Star Trails photography shows the “movement” of the stars in the night sky as lines of light in various patterns. I put the word “movement” in quotes because technically the stars don’t move – the earth does. I learned that somewhere in grade school – as well as from Carole King…”I feel the earth move…”
Regardless of what actually moves, I love the way it looks. Theoretically, the best star trails photos have an interesting foreground subject to go along with the stars in the background, although obviously the stars become the “stars” of the shot (insert groan here). When I shoot star trails I also like to add a “middle ground” if possible although not to a level of distraction.
To get an effective star trail shot, you need four parts: 1) a sky free of “light pollution”, which is basically light from cities; 2) a moonless (or near-moonless) night so the moon doesn’t dim the light of the stars; 3) a cloudless night for pretty obvious reasons; and if in the winter 4) the ability to stay warm in, say, 16 degree weather with the wind slapping your face, as was the case for me last week. We can control or mitigate #s 1, 2, and 4 but #3 is a crapshoot.
I headed to the San Luis Valley in Colorado last week to get a star trails shot. Geographically, it’s almost perfect with no light pollution. I picked a moonless night by simply adding two weeks to the last full moon. Of course, there are apps for this if you are of the geek persuasion.
Getting a cloudless night is pure luck. You never know no matter what your app says. My first of two nights in the Valley was cloudy due to a rain/snow storm. The second night was a jackpot – perfectly clear night. There were almost too many stars. I couldn’t differentiate constellations much less stars. That’s important because I was specifically looking for Polaris, aka the North Star. When Polaris is in the middle of the shot, the stars “move” in a perfect set of concentric rings around it (again, knowing from school and Carole King it’s the earth that moves). Shooting anywhere else in the sky gives you asymmetrical patterns. I was going for the symmetrical look so I needed Polaris. To be honest, I did use an app that showed me where Polaris should be. And thankfully it worked!
Earlier in the day while scouting locations I had whittled my foreground subject down to two locations: a Buddhist stupa (a small shrine) and a ziggurat, a vertical silo-type structure favored by ancient people in, well, ancient times, likely for ancient reasons. I opted for the former because it was a shorter hike to and from.
I set my camera on a tripod (an absolute necessity) and used a wide-angle lens (a strong preference) in front of the stupa with Polaris visible above it. Most photographers tend to have their foreground subject farther away than I set mine up. But I wanted to silhouette mountains as a mid-ground so I put the stupa close-in. No right or wrong way, just personal preference.
The final shot is a culmination of 94 shots “stitched” together after-the-fact. So, first I took 92 shots in a row of 30 seconds each, using what’s called an intervalometer to time them and give me a one-second interval between shots to allow my camera to “cool down”. That one second doesn’t sound like much but it’s really important to keep your camera sensors from overheating. Here’s a sample of one of those 92 shots so you can see what it looks like (not very exciting by itself, right?).
Shot #93 was the same but I actually left my lens cap on – intentionally for a change! I still accidentally leave it on at times but this dark shot is done for reasons too technical to delve into here. Suffice it say it gets added to the other 92 shots during post-processing. Here’s that shot (really, really exciting, no?)
Shot #94 was just the stupa. It would have been way too dark to show up if I had used one from the 93 other shots. So I used a technique called “light painting” and carefully shined a flashlight on it using controlled strokes to get it lit up properly. Here’s the stupa shot by itself.
Once I finished my 94 shots (about an hour), I got back to my room where I cranked the heat up to defrost my appendages and uploaded them (images, not fingers and toes) to my laptop while I poured (and drank) a glass of Pinot Noir, which I might add really hit the spot. I made some adjustments in Lightroom, then celebrated with a second glass of Pinot. During that time I had loaded those adjusted images into a program called StarStax which combines them all (except the stupa shot) to get those wonderful star trails you see. In each shot the stars are “moving” (by now you know what REALLY is happening) and the program combines that movement to show those rings of light.
Lastly, I poured one last glass of Pinot and then went into Photoshop where I combined the single stupa photo with the now combined single sky picture and, voila, a final product! Well, almost. OK, so I poured truly one last glass of Pinot and then moved that shot to a program called Topaz where I gave it the monochrome tone I was going for. And here it is:
So, it’s a lot of planning, a lot of luck, a lot of patience, and a lot of wine, but the reward is well worth it as you can see. Well, maybe not in the morning from the wine but you know what I mean.