Brisbane Star Trail

Brisbane Star Trails

Astro Photography really sucked me in back in 2010. Back then I had absolutely no idea how to capture images like I was seeing from everybody else and there wasn’t as much in-depth information as there is available these days. I’ve never been one to shy away from a challenge especially if it involves self-learning new skills so I made it a goal to get better at it.

The limiting factor in this area of photography can be the gear itself and my Canon 550D’s sensors just weren’t up to the task (yep, I had two). There I was thinking that the only way to get good long exposures was epic amounts of stopping and massively long shutter (bulb) actuations. I guess we all need to start somewhere…

To add complexity, that there are several kinds of Astro Photography to master and I’ve never owned a Telescope so that ruled out the really fun stuff looking directly at planets and constellations. I also live in the Brisbane CBD in an area quite close to the city so light pollution can be insane even on the clearest of nights. This is a heavily limiting factor and has prevented me somewhat in the past. Even when I traveled to remote areas, the 550D just wasn’t up to the task. Eventually I upgraded to a 5D Mk2 and the difference in Dynamic Range was amazing. By current standards the 5D2 is quite lacking in Dynamic Range but it does the job.

Star Trails are still new to me so I won’t go into it too deeply in this blog post because I’m still wearing my Learner plates but I’ll explain the following image was produced using many hours worth of long exposures and then “stacked” together using a free piece of software called Star Trails. At some point after I went to bed, some clouds rolled through which ruined my first attempt a little bit but I’ll do a better write up here when I show off my next Star Trail photo.

Brisbane Star Trail

Brisbane Star Trail

Technically speaking, I took a bit of a guess with my settings. I also don’t have a wide enough prime lens yet so I went with my 24-105 F4 / L lens @ 24mm for this occasion. The individual shots (220 total) were taken in 30 second long exposures. Aperture was f/8 and I selected an ISO of 800 on my Canon 5D Mk2. This was just enough overall exposure to give me the brighter stars above all of the other light pollution that was going on. The final images were processed in batch (bulk) using Adobe Lightoom as it is much easier to apply your settings and sit back and let your computer automate the task and then the resulting images were “stacked” in the Star Trails program.

All up, you’re looking at about two hours worth of images here, another three hours exposing and editing this one final image. That’s a lot of work for a single image but this was my first attempt and I’m quite pleased with how it all came out.

So here are the basic hints for any one wanting to get started in night time learner level DSLR Astro Photography.

  1. Buy a camera that has a sensor that has the best Dynamic Range you can afford. The better the dynamic range, the more “stuff” your camera will see in the absolute darkness. Most name brand DSLR’s manufactured after 2013 have greatly improved Dynamic Range capability.
  2. Lenses – While your kit lens may be 18mm to 24mm at its widest, zoom lenses aren’t always the best and you may lose some “light” as the Aperture or f-stop may not be very wide at these focal lengths. This means that faster prime lenses like 12mm-35mm @ f/2.0 are going to be fantastic choices. Higher end lenses (more expensive) will definitely yield better results as the quality of the glass itself will allow further optical clarity. In terms for Canon users, think L series lenses or anything from the super crisp and sharp Carl Zeiss ZE lens range !
  3. Get away from the pollution – the light pollution at least. The further you are from built up areas the better. The later at night the better. Also the higher the better. Remember also that light entering from the rear of the camera (the viewfinder) can also affect your exposures so try and keep that to a minimum as well.
  4. Weather – Weather has a dramatic effect on night time exposures. Clouds are the obvious thing you don’t want or need. Clear weather is at its best when it is cold as this prevents warmer weather heat haze from distorting your images.
  5. Get high(er) – It is no co-incidence that some of the sharpest, clearest night time exposures come from people who are willing to sit in the freezing darkness at the top of hills and mountains. Less atmosphere in the way means less light distortion too!
  6. Stay still – Even better, buy a tripod and a remote shutter cable so that you don’t move the camera at all during the exposure.
  7. Take more photos – If you want to try making a star trail, you’ll need an Intervalometer which is a remote shutter cable with a timer built in. If you’re a Canon user, there is firmware you can get for your camera called Magic Lantern that has a virtual intervalometer built in and this is what I prefer to use myself.
  8. RAW photos rule – Without going into it too far, you should be shooting your photos in a RAW format instead of straight .jpg format. A RAW image can be “developed” using a photo utility such as Adobe Lightroom (my preference) which then allows you to alter the exposure and settings of images to get the full potential out of them. I will do a specific article on Lightroom and my own procedures for all types of photography a little later.
  9. Patience – You’ll learn the specifics as you go along, keep practicing, keep learning.
  10. Ask questions – Nobody expects you to find all of the answers yourself.

If you ever have any specific questions, I’m happy to help where I can so feel free to reach out.

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