Tips For Photographing Star Trails

Photographing the night sky is a truly fascinating and amazing experience, looking up at thousands upon thousands of stars just blows my mind at how small we really are. Since going to the Galloway Forest for nearly 5 years now the night sky there has always fascinated me as I've never been anywhere that shows it as well as the Galloway Forest does. The sky here is so good for seeing stars that in November 2009 the Galloway Forest was established as the first Dark Sky park in the UK. In this blog post I'm going to tell you some of my best tips that you can use to help create some amazing photographs of star trails wherever you live!

Looking North
Looking North

Light pollution is the number one killer when trying to photograph the night sky so you need to find somewhere that is away from cities or towns and you also need to pick a night that has clear skies so that you can see more stars. You can still photograph the night sky in cities/towns but to get the exposure correct it's best to do short exposures and then stack them all together later in post-production but I'll talk more about this later. Below I'm going to break down what gear you will need to get the shots and how you can use them to benefit your photographs.

Galloway Star Trail
Galloway Star Trail

Gear Needed

A DSLR

Wide Angle Lens (Anywhere from 8mm-50mm)

A Shutter Cable Release

Tripod

There's 2 Ways To Do It

With most things in life there's always more than one way of doing something, that rule also applies here. The main two ways you can capture a star trail is either by one very long exposure or stacking many shorter exposures in to one image.

When creating a long exposure there are many things to remember so that your shot doesn't become over-exposed. If the moon is out this going to create a lot of extra light that you don't need,

Below I'm going to list the pros and cons of each technique so you can make your own judgement on which you prefer.

1. One Long Exposure

If you want to take a star trail image with one long exposure, there are some things to remember when doing it as if you don't do your maths it could be a waste of time! Settings: Put your camera into "Bulb" mode, set your aperture as low as it will go (ideally f/2.8), set your ISO around 200. Put your lens into manual mode and set the focus to infinity. I always take a test shot that is around 10 minutes to see if my exposure will be okay. If everything is okay I press the shutter and leave the camera for 1-2 hours to get the best effect.

Pros

  • Editing is quick and easy with only one image.
  • Using a low ISO means less noise.

Cons

  • As you are shooting in Bulb mode, getting the correct exposure can be quite difficult
  • If a plane goes through your shot editing it out can be difficult.

2. Multiple Exposures Blended Together 

I find this way to always produce the best results. You take 25-30 second exposures and then blend them all together using either StarStax or Photoshop (there are many tutorials on YouTube, I recommend this one: Click Here) Settings: Set your aperture as low as it can go, shutter speed around 30 seconds, set your lens to infinity, plug in your shutter remote and take a test shot to make sure your composition and exposure is okay. Once you're happy press your shutter on the remote and then lock it so it keeps taking images until you want to stop it. I would advise you use fast cards so the camera doesn't freeze-up when the buffer fills up.

Pros

  • You can control your exposure more and see how the image will look.
  • If you shoot your camera in landscape you can also turn the shots into a timelapse video. 2 birds with one stone! :)

Cons

  • Due to shooting at high ISO's the images will have quite a lot of noise on them depending on your camera.
Star Trails In The Galloway Forest
Star Trails In The Galloway Forest

How To Find The North Star

Obviously you need to find North. Polaris (North Star) is attached to the end of The Little Dipper it's not always easy to see so the easiest way to find the North Star is to first find the Big Dipper in the northern part of the sky. To find the North Star, use the two stars that form the edge of the cup of the Big Dipper away from the handle. These stars are often called the pointer stars because when you line them up they point to the North Star. Follow an imaginary line through these two stars and this line will point you toward the North Star. The North Star is not a very bright star, so it might take some practice to find it easily. I wish i had an image showing the Big Dipper as well but i don't but there are many images of it on Google.

20120814_NightSky_041-Edit_1200px
20120814_NightSky_041-Edit_1200px

If you struggle finding the north Star and you have and iOS device I recommend you download the app called 'Star Chart' it's great for finding certain stars or where the milky way is at certain times. I've uploaded a screenshot below of what it looks like.

iphonestarchart
iphonestarchart

So that's basically it when it comes to creating star trail images, you don't always have to point your camera north. Make sure to get some foreground details into the image like trees or a building. They usually will be in silhouette so if you want them lit up use a torch to paint the scene. If you have any questions please leave a question for me below in the comments section.

20121127_BWKNP_258_1200px
20121127_BWKNP_258_1200px