Feb 19, 2012

An Introduction to Star Trail Photography

Introduction

If you're anything like me, you've spent a lot of time looking at beautiful images from NASA showcasing far away celestial objects in all their splendor. I've always dreamed of trying my hand at the same, but most of us don't have ready access to orbital space telescopes or even the expensive amateur astronomy equipment needed to get started in astrophotography.

Fortunately, we have a fun option available to us to shoot the heavens, and it doesn't require much beyond what you probably already have in your general photography kit. I'm talking about star trails.

Star Trails over the Olympic Mountains

Star Trails over the Olympic Mountains (See it on flickr)

If you have ever taken an exposure at night with stars in the frame, you may have noticed something funny upon closer inspection. Instead of getting fine points for your stars, you may have seen short streaks, while everything else in your image appeared still and sharp.

These are the beginnings of star trails, and they will be the focus of this tutorial. Thoughtfully weighed against other elements of an image and allowed to lengthen sufficiently, these streaks can go from compositional bane to boon, offering a striking visualization of time passing over us.

Understanding Celestial Poles

Star Trails over Gas Works Park, Seattle (See it on flickr)

This article is meant as a primer for people interested in producing beautiful images of the night sky in motion with their digital SLR cameras. It is general enough for users of any dslr system to follow, but contains a few additional details specific to Pentaxians.

I will introduce you to the concepts related to stars trails, and run through the two main methods of producing images featuring them.

Table of Contents

If you're already familiar with the nature and cause of star trails, feel free to skip ahead. Otherwise, read on.


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