We sometimes forget how lucky we are to live where we do. Sure, I would love to travel to other planets and see all the wonders that they posses. But the fact is, there is a whole lot to see from your own back yard. In this tutorial I am going to teach you how to capture one of those wonders called star trails.
Here on big blue we are constantly spinning at roughly 1000mph, while the universe is nearly standing still. If you stand outside on a clear night and stare up at the night sky you will notice, after a while things move. Believe it or not, they are appearing to move around us, when actually, we are spinning. This is called a paradigm shift. We are going to expose the paradigm shift in our photograph.
First off, we need a DSLR camera, a tripod, and a digital timer. Just about ever camera has one available for about $36US and up. If you do a search HERE you will find many. They have many more uses than just star trails and I suggest EVERY photographer has one in his/her camera bag. You will also need some software when you are finished that will put it all together and I will talk about that a little later in the tutorial.
You will need to put your camera in the Manual mode by turning the dial to M. This gives you full control over the cameras settings. Next set your exposure length to BULB. This will allow the timer to control the exposure length exclusively. Your f/stop should be set to somewhere between F8 and F11. You will have to play with this to get the exposure to come out correctly. ISO100 for low/no noise although some folks find that ISO400 works best as to keep your exposures shorter and the frame capture rate higher. Experiment to find your optimal settings. Your White Balance should be set to Daylight and not AUTO. Auto will have the camera making adjustments during the shooting process and we don’t want that. Autofocus should be OFF. Long exposure noise reduction and all other in camera correction settings should be OFF. Set your focus on your lens to the infinity mark. (∞) Set up your camera and compose your shot. This is tough to do in the dark, so make plans during the day for the direction and angle you want. There are some neat tricks you can do with finding the north star and pointing your camera directly at it to get a big pinwheel effect. Personally, for me, just starting out with this, I just like to make an interesting foreground and allow the stars to just do what they do. Combining your composition, with star position and special cosmic events such as meteor showers can result in stunning, jaw dropping shots. All things to consider as you progress towards being a star trails pro.
DIGITAL TIMER SETTINGS
Well here is where it gets tricky because all digital timers, while doing the same thing, are a bit different. Basically, we want to put the digital timer in BULB mode. This will allow you to control the length of the shot (exposure), the interval between frames, the delay before the next sequence, and the number of shots to take. Both the interval and delay should be set to the shortest amount. That setting is usually zero or one depending on the remote. The number of shots should be set to infinity as I usually just let the camera go until I feel I have enough shots. You can map out the time and figure all that out but I tend to err on the side of ease. The length of the shot or exposure time will depend on your cameras f/stop and ISO settings. Experiment a bit to find the best setting. If you have barn in your shot such as I did, I had to do several test shots to arrive at the 30 second exposure length that I used for my shots. You will probably find that 20-45 seconds is best. Now all that’s left is to wait until it is dark, connect your remote, set it to run/play and let the camera go to work. Also, make sure you battery is fully charged before attempting to start your shooting. The settings I used for the featured shot were: ISO100, f/11, 30 Sec Exposure, Delay 0, interval 0, Number of shots infinity, Roughly 80 shots used to compose the final picture. It should also be noted, when you decide you have shot enough shots, do one last frame with your lens cap on. The software that puts the photos all together needs this “darkframe” for final assembly of your shots. I did not have this darkframe and had to make adjustments to compensate.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
There are several great and FREE programs on the internet for assembling your star trails (listed below, tutorials included with the programs). Some folks like to just assemble the shots in photoshop using a special downloadable action from Chris Schur called Star Trail Action. To me, the software specifically designed for the job makes it easier but everyone will find their own way that’s best. Regardless of which way you choose to go, I am sure you will achieve star trail goodness.
Star trail assembly programs:
Startrails <-The app I used. For Windows
StarStax <-Windows, Mac OS X, Linux
StarTracer <-Not a star trails program, a star trail gap filler and path generator for Windows