A Beginner's Guide to Star Trail Photography

66

Let's call this an overview to the basics of star trail photography for beginners from the pros. These are a short collection of techniques I've read and learned from books and tutorials that I want to share with you.

I never thought I’d be writing a tipster on anything as I am, for the most part, a “Don’t think. Just shoot.” Lomographer – not as a rule I follow by, mind you; it’s more of a laziness to think kind of thing. As a result, I tend to either not pay attention to the details and/or forget what I did during my shoots. You see how this would pose as a problem if one wanted to write a tipster? Still, I thought to give it a shot.

A few months ago, during California’s hottest months, a couple of friends and I were roughing it in the southern Mojave wilderness for a night and a day…

Oh alright, so “wilderness” and “roughing it” aren’t exactly the accurate words to describe a campground with picnic tables, firepits, and grills. In my defense, we had no running water, the cell phone reception was nonexistent, the bugs were so massive you can practically see their faces grinning evilly at you from a foot away, and coyotes were howling in the dead of the night. For a girl who’s lived in big cities most of her life, that’s about as wild as it could get.

Wait, where was I? Oh yes…

Besides a much needed time off from the hustle and bustle of LA, we wanted to practice our light-painting techniques. That led us to camp out in the desert. I, however, was excited to try my luck at star trail photography (which I’ve never done before… ever) as I’ve always had this great love and fascination for the night sky. So before we left the city, I did some research on tried and tested techniques employed by veteran star trail photographers. This way, I could come home with at least a photograph or two with streaks of light on them (and by lights, I don’t mean from passing airplanes).

A month or two later, when I finally got the chance to scan my roll from camping, I found that I actually got more than a couple of good shots – considering it was my very first attempt.

And so here I am, writing this tipster, to share those techniques from the pros with you. Now bear in mind that they’re only basic pointers to get you started – no fancy footwork, no technical discussions of any sort.

Location, location, location!!! Now you don’t have to go all Bear Grylls on this one and hike all the way to the middle of the Sahara. A nice, mostly flat area a few miles away from your town or city will do as long as…

  • it’s dark enough.
  • it’s far enough that the sky won’t reflect the city lights.
  • there are a few nice landmarks (trees, rock formations, etc…) you can illuminate and use as foregrounds.
  • it’s safe enough that you can stay there all night without getting hunted by big cats, bears, canines, psychos… (you get the gist).
  • it’s on a clear, cloudless night.

Rule of Thumb. I read somewhere that the light from a star moves every 15 seconds. I don’t know if that’s entirely accurate but let’s assume it is. This means that…

  • in 5-10 minutes, you will get visible (albeit short) light trails in your exposure.
  • the longer you leave the shutter open, the longer the trails will be.

Find Polaris The North Star is the only constant, unmoving star in the northern hemisphere (it’s the Sigma Octantis / South Star for you southerners). Meaning…

  • if you point your lens towards it and you expose long enough, you will get star trails that form circles around it, and
  • if you point away from it, you’ll get striped patterns instead.

Equipment

  • Most pros prefer normal to wide-angle lenses. I read somewhere, though, that it’s good to use a wide-angle when you’re pointing due East or West and to use a telephoto lens when pointing at the pole.
  • Films with 50-100 ISO – longer exposures but less noise
  • A firm, steady tripod because… oh you know why…
  • A camera with a bulb setting (or should I say, cameras. I used my Canon Xs and my Dianas.)
  • A cable release with a lock mechanism as your exposures would take from minutes to hours.
  • Blanket/s for warmth, flashlights, a good book or a friend to talk to (preferably somebody you can outrun, just in case…), maybe a timer if you plan on taking in-between naps or lots of coffee is you don’t, food… you get the general idea.

Aperture Setting. I’ve learned that the pros prefer to shoot at the widest aperture setting which makes sense really as that would let more light in. Careful to position yourself at least 10 meters away from illuminated foregrounds though, so focus won’t be an issue. I learned that the hard way.

Experiment with exposure times. It really depends on what you’re trying to achieve in your photograph.

Be patient and have fun!!

That’s pretty much the key points a beginner star trail photographer would need – unless I’m missing some things which I’m pretty sure some awesome people would point out and share with us. For more advanced techniques, the web is an intricate source of information, all of which are ready at a moment’s notice.

So good luck and happy trailing!

written by blueskyandhardrock on 2011-05-20 in #gear #tipster

66 Comments

  1. nerpman
    nerpman ·

    Thank you! I've always wanted to try this, and you've pointed me in the right direction.

  2. kadense
    kadense ·

    awesome article! i loved your introductory paragraphs too ;)

  3. freckleface
    freckleface ·

    This is sweet and I like it :)

  4. grazie
    grazie ·

    Great article Michelle!

  5. blueskyandhardrock
    blueskyandhardrock ·

    @nerpman that's great. have fun!! let me know how it turns out.
    @kadense, @freckleface, @grazie thanks so much, glad you like it!

  6. mephisto19
    mephisto19 ·

    Very good photos! Thanks for sharing this tipster

  7. blueskyandhardrock
    blueskyandhardrock ·

    @mephisto19 thanks love!

  8. naqi
    naqi ·

    great article. hope mine will not blow out

  9. blueskyandhardrock
    blueskyandhardrock ·

    @naqi thank you! if it's really dark and there are no city lights reflected in the night sky, you can expose for hours and it won't blow up. :D

  10. ceduxi0n
    ceduxi0n ·

    beer and smores. add to list pls, kthx. wait, did we or did we not have smores that night? the night the bugs had elbows.

  11. ceduxi0n
    ceduxi0n ·

    also, let's do this again! next month or i will blow up :D

  12. renenob
    renenob ·

    Very Helpful!

  13. simonh82
    simonh82 ·

    Really good article, lots of detail which is nice and great photos!

  14. blueskyandhardrock
    blueskyandhardrock ·

    @ceduxi0n camping with @satomi and @lomosexual_manboy!
    @renenob and @simonh82 thanks guys! hope it helps.

  15. cptsalek
    cptsalek ·

    Well done, great article! :) I did star photography in the past (during my time as active hobby astronomer). I used to take photos of the night sky, including constellations with brighter objects (e.g. Orion). I used an exposure time up to 30secs.

  16. jblaze823
    jblaze823 ·

    This is a great tipster. Makes we want to go out and shoot my own. Have tried a few off our balcony, but there is too much surrounding light. I have been doing daytime timelapses (digital) to create videos, but really want to shoot some analog Stills with my Diana. Anyway nice work!

  17. mikahsupageek
    mikahsupageek ·

    Great tipster hun =)

  18. blueskyandhardrock
    blueskyandhardrock ·

    @cptsalek thanks. can i see your photos? i used to be a hobby astronomer too, in college. :D
    @jblaze823 DO IT!!! something i forgot to include in this article is that with the Diana, it takes longer exposure time than an slr for your desired result.
    @mikahsupageek thanks, supah geek!

  19. jodimeetdiana76
    jodimeetdiana76 ·

    Very cool and great pics. I'll have to plan a trip to try this.

  20. lomosexual_manboy
    lomosexual_manboy ·

    Trill.

  21. kakikamera
    kakikamera ·

    love this. :D

  22. ecchymoses
    ecchymoses ·

    thanks for sharing!

  23. vicuna
    vicuna ·

    oh yeah!!! finally this great tipster is published!!! fantastic work Michelle! :))

  24. ceduxi0n
    ceduxi0n ·

    @lomosexualmanboy - we are going to kidnap you

  25. francesco1
    francesco1 ·

    awesome tipster

  26. adbigmilk
    adbigmilk ·

    A cool article. I like your writing.

  27. blueskyandhardrock
    blueskyandhardrock ·

    @jodimeetdiana76 thanks! You def should, it's a fun experience.
    @lomosexual_manboy you are too funny!

  28. noe_arteaga
    noe_arteaga ·

    Um, am I invited on the camping trip too? if not, I will unlike this article!!! hahaha, Great shots Michelle, and excellent tipster.

  29. caromi
    caromi ·

    Wow, fantastic. Absolutely fantastic.

  30. kerpella
    kerpella ·

    "or a friend to talk to (preferably somebody you can outrun, just in case…)" HAHAHA!! Love it. Great tipster. Now I need to find a photographer boyfriend :3 Good idea for a date, no? ;D

  31. blueskyandhardrock
    blueskyandhardrock ·

    @noe_arteaga whatever happens, this summer will be amazing!
    @caromi thank you! you're sweet!
    @kerpella :D glad you enjoyed my little weird quips :D yes, a photographer boyfriend in the middle of the desert wilderness gazing at the stars. very romantic. love it! now, where do we get decent men? ;)

  32. stouf
    stouf ·

    You rock ! In the blue sky ! : )

  33. artabear
    artabear ·

    I'm into astrophotography, but never tried film though :) Let's shoot the heaven!

  34. vtayeh
    vtayeh ·

    I just LOVED reading through your article!! I will have to try it this summer!

  35. eirikur
    eirikur ·

    Very nice! I have tried this before out in the back garden, hemmed in from the city lights. The results were interesting. Looking forward to trying it out properly some time this Summer.

  36. jeabzz
    jeabzz ·

    great tipster michelle!! :D

  37. chipmunk
    chipmunk ·

    Thanks for the tipster, I wanna try this sometime! =)

  38. ceduxi0n
    ceduxi0n ·

    dammit michelle, we are gonna go on this camping trip SINGLE this time. sorry i brought a jerk with us last time lololol. me and satomi will hold hands with you if you get lonely. :D

  39. -walsh-
    -walsh- ·

    thanks for that, will have to try it now!

  40. blueskyandhardrock
    blueskyandhardrock ·

    @stouf you and me both!
    @artabear LET'S!!!
    @vtayeh @eirikur @chipmunk @-walsh- thank you, thank you! Definitely, so much fun and so satisfying. Hope this helps.
    @jeabzz thank you, my friend.
    @ceduxi0n girl, I'm having a blast being single! So many good-looking guys, so little time... ;)

  41. blueskyandhardrock
    blueskyandhardrock ·

    @stouf you and me both!
    @artabear LET'S!!!
    @vtayeh @eirikur @chipmunk @-walsh- thank you, thank you! Definitely, so much fun and so satisfying. Hope this helps.
    @jeabzz thank you, my friend.
    @ceduxi0n girl, I'm having a blast being single! So many good-looking guys, so little time... ;)

  42. nicx
    nicx ·

    Really great

  43. peropero
    peropero ·

    oh i've seen your pictures a long time ago and i still love them.
    great tipster!

  44. mishika
    mishika ·

    no flash needed right?

  45. blueskyandhardrock
    blueskyandhardrock ·

    @nicx and @peropero thanks guys! Appreciate it!
    @mishika for the star trails, no flash needed. Just long exposures, Bulb setting. However, if there's a foreground you wanna capture but you have absolutely no light on it, you can use flash or a flashlight to illuminate it for less than or a few seconds so it'll be exposed in your photo too. ;)

  46. ccooll
    ccooll ·

    my Friend he have try this Let's see the result of him and i will try next!! Thank u

  47. geosama
    geosama ·

    Hi there, out of curiosity. Did you happen to experiment a little with your Canon xs first to get the right settings? I love startrails and doing it with a Lomo seems really interesting but am a little afraid of stepping out of my digital comfort zone. And awesome pictures btw.

  48. blueskyandhardrock
    blueskyandhardrock ·

    @geosama I did some practice shots with my DSLR - Canon Rebel XTI - before, just to test it out. It was a pretty good idea. But you def should try shooting with analogue. The prob with DSLRs is that if it's cold, the sensor might freeze and you won't capture anything successfully. That and the battery won't last long either if you expose from night til early morning before sunrise. When you do, show me your results, yeah?
    @ccooll yeah! you're welcome!

  49. antibiotyx
    antibiotyx ·

    stellar shots! i'll try it out with my holga or diana mini next time i go camping or hang out on the rooftop. perfect, i have a cable release. thanks for sharing. :)

  50. paganocristo
    paganocristo ·

    Always wondered about this, never thought it with a Lomo : )

  51. sylvia_littlemaple
    sylvia_littlemaple ·

    Super cool! I always wanted to try this out..
    however it is not easy to find a suitable place for this in where I live ):

  52. monkeyalien
    monkeyalien ·

    so much detail! thanks! really helpful

  53. bilboroberts
    bilboroberts ·

    I wanna go camping NOW! These photos are really beautiful. Must find somewhere with no light pollution...

  54. lhingnhung
    lhingnhung ·

    thx for sharing this.. you 've inspired me!

  55. badjuju
    badjuju ·

    Great article! Thanks for the tips!

  56. _ella_
    _ella_ ·

    Love the article

  57. shoujoai
    shoujoai ·

    Thanks for sharing, great article!

  58. djramsay
    djramsay ·

    I'm going to Aruba in September, do you think that this would this work with a Holga 120 Wide Pinhole Camera?

  59. blueskyandhardrock
    blueskyandhardrock ·

    @jdramsay it is recommended to use the widest aperture possible - f/22 or f/32 - to let more light in. A pinhole aperture would not only take too long but also since the opening is so small, I don't even know if the light of the stars will reach the film. But hey, Lomo is all about experimentation so if you wanna give it a go, I say do it! ;)

  60. davideji
    davideji ·

    Amazing- i love your writing style :D

  61. willgillibrand
    willgillibrand ·

    this is a beautiful tipster to accompany great photos :') thanks so much for the advice !

  62. phantomphoenixphotos
    phantomphoenixphotos ·

    The photos are so inspiriiiiing. :(

  63. bearxiangz
    bearxiangz ·

    hi what film did u use. cause for such long exposure u will bound to get color shifts right

  64. blueskyandhardrock
    blueskyandhardrock ·

    @bearxiangz i used a regular C-41 film. but yeah, if you use an E6 film and cross-process it, you'll have some pretty interesting color shifts. xo

  65. chourique
  66. analogdisplay
    analogdisplay ·

    Love it!

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