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Star Trails

Lesson 14 from: Photographing America's National Parks

Ian Shive

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Lesson Info

Star Trails

Star photography astro photography we could teach three days on it I wanted to cover a little bit to not talk about going outdoors and photographing nature and missing one of the most spectacular shows that the natural world has to put on and that's the night sky. I mean, when you're in national parks and you look up, your chances are few national park, you probably got clear skies than anywhere else, and now with I heard a statistic recently that something along the lines of seventy five percent of the us population and eventually I think the world population will be in urban areas, you know, living in los angeles, when people talk about photographing stars, they're usually talking aboutthe ones on too feet, and so I'm actually talking about the kind you see here in this picture on the wall of this cactus, and actually going walkies through how that was made, but I we did it. We took a few minutes and actually put together a little piece on how to photograph star trails on dh stars in...

general there's, two types of star photography or astro photography get into that stars static and there's a lot of different ways to do that meeting, they're not moving through the sky, and then the star trails, which is the streaks like you would see. In that cactus shot over on the wall so I'm gonna show you my basic set up it was a pretty pretty basic pretty primitive run through on how to go I just want to introduce the idea and introduce the topic on give you some of my top ten tips or top ten steps rather on how to actually bring those together because the digital process is an important process and I'll explain that after the segment so the day is never really truly over for a nature photographer we are going to actually go through how to capture stars and star trails on dh it's very different than the rest of nature photography in that it can take many, many hours to get one shot and there are really two types of star photography there is the type of number one was the easiest kind that's what you might use a long exposure and just get a really beautiful shot with the milky way or a line of stars and that usually takes anywhere from about thirty seconds to maybe no more than a few minutes then there's the other more complicated kind but has incredibly stunning result which are star trails and that's where you see the streaks of white and all the different lines of stars as they move or rather as earth moves and it looks like the stars are moving in the sky but we're here fixed so you want to do something like that, which could take anywhere from at least thirty minutes or so all the way up to, uh, you know, hours and hours I've heard, as long as you know, six or seven hours of star trails in for one single frame, um, we're going toe cover the basics of both. Of course, the first thing you want to do is make sure you have a stable tripod and make sure it's locked down another good tip. If it's a little windy, if your tripod has a hook on the bottom of it, you could hook some weight to it. Maybe the bag itself could be hooked to it, and that will give you some stability, but you know any wind, any kind of shaking at all? You're only getting one shot of the whole night. Essentially, I'm even though we're going to take a lot of shots. I'll explain that in a minute, even though you're only getting one shot to get screwed up that's the end of it. Next time you get to try is the following nights. You want to get everything a stable and his and his rigid as possible, very windless night is the best, obviously a clear night, not a lot of light pollution, the more in a city you are or closer to a city, the harder will be to see star trails though sometimes some cities they're off interesting light you might get some interesting effects from obviously a nice clear night like here in rainier national park is very helpful um, so we've got a clear sky were position under here we've always got a lot of light around us, but we'll turn those off so we start to shoot ah, but just to get you set up, you can see what my setup looks like I've got uh, my camera pointing straight up in this case, I'm going to kind of create a cool little look of the trees surrounding all this all the way around, but a wide angle lens of sixteen millimeter lens f two point eight you want to use this fast of a lens as possible, so two point eight or if you have it one point four his ideal fast lens meaning wide open aperture is able to capture a lot of light number stars a little twinkles in the sky so you want to have something that could really capture all that light, so I'm using a sixteen millimeter wide angle f to point eight it's set on infinity I don't have any huge foreground elements this is a pretty pretty wide shot on going too then plug in my interval ometer which goes into the side here it's also a manual mode set to infinity because as I said there's no foreground I've got an interval ometer plugged into the side hasn't explained earlier an interval ometer actually I wanna start that over I've got an interval ometer plugged into the side of my camera and what that is is two words broken apart an interval meter and sew it counts the intervals in between shots and it gives you a variety of different options in this case I have a thirty second exposure set to go for a long as I keep it on I can hit start or stop and it'll do thirty seconds and it will close the shutter open the shutter close the shutter open the shutter close the shutter doing thirty seconds each time until I tell it to stop I will do that for hours do it for twenty minutes or whatever so I'll set a timer on my watch maybe you go make a hot talk on your campfire somewhere where the light's not rooting or forehand elements and otherwise just relax while it works and essentially what's doing is each thirty seconds is gathering all the light later on I'll show you this process in studio well actually combine all of those different exposures together in photo shop and that will give us one single frame taken from his many frames as well as we've done I usually like to go anywhere from about sixty minutes two seventy five minutes depending on what it is I'm shooting and what sort of subject matter am going after but that's a typical approach for me is about sixty to seventy five minutes but you can go for several hours if you want the longer you do it, the more streaks of light you'll get in the sky and more creative opportunities you'll have. So for something simple is this we've gotta point it up thirty seconds I've gotta start stop on here um when they were the interval ometer you have it set to thirty seconds but you also have to pick how often it goes off if you have it set to zero it will only do one exposure you want to actually have it set to take another exposure everyone second so that way it closes and opens and that could be a tricky thing to figure out because there's a lot of other options including the self timer and the number of frames everything should be at zero except for the interval which should be about one second and how long the duration is and as that thirty seconds you may be wondering why I picked thirty seconds then why not thirty five seconds? We're not forty seconds there's a rule that kind of floating around in the photography sphere call the rule of five hundred and essentially you khun divide the focal length of your lens by the number of the divide, five hundred by the number of five hundred by the focal length of your lens. So five hundred divided by sixteen is about thirty one and a quarter, so I come up with a maximum of thirty one seconds or thirty seconds before the stars start to actually trail. We're move using that number, you can actually go and gather all the light in those little increments, and then when you pair them together, you have a nice even street, so I try to use that rule five hundred, especially if I don't want any kind of movement in the sky. You can go a little longer, you could go to forty seconds, especially if you're going to combine all the exposure's later, because ultimately they're going to be streaked. But if you don't want streaks, you just want a crystal clear, very sharp, milky way were starry sky use the rule of five hundred. The other thing I try to do is I don't want a lot of noise, and a lot of noise comes from the build up of heat on the sensor, so if this camera was open because I could set it to be open for two or three hours in a single exposure, what happens is the sensor starts to heat up. That's what creates a noise or sort of a grain like effect? And so we want to avoid that, and to avoid that, we're only going to do a max some of thirty second exposures, you could do thirty five seconds, you do a little less, but thirty, sort of that sweet spot for ultimately combining all your exposures so my settings physically, you don't want to be in, um, aperture, priority or shutter priority mode, because you don't want the camera to be picking anything, you're ultimately going to leave the camera wide open on this case two point eight for my aperture and pick a sensitive aya so at least four hundred you might want to go to eight hundred, depending on the type of cameron, the model and how well it works in low light, you go up to sixteen hundred or more. Um, I'll choose eight hundred for this, and then you want to make sure you're in at least manual mode or bold mode. Um, ultimately, if you're in bulb, that allows you to just pick an aperture, and then you could determine the duration using your interval ometer ifyou're in manual mode, then you're always gonna have a maximum number of seconds, either two point eight and thirty seconds, where if you go to a bold mode you could do to point in two hours if you want for your exposure, so ultimately I'm gone interval ometer set a thirty seconds. Those are my final settings. It's going to do an interval every second? Every, uh, every time those thirty seconds ends, it goes into another interval of shooting and raw so that we have the maximum control for processing at the end, where bold mode I have two point eight eyes. Oh, a hundred and we are in a full battery brand new memory card, because we're going to shooting a lot of exposures over a long time, and we're going to kill all the lights when hit start, I'm gonna come back in an hour, and, uh, we'll have a lot of different exposures on there. Um, and we will combine them all in studio to make our final and result kind of a cheese, huh? All right, so that's, that's, the basics of it, and I wouldn't normally just point the lens straight up was the end of a long day. You're in your campsite? And and why actually pointed straight up was because it was campfires and cars coming by on the kipping road, and that extra light that they throw off over that time would eventually illuminate all the trees, and it actually did, anyway, but it's a great way to get certainly an understanding of all the settings, so I'm going to go through ten steps to processing the perfect start trail photos, and I've kind of jotted down my my notes on that, and I'm going to show you few images first, and kind of tell you about what that process was. But did you have any questions first about what you just saw on the screen? Yes, how do you focus? How do I focus? That's a great question. It depends on how close your subject is. Typically you want your stars to be sharp, and so you're looking foreign infinity focus. So you want to be focusing at a distance? Essentially, you don't want to be focused on something in the foreground. I feel it's a cactus is a great example. I made sure I was far enough away actually could bring that cactus shot up for him. I was far enough away from this shot here I was far enough away from the cactus that it was still at an infinity setting to focus on the cactus was passed the minimum focal distance that would be required to capture that, as well as to make sure that the stars are captured, and I'm gonna walk you through all of these images, but generally speaking, an infinity focus is the best way to go now if you can't see because it's dark out at night or you want to make sure that your cactus is sharp or whatever it is that you're going after you could certainly shine a headlamp on this subject matter or something along those lines or if you just look at the top of your lands, you go look for that little sideways eight symbol that represents represents infinity and you could just simply do it visually in general, I've actually got really used to using the lens and the the number's on the lands for focusing because you can have a distance and if you ever see in the movies where behind the scenes where they measured the distance from the lens to the actors with a long measuring tape basically checking to make sure that precisely this distance is where they're going to be and then without actually looking through to focus their style that distance on lends to focus essentially this is the same equivalent of that great question though super relevant how to focus question and maybe we can go through the staff tent actually steps and then we can kind of round it all out with some questions great idea so and you have more images to show I do I'm going to show you these images and kind of talked to them a little bit the image on the screen that you see right now is actually have a barn and stars and clouds, and this was actually one of the earlier images where I started to just get the idea that wow, having stars in my photographs would be really great. There we go. Having stars of my photographs would be really great because it adds that magical element and my approach to photography, nature, photography, is to really strike the imagination and really get people teo to think you know about about the subject matter and about your composition and give it that sort of just give it a feel good feel good feeling, something sort of magical about landscaped whenever I go outside, I have such a magical response to being out there on day want to convey that through my photograph. So I was actually on this ranch in central california and was photographing their barn and that's actually a natural light. I didn't strobe it or anything I did, you know, the doors were closed, light was kind of creeping through, and I just set up my camera to capture the bar, not realizing at the time that I might capture the stars. I just used a higher esso and a long exposure, and I think at the time was an act. Teacher priority mode and it just happened to be two point eight at thirty seconds and it was enough to capture the stars but this is a great example where you're not seeing stars trailing through the sky but rather just getting a hint of them they're clouds could be really great for creating stars because he is you can tell in this image they really add cem cem context to the scene, especially since there's a cloud in the brighter part of the sky where there probably wouldn't be any stores anyway so that's very convenient. The other thing though that could work against you with clouds is if there's too many blowing I'm going out and that actually did happen a little bit in rainier and I'm going to show you the end result of what we did there that evening, but you can if you'll notice in this particular image at the top of the frame here, there seems like they're suddenly less stars and that's because the clouds were actually just simply blocking the light from them, and if it blocks the light regularly enough, you won't be able to get that nice even trail that nice even line you might get jumps in that lina's, though like a record we're skipping so that's the one downside crystal clear night in dark places are certainly the best places that you can take those kinds of images once I realized I could do that, I started to really play around with the idea of incorporating stars and my compositions this's the mobius arch not too far from los angeles a couple hours from l a and again, you can see that I went for more of a static star trail, but it went a little bit longer than that thirty second minimum. And when I say thirty seconds is really in relation to a wide angle lens, very rarely do I ever use a telephoto lens and capture star trails it's almost always a sixteen to thirty five because ultimately the night sky is big and that's what you're going after and you have some sort of a subject matter in the shot and in this case it's mobius arch I did use a strobe toe light the arch, so I set the camera on a tripod I set the timer and you know, sarge is actually not that not that big a very small I set the timer and on the interval ometer and let it just do its thing. So I set like a twenty second warning, so I had time to get out behind the arch and when I heard the shutter ago, I use a very low week setting on my my flash with a warming filter, which was about the same colors the rock sort of and it warmed it up and lit in eliminated the whole argent and got the stars and the mountains in the background so that that was against this sort of ah basic landscaped composition very simple lots of trial and error and the nice part about a lot of images that didn't quite so work flashers two strong you know it wasn't lit evenly throughout the frame and so on so far you'll notice very very hard to tell there's a tiny little streak here could be a meteor but probably an airplane and I'm going to talk about that in a minute because airplanes and other challenges are very very difficult here's another frame from the same thing as you can see the stars are starting to move this isn't an image stack this is a longer than thirty second exposure so you can probably about forty seconds or so and the image and the stars are starting to move a little bit in the sky on dso that's fine and you can certainly do that I try to stick to keeping the exposure times much lower because generally speaking you get more noise the longer they're open I want to have a nice rich image without having all of that noise this is actually an image that very popular of mine people really love it respond to it it has two things working for it this really is a great example of knee going after conceptual photography and I was thinking, okay, I'm in sequoia national park and I want to really show the idea of ah of a tree reaching toward the sky and I'm like that would be so cool how can I convey that and not do it in the middle of the day like I've always seen and so I thought, why not let the sky actually be something different at night? And so this is is one of the top few times where I've done start trails very short trails it's a burst it's about a six minute exposure this is not an image stack this is not a digital composite it's a single frame six minutes long on die again use the strobe was the first time I had used the effect of using a strobe flash with a warming filter on it one pop on the left one pop on the right a wide angle lens the only thing I would have done differently today would probably try to go after a bit more depth the field in the image but this really worked in general very well and if you notice the sky is blue it's not completely black and that's because there's a very sweet spot at night and if you really start to pay attention to it and I know nature photographers, you definitely pay attention to it there's a sweet spot your son goes down this guy gets blue and it hasn't completely lost all of its light. This is very, very close. It's, about a twenty minute window. I love to find a spot in there and always depends on what your photo every bit a spot in there. Just begin your star trails because then you get a little bit of color. You could do it without it. But and if there's urban areas and light pollution, you might get some color in your sky as well. From that be here up in sequoia national park in california. Starting this at the right time allowed me to get that beautiful, beautiful, almost cobalt blue color in the background in a five or six minute exposure. Because it only last twenty minutes. Do you can do the math and see how challenging that was? I did two other exposures on this one is not so great and the other was horrible didn't work at all. So I got three frames. This ended up being the only friend that actually worked out just right for me. And by that point, at the end, I had lost all of the lost all of the light that I was able to do on that this is a recent wanna shot this winter I was in. Glacier national park up in montana and I just happened to be in the area actually for a completely different project and so I decided take a night drive at the end of my day out to mcdonald lake on dh this is where again I started to incorporate more of the digital process taking many different frames and combining them this is about an hour I believe, of actual exposures using tiny little sections I started this if anything almost almost maybe a little too early because you could see how light it is. The stars are not nearly as bold as in this picture on dh the differences also that this is a longer, much longer exposure this is probably actually this is less is about forty minutes this's about forty minutes and you could see that they kind of streak down like that and then also the way that I composited the frames together, which I'm going to show you in a sec you could see that there's a little bit of a burst all mostly a comment like effect on it. This picture to me is the epitome of what start trail photography is about this was incredibly challenging not just because of its subject matter but also because of the fact that it was an organ pipe we're going to pipe cactus national monument, which the national monuments are part of the national park system and that is along the arizona u s mexico border so you're not just getting stars flying overhead, but I saw more strange lights in the sky that night from monitoring because you have a lot of border patrol in the area, so there were a lot of types of drones and other aircraft that were constantly flying through I was right off of the road generally speaking, you're not supposed to be out in like the back country for instance in organ pipe was pulled right alongside of the road and I photographed the shot this took seventy five minutes actually dio to seventy five minute exposure, pointing directly towards the if you notice I've got a circular effect I anticipated that by making sure I knew where the north star would be where the north pole would be and so as the earth rotates perfectly in that direction that's how you get that shape if I had pointed this direction, you would have only gotten sort of a side street throughout the image on the right hand side of the frame onda again similar to the to the tree and I'm more or less kind of using my own ideas when doing this I was able teo actually use my headlamp not a flash in this case a headland because it was much more subtle to illuminate the cactus I did one composition just for the cactus in the background and then seventy five minutes worth of exposures here, which sold out to about one hundred fifty exposures. There were thirty seconds each. So it was about one hundred fifty individual thirty second exposures that were combined into this. And then I had to paint out all of the little flashing lights from the drones and the airplanes. So seventy five minutes worth of exposures and about seventy five days, it felt like work painting that stuff out. It was actually took me about three, four hours to actually finish the shot. So again, I could do three days on astro photography, but it's one introduce the different concepts and show you how they were work. Now the foreground element is I'm going to go. This is actually the shot from rainier, by the way, from the campground. This is what we got on dh. You could tell that his car drove through. It started to brighten up the frames. I'm sorry they brighten up the leaves along the edge of the frame on dh. You could tell that there were a lot of clouds that were kind of constantly going through. I didn't really finish the editing on this image. I just wanted to show you what a final stitch looked like. Now had I actually had a clear night, we obviously we saw from the scouting we did not that we had a clear night into this on rainier, it could have been a really great shot to have the mountain and reflection lakes with your composition, but you could tell that there's some jumpiness a little bit in there, and it was because there was a huge amount of cloud cover, and, well, why would that really interrupted it's? Because we're combining the brightest part of the frame into a single exposure. And so if the brightest part of the frame is suddenly dimmed out by a cloud than that exposure, it disappears on ly to reappear again in the next exposure, and so you'll get those dark spots in that. So if a lot of cloud cover came through over the course of I want to say these were fifty exposures that's, about twenty five minutes, which is generally what I would kind of say the minimum for doing sort of a stitch are it's called image stacking star stacking our image stacking you're stacking all of the frames and toe one to combine them, you notice again, another little airplane going through. Sometimes you can be like and get a meteor or fireball, and it just adds to the drama of the shot typically, though it's a a passenger jet flying through

Class Materials

bonus material with purchase

Field Guide to Photographing the American Wilderness
Icons of Nature Keynote
National Park Photography Intro and Setup
Photo Editing Keynote
10 Steps to Processing Perfect Star Trail Images
Business of Photography Keynote
Gear Guide

Ratings and Reviews


I have taken quite a few courses with createlive and this was by far one of the best. Ian is a fantastic teacher and remarkable at describing what he is doing and his thought process clearly. There is so much good information in this course, I definitely plan on buying this class. Not only is Ian a great teacher, but he also seems to genuinely want to help other photographers and see them succeed. You can tell he cares more about seeing good pictures of nature than anything else. I cannot recommend this course enough. Whether you are a beginner who shoots landscape photography as a hobby or a professional who already specializes in landscape photography, this class has something to offer and will expand your skill set. Can't thank Ian enough and I hope he does another course soon.


Ian is a great teacher and it is great when some one who "can do", can also explain how he does it. Clearly, his experience and commitment are why he is good at what he does. There is a lot more to a great photo than getting the camera settings and filters right. Ian did his best to help us understand what to look for when "working the scene" and finding a good composition without distractions. A great course. Thank you, Creative Live and Ian Shive.


Amazing course. Ian Shive is a wonderful teacher, as well as photographer, and it all comes across. I was glued to my computer for the entire 3 days when the class was live, and just had to purchase it so I don't lose any of it. The bonus materials alone are worth the purchase price. I've got a trip coming up soon and will have the opportunity to put some of what Ian said into practice; and love that I can have it with me on my portable devices so I can refresh my memory and reinforce it all. Great to have on a long plane ride. If you are on the fence, get off that fence and go purchase this great course!!! You won't be sorry. My thanks to CreativeLive, and Ian Shive for giving us this wonderful opportunity to not only learn, but to actually be in the field with Ian.

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