Shooting star trails
is one of the most fascinating parts of photography. Here is an attempt to make star trail shooting easy and fun with a step by step guide. One thing to remember before you head out to
shoot star trails
is to check the weather at your shooting location. Check for the moon rise and the moon set timings specifically to know the time to start your shoot. Generally shooting star trails is recommended after the moon sets, as more stars would be visible in the sky after the moon set. For best results choose to shoot on moonless nights. You can also shoot on nights closer to the moonless nights as the moon sets quite early on these days never to rise for most of the night. In all cases check the weather first.
A Step by step guide to shooting star trails with camera settings.
Step 1 – Attach your camera to a firm tripod: A steady camera setup is of utmost importance as you are going to shoot around 200 to 300 images over a span of 1 or 2 hours or more.
Step 2 – Turn off the LCD display of the camera to save battery power: very important otherwise the battery will drain faster prompting you to change it in between series of shots, thereby disturbing your tripod.
Step 3 – Turn off noise reduction (NR) of your camera: This will reduce the writing time on the card. Make sure you use fast, class 10 cards with a good storage capacity. You don’t have to change cards in between your shots thereby disturbing your camera and tripod setup. Find examples of fast cards here Sandisk 32GB UHS-1 Extreme Pro SDHC Class 10 Memory card.
Step 4 – Turn your camera to manual shooting mode: It gives us control over Aperture, Shutter speed and ISO, This is very important for shooting at night.
Step 5 – Turn your lens to manual focus and set focus to infinity: One more very important setup. Every lens has its infinity setting. Check the infinity focus setting of your lens before you leave for the shoot. Make sure you use wide angle lenses for star trails. Anything between 18 mm to 24 mm would be sufficient. You can also go for wider angles like 11 mm and 14 mm or so. Also, lenses with smaller aperture values like f/2.8 will suit best. For full frame cameras, these lenses are recommended NIKON 14 -24mm f/2.8, Canon 16-35mm f/2.8. For crop sensor cameras these lenses are recommended: Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8
Step 6 – Select Continuous click mode on your camera: C mode helps us to continuously keep shooting one photo after the other, this method can be used along with manual wired remote to continuously shoot without any gap between 2 shots.
Step 7 – Ensure wired remote is attached to the camera: A wired remote is necessary if your camera does not have an intervalometer built in. In case you have an intervalometer built in your camera body, you will not need a wired remote. An intervalometer is capable of controlling how long and how many shots you can take with a single press of a button. For e.g. you can set your intervalometer to 100 shots of 30 seconds each with a time interval of 2 seconds between each shot. External intervalometers are also available which you can plug into your cameras. See examples of intervalometer here. Although intervalometers work fine, I prefer the manual method of using a simple wired remote switch as it offers more flexibility and I can check my shots in between or change compositions faster. Nikon users can check out Nikon MC-DC2 Remote and Canon users can check out Canon remote switch rs 60-e3. Also, wired remotes are the cheapest option to shoot star trail, if you do not have an intervalometer built in your camera body. One more advantage of shooting in continuous mode with a wired remote is that there is no gap between two photos as mentioned earlier. With most intervalometers, keeping a gap of one second is mandatory.
Step 8 – Find a good composition and place your tripod firmly on the ground: Try to locate the North Star and choose a composition with the North Star in your frame. You can use mobile apps like star chart or stellarium to locate the North Star. Composing towards the North Star will give you full circles of star trails in your picture. Alternatively, you can choose to compose at other parts of the sky.
Step 9 – Click test images on bulb mode to check focus & composition: Once you have chosen your composition, click images of 10/20/30 sec exposure or more to check your focus and composition. After your test images are satisfactory, you are ready to start shooting your real star trail.
Step 10 – Click one picture at f/4 or 5.6 on bulb mode and at low ISO (ISO 200/400) to ensure sharp foreground, check focus and composition : Assuming you have a good composition and everything in focus, this image will be your base image in which everything would be in focus and will be sharp. The rest of your images will be built on this image later on. Take a test image and make sure you do not disturb your tripod and camera setup after this shot until you has clicked enough pictures for your star trail.
Step 11 – Now select each exposure to be of 30 seconds, wide aperture (f/2.8) and High ISO (ISO 800/1000): Assuming you have selected continuous click mode. Set up your camera for above settings and start shooting in bulb mode. High ISO value is recommended until your camera permits no noise. Usual settings for a Nikon D7100 with Tokina 11-16mm are f/2.8 and ISO 800 and shutter speed 30 seconds. These settings will vary with the combination of your camera body and lens. The main aim is to have the max number of stars visible to the camera (which is possible by using high ISO) with no noise. Take a test shot at 30 seconds. Once you are satisfied, press the shutter on bulb mode and lock the shutter until the next 100/200/300 images. During this step, take extra care about not disturbing your tripod position.
Step 12 – Keep your shutter pressed through the wire release and lock it: Pressing the shutter in Continuous mode helps us to take continuous photos without any gap between shots.
Step 13 – The camera will now take photos after every 30 seconds until you unlock the shutter again or the battery dies: Recommended to shoot at least 100 images for a fairly long trail. Shooting between 200 or 300 frames will ensure a long and continuous trail. Sip your coffee through the night until you get your images. 100 images of 30 seconds will take 3000 seconds. That comes to 50 minutes of continuous shooting.
Step 14 – Post processing: Software’s like startrail.de &
are easily available and very easy to use and create star trails at a click of a button. You can also use Adobe Photoshop to stack images and create trails. You will need a good storage capacity to store your RAW images as well as a powerful computer to process the images faster.