7-14mm Star Trail

Shooting Star Trails

If you are looking for a photo project during these long days and nights whilst stuck at home during the Covid-19 crisis then look no further? Why not have a go at a star trail photo? With a few tips and pointers you too can be shooting Star Trail photos just like the ones featured in this guide.

What I find so fascinating about star trails is that you are looking at an image that visually reveals the effect of Earth spinning, as shown through the stars, and which cannot be seen with the human eye at any single moment. Now that is something special!

Let us take a look at the pic header above or one of the star trails below. These photos show the spinning effect centred around a single point. That single point is the North star, known as Polaris. Polaris never moves because it is located at the celestial north pole around which the entire northern sky turns. Many star trail photos focus on Polaris because it results in a great spinning  composition. 

Locating the position of stars and planetary objects is an important part of startrail planning. This is because the final image and symmetrical trail of the stars will dictate the composition. Really there are two key areas to focus on. The first and possibly the most striking, from a composition perspective, is due north and the north star. Polaris or the Pole Star is the star around which all others spin. When you look at a circular symmetrical startrail the star right in the middle is Polaris. Once you identify where Polaris is located in the north sky then an image composition can easily be constructed. A good tip to find Polaris (without software) is to look north in the night sky and locate the Plough, also known as the Big Dipper (Ursa Major). Once you find the Plough. follow the last two stars on the ‘blade’ (called Merak and Dubhe) and draw an imaginary line away from the Plough. The first brightest star, along the line is Polaris. When you first locate Polaris it is very easy to remember.

The other striking perspective on a startrail is point the camera in the opposite direction, south. No need to focus on any particular star because the composition is focus around the celestial equator. A startrail composition including the celestial equator is very striking because it is the point that the startrail arcs reverse in direction.

EQUIPMENT

To capture star trails I use the following equipment :-

1) DSLR camera (Manual mode is required)

2) Lens (Wide angle work best. Personally I use 7-14mm or 8mm fisheye)

2) Tripod (to keep the camera dead still)

3) Remote shutter release cable (minimise vibration and forces camera to continually shoot)

4) External battery (either power battery holder or remote leisure battery) - see Power Guide

5) Dew shield (to prevent camera lens fogging up in cold/high dewpoint temps)

If you look at the pics on this guide, to capture these scenes I mount the camera on a tripod and set up the composition such that a foreground object of interest is included in the composition. Trees are great such subjects (I am fortunate to have a grand old oak tree in my garden) and I try to compose the tree accordingly underneath the North star Polaris.

CAMERA SETTINGS (These are my settings for Olympus OM-D cameras and based upon a stacking technique). Some cameras (including Olympus) nowadays have in-built composite or stacking facilities. However, I still prefer to use methods outside of in-camera modes (I believe they give better results).

Mode: Manual

Focus: Manual

Exposure time: 15s

F stop: Lowest possible to maximise light (All my shots in this guide were F3.5). 

ISO: 400-800 (This is personal to the Olympus cameras I use, but a good start)

Set the camera focus to manual and shoot a few test images to check subject compostion & is level (using LCD screen). When you are happy with the composition it is time to force the camera to continuous shoot. I use a remote cable release (set to lock - which forces the camera to shoot continuous exposures).

Now you can leave the camera as long as you wish to shoot continuous. For the pics in this guide the camera was running for up to 9 hours (using battery pack and or external battery). I always find that a good star trail includes a good foreground subject. Sometimes using artificial light to illuminate this subject really improves the composition. You will see in many of my pics the tree was lit up using a technique called light painting. During the first few exposures I shone a strong torch over the tree and 'painted' with light. This brings daylight to a night scene.

POST PROCESSING

Post processing will involved transferring all the images to PC/MAC and turning the many hundreds or thousands of exposures into a single image. It's not as hard as it sounds!  Once all the images are transferred to my own MAC I import into software called StarStax, which is freeware, multi-platform and allows merging a series of photos into a single image (It was developed primarily for Star Trail Photography). 

Once you have the resulting single composite image you can then pop it into your normal post processing software for cleaning up. One thing you will get when shooting these multiple composite images is plane trails running across the image. It can spoil the final composite, if left untouched. Personally I remove plane trails using software.

When you have the final saved image you will be looking at a magnificent resulting image revealing many hours of Earth spinning, as shown through the stars, similar to the pics in this guide.

Now it's your turn....Good luck and do share your pics with me!


Star Trail Photos

  • Pointing to Polaris

    StarTrail 08/09 March 2014, Leicestershire, UK. The first clear night skies for months allowed me to run the battery pack for a 7.5hr continuous shoot. Captured with Olympus OM-D E-M1 & 12mm lens. How did I capture it? - Camera on tripod F2. ISO 320, 15s. Manual focus set to infinity I framed the tree ensuring polaris (north star) around which all other stars spin was located just above & to the left of tree. The first shot was captured/exposed through the lcd screen and then using the remote cable (set to lock) and turning off lcd (maximise battery) I depressed shutter. This allowed the camera to shoot continuous for 7.5 hours. The tree I painted with a torch. To complete the process I transferred all images (High res JPEG) to MAC and imported/stacked in StarStax software. A few plane trails removed using Pixelmator software.

  • Earth's Spin

    7 hours of Earth's spin as shown through the stars. Spinning around the North Pole star 'Polaris' this composite image comprises over 1500 long exposures captured overnight in my local village of Cotesbach (you don't have to travel far to explore the heavenly wonders using low light photography). BEHIND THE LENS To capture this 'No Light' scene I mounted the camera on a tripod and set up the composition such that the church spire was pointing towards the North star Polaris (This ensures the full star swirling effect above the church spire). Set the focus to manual and shoot a few test images to ensure subject fits & is level (using LCD screen). Once I was happy with the composition and using the remote cable (set to lock - which forces the camera to shoot continuous exposures) I set the camera off. Make sure you switch off the lcd to maximise battery life. This allowed the camera to shoot continuous for 7 hours (using twin battery pack). The foreground, church & selected trees were lit up using a technique called light painting. During the first few exposures I shone a strong torch over the church & trees and 'painted' with light. This helps bring daylight to a 'No Light' scene. I then took the camera back indoors & transferred all 1500+ images (High res JPEG) to MAC and imported in StarStax software. This very useful (& free) software easily produces a single composite image. One thing you will get when shooting these multiple composite images (depending on where the shot is taken) is plane trails running across the image. It can spoil the final composite & I prefer to remove, again using software (Pixelmator). The resulting image reveals 7 hrs of Earth spinning, as shown through the stars. A stunning image which looks great framed & mounted on a wall. CAMERA: Olympus OM-D, E-M5 LENS: Zuiko Digital ED 7-14mm ACCESSORIES: Olympus Remote Control RM-UC1 SETTINGS: Manual, ISO 500, F4, 15s. Resolution MN (2560x1920) TIP: Bookmark interesting places of interest as you travel around & keep them in mind for specific shots (As I did with this shot).

  • Graveyard Star Trail

    Nov 27/28 2011. As featured in The Telegraph and the Daily Mail Nov 29th :-) This amazing startrail has captured the ISS, celestial north pole, celestial equator and Jupiter in one shot. 2700 exposures and over 11 hours to execute this shot. A rare clear sky evening during an unsettled and mild start to the British winter. I had this location planned for a while and was just waiting for the right conditions - No cloud, no moon and clear skies. Misterton church with its scary graveyard and this tree make a great foreground composition subject. This is paramount for good startrail shots IMHO. I set up the Olympus E5 with 7-14mm wide angle lens on tripod at F4, ISO 640 and 15s exposure time. Attaching the RM-CB1 cable I locked the cable to take continuous shots all night. Camera was in place approx 1845hrs and I picked it up the following morning at approx 0630hrs. Back at home I imported the 2700 images into StarStax software to provide the final stacked composite. If you look closely between the church spire and tree you will see the International Space Station (ISS) intersecting the startrail arcs. This was the 0555hrs flyby, The stars are spinning around the celestial north star (polaris) top right and just above the church (bottom left) the stars start to reverse direction. This is the celestial equator. Also, the brightest trail line (running through the church spire) is jupiter. Quite an amazing and pleasing shot, if I say so myself :-)

  • Reverse Arc Star Trail with Meteor

    Photo captured overnight 22nd/23rd April from my home in South Leicestershire, East Midlands. The Lyrics are here! The annual Lyrid meteor shower is active (April 16-25 2020). The challenge again this evening was to try and capture some of these meteors within the star trail, but this time south facing. If you follow the torch light bottom right it will lead you ;-) This image captures 7 hours of exposures showing Earth's rotation, focused on the south horizon. Rather than the swirling effect you normally get (pointing towards north star - around which all stars spin) by focusing south you can capture the celestial equator! The resulting effect here is star arcs reversing above and below the celestial equator. It comprises 1700 exposures captured from the evening of 22nd to the morning of 23rd April. How did I capture this? BEHIND THE LENS Camera:- Olympus OM-D EM-5 (mk1) Lens: Olympus 7-14mm Tripod - outside house in garden (looking south). 15s exposure time x 1700 images (stacked) F4 ISO 400 I mounted the camera to the field fence on a clamp mount and set up the composition using a 7-14mm lens framing the houses, tree and fence line ensuring a good portion of the sky was in the frame. Camera was to manual focus and using the remote cable (set to lock - which forces the camera to shoot continuous exposures - making sure the camera is set to shoot continuous not single exposures). I then let the camera shoot continuously all night. For power I used a remote battery setup - Here's my' how to' guide on remote power - https://www.markhumpage.com/How-to-guides/Power-for-Long-Exposures Post processing I transferred all images to MAC and imported in stacking software (Star Stax - free) to produce a single composite image. The final composite reveals stars reverse arcing above and below the celestial equator. The fence and lights lead you to the solitary meteor or flare?. Stay safe.

  • Ghostly Star Trail (Part 2)

    Photo captured overnight 25th/26th April from my home in South Leicestershire, East Midlands. The clear skies continue to bring sky at night photo opportunities during lockdown. This is another ghostly star trail and the horse chestnut (conker) tree continues to explode into flower. I got blown out by a crazy airplane for nearly 2 hours circling in this composition so I had to reduce the star trail to 4 hours to avoid! This image captures 4 hours of exposures showing Earth's spin as shown through the stars, spinning around the North Pole star 'Polaris' . It comprises 820 exposures captured on the evening of 25th to the early hours of 26th April. Once again, to add a bit of foreground fun to the composition I added some artificial light and created shadowy figures. How I did this described below. BEHIND THE LENS Camera:- Olympus OM-D EM-5 (mk1) Lens: Olympus 7-14mm Mounting Clamp - fixed to fence in garden (overlooking my field). 15s exposure time x 820 images (stacked) F4 ISO 400 I mounted the camera on a clamp fixed to a fece post and set up the composition using a 7-14mm lens framing the horse chestnut tree (exploding into full flower, which is nice!). Camera was to manual focus and using the remote cable (set to lock - which forces the camera to shoot continuous exposures - Also making sure the camera is set to shoot continuous not single exposures). I then let the camera shoot continuously all night. For power I simply plugged camera into power socket, via an extension lead! To create the shadows of myself I used a torch. By walking around the field and turning the torch on and off at certain positions, making sure torch was in front of body, this creates shadows and light. A fun way to add something different to the composition! Post processing I transferred all images to MAC and imported in stacking software (Star Stax - free) to produce a single composite image. The resulting image reveals 4 hrs of Earth spinning, with a ghostly spin (part 2). Stay safe.

  • Meteors!

    Camera: Olympus OM-D EM-1 mk3 Lens: 12-40mm f2.8, ISO500, 15s exposures using Live Composite mode for 1.5hrs. Really pleased with this capture, taken on evening of 24th April 2020. I set out to use the camera Live Composite mode and capture a relatively short duration star trail. To get a couple of cracking meteors in the relatively narrow shot (21mm) is incredible. Typical too as I spent the last 3 night trying to capture Lyrid meteors using wide angle lenses with nothing to show! So this is extra pleasing :-) This star trail/meteors were captured by using the Olympus in-camera function called Live Composite (Setting B on top dial). I chose 15s exposures and let the camera shoot for approx 1.5hrs. The final image you see is a Live Composite shot and captured in camera. Post processed to crop. Impressive stuff what these cameras can do nowadays. Takes all the hard work away. Just press a button.....simples! ;-)

  • Bedroom Star Trail

    Photo captured overnight 4th/5th April from my bedroom window, South Leicestershire, East Midlands. It's amazing what night sky landscape you can capture from the simplicity of a bedroom window! This exposure shows how easy it can be for anyone to capture with a camera and tripod. This image captures 8 hours of exposures showing Earth's spin as shown through the stars, spinning around the North Pole star 'Polaris' . This composite image comprises just under 2000 exposures captured from the evening of 4th to the morning of 5th April. BEHIND THE LENS Camera:- Olympus OM-D EM-5 (mk1) Lens: 8mm Tripod - at bedroom window. 15s exposure time x 1800 images (stacked) F3.5 ISO 400 Something slightly different for this star trail, I wanted to show how easy it can be for anyone to do this, from their own home. I mounted the camera on a clamp attached to my bedroom window balcony rail (You could easily use a tripod behind the window!) and set up the composition using an 8mm wide angle fisheye lens (most go-pro type cams have a wide angle like this). Ensuring I got part house, part sky in the frame, set the focus to manual and using the remote cable (set to lock - which forces the camera to shoot continuous exposures) I let the camera shoot continuously all night. For power I simply plugged camera into wall power socket! Post processing I transferred all images to MAC and imported in stacking software (Star Stax - free) to produce a single composite image. The resulting image reveals 8 hrs of Earth spinning, as shown through my bedroom window. How cool and easy is that!

  • NHS r Stars

    This one is for our wonderful NHS and care staff. The NHS r our stars. Photo captured overnight 14th/15th April from my home in South Leicestershire, East Midlands. This image captures 8 hours of exposures showing Earth's spin as shown through the stars, spinning around the North Pole star 'Polaris' . It comprises 1900 exposures captured from the evening of 14th through to the morning of 15th April. BEHIND THE LENS Camera:- Olympus OM-D EM-5 (mk1) Lens: Olympus 8mm fisheye Tripod - outside house in garden. 15s exposure time x 1900 images (stacked) F3.5 ISO 400 I mounted the camera on a tripod and set up the composition using a 8mm lens. The first thing I did here was to produce the NHS and arrow light painting. This was carried out by waving a torch for the first few 15s exposures. Following the light painting camera was to manual focus and using the remote cable (set to lock - which forces the camera to shoot continuous exposures - Also make sure the camera is set to shoot continuous not single exposures). I then let the camera shoot continuously all night. For power I simply plugged camera into power socket, via an extension lead! Post processing I transferred all images to MAC and imported in stacking software (Star Stax - free) to produce a single composite image. The resulting image reveals 8 hrs of Earth spinning, as shown through my home. NHS we salute you!

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