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Photography has been one of my passions for a long time. Most of what I know I taught myself by reading books and doing research on the internet.  People always ask me what kind of photography I’m into.  I really try and do everything and I particularly like photography that is not main-stream.  And one of the things I like to take pictures of the most is star trails.

I have never really shared my photography with people.  I always did it for myself.  So today I would like to start sharing something that has been very personal for perhaps too long.

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The first thing one should keep in mind is that there are no hard and fast rules or settings, it all depends what you want your picture to be.  Experimenting and playing around with the settings is part of the fun.

You can do star trail photography with any fully manual camera.  The best camera for the job is of course a DSLR (digital single lens reflect) or SLR (film single lens reflect).  I want to provide a brief explanation as to how one can take star trail photos with the latter type film SLR.  It’s a personal choice since I find that there are less things to remember and less things that could go wrong.

When taking long exposures with a DSLR camera the sensor heats up and you get digital noise in your picture.  It differs from camera to camera but in general, exposures of more than 15 seconds create too much digital noise.  This could of course be overcome by technology.  Battery power can also prove to be a problem with DSLR cameras, the last thing you want is a flat battery in the middle of taking a photo.  So without further ado, my preferred way of photographing star trails.

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Most people with some interest in photography have got an old film SLR stashed away somewhere.  Go look for it, dust it off and go buy some film.  You also need a tripod, the sturdier the better; a remote shutter release; an alarm and lots of patience.

Before you set out to take star trails there are a number of things to take into account:

  • Sunrise and sunset times.  Generally an hour after sunset is dark enough to start your picture and an hour before sunrise should be sufficient to close the shutter.  Remember, the longer the shutter is open the longer the star trails.  I prefer them as long as possible.
  • Moonrise and moon-set times.  If the moon moves through your frame while the shutter is open your picture will be ruined.
  • Moon phase.  With the new moon the sky is very dark and the contrast between star-trails and sky will be more dramatic.  Whereas with the full moon if you make sure the moon will not pass through your frame the light from the moon can light up a nice landscape significantly.
  • The setting where you will be shooting your pictures.  This should be as far away from civilization as possible since light pollution from cities can light up the sky from kilometres away.  This means driving far away from civilization or hiking with your equipment for hours.  At locations close to the sea mist can form quickly and condensation can be a problem, so I would not recommend doing star trails close to the sea.
  • Check the weather and make sure the night you choose to shoot is not going to be overcast.  And if the conditions are right: shoot; the next night might be cloudy.

Other things to take into account include:

  • Autofocus at night can be difficult so it is a good idea to set you camera up before sunset, focus and then put your camera on manual focus to prevent it from trying to autofocus later when you open the shutter.
  • Depending in what hemisphere you are, if you want to achieve circular star trails you have to set your camera up pointing at the south celestial pole in the southern hemisphere or at the north star in the northern hemisphere.
  • A subject closer to the camera that could later be lit up by a headlamp or a flash, like a tree could give some nice depth to your picture, depending on what you want to achieve.
  •  When you plan to keep your shutter open for a long time make sure you use the eyepiece cover to close the eyepiece opening to prevent any unwanted light from entering your camera.
  • Once you open the shutter make sure to keep all lights off until you close the shutter again.  It is always a good idea to set your camera up pointing away from roads that might have any traffic at night, or buildings where someone might put a light on.
  • Aperture.  There is no set rule.  If you want great depth of field use a medium to small aperture.  Remember it is dark and if you want all the available light to enter the lens a bigger aperture is required.
  • Shutter speed.  Set your camera to the Bulb setting and attach your cable release/remote shutter release to prevent any shaking.
  • Film.  Depending on what you want, get the speed of film you need.  Remember the lower the speed of the film the less grainy it is.  I prefer 100 ISO film.
  • Don’t get de-motivated if your first couple of times turn out to be flops.  Play around with your settings or shoot in a different environment.
  • Also remember in certain environments dew could settle on your lens, or in very cold conditions your camera can stop functioning, and of course rain is not good.
  • When you use your cable release/remote shutter release stand close to the camera to make sure you hear the shutter closing.  Often your batteries will run out and that might leave your shutter open.  Also put the lens cap on before you move the camera.
  • Make sure you have enough fresh batteries.

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It’s a lot to remember, so print this out and take it along.  After a few star-trail shoots you will remember all of these and might add your own things to consider.

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