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. If you’re comfortable in manual mode and shooting at night, continue on.
Stars – Their Motion
One thing that you’ll quickly notice about the stars is how quickly they are actually moving. Well technically 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.
The following programs will get you started editing star trails in no time.
- Lightroom – For developing your RAW files. (Any RAW converter will do, Bridge, Camera Raw, Aperture, etc)
- Photoshop – Technically, you can get away with doing one VERY long exposure (think 5 minutes to 30+ minutes) but Photoshop will allow us to stack multiple images on top of one another for the best possible results.
This is the same as any night photography, with the addition of a method of repeating the same image multiple times in a row.
- 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.
- Camera mode: Manual
- f-stop : as low as it will go (between f1.4 and f4)
- ISO: Between 400 and 1200, but this will, require a little tweaking depending on your particular night sky.
- 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.
- Check your focus and exposure with a couple of test shots.
- Turn off the following: Previews, High ISO noise reduction, Long exposure noise reduction. (Don’t forget we’re shooting in RAW)
- With a cable shutter release: Lock the release to the on position, hang the cable, and wait!
- With Interval Timer Shooting: Set your interval to between 1 and 3 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.
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.
Fire up Photoshop and let the fun begin! Navigate to: File -> Scripts -> Load Files in to Stack. You then select the folder where you exported all those jpeg files.
Let her rip! This is going to take a little bit, depending on your computer speed and how many files you have.
After it’s all said and done, you’ll have all of your images stacked in the layers panel. Select all but the bottom most layer and change the blend mode to “Lighten”. Poof, star trails!
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!
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.