How to Photograph Star Trails

During the day landscape photography is an easy task for many photographers, but turn the lights off and venture out at night, and it’s an entirely different challenge. Night time photography may be a harder task, but the potential for creating intense and beautiful pictures is endless. Taking pictures at night will require patience and practice but once you find your style and have the technique worked out, the possibilities are countless. In this article, the main focus will be photographing star trails.

star trails

Equipment

So before you venture out into the nights sky, there are a few things that you may need. Firstly, a good, sturdy tripod as the camera will need to be setup up for long exposures and camera wobble will need to be eliminated. To add to this a remote trigger for your camera. This will reduce the amount the camera needs to be touched. One work around for this is to put you camera in timer mode. Simply press the shoot button and then wait for the cameras timer to go off to take the picture. Every photographer will not need reminding of the importance of having some extra memory cards, and some extra batteries, but just in case, here is the reminder. Lastly, some warm clothes in case its cold out there, and a flash light for finding your way in the dark or even playing with it in front of the camera and creating some arty images.

night photography

Technique

There are a couple of ways in which to take pictures of star trails. The first is by taking one single long exposure. Depending on the equipment, exposures can last anywhere from several minutes to several hours. For this method to work the camera must be in Manual mode and the shutter speed set to Bulb. Some cameras have an extra setting for this Bulb feature, and the shutter is designed to stay open for longer. The ISO should be set to around 400 and the aperture value will be around F/4. Having the aperture open at a wider setting will make the start trails brighter. When taking pictures of star trails it is important to recognise that the longer the exposure, the longer the star trails will be.

star trail

When using this single exposure method, it is important to recognise the fact that heat from the image sensor adds noise to the picture, meaning that the longer the exposure, the more noise that will be generated. This can either be fixed through the method of long exposure noise reduction carried out by the camera, but will affect the time the camera can be used as well as he battery performance, or by using noise reduction software in the post processing work flow. When working with long single exposures, be aware of external factors. For example, external lights that may ruin the lighting and balance of your image and thus wasting the previous 15 minute exposure.

Night time photography

The second method of photographing star trails is to stack multiple images and with digital photography and this technique has never been easier. This method is done by taking a variety of shorter exposures and manipulating them together by using specific software. This not only increases the flexibility, but will also decrease the likelihood of noise in the images that are being taken. The other benefit is that if external influences are present, there is less likelihood that they will ruin your pictures and its far easier and quicker to repeat the entire process.

night photos

When using this method it is important to find suitable software that can carry out the task that you want to do. The camera must be set in manual mode and the camera’s drive to continuous. To start the Aperture will be around F/4 and for darker trails reduce the size of the aperture accordingly. The ISO will be set to 400 and the shutter speed at thirty seconds. This can of course be worked on and perfected later, depending on the results the settings give. Through the use of the time controller on the cameras remote, the shutter can be released and decreased, meaning that every time one exposure ends, another will start.

night star photography

It is very important to focus on the composition of your picture and not become too concerned with the start trails. It is important to have a well thought out and balanced image that is pleasing to the eye and the viewer, and that has good technical skills as well. It is also good to know that when facing North, Stars will form circular patterns and when facing away from North the stars will appear to be in slanted lines and diagonals. It is important to practice with your camera and be familiar with what it can offer. With some many options available and very clever software, there is limitless potential, and truly incredible and phenomenal images can be created with some good planning and great execution.