The Photo Extremist YouTube ChannelThe Photo Extremist Twitter Account

10May/1085

Star Trails Tutorial

Star Trails

These are a great challenge, and the best part is, you don't know exactly what the photograph will look like until after you've taken it. In order to take star trail shots you need three essential things: A DSLR with a BULB mode, a tripod, and a rubber band and eraser. There are other methods to taking star trails too which require more tools, but if you have those three things than you can get away with taking a fine photo.

Star Trails with space observatory

Blue Star Trails with Tree

360, 30 sec exposures combined. (3 hours exposure in total). Nikon d70s was used with power cord.

Star trails are really fun. Find a good foreground and then make sure the sky is clear with minimal light pollution. It is going to be harder to do fantastic star trail shots if you live in the city because the light from the city bounces off the atmosphere and causes the entire sky to glow. Ideally, we only want the stars to glow. Moonless nights are best. Also, it is best if there are no clouds around when doing this.

You will need a tripod and a device that can take exposures one after the other. You can take one huge long exposure, but the noise in the image adds up with long exposure times, especially if it is a hot summer night. In order to get around this noise issue, we can take a bunch of 30 second exposures one after the other and then combine them into one image on the computer. Either method is up to you.

There are different tools we can use when taking star trails:

1) Use an Intervalometer (ultimately this is the best way, especially if your camera has one already built in). There are some phone/tablet apps that make use of the headphone/usb port to transform the phone you already have into an intervalometer.

2) Use a remote

3) Use a cable release (best way if you are using film)

4) Use a rubber band and eraser (cheapest, quickest way)

5) Use Camera controlling software on your laptop. (This won't be discussed in this article)

Lets look at each method below to see which one is right for you.

Using an Interval Timer Shooting mode (or an Intervalometer)

Intervalometers are on the Nikon D700, D300, and D300sIf you are using a higher-end DSLR, your camera should have an interval timer shooting mode (or sometimes called Intervalometer) already in the camera. The intervalometer will allow you to take 30 second exposures one after the other, automatically.  We can then take all these exposures and combine them together on the computer. Check your cameras manual or go inside the camera menu to see if it has an interval timer shooting mode. If it does, set everything on manual (manual focus, manual white balance) Take 30 second exposures with the minimal amount of interval time in between each exposure. Some cameras take longer to write the image to the card and it takes longer than one second, so you may have to set the interval times for 2 seconds. Go by trial and error until you get it right. Once you find it, you can start taking the actual shots. I'd take anywhere from 50-300 frames.

Using a Remote to take Star Trails

Nikon ML-L3 Wireless RemoteUsing a remote is better for lower end DSLRs that don't have an interval timer shooting mode. You’ll need to set your camera to manual mode, and then scroll your exposure time to the longest time possible, this is called the BULB mode. Push the button on your remote and and your shutter should lock up and start taking the photograph. Not all remotes and cameras are created equal, so you might want to check with a local camera dealer to see if this will work with your camera. It works with the Nikon d50 for sure, and probably the D70.

Using a Cable Release

Cable releases lock your shutter when in BULB mode so you can record the exposure for as long as you want in one continuous exposure. If you are using a Nikon film camera, then this is the best option for you. I’d recommend the ACR Cable. Digital also works totally fine with this method and is actually what I usually use myself. When using a DSLR, I simply set the shutter speed to 30 seconds, plug the cable release into the port, push the button in and lock it in, and it will take a bunch of 30 second exposures one after the other with the shortest amount of transition time possible.

Using a Rubber Band

This method is best when you just want to practice and get the hang of things without paying for a bunch of stuff extra stuff. Get an eraser and place it on your shutter button, then just wrap it up using a rubber band. I learned this trick from QQQQcon on YouTube, a great wildlife and landscape photographer.

Because all cameras are different, you still might not know what method is best for you. If that is the case, use the rubber band method or  ask forums or your local camera dealer on what you should get for your camera. A good resource online would be to search Flickr Groups for your camera model, join the group, look around to see if your question already has been answered, and if it hasn’t, ask. Expect to get an answer within the first 10-120 minutes.

Camera Settings for Star Trails Photos

Now that we have all the options out of the way, let’s just simply look at what settings we need to do when we are actually outside with our camera and tripod. Depending on the weather, your lens could possibly fog up completely. In order to prevent this, wrap some hand warmers around your lens with a rubber band, or get a miniature fan to constantly blow wind onto your lens. These things might not be necessary, it all depends on how cold and humid it is.

Focusing:

Set your camera to manual focus and focus out into infinity. Your camera won’t be able to use Autofocus in these dark conditions. Take a test shot to make sure your stars are sharp.

Exposure Time and ISO:

Now let’s calculate the exposure. If you are using one big long exposure and you’re not combining a bunch of 30 second exposures, take one 30 second exposure at ISO 1600. If it looks well exposed, just take that 30 seconds and multiply it by 16. If you are using ISO 3200, multiply the shutter speed you used by 32 instead. The number you get after multiplying the shutter speed you used for the test shot by the ISO you used for the test shot will tell you the shutter speed (in seconds) you will need to use when shooting at ISO 100, which is probably what you want to use when taking the actual shot. Using ISO 200 should be fine when using that same exposure time too, it will be a little brighter.

If you are taking a bunch of 30 second exposures and then combining them on the computer, you don’t need to do this because all of your frames are going to be 30 seconds.

 

Aperture:

What should the aperture be when shooting star trails?

It doesn’t matter. I usually use F3.5 on my 18-55mm lens.

 

White Balance:

Using anything other than AUTO WB will ensure a constant WB in each frame. You’ll need to do this if you are combining frames. If you are doing one huge long exposure, then it is okay to use Auto WB. Using a Tungsten White Balance will make the sky a beautiful purple color!

 

Combining Multiple Star Trail Exposures Together

If you ended up taking a bunch of exposures, download the Startrails.de program and run it, it is pretty self explanatory, so I won't go into detail here. When you load your photos into that, the Startrails.de program will combine all of them nicely.

If you want to do this in Photoshop instead, there is a special Photoshop Action available.

You can also do this in Photoshop by going to File -> Script -> Load Files Into Stack and then click OK. Wait for all the images to load, and then select all the layers and change the blending mode to Lighten. Try experimenting with different blending modes. Keep in mind that doing this in Photoshop might not come out as well if there is a ton of light pollution in the atmosphere. You might need to adjust the curves and make all the images darker in order for it to work.

Secret Star Trail Tricks

Fading Star Trails

Over a long time, you can rotate your focus ring out of focus so that each star gradually gets more and more out of focus. This will create a cone like shape to every star.

Dotted Star Trails

If you are taking a single long exposure, put a dark object -- such as a hat or piece of cardboard -- in front of the lens to block the light from coming in. Do this every minute or so. Say about 5 seconds to exposure the light like normal, and then 25 seconds with the object hanging over the lens to block all the light out. Keep repeating this and you should get dotted star trails.

If you are using an interval meter, then obviously you would just set the exposure time to 5 seconds and the interval to 25 seconds. Try experimenting with different variations. You could even make each star a different color in Photoshop in post-processing.

Star Trails with Illuminated Foregrounds

You can also use a flashlight, portable speedlights, car lights, or a fire to illuminate a foreground object. You can even illuminate entire landscapes at a distance if you have a powerful enough flashlight - the LED Lenser X21 monster flashlight is my light of choice for doing this.  The first example below was illuminated by city lights just to the side of the hill, and the second example was probably illuminated by a flashlight.

Star Trails with lit tree and landscape from city lights just behind the grass hill

Taif Star Trails by ~almumen on DeviantART

Star Trails with the North Star in the Center of the Frame

Okair Star Trails with light painted tent

In order to get the donut hole effect, simply locate the North Star, or just point your camera North. Remember that stars rotate slower near the North Star, so you will need to have your camera out a long time to get a good shot. You can place your foreground objects right in front of the North Star. This will have the stars circulate around your chosen object, which is great for composition.

Parabola Star Trails

It is the complete opposite if you point your camera away from the North Star. The stars will go by very fast, so you will get longer strokes in a shorter amount of time. This was 130 30 second exposures combined using Startrails.de.

Parabola Star Trails

If you have any other tricks, send me a comment and an example so I can feature it in this article! Happy shooting!

In order to prevent your lens from fogging up, you can try wrapping up some hand warmers around your lens with a rubber band, or get a miniature fan to constantly blow wind onto your lens.

This is tutorial blog post is just an excerpt from my Trick Photography and Special Effects E-Book. If you enjoyed this post, consider getting the e-book. All the content you see here has been revised, plus new content has been added.

23Nov/0927

Long Exposure Effects for the Experimental Photographer

Light Painting

Drawing with light is extremely easy and fun. Simply wait until night time, put your camera on a tripod, and set your exposure for long periods of time (these are usually 5 seconds-5minutes), your aperture, and ISO. I usually use f4 at iso 200 or 400, but these settings need to be determined differently according to each situation. Then, DRAW! There are many different light toys that create different effects. Things that have been used before include sparklers, glow sticks, flashlights, maglights, fire/torches, RGB strips, Christmas lights, illuminated cell phones, iPods, laser pens, and of course, any kind of LED.

Laser pens

Scribble with laser pen. In this example the laser pen was stroked up and down the models face. 1 sec. / f 3.5 / ISO 200

City lights from a far away distance. The camera slightly moved while the focus ring moved along with it so the light gradually becomes out of focus. 1.3 sec. / f 6.3 / iso20

City lights from a far away distance. The camera slightly moved while the focus ring moved along with it so the light gradually becomes out of focus. 1.3 sec. / f 6.3 / iso20

30 second exposure of tiny LED finger ring lights. I was holding them the entire time, but because I was not illuminated, you cant see me in this picture.

30 second exposure of tiny LED finger ring lights. I was holding them the entire time, but because I was not illuminated, you can't see me in this picture.

7 second exposure / f22 / ISO 200. This is just a standard long exposure of a SPARKLER in motion.

7 second exposure / f22 / ISO 200. This is just a standard long exposure of a sparkler in motion.  Also keep in mind that if you use a flash, the person holding the sparkler will show up in the photograph. Regular sparks from fires can also make amazing shots, especially if you go in and out of focus during the exposure.

Sparklers traced around a car.

Keep in mind that you can trace objects with sparklers (or LEDs or any kind of lightsource). This was a car traced with a sparkler. 7 minutes long, ISO 100, F/18,

You can also use flashlights (or strobes/flashes) to illuminate your scene. Simply turn on your flashlight and start drawing/painting/spraying light onto the scene to illuminate it in the dark. If you have an extremely powerful flashlight, it is very well possible to illuminate entire landscapes in the dark as well!

You can also use any kind of flashlights (or strobes/flashes) to illuminate your scene. Simply turn on your flashlight and start drawing/painting/spraying light onto the scene to illuminate it in the dark. If you have an extremely powerful flashlight, it is very well possible to illuminate entire landscapes in the dark as well!

If you have a tripod on you, and your in an amusement park or some type of fair grounds, long exposures of rides look very good if taken in long exposure mode. Ferris wheels also work very well.

If you have a tripod on you, and you're in an amusement park or some type of fair grounds, long exposures of rides look pretty sweet. Ferris wheels also work very well.

You can also make silhouettes of people by taking a long exposure while you move some sort of light behind them. Blue glowsticks were used in this example.

You can also make silhouettes of people by taking a long exposure while you move some sort of light behind them. Blue glow sticks were used in this example.

This was a long exposure of Christmas tree lights. It was a one second exposure, the reason why the lines look so straight is because the camera was jerked in a fast motion.

This was a long exposure of Christmas tree lights. It was a one second exposure. The reason why the lines look so straight is because the camera was jerked in a fast motion.

These are called physiograms. Simply attach an LED to a string and let it hand from the ceiling, turn off all the lights, take a long exposure, and give the LED a little tap, and this will be the outcome!

These are called physiograms. Simply attach Maglight to a string and let it hang from the ceiling, turn off all the lights, take a long exposure, and give the LED a little tap. When the long exposure is complete, this is what it will look like.

Again, LEDs are just great. You can trace objects with them, just like you can with sparklers! (Although, of course, use sparklers outside!)

Again, LEDs are just great. You can trace objects with them, just like you can with sparklers. I used the finger LEDs in this example

You can also make flash stencils! Put cardboard infront of your flash like this http://www.flickr.com/photos/duaneschoon/2999296569/

You can also make flash stencils! Just put cardboard in front of your flash with a design cut out in it, and you're ready to go.

If you are interested in incorporating long exposure effects and light painting into your night photography, I would highly recommend "Night Photography & Light Painting" by Brent Pearson, especially if you are light painting landscapes.

.

.

.

Long Exposures During Day

You can also create long exposures of landscapes during they DAY by using an extremely dark filter that attaches to the front of your lens. The filter you can use is a B+W filter, an ND400 filter (I'd recommend this one), or even an Infrared filter. Taking long exposures during the day is useful for creating foggy/ghostly seascapes, blurring clouds, blurring water and waterfalls, and even removing people from a scene (if they are constantly moving).

Long exposures are exelent for moving ocean waters splashing against rocks. The longer exposure = the more misty the scene looks.

Long exposures are excellent for moving ocean waters splashing against rocks. The longer exposure = the more misty the water will looks A lot of people use an ND400 Filter for long exposures during the day. It allows 30 second+ exposure times.

Long exposure, during the day. Silver Falls, Oregon. Taken with an IR filter.

Long exposures of waterfalls create that smooth/soothing effect. Silver Falls, Oregon. This looks blue and white because it was taken with an Infrared Filter attached to my camera lens.

Manual blend of 2 exposures. 20 seconds for the water and 5 seconds for the sky. The long exposure is made possible by the use of a ND400 filter.

Manual blend of 2 exposures. 20 seconds for the water and 5 seconds for the sky. The long exposure is made possible by the use of a ND400 filter.

.

.

Star Trails

These are a great challenge, and the best part is, you don't know what the photograph will look like until after you've taken it. You will need to have your camera on a tripod, manually focus to infinite, use the widest aperture you can and a low ISO. If you want to take 20+ minute long exposure, you will need to buy a cable release made for your specific DSLR. However, taking super long exposures can cause a lot of noise in images. An alternative wave to doing star trails is to take a bunch of 30 second exposures and then overlap all the images on your computer using a program called Startrails. There is a minor drawback to this method: for every 30 seconds of an exposed photo, there is a 1-2 second time period where the camera isn't taking an exposure. This makes it so there are little tiny spots not visible in your star trail. It is a very minor drawback, but ultimately it is a better method because there isn't as much noise.

20 minute exposure at F 3.5. ISO 200 or 400.

20 minute exposure at F 3.5. ISO 200 or 400.

.

.

.

Other Fun Long Exposures

Watch long exposure ND filter

A creative use for the ND filter would be to take a picture of a watch or clock. In this 4 minute long exposure you can see each second hand as it moves around the clock.


 

These eyes were constantly moving while the camera took a 1.5 second exposure. No photoshop

 

This was a one second exposure. Half of the exposure the eye was open, then after .5 seconds, the eye was shut. What you see is the eye both open and closed at the same time.

This was a one second exposure. Half of the exposure the eye was open, then after .5 seconds, the eye was shut. What you see is the eye both open and closed at the same time 😉

This is a long exposure at night time of snow falling. The snow was illuminated with a light, and a tree is in the background. 3 seconds.

This is a long exposure at night time of snow falling! The snow was illuminated with a light, and a tree is in the background. 3 seconds.

This is an example of Solargraphy. Solargraphy is the process of taking long exposures with pinhole cameras that last several MONTHS to record the light of the sun. This example was a 6 month exposure taken by Diego Lopez Calvin (Solarigrafia in Flickr).

This is an example of Solarigraphy. Solarigraphy is the process of taking long exposures with pinhole cameras that last several MONTHS to record the light of the sun. This is a 6 month exposure taken by solarigrafia on Flickr. You can learn more about where this form of photography originated from here. Photo by Diego Lopez Calvin (Solarigrafia in Flickr). 

There are also other things you can do with long exposure photography. Long exposures during the day allow water and clouds to blur, leafs on a tree will also blur (if there is wind). In addition, you can also take a long exposure in a very crowded city where lots of people are walking, and completely make the crowd invisible by taking a long exposure during that day.

You can also use a long exposure and then fire multiple flashes to light your subject in different ways, and/or to multiply them in number. You can also spin your camera to take perfect straight blurred out lines, or you can zoom in and out with your lens while the exposure is taking place.

Long exposures also come in handy during lightning, simply take a long exposure and wait for the lightning to show up.

The challenge: create a long exposure that has all of the above. Light painting, light spraying, star trails, and lightning; all in one photograph. (Okay, I realize it would be hard to get lightning, but try to include them all if you can 😉

long exposure trick photographyBecause long exposure photography is such a large topic, there is only so much I can write in a blog post. If you want to know more information on lights, techniques and effects, check out my Trick Photography and Special Effects eBook. It has over 60 pages of content solely dedicated to light painting techniques and long exposure effects.

   
Powered by WishList Member - Membership Software