Tips and tutorials

Star Trail Photography Tutorial and Tips [Video]

Star trail photography is one of the fascinating genres in photography. Star trails are created during a long exposure due to earth’s rotation. Making a star trail photograph is a dream for most of the photographers especially beginners. Star trail photography is one of the items in their to do list when someone buy a DSLR for some serious photography. But, it is very confusing and most beginners give up. This is because night photography is all about converging light. The bottom line is, it isn’t difficult at all. Yes, it is confusing, but definitely not difficult. You just have to know some techniques, and once you get the hang of it, you can make excellent star trail images. I have been looking for some night photography tutorials in youtube and found an interesting one by Tony Northrup. In this video, he explains star trail photography in great detail

 Video Tutorials on Star trail photography

After watching the video you will learn:
How to spot the North Star for a perfect star trail photography, and preparations you need to do for getting the best results
How to setup the camera for night photography
How to do light painting
How to process the captured images in photoshop and make the final image.
Here is another video by Steve Perry on Star trail photography

I have tried star trail photography and below are some of the tips that worked for me. Some of these are explained in the videos itself, but, hey, there is no harm in going through them again.
It is all about location, location, and location
 Find a good place which has no light pollution and a clear sky. So go to a place as far away from your city as possible. Another thing, you should consider, is the foreground. If you just want to try your hand on star trail photography, then a clear sky would help. But if you want to make a good image — with good composition and all — then you need to consider the foreground as well. So, the selection of the place is very crucial and is most important in star trail photography (or in any other kind of photography, I say). I have shared here some beautiful star trail photographs that I have collected from around the web. You can see that the foreground adds beauty to the overall image even though they are all star trail photographs.From those photographs, you will see that the foreground makes the star trail photographs different from each other. You should also consider the moonlight. If there is moonlight, then you probably won’t get a good star trail photograph. So, a clear sky with less moonlight would be ideal for star trail photography.
You don’t really need an expensive equipment
When I made my first star trail photograph and showed it to others, the majority of the questions I was asked on the equipment. They thought I used a special lens or something. But, I didn’t. I just used a basic 18-55mm kit lens. It may not give you the best quality image, but it does its job. I am not denying the fact that a high-end DSLR or a good quality lens will give you good image quality and all, but you can try star trail photography with the an entry level gear.
Use a wide angle focal length
You will get longer trails when you use a wide angle lens since you have to expose the frame for longer duration. Also, you can include more stars and compose well if you use a wide angle lens.
Beware of the ‘enemies’ of night photography
The enemies of star trial (or night photography) photography are blur and noise. So, it is important that you should consider taking care of these two things before taking the photographs.
How to avoid blur? There are different ways blur happens in a photograph. I have mentioned all of them in one of my previous posts. In night photography, the blur is caused due to camera shake and focus issue.
The blur due to camera shake can be avoided by using a sturdy tripod, and by using a shutter release cable or the timer of your camera. When you press the shutter release button, nonetheless how gently you press it down, it will cause camera shake and the exposure will be blurry. So, you should definitely use a shutter release cable.
If you are not focussing properly, you might end up getting soft, unfocused, or blurry image. And it is difficult to focus the image since it is too dark.
Next enemy is the image noise. It is a headache for photographers. There are two kinds of noise creeps in on your night photographs: noise due to high ISO and noise due to long exposure. I would not recommend shooting in high ISO unless you have a semi-pro or full frame DSLR since the image quality in them is fairly good. If you have a fast lens (like f2.8 or something) use a wide aperture which will allow you to set low ISO, and thereby avoiding the high ISO image noise.
The noise due to long exposure is unavoidable since you are shooting in long exposure, or rather, you have to. So how do you avoid the long exposure noise?. Well, you can’t. You can only remove them in post processing. I would not recommend using the in-camera noise reduction since, it, sometimes, make the image too soft. The long exposure noise depends on the type of DSLR you have. If you are using a full frame camera, these sorts of noise would not probably bother you. If you are using an entry level camera, the noise would be much worse. A method people usually use to avoid noise due to long exposure is stacking. It is about taking several not-so-long exposures and stacking them to get the final output. Here is how it is done. First, you need to find out at which exposure the noise becomes prominent. Say, it is at 1 min. So, you can take 6 images of 10 seconds long and stack them. The final image would be same as that of the one-minute exposure. Well, there will be a slight difference, but I will explain that and more on image stacking later.
Once you make sure that you have taken care of these two factors, you can start calculating the exposure for your image.
Some beautiful Star trail photographs
Photo Credits: Antonio Solano Photo Credits: Michael Bolognesi
Photo Credits: Dongrui Yu Photo Credits: Igor Natanzon
Photo Credits: Daniel Leong

Are you ready to try some star trail photography? Please share your results with us as comments.

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Vidhu Soman

Vidhu is an enthusiastic photographer from Kerala, India. His desire to share his knowledge and experience on photography was the motivation for creating Shutterstoppers. His dream is to provide a platform for people all around the world to exchange ideas and information on everything related to photography. In addition to photography, he also has a keen interest in traveling, philately and science.

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