Photography 1001 : Star Trail Photography

When talking about Night Photography, Star Trail Photography is one of the most popular subjects that beginners would like to try. So today, we share some tips on this topic!

Normally, when you gaze upon the night sky, you see some stars, but they all seem to be fixed at the position, so how can you capture the light trail when they are not really moving?

In fact, as the Earth turns, the stars move across the sky slowly, it’s so slow that you don’t see them actually move. This gives the hint that, in order to capture the star trail, you will have to take picture using an extremely long period of time.

While other stars will move as time pass by, the North Star appears to stay in the same place; this is due to that it’s very close to the north celestial pole above the Earth. Hence, it is recommend that you face your camera to the North Star when capturing the star trail. It reveals light circles as the other stars move around the pole.

Now that we know about the basics about Star Trail Photography, let’s move on to the equipments!

Simplest Gear
1 iPhone
2 NightCap Pro app
3 A tall and sturdy tripod
4 Fully charged portable power bank

There’s a Star Trail mode in the NightCap Pro app, and it’s the simplest way you can capture a nice star trail photo. You do not need to work too much on the settings and the post-processing, just set up you iPhone on a tripod and lay in your backyard at night for some hours and Tada! Your star trail photo is ready for Instagram!

If you are planning to use a camera, here are what you need!

1 A full frame DSLR
2 A good fast wide angle lens
3 An empty 16GB or 32GB memory card
4 A cable release (for shake control) or duct tape
5 A tall and sturdy tripod
6 Fully charged extra batteries

For lens, any focal length will work. If you lens have a larger focal length (capability to further zoom-in), you can get longer star trails over a shorter amount of time. If you do not have time to stay too long out at night for the star trail scene, your best choice would be the zoom lens. However, if you are looking for the full cirle star trail, you better stay out for 3 hours or more.

Extra gear
Dew heaters – to prevent moisture in the air condensing onto your lens
Warm clothes – for people who lives in places that is Autumn now
Beach mat – for lying down
Insect repellent – for you will be staying outdoors for quite some time

In fact, you can see these as the basic requirements for Night Photography.

1 Camera Mode: Manual
2 Focus: infinity (opposite of macro)
3 White Balance: 4000°–5500° Kelvin
4 ISO: 300-800 (keep it at minimum to reduce noise)
5 Aperture: f/2.8-f/5.6
6 Shutter Speed: 30-60″ (increase time when image is too dim)
7 Image Format: RAW Image Format, so that you can do post-processing
8 Use a tripod on a steady surface
9 Use a cable release for shake-proof

Similar to Meteor shooting, turn the noise reduction setting off. If there’s no option for turning it off, keep it at the weakest possible, so as to prevent the stars from being cancelled out.

If you want to play with the settings a bit to better suit you needs, just go ahead!

Once you have your all things set up, it is show time for your cable release(or duct tape). First make sure that your camera is set to drive mode so it will take consecutive shots instead of a single frame, plug in the remote and let the camera take pictures on its own for at least 25 minutes. If you don’t have a cable release, use the duct tape to tape down your shutter button, and let the camera take photos. You should end up with a minimum of 50 photos (25 minutes) to several hundred (hours).

After a few hours out at night, go home and stack the images together to get the final product – Star Trail Photography! We recommend using the software StarStaX, which is available for both Windows and Mac. It is a free software, but donations are welcomed.

It is very simple to use, just arrange your images in proper sequence, then drag them into the app; they will load in proper order with you first image on top. Then choose the images with “Lighten” blending mode, and “Start Processing”. Review the image once the stacking is done, and you can try the “Gap Filling” to see if you can get a better result. After you are done with all experiments, save you final creation, and now you can upload it on to your Facebook or Flickr 🙂

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