How to Shoot Stars!
This is my personal journey as I continue to learn to shoot star trails. I am fascinated and obsessed with star trails. What are star trails you ask? Well, They are bascially just light trails…light trails with a twist. You see, stars stay in their assigned places in the sky, but we here on the earth are constantly moving in an orbit. That being the case the stars seem to change their position in the sky constantly. When taking a long exposure of the sky on a clear night, the camera actually captures the trail of light left in the sky as the earth rotates. Fascinating ;)
What do you need to capture star trails?
Well you need a DSLR camera, a tripod, and a place where you can see the stars at night with limited light pollution. A remote or cable release is also VERY useful, but not necessarily essential. I’ll explain…
Preparing the shot
The most difficult part about capturing star trails is setting up the shot. It takes planning, and seriously, who likes that? But it’s worth it. Take time during the day to scout out possible locations for your shot. This is essential as once it is dark enough to capture the stars you usually can not see anything around you. lol. I learned this the hard way. Take note of things that might damage your shot, such as street lights, nearby roads, etc. Ideally you will want to be shooting away from distracting lights. You also want to take note of the landscape. While the stars in themselves are dazzling, including foreground in your shot makes for a stronger composition. Be sure that all foreground elements are at least 10 feet or more away from you….
(My 1st sucessful shot taken outside of Half Moon Bay California with a bright moon. Exposure: 215, Aperature: F/10, Focal Length: 18mm, ISO: 200)
(Taken in the countryside over Russian River, just about an hour after sunset. Exposure: 365, Aperature: F/5, Focal Length: 18 mm, ISO: 200)
Taking the shot
So it’s a nice clear night, you have a location, and it’s time to take your shot. Now for the technical bit ;) First, set your focus on infinity. This means setting the focus to the ∞ symbol, or, if you have Nikkor lenses like me, turn all the way to the right. Next, ask yourself some questions. How dark is it? Are you way out in the country with hardly any noise pollution? If so, keep your aperture wide open to soak up the light, something like f/5. If you live where there is more light pollution though, start out with a smaller aperture like f/10. With practice you will learn what is best for your area. In super dark places you may need to increase your ISO, but try the lowest number first ;)
Next question…how long do you want to shoot for? When I first started I over eagerly insisted on super long exposure times. Don’t make my mistake. Try shorter exposures first, like 3 minutes. See how the shot comes out. Was it sucessful? Great, now try 5 minutes. Remember, the longer the exposure time, the more noise in the image. To take exposure times longer than 30 seconds you will most likely need a remote for your camera, or a cable release. Set your shutter speed to “bulb” and use your remote or release to take the shot. Be sure to time your shot carefully. If you do not have a remote or cable release, don’t worry, you will find a trick at the end of the article…
(Exposure: 423, Aperature: F/4.5, Focal Length: 18 mm, ISO: 200)
Another interesting tidbit to keep in mind is…the direction you shoot will affect the movement of your light trails. Don’t worry about this at first as any star trails you capture will be amazing. But, it is interesting to note that if you face North, the light trails will move in an arc around the North Star, or Polaris. If you want to capture circular trails in the sky, therefore, it is handy to carry a compass while you scout for locations. Then, once it is dark, you will know exactly where to find North :) I finally found North after shooting the shot below!
Do you see the one non-moving star to the left of the shot? The other stars seem to be moving around it. That is the North Star. How do you find it? Well, the way I find it, besides using a compass, is to find the big dipper. Follow the big dipper from the handle to the ladel and the ladel part will point to Polaris.
(Apple Orchard in Guerneville, California. 6 shots, 6 minutes each at f/5.6, ISO: 200)
For this shot I tried a little trick I’ll share with you :) Oooh this is a really great trick!! You see, the longer your exposure is, the more noise you will have in your shot. This is especially so if you have to have a higher ISO number. So, instead of taking one super long shot here, I took six shots consecutively each 6 minutes long. Then I layered them on top of each other in Photoshop and set the blend mode to “lighten”. This mode allows only the lightest parts of each layer to show through and thus the result here is one shot showing a 36 minute time frame. I used the same trick here…
(Selyem William’s vineyard. 11 shots 3 minutes each, F/5.6, ISO: 200)
For this scene I chose short exposure times of 3 minutes each. The reason, it’s was still very early in the evening with alot of ambiant light, plus a very bright moon. Taking so many shots and layering them allowed me to ensure that my image wouldn’t be over exposed and still capture the trails. I hope to revisit this scene the next time I visit the countryside…
Here’s a tip: If you don’t have a remote or cable release you might not be able to do extended long exposures. You can however take 30 sec exposures. So take alot of 30 second exposures consecutively and overlay them using the “lighten” blend mode. Or, if there are just too many shots, try merging them with a star trail program like this one :)
(Shelter Cove, Pacifica. Exposure: 128 sec, F/5.6, ISO: 200, Focal Length: 15 mm)
Now of course we know that stars trailing in the sky are awesome, but sometimes just stars, without trails, are even better. After trying the scene above with and without trails, the image with the stars as static won the vote…
(Old Cottage, Guerneville. 51 shots at 30 sec each, F/5.6, ISO: 200, Focal Length: 13 mm)
(Safari West, Santa Rosa. One hour of stars. 21 shots at 3 min. each, F/5, ISO: 200)
Things I’ve learned thus far…
Scout out a place to shoot BEFORE nightfall, perferably with a compass to determine the direction of the stars
Make sure foreground elements are at least 10 feet or more in front of you
Set focus to infinity
Set shutter speed to bulb
Shoot at the lowest ISO number you can get away with
Shoot with the widest aperture you can you can get away
doBring a tripod and a remote or cable release
Higher places are better, and shooting over the ocean is not ideal because ocean mist often conceals and distorts stars
Stay away from roads unless you want the headlights of vehicles to illuminate your foreground