My First Shots of Star Trails

We just got back from a four-night camping trip to the Mogollon Rim, northeast of Phoenix, Arizona.  We stayed at the Canyon Point Campground about twenty miles east of Payson, at about 7,000 feet altitude.  The temperatures are about 25-30 degrees cooler than they are here in Phoenix, which was our primary consideration when choosing a campsite (it was about 108° when we left town on Monday).  Of course, my camera equipment was my most important gear on this trip.  I knew that we were going to be out in the National Forest during the new moon, so we should be able to see tons of stars, and my goal was to make my first attempts at shooting star trails.

I have read Harold Davis’ book “Creative Night“, which has some great tips for shooting just about anything after dark.  However, my Nikon D5000 doesn’t have quite all the bells and whistles as a more expensive camera does–plus I’m still a novice at photography in general.  So, although I picked up some good information from his book as well as some other websites, I was pretty much winging it when it came to figuring out exposure times and settings.

Our first attempt (my hubby kept me company on the shoot) was on Wednesday night.  It had rained that day, but by about 9:00PM the clouds cleared out.  There were hardly any other campers in the campground that night, so we just set up the tripod on the road near our campsite and pointed the camera toward the north (I wanted to get a good circular pattern from the stars).  I had no idea of how long to leave the shutter open, so I started with ten minutes.  I have a wired remote, so I stood there with my thumb on the remote button for the entire ten minutes (not realizing that I could just slide it forward to “hold” it open).  I was using my kit lens (18-55mm 1:3.5-5.6) set on manual focus, 18mm, at F/4.  At the end of ten minutes, here’s what I had:

Star Trails 001

It was a little windy that night, so the trees aren’t all that sharp, but I liked the way I could see star trails after only ten minutes.  So I decided to try a 20-minute exposure:

Star Trails 002

Longer trails on that one, plus I started picking up more ambient light.  And finally, a 30-minute exposure:

Star Trails 003

I was very happy with this shot, as I thought it had a nice balance between the star trails and the ambient light which silhouetted the trees.  There was still quite a bit of noise in the photo, however, but I’m not sure how much can be removed without destroying the star trails.

The next night the skies were absolutely clear, but there were more campers in the area–cars driving by, flashlights, campfires– so we set up the tripod and our lawn chairs near the back boundary fence of the campground, as far as we could get from the other light sources.  It was a little spooky, to say the least, since we had to keep our flashlights turned off for the full duration of the exposures.  We knew there were skunks in the area, but we weren’t sure what else there might be scuttling around at night in the woods.  Once again I aimed the camera to the north, but this time I set the aperture at F/5.6.  The first shot was a 40-minute exposure:

Star Trails 004

It was during this shot that I got buzzed by a bat that came flying out of the darkness, barely visible in the starlight. By then, the temperatures had dropped into the mid-forties, and neither of us had packed our warmest jackets, so I decided to try just one more shot, this time for a full hour. And we almost made it–my battery died after 55 minutes–but I think it was the best shot of the series:

Star Trails 005

Each of these were shot in raw NEF format and processed in Paintshop Pro X3.  On each one, I tweaked the contrast and sharpened slightly.  On a couple of them, I used PSP’s noise reduction option, but didn’t get the results that I was looking for.

Regardless, I had a great time hanging out in the dark, experimenting with a type of photography that I haven’t done before.  Since we can hardly see the stars at all here in the city, it was a treat just to be able to sit under the night sky and marvel at the vastness of the Universe.  But seeing the star trails in these photos reveals what a wondrous marvel of celestial engineering exists up there!  We lost track of the number of shooting stars that we saw, including one huge, really bright one that left a sparkling gold trail behind it.  I can’t wait to go back and try these again.

I’m hoping that some of my blog readers can offer some tips and suggestions on ways that I can improve my star trail photography.  What equipment do you use for this type of shot? What post-processing steps could I use to make them better?

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One comment

  1. Great photos! I’m just learning more about long exposures and would love to try this – unfortunately I live in a pretty polluted city in Taiwan, so it’ll have to wait until a trip into the mountains.


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