How To Shoot Star Trails

Nick

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Aug 9, 2007
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I've had a lot of people ask how I shoot star trails so I thought I'd post up a little tutorial here. I won't claim to be the expert on this, but I've done it enough to know my way around.

Equipment needed:
- A digital SLR Camera
- A sturdy tripod
- A wired remote control trigger

The wired trigger can be an intervalometer or a plain old trigger. It cannot be a wireless remote. I usually use my Canon RS60 or sometimes my cheap no-name Intervalometer. Anything like that will do, just make sure it has the right connection for your camera. I don't know much about Nikon gear but the Canon cameras have two different connections. Most use a 2.5mm headphone style jack but the pro cameras like the 5D and 1D use a special proprietary connector.

Now that we have the equipment figured out, lets discuss the methods. There are two different ways I use to take photos of star trails.

1. Single Exposure Method
The old school way is with a single long exposure. This was the only way to do it with film cameras and is still the only way to get decent results if there are any clouds in the sky. I rarely ever shoot star trails like this.

Here are the settings I would typically use for a single-exposure star trail. Most of them can and should be tweaked for various conditions so play around and try different things.
- Manual Focus: Infinity
- White Balance: Daylight
- Image Stabilization: OFF
- Quality: RAW
- Aperture: As fast as your lens allows, typically f/4 or lower
- ISO: Variable depending on ambient light. For a single exposure you'll get best results with an ISO in the 100-400 range. Anything higher than ISO 400 and you won't be able to leave the shutter open long enough without over exposing. You'll also have major noise issues.
- Shutter Speed: Set it to bulb and lock down the wired trigger. You'l get movement in your stars at any exposure beyond 30 seconds but to get a real trail effect you'll need to leave it open for more like 5-45 minutes.

Here are some examples and the settings I used for single exposure star trails:

38 minutes, ISO 100, f/3.5
The foreground was illuminated by our nearby campfire. Little to no moonlight.


14 minutes, ISO 500, f/3.5
There was lightning striking on the horizon, hence the yellow glow. Also notice the gaps in the trails caused by clouds.


11 minutes, ISO 160, f/3.5
A half moon was lighting up the landscape nicely.


21 minutes, ISO 400, f/3.5
The light on the horizon is the glow from nearby Logan, Utah which was not visible at all to the naked eye. This was kind of a fun result from turning up the ISO. The gaps in trails are from thin clouds.



2. Multiple Exposure Method (aka Stacked Trails)
There are many benefits of shooting your star trails with multiple exposures. You can get more stars, darker skies, less noise and more interesting foreground possibilities. It's almost as easy too. it just takes a bit more work once you're back at your computer.


Here are the settings I would typically use for a multiple-exposure star trail. Just like single-exposure, most of them can and should be tweaked for various conditions.
- Manual Focus: Infinity
- White Balance: Daylight
- Image Stabilization: OFF
- Drive: Continuous, so that your camera will take one picture after another when the trigger is locked down.
- Quality: JPEG Large, you can shoot in RAW but it is going to kill your card/disk space fast.
- Aperture: As fast as your lens allows, typically f/4 or lower
- ISO: I typically use an ISO between 800 and 2000 for multi-exposure trails. Try test shots until you get something that looks good with the light you have.
- Shutter Speed: 30 seconds

Once you have all your settings dialed in, lock down your trigger and the camera will start taking back-to-back 30 second exposures. At the beginning and/or end of the sequence, I like to play with various ways of illuminating or light painting the foreground. I feel that one of the most important parts of a cool star trail photo is a nice foreground, otherwise the trick can get old fast. A speed light, head lamp, flashlight, campfire, firesteel or any other light source can be used to paint the foreground, be creative.

Let the camera run for as long as you wish. Shorter times will of course make shorter star trails. If you let it go too long, you can always choose how many of the images to use in the final product, making the trail as long or as short as you would like. You can also choose which of the painted foregrounds to use in the final image.

Back on your computer, you'll need some software to stack the images. My favorite is a free program called StarStax which is available for Mac, Windows and Linux.

Make any necessary adjustments to your images then load the images you want to use into StarStax and compile them into one image. You'll probably want to make more adjustments to the stacked image. This is also a good time take your best foreground image and layer it in using photoshop. The possibilities are endless.

Here are some examples of stacked star trail images and my approximate settings.

f/3.5, ISO 1600, 16 minutes
I used magnesium firesteel to illuminate the rocks.
peekabootrails.jpg


f/3.5, ISO 400, roughly 30 minutes
There was a full moon rising over my shoulder, hence the lower ISO. The light streak in the foreground is my headlamp as I walked through the last 30 second exposure.
IMG_7963_TRL.jpg


f/3.5, ISO 1000, roughly 30 minutes
I started this while the sky was still just a little light after sundown to get the blue effect. There was no moonlight yet.
ostlerstars1ps.jpg


f/3.5, ISO 2000, roughly 30 minutes but I actually let it run for more like 2.5 hours. I just chose a smaller number of frames for the final image. The light on the rocks is from our nearby campfire.
goblin stars 2.jpg


With all those extra frames, it can be fun to make a time lapse. But that's a whole different tutorial. ;)

Please feel free to add your tips and techniques and point out anything I might have overlooked.

If you'd like a printable version of this tutorial to take with you, download the attached PDF:
 

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Archbishop

Make ready. Go forward!
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Jan 21, 2012
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Way cool! I'm definitely going to be trying this on my next outing.
 

Yvonne

I lava it!!!
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Jan 19, 2012
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wow, that's so cool. And exactly what I was looking for. Thanks!!
I played around with my camera during my last trip, but I wasn't satisfied with the results. Hopefully I'll be with your manual :twothumbs:
 

Deadeye008

Hambone
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Jan 18, 2012
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Nice right up Nick! One thing I might add is that a lot of the newer DSLRs have a timelapse mode built into them. My Canon T2i has this capability.

Sent from my HTC Sensation 4G using Tapatalk
 

Nick

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Nikon D90, and there usually is a lot of noise with the higher ISO.

I'm not sure why you're getting the noise. I've heard that Nikon typically does better with noise than Canon. Maybe it's a setting?

For reference, here are two images from roughly the same place, a few minutes apart taken with my Canon 60D. Both are straight out of the camera, no adjustments at all. You can click on them to see a much larger version to compare noise.

ISO 4000, f/3.5, 30 seconds
IMG_2993 - Version 3.jpg


ISO 1600, f/3.5, 30 seconds
IMG_3019 - Version 2.jpg
 

Deadeye008

Hambone
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Jan 18, 2012
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Nikon D90, and there usually is a lot of noise with the higher ISO.

Older Nikon DSLRs are notorious for having a lot of noise at high ISO. There are several software programs that can help with the noise. Noiseware is whta I used a few years back before I started using Lightroom. Lightroom 3 is very good at reducing noise.
 

HomerJ

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Jan 19, 2012
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This is great information!!! Thanks for sharing!
I was wondering why a wireless remote won't work?
 

Deadeye008

Hambone
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Jan 18, 2012
Messages
742
This is great information!!! Thanks for sharing!
I was wondering why a wireless remote won't work?

I don't know of any wireless remotes that have the capabilities of an intervalometer so if you used a wireless remote you would have to push the button for every shot. For me, that would get old after about 5 min but in theory you could use a wireless remote.
 

Nick

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Aug 9, 2007
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This is great information!!! Thanks for sharing!
I was wondering why a wireless remote won't work?

The wired remote is so that the shots happen continuously with the smallest interval possible in between exposures. It also makes it so you can lock the button down and walk away for as long as you'd like.
 

Bill

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Jan 17, 2012
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Heres my .02 on noise/iso

Make sure you disable the in camera noise reduction because this can cause a delay in your frame rate and will create gaps in your trails. If your camera has the option always use ISO factors of 160 for trails. ISO settings of 160,320,400,640, and 1250 have far less noise and keep me from doing any sort of noise reduction on my trails. 1250 is my current "go to" setting for low light trails.

No noise reduction in these...



Willow Gulch Alcove Trails by Summit42, on Flickr




Coyote Gulch camp trails by Summit42, on Flickr

Moon was nearly full for this one so I shot ISO1250 F5.6

Shelter trails by Summit42, on Flickr
 

HomerJ

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Jan 19, 2012
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Wow! These photos rock! Thanks again for the info, there's a bunch of things I never would have thought of: use a wired remote, turning OFF image stabilizer, disable noise reduction, iso settings, etc! It makes sense, just wouldn't have thought of it and I'd be wondering why photos suck! LOL! I'm going to have to give this a try the next time I'm out.
 

jdgibney

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Jan 17, 2012
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Great stuff guys! I'll have to try some of that (when I get away from all the light noise out here, grrr)....

Bill, I didn't know that about the ISO 160 thing. Any idea why that is (and is it the same for all cameras?)

Thanks fort he tutorial! I finally got a really good quality smaller DSLR than the D3 I have been dragging around (got a D700), so I'm looking forward to dragging that out some. I also got a Fujifilm X10 for birthday/xmas that I am looking forward to playing with when I go hiking...
 

Bill

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Jan 17, 2012
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Bill, I didn't know that about the ISO 160 thing. Any idea why that is (and is it the same for all cameras?)
I think its applies to most SLRs but I could be wrong.

I only started looking into it when I got my 7d and I found this video (or one just like it)
 

Archbishop

Make ready. Go forward!
Joined
Jan 21, 2012
Messages
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Not cool! Every since I saw this thread I've been wanting to fool around with this, but every night has been overcast! Not cool!
 
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