if you want the best quality image, I would suggest RAW. You also need to have a full battery. If your battery dies, or your card fills up, the fun is over. You cannot change a battery or card mid shoot as it will create a gap in your trails. Now that you have everything set up and the camera is shooting away, fight the urge and don’t touch that camera for several hours. The longer you let the camera shoot, the longer your trails will be.

 

 

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Star Trails

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