Quick guide to Time-Lapse Star Trails

I decided to write a quick guide to Time-Lapse Star Trails because sometimes you just want a quick reference guide on how to do it. 

1.1        Overview

This article will cover how to do Time-Lapse Star trails. I usually do Time-Lapse star trails when there is too much light around you, which may spoil your photograph, or when there are some clouds around in the sky. Time-Lapse star trails method provides you with the opportunity to modify individual “frames” or remove unwanted “frames” in your photograph.
Time-Lapse Star trails in essence is taking hundreds of single photographs and then combining it at the end. This allows you to control your individual photographs light on a shorter basis, so that a singular light source from in front of your photograph does not spoil your photograph.
This guide will serve as a quick reference guide to shoot Time-Lapse Star Trails, so that you do not have to read through thousands of words explaining technical stuff.

1.2        Required Gear

The first step in taking great lightning photographs is to obtain the correct gear and software. The following indicates the required gear for the Time-Lapse Star Trails:
·         A DSLR Camera
·         A Wide angle Lens
·         A Sturdy Tripod
·         A remote camera trigger
·         Flashlight
·         Extra Batteries
·         Extra Memory Cards
·         Chair
·         Patience

1.3        Composition

1.3.1          Overview

Ensure that you include as much as possible sky into your photograph; this will ensure that the primary focus of the photograph is on the star trails. A good rule of thumb is between 30% and 50% of your photo frame must include the sky. Ensure that your foreground is clear, and not too distracting – but add to the value of your photograph. Lastly make double sure that your horizon is straight, off centre photographs does not look nice, and distract the viewer’s attention away from your subject.

1.3.2          Planning for your shot

Planning your photograph is one of the key things of taking the Time-Lapse Star Trail photograph.

PlanIt! Is the best tool that I have in my repository! With it you can run simulated star trails. View your location or any other location on maps based on terrain, road maps etc. There are too many feature the even star discussing it here, thus check it out. I use this application to check first where I want to shoot and secondly in which direction would be the nicest star trails in relation to your foreground.
AWESOME tool to provide you anything from milky way centre to star trails simulation

1.3.3          Lines or Circles

Part of your planning for a star-trail photo is if you want the stars to appear as lines or circles. If you want circles then point your camera to the South or the North Pole. BUT if you want your star trails to be straight lines then point your camera to 90degree east or west from the South or the North Pole. This will then cause the star trails to move in straight lines.

1.4        Settings

1.4.1          Setting-up

This section will provide you with the technique for photographing the Time-Lapse star trails. The primary settings to remember is that you must use high ISO, slow shutter speed and varying apertures to compensate for the low light conditions.

The following steps show you how to get ready:
1.       Connect your camera to your Tri-Pod
2.       Remove your camera-strap (the wind may cause the camera strap to move and thus have an negative effect on your camera)
3.       Connect your cable release to your camera
4.       Set your camera to M- Manual mode
5.       Set your camera to continuous shooting
6.       Set your shutter speed to 30seconds

1.4.2          Focusing

Follow the following steps to focus on the Time-Lapse star trails:
1.       If you have a UV filter fitted to your lens then remove it,
2.       Set your lens to MF (there are two options AF (Auto Focus) and MF (Manual Focus)),
3.       If your lens has image stabilization, then switch it off (the reason for this is: in the evening your lenses will constantly try to stabilize due to the low light conditions, and may soften your sharpness of your image),
4.       If your lens has the infinity symbol on the focus ring (∞) then set move the focus to there. But if your lens do not have this setting then do not stress, just continue to the next step,
5.       Switch your camera’s live view on,
6.       Move your camera that it points to the Time-Lapse star trails,
7.       Zoom your lens out to the minimum (widest field e.g. 18mm) ,
8.       Turn your focus ring until you can see the stars with pinpoint accuracy. You achieve pinpoint accuracy when the stars do not look like blobs. This can be a painstakingly slow process, but well worth it,

Once you’ve achieved the perfect focus, and then lock your focus on your lens (another flip button on your lens. This will ensure that you have perfect focus for the whole evening’s photos. 

1.5        Camera Settings

1.5.1          Overview of Settings

Now what are the right settings into taking the ultimate Time-Lapse star trails photograph?  

1.5.2          Settings to take note of

Delay: Make sure that there is no delay or interval between your shots, as this will create a dotted line of star trails. Switch off delay on camera.
Noise Reduction: Switch off Noise Reduction
Live View: Switch off live view
Long Exposure Reduction: Switch off (consult your camera manual to do this).

The following Photo shows the difference between the different White Balance settings, taken with a Canon 760D. I’ve taken the different photos from Daylight, Shaded, Cloudy, Tungsten and Fluorescent White Balance settings and transposed it into one photo, so that you can make an easy comparison between the different White Balance Settings.
Thus it is my recommendation that you use the Tungsten setting when you perform any kind of Night Time photos. There are a lot of scientific reasons which I can give you – but at the end of the day it just looks better and more pleasing to the eye! 

1.5.3          Primary Settings

Aperture: f/11
ISO: 3200
Shutter Speed: 30 seconds
Shooting Time: The following image shows an overlap of the gradients with markers showing the 15 degrees lengths of the star trails overlapped with time:

1.6        Taking the Photographs

1.6.1          Taking a test Shot

Always remember that your camera will pick up more stars than what your eyes can see, and thus you must always take test shots until you are happy with the outcome of your photo. I recommend that you take quite a few test shots because the image ay look fine on the live-view, but on a computer screen it may look totally different. Thus take a test-shot – review the mage, if necessary modify the settings and take again.

In Playback make sure that all the start rails and have pinpoint accuracy. If they are not very sharp then re-focus your lens until the ultimate sharpness can be obtained. If your photo is sharp then sit back and admire your first photograph.

You may have noticed that some of your stars look elongated when you zoom into the image. This is caused by the length of exposure of your photograph. 

1.6.2          Taking the Actual Photographs

The first part is to take the actual photographs: Now that you are ready, press your cable release and “lock it” Your camera will then start continuously shooting pictures of the night sky, I would time the length to approximately 2 hours, so that you have nice movement of the stars. The biggest thing to remember is NOT to touch your camera – as this will influence your picture, and create a “distorted” look. 

1.7        Putting it all Together

I use an application called StarStax to compile your hundreds of star-photos into one singular photo, which will show you star-trail beautifully.
Note: Download the application from: http://www.markus-enzweiler.de/software/software.html

1.7.1          StarStax

Once you have downloaded StarStax then follow the following guidelines to compile the photo:
1.       Open StarStax
2.       Click on File -> Open Images menu option
3.       Select your folder where all the photos are
4.       Select the dropdown Gap Filling
5.       Start Processing your photo
7.       This process should take approximately 5-10 minutes – thus go and have a cup of coffee
8.       When done then save your image to your hard drive
Enjoy your photograph J

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