Shooting Heavens – Star Trail Photography

Feel free to reach me @ Website | Facebook | 500px Flickr | Instagram | Twitter

Shooting at night – in absolute low light is one of the hardest aspects to master. It requires not only a very good technical knowledge about the settings on camera but also requires hell lot of patience. Its one of those genres which everyone tries their hands on, but not everyone succeeds at.

Digging in further deep into night photography, the absolute test of ones patience lies in trying astrophotograhy (Most often disappointing/depressing in beginning). But once you get a grip over it, it gets addictive. I am no different – There were loads of failures and disappointments in beginning but I knew its just a matter of time. And now I keep counting days for the new moon day to have a go at it – again and again. Ursa Minor, Ursa Major, Milkyway, Polar star/North star never meant a damn to me until I got into this particular form of photography, neither did ISO 1000 plus made any sense.

In this blog I would be showcasing some of the star trail images I created during the last few months and share some tips on how I do it. In the next blog I would be discussing on how to shoot milkyways.

 Liwa Star Trail

Nikon D3100 + Tokina 12-24 f4 | 60s | ISO 200 x200 Photos | Location : Liwa Desert

Embrace yourself for one crazy-long blog 😉

I would divide the whole process into 4 categories :

1. Preparation

2. Requirements

3. Settings

4. Post Process

Lets run through each of them NOW.

1. Preparation :

a. Clear Skies : Residing in UAE, Clear skies are never a big deal. Most often I pray for clouds to show up, so that I could shoot long exposures of the beautiful cityscapes of Dubai. Even now the prayer continues but when new moon day (No Moon Day) is close, I pray for no surprises. All I need is one clear night during the new moon day. Clouds aren’t your best friend when shooting star trails.If its a cloudy night, save your energy for something else.

b. Light Pollution : Light pollution caused by cities are visible far beyond one can imagine. You may convince yourself of being in a dark place, but when you shoot long exposures, the camera sensor does sip in the light pollution from the cities from the far horizon. Staying in UAE, which I am sure is one of the most well lit countries in the world, its pretty hard to get away from light pollution. Do travel as far away from the cities as possible and find a real dark spot with least possible light pollution. My travels usually range upto 200+ kms away from Dubai and further 20 odd kms off road. The More deep you head in, lesser the light pollution.

c. New Moon : The best time to shoot astrophotography is during the no moon day. Stars are best visible during these days. Surprisingly, only during such shoots you actually realise the light emitted by stars, they lit the ground like moon does on other days (though this may not be evident for naked eyes, but the camera sensor picks up this light). A few days before/after new moon is a good bet aswell.

d. GPS : Make sure you have GPS in your car. Travelling away from the cities and deep within to some location unknown can prove to be disastrous (Believe me, I been there, I done that 😉 ). GPS is your best buddy on such dark nights, and yes, make sure you got enough gas in your car. Being lost + being short of gas = Disaster.

trails n tree

Nikon D800 + Nikkor 14-24mm f2.8 30s ISO 200 x150 Photographs | Location : Al Aqqa – Fujairah

2. Requirements :

a. Obviously your camera – Star trails involves shooting loads and loads of photographs, so make sure batteries are fully charged. Have a couple of extra batteries if possible. Have a good memory card (atleast 16GB+).

b. Tripod – A Good solid steardy tripod is a must. Even a minor shake can break the path of star trails.

c. Intervalometer – This makes your life easy. Set up the intervalometer with (The number of shots x Intervals between each shot) to be taken and it does the rest for you. Phottix makes some really cool easy to use intervalometers. If brand conscious, buy the Nikon/Canon for 3 times the price of Phottix. Make sure you have one – Thats all matters. Nikon has them inbuilt BTW.

d. Torch : Not only for your own safety in a dark creepy place but torches also help in fixing your focus on foreground interest by providing the light assist.

3. Settings :

Glow of the dark

Nikon D800 + Nikkor 14-24mm f5.6 | 4s | ISO 1600 x1350 Photographs | Al Aqqa – Fujairah

a. North Star : Even before you set up your camera and decide on settings, find the north star. North Star also known as Polaris/Pole star is the star which lies directly over the north pole. The reason why this star plays a crucial role in Astrophotography is because of the artistic advantage – All the stars rotate around the North Star while North Star lies fixed on its Axis (almost), thereby giving a circular star trails (as seen in image below). Its not always necessary to shoot pointing towards north star. I Usually shoot pointing in other directions as I like the abstract feel of star trails more than circular. It all comes down to personal taste.

So how do you find the North Star.

The North Star2

Nikon D800 + Nikkor 14-24mm f2.8 30s ISO 200 x200 Photographs

 *Either learn a bit of astronomy and try understanding where the Ursa Major (Big Dipper) and Ursa Minor (Little Dipper) constellation falls in Northern sky (which is quiet easy to find). The North star is part of the Ursa Minor and the brightest one of the lot. They can be clearly spotted with Naked eyes, so no rocket science. Just look north and find the constellation, once you do, point your camera towards the same.

 *Or just use apps over your phone/tabs. There are few which comes free like Planets and there are few which are paid and more advanced like Stellarium .

Bottom Line : find the North Star if you wish to shoot circular star trails or point you camera anywhere you wish to, to shoot stars trails running wild.

Now that you found the north star the next step is to set your camera and get it ready to shoot. There are various ways of doing this. But heres how I usually do it.

b. Aperture : I shoot at the wide aperture range (f2.8 – f5.6), reason being, I need as much light to enter in as possible, this rescues me from shooting at crazy high ISO. But this would change according to the place I am at, the phasing of the moon, the light pollution and more of such factors.

c. Shutter Speed : Again this is subjective to the photographer. I shoot most often at 30s to 60s max. There are few photographers who shoot exposures of about 5 to 10 minutes. More longer the shutter speed – More the heat over sensor – More Noise. So you decide.

d. ISO : Its about the exposure triangle  Now that I choose f2.8 as my aperture and 30s as my shutter speed, ISO is clearly decided by trail and error. Shoot sample pics at ISO whatever, review the image. Keep increasing the ISO till you find good solid dots of stars on your image – like seen in the image below. You don’t have to see all the billion stars, just few prominent stars indicates you are set to start the intervalometer.


This image above shows you the start point.

e. Focus : Its dark – How does anyone focus !!! Again there are 2 ways to do it. 1. Find a foreground subject, like a tree or a rock or whatever. Using you torch, help your camera focus on it. Lock the focus. From there on, you go on a manual ride. 2. If you don’t really have much in foreground to focus upon, shoot at infinity. Simple.

f. Noise Reduction : Turn off noise reduction in your camera – usually referred to as High ISO NR. If ON, this will slow down your camera after each long exposure click.

g. Intervalometer : Once all the above settings are done, its time for your intervalometers to take over. Star Trail photography involves shooting 100 and sometimes 1000s of images and stacking them together in a software. My usual set up on intervalometer is as follows – Infinite number of shots at 2 seconds interval between each shot. Since my shutter speed is 30s, after every shot of 30s – camera gets a 2 second gap to breathe (this is why you need your High ISO NR to be disabled, else this 2 second gap wouldnt be good enough for your camera to buffer the images in a long run) and then the next shot of 30s is triggered by the intervalometer and this goes on till I stop the intervalometer. Usually I shoot upto 2 hours before I stop the intervalometer.

4. Post Process :

star 2

Nikon D3100 + Tokina 12-24mm f5.6 | 60s | ISO 800 x300 Photographs

You come back home with hundreds and yet times with thousands of photographs. Processing them is indeed the easiest part.

a. Edit and Sync : Import all the photographs to Lightroom (or any other editing software) and edit the very first image with all the minor tweaks to suit your taste. You would especially need to correct the white balance and do a bit of noise reduction on the images. Rest is upto you. Press Cmd+A (Ctrl+A if you still live in stone age 😛 ) and press the sync button on the right hand bottom to apply the same edit to rest of your images. Export them out of Lightroom. Now that the quick edit is done, its time to stack them together.

b. Stacking : Number of free programs are available on internet for stacking these images. One of the most popular one being – Startrails.exe . Download the same, load your images into it and within minutes you have your image ready with beautiful star trails. Even Photoshop does it – in various different ways. You can even create an action in photoshop to do the same for you which works equally well. More freeware softwares : Image Stacker / Deepskystacker

Voila, thats about it. You have your star trails in atmost glory.

Next up is a blog on how to capture Milkyway. Its kind of art in itself.




About subodhshetty
This entry was posted in Long Exposures, Photographic Locations, photography, Silhouettes, Tips and Tutorials and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Shooting Heavens – Star Trail Photography

  1. Moina Meraj says:

    N I was upset I could not make it to the star trail shoot the other night…very informative and very well penned…star trails for dummies edition :)) Good job!

  2. Prajith says:

    Thank you Subodh Shetty 🙂

  3. shrishphoto says:

    Lovely post Subodh! A definitely ‘Go-To’ post for individuals wanting to know about Star Trails! 😉

  4. nana says:

    Star trails. Into my bucketlist now.

  5. gsuneth says:

    Dear subodh, what would be the best place in UAE to capture milky way? (sorry for not waiting for your milkyway post 🙂 )

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s