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Star Trails in East Kootenay

August 14, 2011

The two images below were part of a small self-assigned project I gave myself while vacationing in the East Kootenay region of BC. I found this interesting tree on a hill top and decided to photograph it in a few different ways; near, far, day and night, etc.

Shooting star trails has some basic requirements that you probably already know. These are things like finding an interesting location away from city lights and being there with a camera, tripod and remote trigger (for long bulb exposures) on a clear cloudless evening. Knowing the location of Polaris in the sky is also important. You may have also heard that you should plan on shooting on a moonless night as well. On this point, I don’t agree. What you must know is when the moon will be up and when it will set and be able to determine if there is sufficient time after moon set to get a few hours of exposures in, before sunrise starts to happen. The reason I think the moon is important is because it is extremely difficult to focus in pitch dark. If you have a foreground object in the scene (like the tree in the images shown) focusing can be tricky. You can’t just slam the lens focus to infinity and expect to get good results. Even though a 17mm lens at f4 will provide a fair amount of DOF, if you want good focus, you are going to have to work at it. For the images below, I did a series of short exposures (3 minutes) using the moon light until I found a lens focus position that gave me both the tree and stars in sharp focus (reviewing each one on the LCD until I found it). Once I had the focus set, I waited for the moon to set (2am in this case) and then did a series of unattended exposures of 10 minutes each for the next couple hours. In post, I used one of the moon lite images (masked) to provide a little more detail to the tree (may be hard to see in the small versions of these images, but it is there).

From a single camera I get a collection of images from the one stationary point that I combine in post to produce the single image with longer star trails. The shorter exposure times (10 minutes) minimize issues with digital noise and avoid one single event (an airplane or other unexpected light source) from ruining the entire evening’s efforts. And since all that time with one camera produces only one finished image, I use two cameras so that I will have at least two images to show for my lack of sleep. If you try two cameras, just make sure that each one is out of the field of view of the other; otherwise your images could be ruined by the lights/LCD display from one camera back showing up in the images captures by the other.

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