How to Capture Star Trails

By Megan P Galope
Twitter = @megangalope

At the end of January, I attended the AHPW Advanced Star Trails workshop taught by Beth Ruggiero-York. We learned how to take many photos over the span of a couple hours and stack them together to create incredible photos of star trails. The shape of the star trails depends on the direction you are pointing your camera. If you point east, your trails will arc across the sky:

If you prefer the classic circle, you will need to point towards Polaris (the north star):

Ever since the workshop, I’ve been excited to try this again. For the best results, however, you will need dark skies—meaning you need to get away from the city. I finally had an opportunity to try again when I traveled to Rocky Point, Mexico. The timing wasn’t the greatest as it had just recently been a full moon (it is better to do this closer to a new moon so that the moonlight doesn’t interfere). Luckily, the moon didn’t rise until a few hours after sunset, so that gave me a little time to take some star trails.

The first night I chose to point my camera south towards the ocean. Around sunset, I set up my camera for the composition that I wanted and determined the hyperfocal distance using my handy Depth of Field app on my phone. After getting the proper focus, I set my camera to manual focus and taped down the lens to avoid accidentally bumping it. Towards the end of astronomical twilight (about an hour and a half after sunset), I took some images of the foreground. Once it was fully dark, I took my high ISO test shot to determine the settings I would need to use for my images. I ended up setting my intervalometer to take 3.5-minute exposures at ISO 800 and f/4. I took a couple test shots to make sure everything looked okay, and then let it run. I had time for 36 images before the moon rose. I then took my 2 dark frames (same settings with the lens cap on). Using Lightroom, StarStax, and Photoshop, I was able to combine all of my images to create the final product:

The next night, I decided to try pointing towards Polaris for the circle effect. This would be a bit more difficult as it would mean pointing towards the houses and more light pollution. I determined that I would need to take 4-minute exposures at ISO 800 and f/4, plugged it into my intervalometer and let it run. Unfortunately, I decided to skip the test shots (I blame the wine), and instead of setting the intervalometer for 4-minute exposures, I accidentally set it for 4-hour exposures. Three and a half hours later, I found a very overheated camera with a dead battery and one unusable image:

It pays to follow all the steps!

If you’d like to learn more about creating star trails, come to our Symposium on November 4-5, 2017, where Beth will host a session on shooting and stacking star trails.

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