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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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).
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.
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.
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:
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.
And with that, I was pretty satisfied with the results.
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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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… 😀
- Star Trails Academy – lots of great free info on their website
- How to Photograph Star Trails: The Ultimate Guide from Light Stalking – lots of great insight in this one post.
- How to Create Dazzling Star Trail Photos, From Start to Finish Read from Peta Pixel – More info and insight.
- Check out the Sony NEX-6 on Amazon.com – the camera I use as I travel.
If you have any questions or constructive criticism, leave me a comment below, thanks!
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