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.
- 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!