How to Shoot Star Trails & Out of This World Night Sky Photos

May 3rd, 2012

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Extra photos for bloggers: 1, 2, 3

It’s beautiful and sparkly. It’s the night sky!

When the night is clear, the stars and astrophotographers come out to play. But you don’t need to be an astronomer to shoot the stars. We’ll show you how.

Immortalize the ever-changing cosmos in glorious photos with a few handy rules on tripod-use and exposure.

Whether you’re shooting the auroras or want to capture star trails, long exposures will get you there. Click on for our best tips!

How to Catch Stars With Your Camera

Why It’s Cool to Shoot For The Stars:

paper-sm Between distant stars, flowing auroras, and criss-crossing meteors, the night sky will give you dazzling photos no matter where you point your camera.

Mixing up the scenic cosmos with earthly silhouettes can keep the infinite expanse in perspective. Photographing the night’s sky without that perspective can also create some truly stellar abstract images worthy of your walls.

A Constellation of Things You’ll Need:

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  • A tripod
  • A camera with a bulb mode
  • A remote or remote switch
  • A flashlight or a red flashlight
  • Camping chairs & a thermos of hot chocolate

Step 1 – Kill the Lights

paper-sm Light pollution from cities, especially street lamps, will cloud your photos of the stars with an orangey hue and block out some of the fainter stars.

The best way to deal is to get in the car and drive a couple of hours outside the city. Think rural farmland (be careful not to trespass) and national parks. It’s a great camping activity, too!

You will also need to keep an eye on the moonrise and set, as moonlight will block out the stars, too. You can keep track of it here.

Step 2 – Keep Steady and Aim High

paint-sm Set up your camera and switch your lens to manual focus. Most cameras will have trouble acquiring the right focal distance because the light from the stars is so dim.

Usually the best focal distance is just before the infinity symbol on your lens. Use a flashlight to check your settings when you’re setting up. It can be a bit tricky to get it just right, but patience and some trial and error will help you find the sweet spot.

A note on flashlights: sport and astronomy sell red flashlights. A red light will keep your eyes adjusted to the darkness. You can also try taping a red filter over your regular flashlight.

Step 3 – Stay Grounded

paint-sm You can add a lot of depth to your night photos by adding silhouettes and features in the foreground.

Find trees, hills, or even buildings with clearly identifiable shapes to make beautiful night scenes.

OR, you can…

Step 4 – Be Imaginatively Abstract

paint-sm For some abstract splendor, compose your shots with empty foregrounds – just a sea of stars.

This makes for ethereal images perfect for constellation hunting. Printed out, these look fabulous on bedroom walls!

Step 5 – On Remotes & Timers

Once you have your composition set up, it’s time to make an exposure. You’ll need to use a remote switch or the delay timer on your camera to prevent camera shake, which will make for wobbly trails.

You can buy a remote switch made for your camera at most camera stores. Basic ones start are around $40 and go up from there. A simpler (and possibly cheaper) way to prevent shake is to turn on the delay timer. This gives you 5 to 10 seconds to step away from the camera before the shutter opens.

Step 6 – Open the Shutter and Crack the Thermos

paint-smThe length of your exposure will determine how much of a star trail is recorded by the camera. At 30 seconds, the trail will be relatively small and mostly unnoticeable at first glance. Leaving the shutter open for several minutes or even hours will create much longer trails.

However, the longer a single exposure is, the more noise will accumulate on the exposure (the image at the right is a single exposure and has some noise in it). You can minimize this by taking multiple exposures and blending them in layers in Photoshop. Chris and Dawn Schur have a great stacking action available here.

Taking it Beyond the Surly Bonds of Earth:

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  • Use a flash or a flashlight to “paint” trees, rocks, and buildings in the foreground of your long exposures for extra impact, like the above photo!
  • Keep track of astronomical events worthy of photographing by checking out an astronomy calendar.
  • You can use similar techniques to photograph light trails from planes, the International Space Station, and the planets.
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