Star Trails How To

Star Trails Over Lone Pine Peak – Behind the Photo

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I’ve always been somewhat enamored by stars and space. And I’ve always found something captivating about those star trails photos you see… The cosmos swirling wildly above the landscape.

What little kid doesn’t want to grow up to be an astronaut? My college astronomy course was definitely the coolest of the requisite couple science classes I had to take as part of my liberal arts degree.

Most star trails images in the digital age are the result of significant post processing.

There are two typical methods to accomplish star trails:

1) Bulb mode, whereby you leave the shutter open for as long as desired to capture movement, which worked great for film, but is often impractical with digital due to battery limitations, sky glow, or excessive image noise

2) You can take hundreds of shots over time and then stack the images with computer software.

See this article on Photo Stacking and Long Exposures for more info.

But I’ve never had a camera that could truly capture those types of scenes, no more than just a 30 second exposure.

My Sony NEX-6 camera, coupled with the time-lapse app–which costs an additional $9.99 from the app store, totally ridiculous, considering the price of the camera itself–enables the capture of star trails.

With the time-lapse app and a decent tripod, I would be able to take hundreds of photos over many hours and then combine the photos digitally after the fact to create my final desired image.

This was my fourth ever attempt to create longer star trails–three of which were here in the Sierras and which we’ll discuss here.

First Sierra Star Trails Shot

The first night I decided to attempt another star trail shot, I wasn’t really prepared to do so.

My camera battery didn’t even have a full charge. I also was setting up in the dark, which makes it challenging to achieve exact focus on distant and dark objects like the mountains.

I know there are various tricks like focusing on the moon or bright stars, or using a bright flashlight in the foreground and focusing on that, but the only thing I tried in this attempt was to focus on the moon.

First attempt was lacking in focus and sharpness on the distant peaks.

First attempt was lacking in focus and sharpness on the distant peaks.

This shot consisted of approximately two hours of exposures at a 28mm focal length (42mm). Exposures: 13 second, f4.5, ISO 1600.

The focus is absolutely critical and this one was lacking–it has been “improved” by increasing sharpness and clarity in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, but that only does so much.

I learned the importance of setting up the shot at sunset or dusk. I also had a decent bit of star “wobble” from shots in the beginning of the sequence due to wind, so I just deleted them from being processed.

So, not great, but it taught me some things…

Second Shot Pre-Game Setup

The next day, as the sun was setting, I set up my tripod, framed the composition, and preset the focus manually on the distant peaks.

Getting the shot in focus during the daylight was the main goal though–the continuous focus rings have proved difficult to get sharp landscapes in the dark.

I also turned off image stabilization, high ISO noise reduction, and other unnecessary settings to maximize battery life.

I had the tripod at the lowest setting to the ground (most stable) and then weighted/braced with two 2.5 gallon water jugs.

It was quite windy that evening, and I got some “movement” in my star trails from the previous night’s attempt and had to dump a number of frames at the beginning.

I then hung out in my truck and read a book, waiting for the sun to set and then for the sky to get sufficiently dark (at least 90 minutes past sunset).

I actually started 2.5 hours after the official sunset time since I was waiting for some clouds to (hopefully) dissipate. Ideally I would’ve started earlier to allow for more dark sky before the moon rose.

I took a few more test shots at the settings I was planning to use, and then took one “dark frame” shot with the lens cap on at the same settings.

This dark shot can be used during image stacking for noise reduction.

Then I launched the time-lapse app, and then like Ron Popeil, I could “set it… and forget it!” I went back to my truck to watch some Sopranos episodes on my laptop.

The camera took a total of 864 shots over the course of three and a half hours with 13 second exposures at f3.5 with an ISO of 1600.

Two second lag time between shots (15 second intervals in the time-lapse app). The widest angle with my lens selection was a 16mm focal length (24mm equivalent).

One of the many original shots before being combined. This one before the moon came up.

One of the many original shots before being combined. This one before the moon came up.

One of the many original shots before being combined. This one after the moon came up.

One of the many original shots before being combined. This one after the moon came up.

I used a custom theme setting in the time-lapse app, and not their Night Sky theme, but I used similar settings like the 1600 ISO since that’s what I used the night before (here’s that photo), and knew about how it would come out.

Had about an hour of dark skies before the moon started rising (it was a couple days past the full moon). It was partially obstructed by clouds and didn’t really start lighting up the foreground until about an hour and a half into the exposures.

I let the camera run until the batteries ran out.

Post Processing

I imported the 864 photos to my computer and just quickly scrolled through them to make sure all was well.

Then using the free Windows software Startrails.de, I combined all the shots using the faster “Lighten” blendmode to I could review the overall image.

The end result showed a satellite streaking through, that I did not like, as well as breaks and interruptions in the trails themselves at the end of the sequence caused by some thick incoming clouds.

I used a touch up tool to remove the satellite streak from the 8 or so images it showed up in, and then I worked to identify where the continuity of my star trails was interrupted and how many images I needed to cut.

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The periodic thin clouds started rolling in through the night (there were puffier clouds around at sunset too), which eventually gave way to the problematic thick clouds, compelling me to dump the last 170+ shots (around 45 minutes of exposures).

So now that I had identified my usable sequence of images, I added those to Startrails.de along with my one token dark frame (my first time using one) — see this post from Star Circle Academy on the value of dark frames.

And then I used the Lighten-Screen-Blend (LSB) blendmode in Startrails.de, a slower form of processing that minimizes gaps.

I exported the resulting image as a TIFF (higher quality than JPEG), which produced the following image:

SST initial tiff export

From there, I imported the TIFF file into Adobe Lightroom for some additional post processing.

First of all I placed a graduated filter over the landscape portion. Within that I pushed the clarity way up and the sharpness up quite a bit. I wanted the landscape to be sharper and more striking. Clarity really helps with this.

Then, image wide, I bumped up the clarity and vibrance a little bit, my typical first move with these landscape shots. And I pushed the blacks down to darken it up, while raising the shadows level to get some of those details back.

Effectively increasing the contrast. I pushed the whites up a little to brighten up the image and star trails. I pushed the sharpness and luminance up image wide as well.

Lastly, I put another graduated filter across the sky, so I could push up the contrast to make the star trails stand out a little more, and I dropped the temperature just a little bit to get that bluish sky look, instead of the grayish/green.

SST Lightroom before after

And with that, I was pretty satisfied with the results.

StartrailsSierras2-1-2

Composition

I was shooting directly out of my campsite at the Tuttle Creek Campground, so I had a limited amount to work with.

I obviously wanted to shoot over the mountains, which was directly west. This had the benefit of giving me that parabolic shape with the stars (as opposed to the circular trails when shooting north).

I tried to include something in the foreground for interest and scale, thus the inclusion of the rocks and bush, but it could have been more compelling with something else… Say, an old dilapidated barn or tent or something.

Keeping in mind the rule of thirds, I kept the landscape in the lower third of the composition and allowed the sky to make up the upper two thirds of the image, since it is obviously the focus of this shot.

I placed Lone Pine Peak slightly off of center.

I think the composition is okay.

SST composition rule of thirds

Image with rule of thirds grid overlay.

Critiques

  • I’ve got a few little breaks or fades here and there in the star trails, but I’m not sure what that is due to. Possibly just the wispy clouds.
  • I’ve got some blurring in the foreground bush because of the wind shaking it around, unfortunately.
  • The image appears somewhat crooked to me because of the landscape sloping up to the right. The shot was level, but the landscape was not. Cropping and straightening loses certain elements like the base of the rock in the foreground, which I didn’t like.
  • There are also a few hot pixels–little white dots–that appear here and there.

Third Shot Attempt

A few nights later I decided to give it another go. I wanted to take all the things I had learned from the previous two attempts and incorporate them.

I also wanted to include something more interesting in the foreground and scrambled to set up my Mountain Laurel Designs TrailStar before the sun went down.

Having gotten a grasp of the camera settings and whatnot from the most recent attempt, my focus now was on how to best position the camera in relation to the TrailStar and how to best light the shelter from within.

I should say that the scene was 100% staged: I wasn’t sleeping in the shelter that night, but I set everything up as if I was, including the ground cloth, sleeping pad, sleeping bag, and even my pack with a few items in it.

I ended up using two lights within the shelter and tried to position them so they were not visible inside the tarp and that the lighting was relatively even (minimizing harsh lighting lines or shadows).

I went through the same pregame setup detailed for the second shot, then I cleared my memory card and brought the camera back to the truck to fully charge it back up to 100% (instead of 96% or whatever).

I waited a full two hours after sunset for the skies to get completely dark, and to make sure I had enough battery life to catch the moon rise in another two and a half hours–I needed some foreground lighting on the distant peaks.

StartrailsSierras3-1-2

Click on the image to see a higher quality version.

Before I started the time-lapse sequence, I turned on my lights in the shelter and took a bunch of different shots ranging between 10 second exposures and 25 second exposures.

I wasn’t sure how bright the tarp should be when it would be stacked with hundreds of other images, so I gave myself lots to work with. And then I turned the lights off in the shelter.

I took a couple dark frames and then started the time-lapse sequence. This time I was running 25 second exposures, at f3.5, and ISO 800 at a 16mm focal length (24mm).

It took some 445 photos over 3 hours and 40 minutes.

Post Processing

I followed the some process as detailed above for the second image.

The only difference being I added a gradient filter to my single illuminated tarp shot–I ended up using a 10 second exposure–in order to completely black out the stars (else it might cause a skip at the start of the trails) before stacking the images in Startrails.de.

I then followed the same post processing sequence… Startrails.de and then into Adobe Lightrooom for some finishing work.

Final Thoughts

Overall, I am pretty happy with how this last shot came out.

Again, this is effectively my fourth attempt at longer star trails, and I learn a little bit more every time.

The inclusion of the tarp as a foreground element really makes it pop, particularly the bright yellow color of the TrailStar. And yes, I couldn’t resist the thought of including my TrailStar in a star trails shot… 😀

Additional Resources

If you have any questions or constructive criticism, leave me a comment below, thanks!

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Star Trails Over Lone Pine Peak - Behind the Photo

Ryan

Author, Writer, and Head Honcho at Desk to Dirtbag
Ryan is an author, adventurer, perpetual wanderer, and self-proclaimed dirtbag (but that might not mean what you think). Originally from Seattle, he headed to Washington D.C. where he spent five years working for Congress before heeding the call of the wild. He set out living in his pickup truck to road trip across the American West. Since then he backpacked through Colombia, drove across all of Central America, and also wrote a best selling book: Big Travel, Small Budget. He just finished driving his old truck across all of South America -- support the adventures by visiting the D2D Shop. Follow the adventures on social media or read more about me.

Comments 5

  1. I have a new Nex 5T and plan to try this. I did it before with a Canon with the chdk allowing me to turn off dark frame subtraction, so that I could avoid gaps between photos. But, I can’t figure out how to do that on the Nex. How did you deal with that?

    1. Post
      Author

      Within the settings I turned off all the extraneous settings I could find. Namely the high ISO noise reduction and long exposure noise reduction. That will allow it to take shots back to back to back without the lag as it processes them between shots. If not, you will get those gaps in your trails. Does that answer your question? These menu options are available on the 6, though I’m not familiar of what the differences might be with the 5. Let us know, please!

      1. Thanks for the info! I haven’t had a chance to actually test it with photos, but I looked through my menus and both of those are there, so hopefully that will work. Its funny, I actually emailed Sony customer support asking if there was a way to turn off dark frame subtraction for nighttime time lapses and they did not point me to those menus – maybe they didn’t understand what I was asking because I was using a different name for it. I have only had this camera a few weeks and I keep discovering new menu options I didn’t know about. I didn’t realize long exposure noise reduction is the same as dark frame subtraction but now that I think about it it totally makes sense. You have saved my star trails! (most likely.) I’m in a city right now so there’s too much light pollution – I probably won’t be testing it out till I leave the city on break. But I’m very happy to know about those options, since they are really critical for star trails.

        On a different topic, I have to let you know that there’s a problem with your website that gets in the way of reading it. When I load it on a computer, I get two popups – one that says something about you, and one that asks me to share with facebook, reddit, etc. On the computer, I can close the one about you, but I can’t close the one about sharing. It blocks some text, but the computer screen is large enough to scroll around it, so its not too big of an issue.
        However, on the iPhone, it blocks the entire article and can’t be closed. I also can’t close the one about you because it won’t let me center the page on the x. Its hard to explain, but basically it means your site cannot be read at all on an iPhone. I had to wait till I could get to a computer to read this comment.

    1. Post
      Author

      Thanks Kobus! There’s just something that’s so much fun about night photography and uncovering what you can’t quite see with the naked eye. I was in a photography seminar all week, one thing I learned about were these skytracking devices used with telescopes that will follow the movement of a particular group of stars, allowing long exposures without the streaking… Pricey sure. But pretty cool, nonetheless!

      It was great connecting with you the other evening! Thanks for all the great info (both in person and from the blog).

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