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Star Trails with Digital Cameras:

There are several ways to capture trails as they our earth rotates. Of course it does require long exposures, a tripod, and a fast lens.

A clear night works best away from any civilization however this does not mean going out in the country, climbing a mountain and camping out. Oh well the camping part would be fun. I do look to setup my camera and tripod looking away from any ambient lights and most likely the location be at least on the edge of city or town.

Another notation is most digital cameras do not capture extremely long exposures well. The sensor becomes physically hot producing noise or artifacts on the final photo. The method I prefer is capturing multiple exposed frames and stacking them in layers making the final photograph with software. We'll come back to this later.

To begin with for the example displayed I am using a Nikon D800 on a medium duty tripod and 16-35 F4 Nikkor lens. A faster lens will produce better results. I set my ISO for this example at 600, f-Stop wide open f-4 and make a test exposure for 30 seconds. This is the maximum time the camera's function can be set. What I'm looking for with this test is a little ambient light with speckle dots i.e. stars and a silhouette of my subject.

Looking good I next set my camera to produce "Interval Timer Shooting". The longer the 'Intervals' the longer the star trail. My example is around 90 minutes. However a trail or blurred star begins to show on a fifteen second exposure. I have set my camera set to expose a frame at 30 seconds, f-4, ISO 600, every second (camera is set to 30 seconds but the quickest response between exposures with Nikon is 1 second) for count of 250 frames. This is around 2 hours of total time my camera is set making exposures.


Star Trails

Now the fun begins…image stacking. I like to use Adobe PhotoShop but there are other software applications that can produce similar results; Image Stacker, Astrostack, StarStax and others but I'm an Adobe fan and get great results from this software. From the PS menu go to File/Scripts/Load files into Stack. A new dialog box open, click browse find your image sequence add them. The Stack Mode I prefer to start with is Maximum which is a drop down box. A Smart object is made from the resulting stack. You can further play with the stacking mode by going to the menu Layer/Smart Objects/Stack Mode. Warning depending on your computer speed, number of files and size of each file it can take some time to process.

Essentially this completes your star trails image. Experimentation is really required with all the above notes mentioned. What I have documented is a nice starting point. The example shown is shot in Florida nearer to the equator than northern states looking west giving me stars blurring in different directions. Low intensity lights could be used to illuminate the foreground, different lens selection would give different distortion and so on.

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