How to Shoot Star Trails - Mohamed Hakem's Photography

Everybody likes Astro photos. It helps you understand a lot about astrology and how tiny we are. Tons of websites shows how to do Astrophotography. It seems easy, but in reality it’s a bit different. It needs a little bit of understanding for both the camera and the surroundings. It will help you see the unseen. For me it was one of the best experiences that I ever had. To be able to photograph the outer space, we just need to understand a little about light pollution and earth movement, the rest will be try and error using your camera. so here is what you need exactly. some of the tips here are exactly the same with Milky way photography.

If ANY thing of the below is missing, don’t expect good results. In fact don’t expect results at all.


What you need to know and get:

1. The right time to plan your trip, First we should understand a little about earth movement and the milky way. Imagine the milky way as a donuts with sugar. The earth is a sugar particle. So to see the famous strip of stars you should aim for the timing when the other side of the donuts is above you. The milky way is not a dense cloud, in fact you are part of that circular cloud and you need to look through to the other edge. So first thing Aim for the nights that has no moon, you can check the moon phases using this link: http://www.moonconnection.com/moon_phases_calendar.phtml . If the moon is there it will block everything as if someone is aiming his flash light to your face while watching a movie in a cinema. To know the rising times of the milky way, you can download any sky app on the smart phone (having a compass) I use skysafari, there are other apps that accurately shows the exact timing the milky way rises at night of no moons.


2. A far remote place with NO light pollution whatsoever.

I never imagined what light pollution is until I experienced it in a desert camp. I was able to see the fire of another camps few kilometers away, your eyes magically adjust its iris to receive more light. The light of a smart phone screen can be very irritating so imagine the city lights where there are millions of light sources. Each one contributes to an opposing light to the light coming from the stars leading to complete star disappearance. Another factor of course are the clouds, fog, dust and other weather conditions. You will have to be lucky!.


3. A wide lens 24mm and under (18mm on APS-c) with an F number of a minimum F4 (on full frame).

Wide lens with a decent aperture! Again wide lens with a decent aperture!. I use the Nikon 14-24 mm F/2.8, I also used the fuji X100 (23mm APS-C F2 lens) and it worked. The wider the shot the sharper the view. Forget teles and normal lenses. The stars does not get bigger with our ranges of zooms of 200-400 and tend to move very fast.


4. A Decent tripod. You won’t find steady grounds in a desert, you’ll most probably find sand or mud in forests. You’ll be lucky if there are steady rocks so you will need a sturdy tripod. . 6. A smart phone with a compass (I use ipad and skysafari) a smartphone app that uses the built in compass to identify the timing and location of the rising of the milky way. A small app will save you tons of calculations I use sky safari, search for pluto as is always near the dense part of the milky way and check the rising time and the direction, that’s all I need.


5. A camera with a decent ISO performance of 3200 and good Dynamic range(most above entry level SLRs and mirrorless are).

I personally use Fujifilm X Series cameras and set the ISO to 3200.  Don’t worry about the noise on 3200 as the noise has a very little effect on stars pictures.


6. A smart phone with a compass

(I use ipad and skysafari) a smartphone app that uses the built in compass to identify where the northern star is, the Northern star will be the center of the circles, it does not move so finding it will be very easy! its like the center of the universe.


7.  A camera with built in interval time shooting or a remote shutter trigger. 

Interval time shooting is a built in software that allows the camera to capture a picture every interval, you can set the count of the pictures say 1000 pictures with spacing of 10 seconds in between. The other option is to use a trigger that uses the bulb mode to take the picture exposure time up to hours. this method makes a phenomena called hot pixels and is dangerous on the camera sensor, it is also very hard to adjust the over all exposure.



Time for Capturing


1. When arriving at the location, start by studying the surroundings, look for hills, rocks, tents, 4x4 cars, high hills, low hills, etc.


2. After knowing by the app that the milky way is now visible. Look at the direction by your naked eye, lay down and relax and take all light sources away! By light sources I mean mobile screens and camera back screen! Stare to the view for more than 20mins in complete darkness. Your eyes will adapt itself to the low light conditions and you will see the milky way clearly by your naked eye! If a mobile rings in front of you all will be gone and you will have to wait for another 20mins. Enjoy the scenery and then move to step 2.


3. Point the camera to the scene, open up the live view, digitally zoom in the live view and point to the brightest star. FORGET AUTO FOCUS and rotate to infinity and decrease very slowly afterwards. Your focus should be a little before infinity. If this method fails for any reason, set your highest ISO and 5sec shutter and make a test shot. This is the hard way though. MHS_9106


4. Now your focus is set, try not to touch it again. a. set your camera to RAW b. Widest aperture c. forget WB d. shutter 30 seconds e. ISO 3200 f. widest mm g. Mirror lockup setting to avoid shakes done by the mirror going back and forth (in case of DSLRs only).


5. I would be lying if I tell you that these settings will work. Unfortunately it will never be the same for every camera , location, weather conditions and many other contributing factors. So now is the time for tweaking after knowing a good starting point, try the next aperture stop for a sharper result, if it didn’t differ much restore it back and lower the ISO a bit. Take pictures with different setting combinations, lower IS, increase the ISO, underexposed , Over exposed sometime. When you finally find the best picture in terms of sharpness and brightest stars, go to step 6


6. Knowing your best settings combination, now is the time for knowing where the center of the spinning is, the center is the northern star. the picture above is centering the northern star right in the middle, after that you can compose your picture with any foreground you need.

7.Set your interval time shooting to a minimum 120 pictures with minimal interval time, the more the number of pictures will give longer trails. leave the camera aside now and make sure that the battery is fully charged, you can use the battery grip for more juice.


8. Go home Open photoshop File>>Scripts>>load files into stack

and then choose the folder of the pictures, photoshop will take some time till it loads all of the pictures as layers.



9. Now mark on all the pictures (layers) on the right, and set the blending mode to lighten. this mode compares pixel by pixel all of the pictures and choose the brightest one. and now Voila! you have your star trail



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