Night Photography Series: How to Photograph Star Trails

In this installment of our night photography series, Gabe Biderman, from National Parks at Night, teaches us how to capture star trails effectively. Good technique is critical to photographing star trails, as is having a stable tripod and the proper settings, so be sure to listen to Biderman’s excellent tips. Read more about night photography here. For more on everything photography, make sure to stop by BandH.com.

7 Comments

Thank you so much for this informative video. I have wanted to learn how to photograph star trails for a couple years now. As informative as this was, I found it to be lacking information I wanted. For instance, you jumped from nailing down test images, to the stacking. What is in-between? Why are we taking so many photos of the stars? If we let it sit for longer, and the star trails be longer in one shot, why so many shots? You had 18 you put together. I know nothing about it, and I am one of those how and why people. How does the stacking work and why are we doing it? I guess the blend mode is the most important post processing part. Is it possible to do it without the stacking and so many layers? It's nice to know how to do somthing, but I want to thoroughly understand it. Thanks again, and this will certainly get me started. :)

Jeanne,  Thanks for watching the video.  There are two ways to "create" star trails.  One would be a singular long exposure - for example - 4 minutes to 1 hour.  But that would mean you need to have a full battery and long exposure noise reduction turned on.  When LENR is turned on with most cameras - that doubles the time you can't use your camera because it is busy doing LENR.  A 4 minute exposure needs an additional 4 minutes of LENR.  A 1 hour exposure would need 1 hour of LENR.  During LENR your camera can't be used to take another picture.  So, generally, to stay more productive in the field, we take shorter exposures in the field (15 seconds to 4 minutes) and stack them together in post.  If I take ten 5 minutes exposures, I can stack them together to equal a 50 minute star trail.  There are lots of considerations to why you would choose a shorter or longer exposure to stack.  If it is hot out, you'll be limited to exposures under 30 seconds before long exposure noise appears.  If it is cooler (below 50F) then you can usually get away with capturing 4-6 minutes clean shots without LENR to stack.  Full details of star points, trails, and the many night lights we can capture can be found in my book which expounds on this much more than I can in the comments.  https://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/search?Ntt=gabriel%20biderman&N=0&InitialSearch=yes&sts=ma&Top+Nav-Search=

Really enjoyed the article, thank you.  One question I have is regarding the stacking of images, which is a very cool idea.  The D750 seems to have the same process for long exposure NR much like my D7100 where it takes another, similar length photo to process the NR.  So my question is did you turn that off, or how did you prevent 4min gaps in the series of photos when the NR processing was taking place which would have left gaps in the star trails?  Again, I very much enjoyed the article.

MIchael - thanks for watching the video! I generally turn Long Exposure Noise Reduction (LENR) off for this same reason.  It takes the same amount of time to perform the LENR than it does to take the picture.  During this time, your camera is not taking the picture, the earth is rotating, and when your are ready to take the next image to stack the stars have moved and you will get gaps in your trails.  Some cameras have a bigger buffer and don't suffer from this 1to1 ration but they are few and far between. To make up for this, I don't use it and instead take shorter exposures - depending upon how hot it is outside and the model of my camera.  Think of your camera as a computer - long shutter speeds cause the processor to work harder and can overheat - creating the confetti like noise from long exposure.  Test your camera, my Nikon D750 doesn't generally have LEN until 2-4minutes.  But if it is above 80F it can appear in less than 30 seconds.  If it is below 40F I can shoot for an hour without the need to turn on LENR.  

That being said, when it is the last shot of the night, I will check that I have a full battery, and turn on my LENR for 30m to 1 hour exposure.  Once the shot is over, I'll pack up my camera and head home. Don't turn off your camera, let it continue to apply the LENR on the ride home.  That way I'm still productive and have 1 singular long exposure that doesn't require stacking in post.  

Thanks!

Thank you for the expanded explanations - they help bring it all together for someone who has not done star trails...

This is torture to watch! It could be 1/3 the time or less. Another person who just loves to hear them expound their knowledge!

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