How to Photograph Star Trails | Night Photography Series


(dramatic music) – Hey everyone, my name’s Gabriel Biderman from National Parks at Night. Give us a follow at our
website, nationalparksatnight. And tonight, we’re here
to talk about star trails, but before we get started give us a little
subscribe right down below so you can learn more with us. So when we think about night photography most of us think about the stars, right? If we can get out to some
sort of rural location where we can see the Milky Way, or even more exciting, this week we can really
take long exposures and get these star trails that we can’t see with the human eye. All right, so first let’s talk about the ambient light in the scene so we can figure out our exposure. So we’re up in rural
and cold coastal Maine. The moon has just set,
very little ambient light kinda coming from any of the communities, the towns around here, so how can I see? When I look through my
camera I can’t see a thing but I’ll give you a pro tip, and this is for DSLR users only, but with DSLRs before you even turn it on you look through the viewfinder and you can actually see better
than when you turn it on. When you turn on the camera then the meter reads in the viewfinder and that kind of blinds us, even though that little bit of light, at night it blinds us. So we can see a little bit better when we’re just settin’ up by just not turning on the camera, looking through the optical
viewfinder of the DSLR, and that can help us kinda
get in the general area of what we want to
photograph, compositionally. All right, so we’ve got our
camera set up on the tripod. The first thing we’re gonna do before we even take a picture is we’re gonna make sure that any sort of image
stabilization or vibration reduction that’s either in the camera
or in the lens is turned off. When you’re on a rock solid
tripod there is no movement so it actually creates movement and your images at night will be blurry so turn off the image stabilization, vibration reduction, et
cetera, before getting set up. So how are we gonna measure
the ambient light in this scene if there’s very little? Well, we’re gonna boost everything up, we’re gonna open it all up. So we’re gonna bring our
ISOs all the way to 6400 ISO. This lens can go to 2.8. So when we’re shooting dark
sky photography like this we’ll need a lens that can shoot
at least minimum up to 2.8, f/4 lenses will not cut it. We want a 2.8, 1.8, 1.4 lens. That’ll allow us to collect more light. And then the third way
is the shutter speed. So right now, I just took a test shot and it was at ISO 6400,
2.8, and 15 seconds and I was able to collect a
lot of light in this scene, I can see a little bit of the foreground as well as a pretty well-defined sky. Let’s take a look at the histogram. I always kinda toggle between
looking at it full view. Now that histogram looks like
a typical night histogram, it is heavy on the left-hand side but we don’t want it crushed
on the left-hand side. So if we can see this one, at 15 seconds it’s off of the left-hand all the way up to the crushed lefts, it’s up but it also is going and it goes past the first quarter and it’s kind of almost making
its way to the halfway point. I might actually go up
maybe from 15 seconds, one more stop of light
would be 30 seconds, so depends how much of the
foreground is important to us. So now that we’ve got
our exposure nailed down now we need to make sure that the next major thing
is nailed down as well and that is focus, okay? Focus is really incredibly challenging in a rural dark sky night scene but I got three tips for you. Tip number one, use a flashlight and kind of choose something at a moderate distance
that’s important, okay? Maybe 15 to 30 feet away while when you’re using a wide angle lens, something wider than a 24 millimeter lens. If we focus on that then
there’s a pretty good chance we’ll have that subject matter
at 15 to 30 feet in focus as well as the stars. Tip number two, use Live View
on the back of the screen and zoom in to the moon, a
planet, or a bright star. Now this technique really only works when we have subject matter that’s like 40, 50 feet away and the sky. Tip number three, and that
is called hyperfocusing. You know, this is an
old landscape technique. When we have subject
matter that’s really close, let’s say six feet to 10 feet away and we wanna get the stars sharp, we’re gonna use the hyperfocus technique where we figure out, depend upon the lens, depend upon the camera, what
distance we’re gonna focus on generally before the subject matter that ensures that we
have the subject matter all the way through to the sky sharp. And there’s great apps we
can help you figure that out, most notably the PhotoPills
app with hyperfocus. So why do the stars trail? Well, I’ll give you a little
hint, they’re not moving. Well, they are moving but the
way that we’re capturing them. We are actually capturing the earths rotation on
its own axis, right? Now the stars are gonna trail, because its rotating on that axis the stars are going to trail depending on which direction we are
pointing our camera, right? If we point it to the north and
we have Polaris in the shot, now Polaris is typically the star that doesn’t trail that much,
it’s usually just that dot and then everything kind
of rotates around it but because we’re rotating and Polaris is the closest
to that northern axis point, it doesn’t seem like it is moving because we are rotating
along that axis point. So this is really interesting ’cause we could be creative
with how we are composing our subject matter and now the sky. These are too things
that now we can interplay and if we know which way
the stars are trailing we can choose the direction to
see how they kind of collide or interact with our subject matter. All right, like I said,
we had a base exposure, now that’s not gonna
really create a star trail. The stars in there look more
like star points right now. So what do I do with that exposure? So let’s think about those factors, ISO, apertures, and shutter speeds, okay? So first off, ISOs. The lower the number ISO, the cleaner the image quality will be, the more saturated the colors will be. So how can I extend time? Well, first thing I’m
gonna lower those ISOs. Apertures, like I said, if
I have that more wide open I’ll be able to see more stars, and it’s pretty dark here so I’m gonna probably keep
it open at 2.8 for now. I have one quick pro tip for you. It’s a easy way to do all the
math that’s involved in this and it’s what we call
the 6400 six stop rule. And when we’re doing a
higher ISO test shot at 6400, and this one again was 15 seconds, if you go 6 stops down that would be 100. So if we move the ISO 6
stops from 6400 to 100, the seconds, whatever the seconds are, in this case 15, will equal
the same number in minutes. So a 15 second exposure at 6400 is gonna equal 15 minutes at ISO 100. Let’s do two minutes and just let’s see what the stars look like at two minutes. All right, guys, we’ve got our two shots. So here’s the two minute shot and to be honest with you, let’s
take a look at those stars. Those are nice but looking at the picture there’s not enough movement, right? There’s not enough movement, it just kinda looks like
it’s a real nice foreground, the water, but I’m not seeing
enough of that movement for me to kind of, for it to
be of interest in the scene. But we went to 15 minutes, okay, now we are playing the
sky against the foregound. We got a little light from
our little video light but I can take care of that. What’s so fun about star trails is we cannot see it with the naked eye. Most cameras out there
on the market right now, the longest exposure they
can do is 30 seconds, okay? After 30 seconds we have what’s called either a T mode or a B mode. I like to live in that
B mode, the Bulb mode, and that basically means
that when you click it it can hold it open for
as long as you want. Now usually that means if we’re
holding it with our finger we’re gonna have to keep our
finger on the camera, okay? T mode, if your camera has T mode, you can click it once with your finger and then click it again
and that shuts it off. That’s nice, not every
camera comes with T mode. If we’re gonna live in
Bulb mode then we need, see this wire here? This is going to a Vello
ShutterBoss Intervalometer. We need an intervalometer and then we set, make the settings in here, we can set it to whatever we want. So how do we figure out star points first? ‘Cause that’ll help us define how far we can go with our star trails. Now we use a simple rule
for star point photography and the rule is the 400 rule, and this is for full-frame cameras, okay? So with a full-frame camera, and let’s just say a 40 millimeter lens, we’re gonna divide the
focal length of that lens, so 40 millimeters goes into 400, 10 times. That number 10, that is the maximum amount of seconds we can capture before stars will start
to trail in the image. For instance, the lens I’m using tonight is the 14 to 24 millimeter
at 14 millimeter and so 14 goes into 400 about 26, so I round it out to 25 seconds. So I have a lot more time that I can kind of lower my ISOs at and kind of hopefully have
a cleaner image with that. Now what if we have a APS-C size sensor? We’re gonna use a shorter time. And that number for APS-C is gonna be 250. So we take, with our APS-C camera, look at the lens and we
divide that number into 250. And for Micro Four Thirds, ’cause that sensor’s even smaller, the number’s gonna be 200. So take again the focal length of the lens and divide that into
200 and that’ll give you where your starting
point is for star points and then we could push it
further for the star trails. As cold as we might be or
as tired as we might be from a long night of shooting we are always excited to
see our work, aren’t we? There’s nothing more exciting than seeing a star stack come together so let’s walk you through the
process of stacking stars. Now the star stacking process that I’m gonna take you through is gonna be in Lightroom and in Photoshop. So first things first, we’ve ingested all of
the images into Lightroom and unless something needs working I like to kind of just assemble and look at the images
before working on them until after I stack them
because once we stack them there could be more problems
that could introduced so I’d rather kind of look at it first and then have the option to
attack the issues in Photoshop or bring ’em back into Lightroom. All right, so we’ve got
our final test shot, you know, and then this
image should be our first of a series of images
then that will be stacked but again, we can always
double confirm in Lightroom, can look at the metadata, and we can see the
actual time it was taken, and if I’m doing four minutes I can see this one is the
first image right here. So I’m going to mark the
first image in the series with a color, so I’m gonna do that, and then go all the way
to the end of the series which is right here, okay? And I mark them with the number six which again marks them
with a red flag, okay? And then once they are all selected I’m gonna go up to Photo, Edit In, and then all the
way down to the bottom, Open as Layers in Photoshop. Okay, so here we are. We’ve got the 18, now, layers of images and you can see they’re all brought in as layers in Photoshop which is all over here, right? And it doesn’t look like
much has happened here because these layers are not
being blended the right way. So what we’re gonna do is we’re gonna make sure
the top one is selected and go all the way to the bottom and hit Shift + click, okay? And then we’re gonna go over
here to the Blending Mode and when we change from Normal
to Lighten, right there, boom, isn’t that magical? Isn’t that just fantastic? We try to previsualize this
in the field as best we could but it really just makes it all worthwhile when we get something like that. So what does Lighten mode do, okay? Lighten mode allows all
of the bright points in all the images to come forward. Let’s just zoom in one last and just check in one more thing. Let’s go to 100%. I always like to look at the stars at 100% because that’s how they will print, and one of the issues that
can happen with star stacking is that we could, we have the possibility of seeing the breaks in
the stars, because again, they’re shorter stars that
are being stacked together. But I am looking here
at those brightest stars and they look quite clean to me. All right, so final thing,
we’re happy with the product, and we are going to save it. So we have the choice to save it with all the layers intact as they are but we really didn’t do
any work on these layers so I’m gonna flatten the image, gonna take the layers and flatten it, which takes any of the work that I’ve done and now collects those 18 images and puts it into one single,
slightly smaller image. And now I can just go up to
again and then File, Save. And we can see that’s recording down here and that was pretty quick and then that just drops it
right back into Lightroom. And we can see the file right there, okay? And here’s our final image right there. And then I’ll go ahead and work on it in Lightroom from there. I’m a little bit more
proficient in Lightroom. And my final product, converting
it to black and white, giving it a little bit of extra
clarity, a touch of dehaze, and some other things
right there, is that, okay? So pretty exciting, star
trails are super fun. Again, I love it because
we’re kind of seeing with the mind’s eye, all right? We go there, we compose,
we look at the stars, we try to figure out which
way they’re gonna go, and then we settle into it and then a lot of times
we’re gonna come back and in postprocessing
the magic’s gonna up, it’ll pop, and it’ll all come together. That about wraps it up for our How to Make Star Trails video. If you wanna learn more night photography check out our other videos
on night photography, and if you wanna learn more hands-on then come take a workshop
with National Parks at Night and really seize the night. (gentle music)

Comments 20

  • Have you experimented with photographing star trails?

  • Booked a cabin in what’s called in the UK a dark forest. At a time with very little moon. Perfect for night/astrophotography. But no-one told the clouds that. C’est la vie, will have to return.

  • What were your settings for the intervelometor ie how seconds between shots?

  • that shot at 8:28 … 30 seconds at ISO 100? surely that's at least 30 minutes or even longer, with those trails…

  • Great stuff!! love this! thank you!

  • Thank you, Gabe. Where I live, (Anchorage, Alaska) I'm generally more concerned with the combination of landscape and the aurora. With that being the case, I generally shoot shorter exposures. But, your tips will be handy for shooting star trails, and I'll give them a try. (I've also used StarStax, which seems to do the same thing as "Lighten" blending mode in Photoshop, with good results.)

  • I wish we could see stars in the city, it's often too hard to leave Seoul to photograph them

  • Hola Gabe, Amazing video about Night Photography. I've learnt a lot (as well with the previous one – I was worried about the snow and the Sony)!!

  • Since they didn't show it and in case you were wondering, to Flatten the image stack in PS, go to Layer > Flatten Image or Layer > Merge layers, shortcut CMD or CTL + E

  • i'm trying to watch but the patronizing tone is killing me. i guess this series is aimed at 6 year olds?

  • 5:40 = WOW WOW WOW and WOW !! Congratulations!!!

  • Another great video, thank you!

  • Thank you sir. I am curious…what rule for exposure time can be used with a 50mm f4 distagon on a Hasselblad 500 CM with ISO 800 film? I can correct for recripocity failure myself. I thank for this wonderful video and any help you might give.

  • Hi Gabe, sorry about this but for some reason i've now got 3 non delivery emails..!! I have no clue why..

  • got lost, I have pc and so what is shift click?

  • Live View of the moon, especially the full moon, doesn't work with some cameras. The Nikon D7200, for example, will show a bright blob.

  • Question: the shot at 3 min at iso 2000, is that one shot or multiples?

  • great video, think i'm going to need something bigger than a macbook air for either photoshop or lightroom, unless anyone thinks differently.

  • I’m new to this. I think I heard you say you use 14-24mm lens. For my understanding I can do the star trail with the lens I have. I have 70-300mm f4.5-6.3 and 18-140mm 1:3.5-5.6.

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