My mistress, the night sky, yields more than just the Milky Way. Star trails come in a close second. There are a number of ways to capture and process for star trails. Let’s take a look.
Capture method one
If you are an Olympus photographer with a relatively new camera of the last couple years you can employ the Live Composite setting. In this scenario, the image is recorded many times but only adds new light pixels to the original exposure. With this you can watch the star trails grow on your screen and the image is captured on a single frame. Check out my article on this technique.
Capture method two
Another way to make star trial images is to set your camera to make multiple images over a long time period. This has the advantage of being much more versatile in final output options which we will cover as well.
Many cameras now have an intervalometer built into the menus. If there is not one built into your camera there are inexpensive models to add on using the remote port on your camera. Before ordering ensure the unit matches with your camera.
Find the exposure that gives you proper foreground lighting and set a one-second interval between frames. Some cameras may have a slightly different way to do settings which would be making your interval for one more second than the exposure. Check your manual and practice a little before committing a lot of time to your captures. Capture method two means there’s some processing before your star trails are ready.
Processing star trail captures from method two
You can take the initial captures into Adobe Lightroom or Adobe Camera RAW and make color and tone corrections. Output those images to either TIFF or JPEG files. Using TIFF files will give you more quality. JPEGs will save you a lot of file size and space. Once you have saved the files, select your processed images and use the Load Images into Layers in Photoshop. Change the Blend Mode of all the layers to lighten. Your star trails will appear. If you have made a LOT of images, you may want to not try to load all images at the same time as you may run out of processing power. In that case, load 100 at a time and then blend the resulting image blends together using the Lighten Blend Mode. But there’s a faster, more efficient way: StarStax APP.
StarStax in action
This software was designed for processing images into star trails. It’s a free download and free to use for any purpose including commercial image creation. Invoke the software and load all your images. Choose your settings. It’s designed to be easy to use but it won’t hurt to go through the tutorial videos to learn best practices. Also, to learn some of the advanced features such as saving the individual images as they are built so you can create a time-lapse of the creation.
You can also create specialty star trails with a Comet shape added for even more interest.
Many times when making star trails I will work with a second camera. My main camera is mounted on my main tripod and is devoted to Milky Way captures. I have no wish to carry two tripods out into the field. Then it’s Platypod to the rescue. I use the Platypod eXtreme as a base. If I need just a bit more height I add the Platypod Handle which together weigh under 2 and 1/2 pounds. If I switch out to the Benro ball-head it’s under 1 and 1/2 pounds. A small ball-head or the Platyball complete the setup. The whole time I am working on my Milky Way captures the second camera is grabbing the time-lapse of the star trails. The setup takes very little space in my pack as well.
Tips on star trail captures
If you are looking for the circular star trail pattern you’ll want to point your lens toward Polaris. You can use an APP such as PhotoPills for $10.99 or any of the free star APPS to find the rotation point. If you don’t have your phone or the APPS loaded look for the Big Dipper. The two stars at the end of the constellation point toward the North Star.
A wider angle lens will take a longer time to register star trails. Longer lenses are more compressed, if you will, so trails register faster.
Many star trail images blow out all the highlights in the stars. Slightly underexposing for the stars during the capture will allow more color to register.
Have a great night under the stars!
Yours in Creative photography, Bob