Capturing Star Trails

Photographing star trails is capturing a different perspective of the night sky. The star trails capture the movement of the stars in relation to the earth’s rotation. It is a phenomenon which can only be captured by a camera, which is why learning the technicalities to capture the trails is fundamental. To bring some perspective into the photograph, it is better to include some foreground element.

Planning the Shoot

The most important aspect to take care of while capturing the star trails is to be far away from light pollution. One needs a clear dark sky with no (less light the better) ambient lighting and a lot of stars. Clouds or moon light can also play havoc with the results. So, shoot on a night (better on a no moon night) with clear dark skies. Once the environment is favourable, it then comes down to your skills.

There are two ways to capture the star trails: –

  1. By capturing multiple short exposure images and stacking them together during post-production using Photoshop or another program that allows one to stack multiple files into one photograph; and
  2. By capturing the trails over a long exposure.

The first method helps reduce the occurrence of noise that generally comes up with long exposure shooting. For using this method, the camera needs to have the built-in interval timer (all cameras do not have this feature). If the camera does not have one, you can use an intervalometer, a device to control the intervals of time. I would not be able to explain this process any further as I have not used this method to capture the trails.

The second method does not require much of post-production, but is very risky considering various factors such as lights (even moonlight), clouds etc. I will be explaining the process below.

Gear: –

  • Camera (of course)
  • A steady Tripod
  • Intervalometer or remote shutter release
  • Fully charged batteries

With my gear, I set out to the hills to capture some trails.

My first expedition was to Shitlakhet, about 35 kms. from Almora and about 350 kms from New Delhi, India in the hill state of Uttarakhand. After reaching the resort, Anant Rasa, a beautiful property on the edge of a mountain, in the afternoon, I took a tour of the place to figure out the spot for the camera set up. After having a good dinner, at around 10 pm, I set out with my camera, Nikon D3300 with a AF-S DX Nikkor 18-55 mm f/3.5-5.6G lens to the selected spot. It was an open area with no kind of obstruction in front of the lens. The tripod was set and the camera was mounted on it.

For long exposure photography, the shutter has to be on bulb mode (for exposures more than 30 seconds). A wide-angle lens is preferable; I had to work with my 18mm lens. Turn the focus to manual as the camera would not be able to focus automatically at the dark sky. If the lens has infinity focus, use that option (my lens did not have this). The aperture and the ISO have to be adjusted as per the ambient lighting and the exposure time.

Try locating the Polaris, i.e. the north star and position it in the centre of the frame to get concentric circles. Else the trails will appear as arcs. You can use the android application named “Skymap” to help locate the star.

After adjusting the initial settings, I plugged in my remote shutter release and started taking short exposure shots to get a hold of the settings. After a few shots, I somehow managed to capture the trails.

shitla1 (1 of 1)

Nikon D 3300, 18-55 mm f/3.5-5.6G, 18 mm, f/9, ISO 400, 30 mins. exposure

I was somewhat satisfied with this and called it a day. The following night I was out again with all my equipments at the same spot and after a few shots I got somewhat better trails.

shitla2 (1 of 1)

Nikon D 3300, 18-55 mm f/3.5-5.6G, 18 mm, f/14, ISO 400, 50 mins. exposure

That was the end of the trip and I was looking forward to the next expedition to the hills.

Stay tuned for updates on my expeditions to Nubra and Thanedar.

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