First Star Trails Shoot
Hello and welcome to my blog. For my first blog post I'm going to write about my first star trail shoot in a blog series I am going to call "Behind the Photo". This is where I'm going to take favorite photos of mine and share the story of when I shot it. For many of my landscape photos, especially the night ones, it's damn near an adventure just to get the shot!
I've been doing astrophotography for a few months now. I've turned it into a monthly tradition where I'd venture out into the dark on a clear night during the new moon phase and practice my astro skills. First mastering getting the stars to show up in my photos and then mastering the Milky Way. One thing I never tried was the star trail shot. I have seen it before but at the time I was more interested in getting that glorious milky way shot. After I had taken a few of those I was browsing my Instagram feed one night and I saw a star trails shot. I am the kind of photographer that when I see a type of image I really like, I'll take on the challenge to create on myself. It's how I started in astrophotography in the first place.
So I saw the star trails image which was a circular star trail going around the north star, Polaris. I said okay. next clear night we get I'm going to do a star trail shot of Polaris. I then read up on tutorials and did my research on how to execute such a photo. Not really much to it. It was just the same as taking a regular astro photo except I would let the shutter go a little longer, bring the ISO down slightly, and run a timelapse where my camera would take back to back images for a set amount of time. From tutorials I read it said I needed an intervalometer to keep the shutter shooting but for my Sony A6300 it had a timelapse app built into it. After I had my settings on the lens and camera I just needed to run the app to keep the camera shooting. Which according to the tutorials was going to be a couple hours. This was definitely going to be my longest shoot.
Before heading out to this location I did some location scouting using Google maps and Dark Sky finder. This is how I find most of my best astro locations. Just open up dark sky finder and find the darkest skies in the area away from the city's light pollution. This usually means I'd have to drive at least 40 min to an hour away from where I live. For some people it could be a lot more. I needed a good dark location where I would capture a great foreground and in this case with the north star in the background. I searched and searched around an area north of me called Richlands which was mostly dark countryside. I found a huge field with a nice path and what looked like a lone tree from what I can see in its shadow from the satellite image. The shadow had a nice shape to it. I clicked on street view and was able to get a preview of the composition. Far off in the big empty field was a lone tree with a nice dirt path for leading lines and best of all its background was all north. Polaris should be just above the tree.
Lately my weather app has been pretty accurate. I'll put a plan together in my head of how I am going to do the shoot and what gear I need. Once I see on the weather app that skies will be clear that night I'll let my wife know and make plans to head out that night once the kids are asleep. There have been a few occasions where I planned for a clear night a few days away and suddenly a clear one would show up that night and I'd grab my bag and go. On this day it was supposed to be cloudy but while I was putting my kids to bed, I checked my weather app it said that it was going to be a clear night, all night. After the kids went down, I grabbed my bag, kissed the wife, and left.
It was a 40 minute drive to the location. As I got closer it got darker and darker and the stars were coming out brighter and clearer. I got to the place and it looked just as it did in the Google Street View. I drove off the road onto the dirt path and into the big empty field. I also made sure there weren't any No Trespassing signs. I also did this on Google because if there is then it's usually a no-go for me. I live in the country and people here got guns! I get to the tree and park my car. It is cold AF!!! It was about 32 degrees that night. I put my camera/tripod down low on the ground and began getting my composition. I use a really great app called Photo Pills (about $10 on the iOS app store but totally worth it!) which has a Night Augmented Reality function which shows you exactly where the stars are and where their path is. I pointed my phone toward the sky above the tree and there was Polaris with all the stars going around it. Another way to find Polaris is to find the Big Dipper which is pretty easy to see. The end of the big dippers handle is Polaris. I set up my composition and took a couple test shots. The shots came out beautifully with a ton of stars. For this shot I went with the following settings:
- 12mm Rokinon Lens focused at infinity
- Shutter speed 30 seconds
- ISO 1000
Now I usually do 25 seconds and 1600 ISO for my star shots but from what I read in tutorials you can get more of the star colors to show up in the trail with ISO between 800 and 1600. Plus I had a longer shutterspped so I can capture some of the stars trails. After I had set everything up I began the timelapse app on my camera and let it go for 3 hours. It was midnight when I started. I would be here until 3 am...I got back in my car which was right behind my camera set up. I had the car running to keep me warm and I was able to see the camera's LCD screen from the driver's seat and make sure the time lapse was still going. I set a timer every 30 minutes to check on the camera's battery life and confirm the timelapse was still going. While in the car I tried napping, browsing social media with what little service bars I had on my phone, played some Zelda: A Link Between Worlds on my Nintendo 3DS, and chatted with the wife through text messages. It wasn't until I had started reviewing some star trails tutorials online when I saw something that made me worried. The tutorials mentioned how often in cold moist weather you'd get some lens fog. This was something that I dealt with a little in Okinawa because of the hot humid nights but I thought I should be good in colder weather. I was so wrong. I went out to check on the camera and when I looked at the front of the lens there was a nice thin layer of condensation and FROST. The camera had been shooting for nearly 3 hours already, who knows how many exposures were ruined?! I wiped off the lens completely and decided I was going to let the timelapse go for one more hour and wipe the lens off every 15 minutes. I did that up until the moon surprised me and came out of nowhere at 4am. The stars were getting blown out by the moon at that point so I decided it was time to pack up and head home. Finally go back into bed around 5 am. Enough time to get an hour of sleep and head to work!
Later that day I had started editing my photos and saw that about half of my exposures were ruined by the frost on my lens. I stacked the clearest photos I could find together in Photoshop using a free stacking action I found online. This was one of the more older school methods of doing it. I found a better way through a fee app called Star Stax. This one is great because it also fills in any gaps you might have in the photo making a better looking star trails. The first time I watched my image of star trails being created out of the dozens of images I had taken was awesome. Seeing the trails come together and swirl around the north star let me know that my plan had worked. It was incredibly satisfying. One thing I learned was that I didn't have to be out as long as I was. You can get a pretty good star trail photo with an hours worth of shots. As long as you have 50-100 good images to work with. You'll come out with a pretty decent star trails photo. I can now add star trails to my list of accomplishments. It was a fun and worthwhile image to create. Not sure if it's one I'll do often. Although next time I'll probably bring some hand warmers to keep my lens warm and clear of moisture.