I’m a big fan of night photography, there is something about taking a photo where the only thing you see is the stars and having more than what you can see pop up on your screen. With the help of our cameras we can create some fantastic images with unreal effects. One of the questions I often get is how to take photos of the stars. It just so happens that this is one of my favorite things! There are a couple different types of settings I use depending on how I want the photo to look; one where I want to show motion in the stars and another where I want them to be clear. For this post we will talk about how to take photos showing the star trails. You also need a few essential accessories; the first being a GOOD tripod, one that will be super sturdy for a long time even if there is wind. The second thing you need is a cable release or intervalometer. Lastly you need a full battery.
To create a star trail picture you really have 2 different options. The first is to take 1 really long exposure while the other is to take many relatively long exposures and stitch them together. Now, before you go out you need to make sure that you will be able to see the stars in the first place, a moonless night is almost a necessity and you need to be somewhere without a lot of light pollution, so doing this in downtown Chicago probably isn’t going to work. You also need to figure how your focus will work because if you are using autofocus and there isn’t something your camera can see the autofocus will just search for something without results. To get around this you can either put your camera in manual focus and focus to infinity or light up something in the distance with a flashlight, autofocus on that object, and then switch the lens to manual focus. I find the second way is better to be a little more accurate.
To take 1 really long exposure you need to set up your camera and tripod and realize how your image will look. This is often quite hard when it is pitch black but often things that you can’t see at night will show up in the photo so it is best to plan ahead to scope out where you want to take the photo. I set my ISO to somewhere around 400-800, I open my aperture completely, with most of my lenses I go with a f/2.8, and set my camera to “B” or the bulb option in manual mode. I then let it take the photo for anywhere from 10 minutes to a couple of hours. The longer it takes the photo the more motion will show in the stars(yes, I know it is the Earth, not the stars that is moving). This is where having a full battery becomes necessary; as long as your shutter is open your battery will continue to drain so if you don’t have a full battery the shot will be wasted because your camera will die half way into the shot and not complete the image, making for a sad, sad night. Now one of the major disadvantages of shooting this way is when shooting long exposures your image can produce a lot of noise. The longer the exposure you are making the grainier your photo may appear. Keep in mind that some cameras do a better job of reducing noise than others so for your camera it may or may not be a big deal. Also, some cameras have a long exposure noise reduction option but when turned on it makes your image process for as long as the image was taken, essentially doubling your time to take one photo and increasing your chances that your battery will die.
The second way to take star trails is to take many images in the same location and then use a computer program to stitch them together in one composite image later on. To do this you would use the same ISO and aperture settings but instead of 1 image that lasts hours, I take several 30 second images. This is where you would use the intervelometer. Some cameras have one built into their menu, but if not they are available at most camera stores. With this devise you can set up to take as many images as you want. You simply tell it how many images you want it to take (1-999) and how long between each photo and set the camera settings on your camera and let leave it alone to take the pictures. After you have all these images you can use a computer program to combine them. The program I use is http://www.startrails.de/. It’s free and does a good job. So you take all these shorter exposures, have a program combine them and you end up with a great image. There is less noise with this option but it takes a lot more work.
Either way you wish to take the photos you can be sure to end up with some fun and exciting images and like everything else we talk about you might have to try it a few (or more) times to get it just right.
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