Shooting Stars Without Star Trails
Welcome again to another Where to Willie tutorial. As always, glad you could make it. This is a quick guide to help you get started with some beginning and then advanced techniques in shooting stars.
First things first, the most important thing to shooting the night sky, especially stars and the milky way is a good ‘dark sky’. Light pollution from our cities is ever expanding, and encroaching on our truly dark places. I’ve added some links near the end of the tutorial that help you locate the darkest skies. Second, you’ll want something interesting in the foreground. The quickest way to add a little extra to your star shots is to find the right subject to accent the sky.
Gear You’ll Need
- 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. I use Feisol, who make some great options. A solid tripod is an investment, but invest in a good one, and it will reward you in ease of setup, takedown, and support. (See more information and reviews about my support kit in the Gear section)
- 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 a timed release mode. Most cameras that have manual mode will have this option.
On your camera, you’ll have a lens… (o_o) Okay this is important so stick with me here. The focal length of lens that you choose has an effect on how long you’ll be able to leave your shutter open without causing the stars to ‘trail’. When this happens, your stars change from nice little dots, to nice little lines. If you want a shot of the milky way, you don’t want all of your stars to be little lines. Here’s a shot in which I used the “Rule of 600” to determine how long I could leave my shutter open, while still keeping the stars as dots.
Take a look here at the above image zoomed in to 100%. You can see the slightest amount of movement in the stars, seeing as the earth is rotating at over 1000 miles per hour! (there’s a little science for ya)
Shutter Speed – The Rule of 600
Or, to make things just a little safer, the rule of 500. The old adage is to take 600 and divide it by your lens length (in full frame). That will give you the number of seconds that your shutter can be open without causing trailing. I like to err on the side of safety, so I like to shoot a little bit faster than the ‘max’ allowable. I made a little chart below for you to get a feel for the rule. The shot above was taken at 14mm on a full frame sensor. Then by the rule, take 500/14 (remember the formula is for full frame sensor lens length), I could potentially leave the shutter open for 35.7 seconds before the stars would move too far in the sky, leaving a trail of light (technically, the earth is rotating, but who’s counting…).
Crop sensor folks – Make the formula a little easier for yourself, and take 500 and divide your crop ratio (usually it’s around 1.5 or close enough). So then you’ll use the formula of 333/lens length. For example, a shot at 10mm, 333/10 = 33.3 seconds.
As you can see, having a wider angle lens allows you to keep your shutter open as long as possible without letting the stars trail. Longer shutter speeds = more light hitting the sensor.
|Full Frame Lens Length (mm)||Crop Sensor Lens Length (mm)||Shutter Speed (sec)|
Aka your f-stop. You’ll want to set this as FAST as possible, which means setting it to as low of a number as possible. Why? The lower your f-stop, the wider open the aperture of your camera, the more light you allow in. Generally I shoot at f2.8, which is the fastest wide angle lens currently available.
First thing, switch your lens over to Manual Focus, this will make things easier once you get your focus set. To start, set your focus to just a hair short of infinity. You’ll have a chance to tweak this in a bit later.
This is where we start getting in to the fun part. You’ve set your shutter speed based on your lens. You’ve then set your f-stop to the lowest value. All that’s left to adjust is your ISO. A good place to start is somewhere in the 1600 range, then work your way up or down from there.
Depending on the camera, these may be called something slightly different, but you want to make sure they are both off. Turn off Long Exposure Noise Reduction and High ISO Noise Reduction. You can also turn off the preview, and turn off any Image Stabilization or Vibration Reduction your lens may have.
One school of though says start high with your ISO, and work your way down. Another says start low, and bring it up. I’m kind of torn, they both work, for different reasons. Generally, though, I suggest you start a little lower, to keep the noise down while you get your focus. Too low, though, and you’ll have nothing but a black screen, and that helps no one. Once you have your focus in check, then you can turn that ISO up nice and high, say at 3200, and use the camera to set your composition (if you arrived early to the scene, you could always do this in the light, but who’s that prepared??). Take a few more test shots, making sure you have what you want and don’t want in the scene. Since you’ve turned up your ISO, the picture will likely be overly bright, but that is good thing for composing the photo.
You’ve got your settings all dialed in, the focus is sharp, the composition is set, now you’re ready to shoot! Remember that remote shutter release, well make sure you’re using it, make sure you’re not bumping the tripod, and fire away. Try different compositions, landscape and portrait versions, just like you would with anything else.
As we have seen before, there is nothing better than using all that lovely RAW information to pull out the fun details in a photo. Here’s a before and after of one of my Alvord Desert shots. It’s pretty plain to see that tweaking your photos a bit will really pull out the light and stars that are there.
As you can see here, I’m developing the RAW files with Lightroom 5, but the process will be similar for all of your RAW developing software. First, you’ll probably need to bump up the exposure. As good as our camera sensors are, they need a little help with light coming from such a distant source. The rest is really subject to the image, but you can see where I have gone with this shot. Rules of thumb:
- Don’t over brighten the image, the first thing that will happen is you’ll highlight the light pollution
- Contrast and Clarity are great for stars. Don’t over-do it tho or you’ll get some funky halos around your foreground
- Adjust your white balance. It’s almost never right on for star shooting. Find a balance that looks like you remember.
Further Edits – Photoshop
Without getting into a full blown Photoshop lesson here (not that I really know THAT much about PS…), there are a few things that can really pump up your star photographs in Photoshop. I may use one or all of these on any given image:
- Luminosity Masking
- Hue/Saturation Layers
- High Pass Sharpening
- Selective creative masking with curves adjustments
Stars Tracker: http://stellarium.org/ – this is great to check out where stars will be on any given night, and helps you track the Milky Way.
Dark Sky Finder: http://cleardarksky.com/csk/ and http://www.inquinamentoluminoso.it/worldatlas/pages/fig1.htm
Interested in Star Trails? Check out the next section of the tutorial HERE.
Go forth, star searchers! And