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How to Photograph Star Trails and the Milky Way

One of the things my students learn at my night photography workshop is how to photograph the Milky Way and Star Trails. There are a few things you need to do this so I will outline that here for you in this article.

The photos and examples in this article are from a two day workshop I taught at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology on the Oregon coast. It went really well and I'm returning to teach again in July of 2015. I've taught there each summer for a couple of years now.

While I no longer teach in the US, we have workshops in locations around the world.

StarStaX Oregon Jun14 0098 full Oregon Jun14 0116 full gap filling

How to photograph the Milky Way

Equipment needed
First thing is you need to have the right equipment to photography the milky way. At the minimum you will need:

  • A camera with manual mode or Bulb that will allow you to make long exposures.
  • A wide lens – this will help the stars arch more and see more of the Milky Way.
  • A STURDY tripod. If you can knock it over by flicking your finger at it, that means it's NOT sturdy enough. Stress Free Tips for Buying a Tripod will help you pick a new one or your first one if you don't already have a good tripod.
  • A remote trigger to fire the camera
  • An intervalometer or interval timer – basically a trigger which allows you to program it to shoot multiple exposures over various intervals and length of time. This is needed to do the star trails. There are also several apps for your Smart Phone to do this such as Trigger Happy for less than $50. OR you can also use a locking wired remote.
  • A flashlight or headlamp so you can see what you're doing and camera settings.

The only other thing you'll need is maybe a chair or comfortable place to sit to photograph the Milky Way, but more especially for the star trails, as you're going to be there a while.

Planning and set up

Finding a good spot to photography the Milky Way photography and star trails is key. What you want to look for:

  • Reduce or eliminate light pollution: You need to get out of the city and away from they lights
  • Little to no light from the moon: You need to go out on night that has either a new moon or no moon. A full moon will overpower the stars and they will not show up as well.
  • Location selection: Find a spot where there is a clearing in the sky and you can get a good view of the stars. Ideally you want to find something interesting to put in your shot also as just stars alone will result in an image with little or no depth. A building, a big tree, or a body of water with reflections can work well.
  • Setup before it gets dark: Get there before it's fully dark so you can find your location and get set up. Shoot the sunset while you're waiting!

Camera settings

For most night photography you want to use a low ISO like 100 or 200 which helps keep noise in the image down to a minimum. Noise is the grain or funny speckles you see in your image sometimes. It is increased by: long exposures, high ISO, and lives in the blue channel (which means in the shade and dark areas which is prevalent at night). So night photos often suffer from high noise levels for these reasons.

But – there is an exception. To capture starry skies, the Mikly Way or star trails you will need to use a higher ISO. Otherwise the stars either will not show up well, or they will start to arch when perhaps you don't want them to do so.

Settings for photographing the Milky Way

  • ISO 3200
  • Aperture: f/3.5 or as wide as your lens will go
  • Shutter speed: 30 seconds
  • Make sure your long exposure noise reduction is turned off (note: you can leave it on if you wish but it takes a second exposure of the same length to “blend” out the noise so you just have to wait longer to shoot again)
  • Turn off autofocus: focus manually on the distant stars or use LiveView to assist you in focusing. The key here is you do not want the camera to try and focus when you press the button. (note: if you use back button focus that will also work)
  • Set your White Balance to: Daylight which will give you a nice sky. If you've got some light pollution you can try tungsten or incandescent also.

Take a test shot and adjust as necessary. Keep in mind that if your image is too dark and you increase the exposure time, the stars will start to arch, and the Milky Way may start to get blurry. Increase the ISO or open the aperture instead is that is the case. Hopefully you'll get something like this:

Mikly way star trails 750px 01

Settings for photographing Star Trails

Camera setting for shooting star trails are virtually the same as the Milky Way above, but with a few additions.

  • Shoot in burst mode: Make sure your camera is in burst mode, or high speed drive mode, so that when you lock the remote trigger or use the interval timer it will be able to fire the camera multiple times.
  • Shoot in JPG: Most times I will recommend shooting in RAW format, but in this case you may want to use JPGs. You will be processing many images at once so you'll want the smaller JPGs anyway. Alternatively you can shoot RAW if you have lots of memory and processing power, and convert them to JPGs later for processing.
  • Turn off Auto White Balance: Make sure you are NOT in Auto White Balance. This one is critical because you do not want the colour shifting between images.
  • Set Your Exposure time: 30 seconds X the number of shots you need. For example if you want 30 minutes worth, you'll need 60 shots. If you want an hour you'll need 120. Set your interval timer to: Delay 0, Bulb (exposure time) 30 seconds, Interval 35 seconds (this will give the camera a break between images). If you're using a locking release you will simply be pressing and locking it, then come back when you've reached the desired time (I'd recommend waiting to make sure it's going to keep shooting before you go sit in your car or rest).

Take one test shot first to check the exposure before you set it for the long haul. It should look something like this:

Oregon Jun14 0116 750
You'll notice some lack of sharpness on the edges. This is why I need to replace this wide zoom lens unfortunately.

Processing Your Milky Way and Star Trail Images

Processing the Milky Way photos

To process your Milky Way photos some basic adjustments should do the trick. Adding whites, blacks and clarity is where I start, then do some noise reduction. Adjust the colour balance if necessary to bring out the colour in the Milky Way, it usually has a bit of pink in it so try and Tint and Temp sliders.

If you want the stars and Milky Way to stand out more hold down the Option/Alt key and click on the Whites slider in Lightroom (or Photoshop Camera Raw). Slide it to the right and you will see more stars appear. Go as far as you think will be good and let go to review the image. Make sure the only clipped highlights are the stars themselves.

Processing the star trail photos

Now that you have your 30, 60, or more star images you have to combine them into one to make the trails appear. I recommend a free software called StarStax. It works great and you don't need anything else like Photoshop to make it work. It's available for Mac and PC and has instructions on how to use it on their site.

If you do use Photoshop you can also pull them all in as layers (do that from Bridge) and put the darkest one on the bottom. Then select all other layers and change the blend mode to “lighten”. The disadvantage of this method is that it doesn't fill in the gaps between your exposures and StarStax does offer that option.

I put together a tutorial on how to process start trails in Photoshop using some sample images you can download and practice with yourself.

You can also use StarStax to shoot car lights and do multiple exposures and merge them all as one later in one simple step. Light painting multiple shots is another application, and while I haven't tried it yet myself some of my students have with some pretty good results.

So you should end up with something like this for your stacked final star trails image.

StarStaX Oregon Jun14 0098 full Oregon Jun14 0116 full gap filling

If you want more help with night photography, the Milky Way, shooting stars and the moon, try these?

Have you done any astral photography? How did it turn out? Share your experiences and images in the comments below, I'd love to see them.


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