The Night Sky – Star Trails

Stars! 

How beautiful is the night sky?  It’s a marvel to behold, full of mystery, one that is often captured in a stunning photograph.  If you’re just arriving here at Where to Willie, and are interested in star photography, check out this tutorial first:  The Night Sky – Stars, where you’ll learn the general settings you need to get started photographing the night sky.

Stars – Their Motion

One thing that you’ll quickly notice about the stars is how quickly they are actually moving.  Oh right, the Earth is rotating, but either way, there is motion in the sky.  A great way to showcase that motion is thru star trails.   This photo was taken over the course of an hour at Joshua Tree National Park, with approximately 100 individual images.

Software 

Lightroom – For developing your RAW files.  (Any RAW converter will do, Camera Raw, Aperture, etc)

Photoshop – Yep, to do star trails, you’ll need this beast.

Star Trails Plugin –  This is the meat and potatoes, it takes all those lovely individual photos and stacks them all up, then using difference layers creates one master image file, that you can then tweak and make perfect.

  1. CLICK HERE, then download the plugin to your desktop.
  2. Go to the scripts folder of Adobe Photoshop as seen below, and copy the file to the folder.  The next time you open Photoshop you’ll be able to run the action.

Mac:/Applications/Adobe Photoshop CSx/Presets/Photoshop Actions

PC: C:\Program Files\Adobe\Adobe Photoshop CSx\Presets\Photoshop Actions\

Hardware

Camera – You need to be able to put it in a ‘Manual’ mode, and ideally one that shoots in RAW.

Tripod – Something sturdy; as you can imagine, the slightest shake will send your stars into a blur.  Really Right Stuff, Gitzo, Manfrotto, Sirui are all great choices, and offer some introductory models as well.  Invest in a good one, and it will reward you in ease of setup, takedown, and support.

Remote – This makes keeping the camera shake to a minimum easier.  It’s not really required, but if you don’t have one your camera will need an “Interval Timer Shooting Mode” in order to automate the exposures.

In the Field

The basics from shooting one night shot all apply here, only at the end, we’ll have captured between dozens and hundreds of photos, all back to back.  The more photos, the longer the trails will be.  If you look at the picture above up close, you’ll see that the trails don’t actually go all the way around, but just a portion of the way.   Also, you might want to practice this once or twice to get the hang of it, it’s harder in the middle of the night. 🙂  And the biggest thing BEFORE you leave the house, have at least one fully charged battery and one empty memory card.  If you can have more of each, that’s even better.

  1. Camera mode: Manual
  2. f-stop : as low as it will go (between f2 and f4)
  3. ISO:  Between 400 and 1200, but this will, require a little tweaking depending on the light.
  4. Shutter Speed:  Between 10 and 30 seconds.  In my opinion I always shoot longer for star trails and turn the ISO down.  The longer the exposure, the less files you’ll need to work with in the end.
  5. Check your focus and exposure with a couple of test shots.
  6. Turn off the following:  Previews, High ISO noise reduction, Long exposure noise reduction.
  7. With a cable shutter release:  Lock the release to the on position, hang the cable, and wait!
  8. With Interval Timer Shooting:  Set your interval (less than 5 seconds), set your number of shots (the more the better), hit go!  (Each camera system is a bit different, so you’ll need to check out your manual)

Now it’s a waiting game.  I like to make sure that a few shots go off and that everything seems to be acting right before walking away at all, but now is the time to enjoy the surroundings.  I tried meditating, and that worked alright for a while.  Whatever you do, the longer you let the camera do it’s thing, the better.

The Digital Darkroom

Expose your first photo to its very best.  Mainly the white balance, exposure, highlights, whites and blacks.  You can see my exposure settings here.

Develop Settings

Sync all of your photos, so that all their settings are the same, then export them as full size JPEGs.  I put them on my desktop for easy locating, and you can delete them when you’re done.

Export your files to a folder

Fire up Photoshop and let the fun begin!   Navigate to Scripts -> Star Trail Staker Flat.  You’ll then select the folder that you just put all those JPEG’s in.

Star Staker Flat

Let her rip!  This is going to take a little bit, depending on your computer speed and how many files you have.

Automation in process

After it’s all said and done, you’ll be left with one layer, with all the changes in the star’s position stacked together.

Here is why taking individual images has its advantages.   The stacking process inherently reduces the long exposure noise created while taking each individual photo.  Also, like you can see here, if a pesky car or other light source happens across the scene during one of the images, you can always mask that out  with any of your other shots.  Once you’re happy with your final shot, save it back to your computer, make any finishing touches in Lightroom or your other developing software, and share it with the world!

Other Notes

Things to keep in mind:

  • Northern Hemisphere – If you point towards north, you’ll get circles like you see in the above shot.  If you point towards the south, you’ll get sweeping arcs.  Determine what shape you want before you start.
  • Southern Hemisphere – The opposite is true, point south and you’ll get circles, north – arcs.
  • Equator – Who knows… if you figure it out let me know!
  • Make sure to add a subject to your shot.  I love the stars, but having a strong foreground anchors the shot and gives the viewer a reference and scale to the movement.
  • If you want your subject to be more than a silhouette, add one extra long exposure after you finish your trails sequence, then add that shot in as a layer in Photoshop when you’re doing your final developing.

-wtw

11 Comments

  1. Jeremy

    Does this work w/ PS elements? I’ve never done the stacking, just single, 60 min exposures (noise issues and the background is always bright). I would love to try this if it does!

    Reply
    • William

      My best guess would be that yes, it should work with elements. Since I didn’t write the action, though, I’m not 100%. It would be an easy test, as you could take any group of JPEGs you have and just see if the action runs.

      The main issue would be if PSE doesn’t include the layering style that the action uses to blend the layers, which I believe would be ‘lighten’ layering mode.

      Reply
  2. Jeremy

    I just tried it this way (well a couple nights ago), and learned some valuable lessons 🙂 While I could not figure out how to get the “action” to work w/ PSE, I did find a free program, http://www.starstax.net, that works on Mac and Win computers as a stand alone. It does not offer masking, so cars/planes either have to be deleted (and have trail gaps) or left in. Maybe I can try masking in PSE? next time!

    Thanks for the great tutorial!!

    Reply
    • William

      Hmmmm that’s too bad it doesn’t work with PSE, but I’m glad you had a solution. When it’s finished, does it give you an individual layer file? Because if so, you could always layer it back with some of the originals to mask out or blend back parts of a clean individual file.

      Glad I could help! Can’t wait to see it 🙂

      Reply
  3. Robert Boscacci

    Awesome! Going out to give it a 2nd attempt now. (Last night the battery died 8 minutes into shooting.)

    Reply
    • William

      Haha I should add a note in there, make sure you have multiple charged batteries!! 🙂 Let me know how it works out!

      Reply
        • William

          Nice! I am enjoying the trees of the foreground of that shot! What is the light coming in from the right side of the photo though?

          Always watch out for hobos with knives for sure! Haha. I’m there with you though about bringing a friend, the time above with the Joshua trees, I laid on my back in the desert for over an hour waiting for the shots to finish up!

          I’m not completely sure how Canon’s work, but you’ll definitely want to check the manual on how to shorten your interval time. I’ve found even 3-5 seconds is plenty to write to the card, but not so much that you get gaps.

          Now note, if you’re facing south (in the northern hemisphere), the stars are moving more in the sky than if you face north, so you’ll want to try and keep your intervals even less, maybe just 1 or 2 seconds.

          Reply
  4. Gyorgy

    Very good article, really informative with experiences that save others a lot of time
    time.
    My only addition to this for Canon users with no remote controller is that the Magic Lantern firmware has this extra functionality as well with many more, I tested it and can say from experience that it’s worth a try.

    Reply
  5. Hwang Dongwon

    I downloaded the action file and put it in the right folder, but I can’t find it in the file menu somehow. Could you please help me?? I’m really dying to try this out. 🙁
    Thanks.

    Reply

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