We as human beings have been, for thousands of years fascinated by seeing the night sky. The thousands and thousands of Stars on a clear night, the belt of Milky Way running through the sky like a highway studded with millions of diamonds, has had our Creativity running and we have marked and identified a huge number of Constellations. As Artists we have been painting and capturing the beautiful Night sky ever since we first had the means of capturing it on Canvas. With the advent of Camera, Hundreds and Thousands of Individuals all over the globe have captured the beauty of Night Sky in Million ways.
Among the different ways in which we can photograph the Night sky, one of the most popular form used is termed as “Star Trails”. As we know earth rotates constantly about its axis, resulting in Day and Night. Star Trails is basically a way of Capturing the Moment of Stars Relative to Earth during any specific given time frame. My Blog today focuses on some of the tips and techniques which I have been using for capturing Star Trails.
For Capturing Star Trails as the name suggests we need a sky that is clear with no clouds what so ever( Although we can use clouds for some pleasing effect in our Trails if required). We would also be looking for areas which have no or very less light pollution, Cities have very high levels of Light pollution, so one needs to travel far away from cities to areas with no or low light pollution. It’s also preferred to shoot at a time when there is no moon in the Sky, we may not be able to see many stars when shooting on a Moon lit night. Make sure to check the Weather prediction for the area which you intend to Shoot Star Trails in. I have an MSN weather app installed on my Phone which gives an hour to hour prediction, along with Moon rise and set time for any selected location worldwide.
The above image was shot on a somewhat cloudy night, as you can see there are gaps between trails and does not looks good.
I generally recce a new location during the day to check the different frames and composition which I can shoot during Night time, as it becomes difficult to directly go to a new site and start shooting at night. I then take frames in different directions to see how it looks, and then decide for my frame that I would shoot during the night. This is an optional thing and totally depends on the individual, but I find that it really helps, as framing becomes a bit difficult in dark nights.
It’s advisable to come to the spot early, before night fall and get your camera focused to Infinity, or to the farthest point in the frame for e.g. a Mountain a distant landscape and then Turn off AUTO Focus. This is done as in the night the camera, because of darkness won’t be able to automatically focus. Getting Proper focus on Stars in imperative to get Nice sharp Star Trails. I have had frustrating experiences when I was not very careful about my focusing, and after shooting for 2 hours or so when viewing on my laptop, realized that stars were all out of focus.
Continuously using the camera for hours eats up batteries and fills memory cards very fast. Have at least 2 fully charged batteries and 2 Spare memory cards handy before you leave home for shooting star Trails. If the weather is extremely cold at night batteries tend to last about half the time they do normally, keep this fact in consideration while planning for a Trail. Carry warm clothes and food more than it’s required as it gets really chilly in the night and having something spare is better than shivering all night.
Preserving Night vision is critically important while Shooting Star Trails, it takes a human eye 15 minutes to fully adjust to total darkness, any flash of light in between, and our night vision is destroyed for the next 15 minutes. So while shooting Star trails it’s advisable to totally turn off all the light sources when on site, including the on camera display or lower the brightness to the minimum. If light has to be used use a very low intensity red light as it is believed to preserve Night vision.
A compass comes in very handy for identifying directions. At a new location you might not be able to point out the directions properly. A compass is a very effective tool for the same. Shooting in different directions will give you different types of trails. You can use compass to identify directions and make different types of trails.
For capturing Star Trails, we have to expose the camera for extended periods of time (30 Seconds or more). So of course you can’t handhold the camera for such long periods of time. You will need a sturdy tripod on which you can mount your camera. Cheap Flimsy tripods will do ( as I used them initially for some time), but the biggest disadvantage of cheap tripods is that they are not very stable and if you are doing star trails on a night when there is a strong breeze blowing, cheap tripods will wobble and even if 2 or 3 frames wobble in your 1 or 2 hour capture , there’s a risk of ruining all your hard work of 2 hours( has happened with me). So it’s advisable to use a good Tripod with a Strong base. The Camera Strap attached to your camera can also wobble with air and cause your camera to move, it’s advisable to remove your camera straps during the shoot or wrap it tightly around the tripod.
Shooting Techniques and tips.
Alright, if you have followed the advice given until now, you have receed the location beforehand, you reach the site before dark sets in and you have your camera focused on the farthest point in your frame, then turned OFF AUTO focus and its mounted on a Sturdy Tripod. Your batteries are fully charged and memory cards totally empty.
The setting which are recommended when doing star Trails are as below.
- Use your widest angle lenses for Shooting Star Trails. Kit lenses (18-55mm) are very good to start with. But if you can, try to shoot with 15mm focal length or less. Wider Lenses gives you a huge frame to experiment with and you can have a good amount of foreground and large number of Stars in the Frame.
- Open up the Lenses to the Widest Apertures which your lenses permit. For e.g. the 18-55mm kit lens open up the aperture to F/3.5 at 18mm. Opening up the Aperture will allow the camera sensor to collect large amount of light and as a result your camera would be able to capture even the faintest stars, which our eyes probably won’t notice. Faster lenses like the F/2.8 or above will collect huge amount of light for the same time period.
- Noise is a major problem while shooting Dark skies and boosting up the ISO, can introduce unnecessary noise in the frame. It’s advisable to use the Base ISO or the lowest ISO possible for your camera. For most of the camera the base ISO is 100 or so. Select the ISO as 100 and shoot a trail and then depending upon your camera body increase the ISO and then see how it looks. I normally shoot between ISO 100 and 400, but see a good amount of noise at 400 .Avoid very high ISO’s as they will introduce unnecessary noise, which no amount of post processing can reduce without effecting the image quality.
- Use Manual mode on your camera for capturing star trails. Star trails can be captured in a number of ways. You can either take a single shot by exposing the camera for hours together, or you can take multiple shots of 30 Seconds each and then again combine them in Digital Darkroom. Exposing the camera for hours together will heat the camera sensor and introduce unnecessary noise in the frame and also over expose the overall frame and is normally not advised. The technique which I have learned is to expose each frame for 30 Seconds, take multiple shots and then combine them together in Post processing. In this way if you have a frame in between that has some unnecessary element (like a car Headlight or some unnecessary light source), you can very easily discard the frame and not use it in the resultant frame.
- To begin with you can shoot Star Trails in JPEG Fine quality on your Camera, that way the post processing becomes easy. You can start with Auto white Balance setting in your camera and then change them as per your liking and check which one looks good to you, I normally shoot in WB Daylight or Fluorescent as per me its makes the scene look very close to what my naked eyes see in person (also I love a tinge of blue in my night sky images J )
- You will also need to shoot in continuous mode while shooting star trails. There is a very cheap accessory available in the market called a Cable Shutter release with a Lock function. The original company one comes for around INR 900, or you can get a third party shutter release for INR 500 too. It’s a really helpful tool in a way that once you have set your frame and started shooting, you can simply lock it up and it will keep on shooting continuously without any intervention. That way you can just keep your camera firing and can go and have something to eat, take a nap inside your car, roam or do whatever while the camera keeps shooting till the lock is released.
- Once everything is set take a test shot and check the image. Zoom in 100% on the image and see if the Stars look sharp, if the image does not looks sharp then there was probably an error in focusing. Focusing at night is difficult, but you can try to focus on distant bright objects and try to achieve focus, then turn OFF AUTO focus. If you are shooting on a night when there is a moon focus on the moon and then turn on Auto focus and then shoot the star again, this time it should be sharp. Once focus has been achieved, take another shot just to be double sure everything is sharp. If Sharp then delete the previous images and start shooting again, lock the cable shutter release and keep it carefully so that it’s not hanging and then leave it as it for the next 2 hours or so. Avoid running very near to the tripod or camera in the next 2 hours as vibrations from our feet can sometime make the Tripod move a bit and you won’t even come to know that has happened (until when in front of the PC where you will pull your hairs apart J )
- Star Trails look really good, when they are done for at least 2 hours or more. Shooting for 2 hours or more will result in battery getting exhausted and memory cards may fill up, so make sure that when you mount your camera on the tripod, you are able to change the battery and memory card quickly without having to remove, dislodge or move the camera from the Tripod. If there is delay in between two consecutive shot of even 30 seconds or more the resultant star Trails will have gaps in between the Trails, which most of the time does not looks good.
- Once you have completed the shooting, and if you have a Laptop handy (and if you are in a position to work further 😉 ), then once again check the Images on the laptop just to see if they look sharp. This is not a mandatory thing, it’s a thing I do when I shoot star trails just to confirm if everything is OK. If not and if I can manage, I try to shoot again.
- Once everything looks ok and once you are back at home, you can combine the images to make a resultant star trail. There are a lot of software’s available free on the internet for making star trails. I use a one named Star Trails.exe. I downloaded it from internet and is really good at it.
- Alternatively you can also do the same in Photoshop. The process is as below.
- Load the images in Photoshop as Layers and except the bottom layer select the above layers and change the blend mode of those images to Lighten. The resultant image will be a magical star trail. Then you can combine the layers and do whatever small tweaks you wish to do on the image.
- Be prepared to stay awake full night.
- Try shooting as wide as possible.
- Open up the lens to the widest aperture Possible.
- Use the lowest ISO your camera has.
- Use a Sturdy Tripod
- Take multiple exposures of equal duration (30 Seconds or more)
- Avoid pointing camera directly to bright light sources( e.g. a bright light nearby, or towards a highway with continuous traffic)
- Carry fully charged batteries and empty memory cards.
- A compass comes very handy for identifying directions.
- Carry warm clothes and good amount of snacks for the night.
Fig 2. Star Trails facing North
Fig.3 Trails facing North- NorthEast
Fig.4 Trails facing South-Southwest
P.S. Many people have a question in mind as to what direction of the night sky should they point the camera to make a star trail. If you have looked on the internet and seen beautiful circular trails with one star in centre and the rest revolving around it, that direction is the North direction and the Star which stays in the centre is the Pole Star.
Alternatively if you shoot due south you will get arc like trail, on the east and West you will mostly get straight lines. You can also try shooting between these 4 directions and can get some interesting trails with straight lines in between and circular arcs on the edges.
The possibilities of shooting Star trails are unlimited so are the frames which can be made. It’s all up to the Creativity of the one shooting how he wishes to make it interesting.
I hope my blog has given you a basic understanding on how to shoot proper star trails.