Introduction: Star Trails: a Beginners Guide

About: Avid Kayaker, Canoeist, Wildcamper, SUP-er and Photographer,

I love being outside, im one of those people who gets antsy if their stuck in the house for too long. And being outside at night adds a whole new dimension to places you might have visited a hundred times before.

There not many things better than being outside on a clear night, weather its round a campfire or just in the back yard. What better way to capture the beauty of these times than with a star trail.

Star trails are essentially a time-lapse image composed of long exposure photos from a fixed point. The trails are created by the rotation of the earth in relation to the position of the stars.

Things you'll need:

Intervalometer (if you camera doesn't have you built in)
Fully charged battery
Empty memory card

Step 1: Picking Your Location

If your out on some amazing adventure in the wilderness this shouldn't be too hard to do. Wherever you've stopped to set up camp should do, as long as you've got a clear view of the sky.

Its always best to scout your location whilst its light, just so you know what hazards or obstacles might be around.

Its worth considering where the light pollution will be coming from if you're in a built up area. This could block out stars near to the horizon and dim others producing fainter trails.
Though i have managed to produce some good results from by back garden its better with less pollution.

Step 2: Setting Up Your Camera

Firstly the lens. For this i tend to shoot with the standard 18-55mm kit lens set to its biggest focal length (18mm). If you can go wider then use that.

Now internal settings. Its definitely worth shooting in RAW format for this, especially if you're in an area with light pollution. Its much easier to do color corrections in RAW than JPEG.

I would also turn of any stabilization or vibration reduction seen as its unnecessary whilst using the tripod. Set the camera to manual focus, autofoucs wont work in the dark.

Set the color mode to standard and the iso to around 200 or 400. This might seem low but it will make sure that your images are clear and free of any graininess that tends to appear at iso 800 or above. We can adjust for this lack of sensitivity by decreasing the shutter speed.

Step 3: Intervalometer

Some DSLRs come with an intervalometer already built in, mine doesn't so i picked one up off amazon for about £20. They aren't too dear and are pretty essential for getting smooth trails.

This nifty little device hooks up to your camera and acts as a remote shutter release. It will allow you to set the duration of the interval between shots and the shutter speed.

For nice smooth trails we want relatively quick intervals. I usually set a 30 second interval. Now set whatever shutter speed you require to adjust for the low iso levels and ambient light. I usually go for between 20 and 35 seconds.

So once you hit start it will take a 20 second exposure wait 30 seconds and repeat.

Step 4: Framing the Shot

Now to set your tripod up and grab your camera.

The main thing to remember when composing your shot is whats in the fore ground, buildings or trees can add perspective and distance to your shot. Either silhouetted against the stars or illuminated with a torch.

The next thing to remember is light pollution, too much can really messy up a shot. Unfortunately, at least in the UK, its unavoidable in most places.

The final thing to remember is direction. The trails will be much tighter if your pointing in the same direction as the earths axis, thing of spinning round and looking straight up. So aiming for the north or south will give much tighter trails than east or west.

To see what i mean both the shots above where taken from the exact same spot in my back garden. One to the north, over the city and out to sea, the other to the east, over the mountains.

Step 5: Waiting

Hook your intervalometer up to your camera, turn the camera on and hit start. Now just sit back a wait.
I normally leave it running for about 3 or 4 hours or until the battery dies.

You'll end up with a load of shots like you can see above

Step 6: Processing

Your first job is going to be to adjust the color cast on the pictures. As you can see above unnatural light gives an odd cast to the pictures. Experiment with different pre-set and custom settings till it looks alright.
Copy this across to all the other photos, it should be fairly similar across the board.

Now develop your RAW files into JPEG format so the software will be able to deal with them.

I tend to run the results through both StarStaX and StarTrails and see which produces the nicer results. There are a few different modes and setting to place with, gap filling and lighten seem to produce some nice results.

These programs can also produce timelapse videos of your shots.

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