Star Trails

On Sunday night, I went with a good friend Bruce Herwig up to Jenks Lake in Angelus Oaks, California. We wanted to get some photos of the Perseid meteor shower and star trails. I have never shot star trails before, but Bruce is an expert, so I was in good hands. After getting some great photos and learning some new techniques, I wanted to pass this information on to you, so that you can enjoy the beauty of shooting meteor showers and star trails.

What you'll need:

  • A nice location that is dark enough to not have light pollution, deserts and mountains are good choices. It has to be very dark so the time to start shooting is about 1 hour and 45 mins after sunset. 
  • A camera that has manual controls. This allows you to set your exposure, which consists of your shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. 
  • An intervalometer remote timer. Some modern cameras like the Canon 5D Mark IV have this feature built in. 
  • A steady tripod.
  • A wide lens with a large aperture. 2.8 is a very good aperture. I used the Canon 24-70 2.8 Lens.
  • Fully charged batteries.
  • A comfortable fold-up chair.
  • Water to drink, a good friend to pass the time and some patience!

The Set-Up:

It is good to have a nice location, with something in the foreground. To start off, you need to locate the Polaris star, you can do this with the Sky Guide IOS app, and then point your camera towards it. This is how I set up my camera (all with Bruce‚Äôs help, of course). I used the Canon 5D Mark IV. I set my exposure at a 30-second shutter speed, 2.8 aperture, and 1600 ISO. You shoot for 45 minutes with 1 second in between each shot. This will give you approximately 90-95 photos. Make sure that you don't bump or move the tripod during the shoot. You'll want to start shooting and sit down and enjoy the sky! 

The Editing Room:

Once you have completed your shoot (and have gotten some rest!), you will import your images into Adobe Lightroom. To start, you take the first image and make your adjustments. Choose a custom white balance to give it a blueish look. Adjust your tone, including exposure, highlights and shadows, whites, and blacks to make the image pop. Punch up the clarity to bring out the details. Add some noise reduction if you need to. Once you have made your adjustments to the first image, select all the photos and hit the sync button. This will apply your adjustments to all the photos.

Then we'll take the photos over into Adobe Photoshop. With all the images selected in Adobe Lightroom, right click and choose to open the images as layers in Adobe Photoshop. Once the images are opened in Adobe Photoshop, which could take some time, depending on the size of the files. (I use RAW files but you can always convert to JPEG's first for faster processing time). Select all images in Adobe Photoshop and then change the blending mode to Lighten, so that all the stars show through. It's that easy! You'll have your star trails.

You might have some pesky airplane trails in your image, and those are really easy to edit out. What I do is turn off all layers except for the bottom layer. Then as you turn on each image 1 by 1 going from the bottom to the top, you'll see which images have the airplane in them. As soon as you see one, select that layer and with the paintbrush tool selected, make sure black is selected as your color you can easily paint away those airplane trails! It is so simple, it's magic! Then, flatten your image and you can make any additional adjustment to the image to your liking. Remember, photography is an art form so there's no wrong way to do it. 

I have posted a before and after the edit below. Enjoy, and if you have any questions you can send me an email or comment below.