I used to think star trails took hours of time, loads of technical equipment, a lot of knowledge about the night sky and astro telemetry to get a really cool result. So I never tried it until now. I recently took my very first star trail photo and it also included a light painted old bus. This is what I did.
How it all happened
Recently I had the opportunity to attend a three-day photography workshop Levin Barret of Rare View Photography to the miraculous Lake Tyrrell in Australia. I’ve been there several times but never had a chance to capture the Milky Way due to weather and such. On this trip, Levin planned everything and the weather was perfect. Maybe not brilliant for sunrise and sunset, but clear skies for Astro.
There were almost 20 of us in this group. I also got to play with a Sony A1, a 14mm f/1.4 lens and the Sony A7RV and 16-35mm f/2.8 FE GM lens, thanks to Sony for sponsoring the event. On our first night out, we shot direct Milky Way images. The second night was star trails.
With regard to star trails, we had an intensive morning session learning all about capturing them. Then we had practical lessons in the evening. We learned that exposures of 20 x 3 minutes or in my case 120 x 30 second exposures were enough to get a great star trail.
We also composed our shot with an abandoned old bus in the foreground, which was lit with soft LED lights to make our shot more interesting.
I returned to my old Sony A7RIII and my 28-75mm Tamron lens for the night, as I was super comfortable working in the dark with this gear. I used my 28mm focal length (in portrait mode) to capture the bus and the Milky Way. ISO1250, f/2.8 and 30 second shooting. The bus was 28mm (don’t move the camera at all) f/5.0, ISO160 and 10 seconds.
Get the images
Essentially we stood (or sat) in the dark for a few hours, first to capture our star trail and then to “expose” the old bus. We were lined up with the South Pole (which is actually invisible in Australia, unlike in the US), so that was a bit tricky, but it was actually a cross between the Southern Cross and the two brightest spots, just below it.
I’m sure you can find and post relevant videos on HOW to find the right pole for where you live. You can buy star trackers and expensive equipment to find all this. Our approach was close enough, is good enough…and it was for many of us. Fortunately, Levin was on hand to help.
Once you have your pole and something interesting in your foreground (rocks, trees, old bus), set your composition and find focus. Also tricky. i learned about Clear surveillance, I had never heard of this function on my Sony equipment. BIG win on this weekend trip. This allowed me to find a bright star and focus on it in manual focus, with Peak Assist turned on. Total game changer for me.
For my actual star trail I used my Sony A7RIIIMine Tamron 28-75mm lensMine Tripod and I should have used my intervalometer … I could not find it! So… what I did was set my camera to a shutter speed of 30 seconds and hit the shutter button 120 times for an hour! Not the easiest thing in the world. I was so cold and numb (wasn’t as well dressed as with thermals), but I did have my hat and coat. It gets cold in the outback in May. So lesson learned, be prepared.
Tips and tricks
- Have all your gear ready and to hand (and working)
- Make sure your battery is full and bring a spare battery (someone’s battery is dead for 3/4 of the shot – not me)
- Make sure your SD card has enough space, or use an empty one
- Make sure you are dressed warmly, thermals, jacket and hat, gloves, etc
- Pick a great spot with some interest in the foreground, it could be a tree or a rock
- Learn how to find the pole in your area
- Learn how to use a velometer so you don’t have to take every photo yourself!
- An hour is more than enough to capture an amazing star trail, but if you want more you can stay longer… bring snacks!
- Capture your star trail first, then capture your foreground. Using light painting techniques with LED lighting is a great way to do this. Once you have both, you can mix them in Photoshop. Especially if you have a clear sky, clouds can move in if you capture your light painting image first.
- Learn Night Sky apps like Photo pills or the photographers Ephemeris to find your best location to set
- Use a good flashlight or headlamp to safely find your way in the dark – just don’t use it while taking your photos
This was the super easy part, once home I loaded everything into Lightroom, selected my images and opened in Photoshop as a layered image and yes it is BIG. Put everything in Lighten mode – brilliant. Add your foreground image, also in Lighten mode, mask the night sky (if necessary) and it’s basically done for you. To save space, flatten the image into a much smaller tiff or jpeg. Finish editing in Lightroom (or stay in Photoshop). If you have noise, try Denoise in the new Lightroom or use Topaz Denoise.
And there it is my first star trail ever…thank you so much Levin Barrett for a great weekend and so many valuable insights into photographing the night sky.