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Written by: Anna-Mart Kruger

I think when it comes to landscape photography, night photography is by far my favorite. Finding yourself surrounded by nature in a tranquil environment embraced by a beautiful night sky without any light pollution is a truly surreal experience.

star-trail-photography

Star trail photography is highly rewarding if you have a bit of patience. Here are some tips from iCapture Photo Safaris to perfect your star trail photos.

Aperture: wide open or narrow?

It’s a good idea to have a lens that’s capable of very wide apertures – such as f/2.8 or even wider.  The wider your aperture, the brighter your star trails will be.

Clear, dry skies are important

You don’t want to photograph star trails under a cloudy sky. Air pollution and humidity can be annoying and influence your end result. It’s best to photograph stars during a new moon night – meaning that the moon is nowhere to be seen. You can also take your image before the moon rises.

Exposure

When photographing star trails, your goal is to allow your camera to pick up light it wouldn’t normally by using extra ‘long’ exposures. Star trail photography entails taking multiple exposures and combining them in post processing.

While it is possible to take one very long exposure, often the heat coming from the sensor will cause hot spots in your final image. We usually use a 30 second shutter speed and take 60-180 images.

It’s very important to utilise proper long exposure techniques: locking your mirror, mounting your camera on a secure tripod, and using a remote cable release for your shutter.star-trail-night-photography

Preparing for your night shoot

I prefer to do scouting the afternoon before any shoot. It gives you a feel for the surrounding area. Interesting ‘terrestrial’ foreground elements can be incorporated into the composition. Some of these foreground subjects will make ideal silhouettes, while others would benefit from a little exposure (natural or man-made).

For star trails:  

1. Shoot in manual mode so there is no change in exposure between photos with a 30-second exposure.

camera-settings

2. Set your ISO

The ISO speed and aperture will change depending on which lens you are shooting with. Here is a list of settings you would need to use at several common apertures to get a 30 second exposure:

f/1.4 and   ISO400 = 30s

f/2.8 and ISO1600 = 30s

f/4.0 and ISO3200 = 30s

f/5.6 and ISO6400 = 30s

3. Find the origin of the circles in your image

If you are in the Southern Hemisphere

-Find the Southern Cross

-Draw an imaginary line through the long axis of the Southern Cross beginning with the star that marks the top of the cross. Two ‘pointer’ stars α Centauri and β Centauri.

-Draw an imaginary line from γ Crucis to α Crucis—the two stars at the extreme ends of the long axis of the cross—and follow this line through the sky.

-Go four and a half times the distance of the long axis in the direction of the narrow end of the cross point.

star-night-photography-around-circle-point

If you are in the Northern Hemisphere 

You have to locate the polaris, the North Star, in the sky.  If you can manage to get polaris in the frame, all the stars will circle around it.

Use live view

I prefer using live view to get my focus on the foreground subject. I then change from auto focus to manual focus (AF to M) and leave it there for the rest of the shoot. A lot of photographers only set their focus to infinity (∞). Bare in mind using live view decreases your battery life.

camera-lense

4. Settings

-Interval: 30 seconds

-Number of intervals x shots/interval: 0180 x 1

This means you will be taking 180 shots of 30-second exposures, thus a total shooting time of 90 minutes.

camera-menus

Make sure your battery is fully charged. It is never a bad idea to have a spare battery in your bag.

-Set white balance to daylight.

-Turn OFF long exposure noise reduction.

-Turn OFF high ISO noise reduction.

-Close the eyepiece shutter to keep stray light from entering via the eyepiece.

-Shoot RAW (NEF) so you can easily make adjustments in post-production.

-Turn OFF the LCD display to conserve battery power.

The editing

After spending 90 minutes to get your picture, it is now time to enjoy the fruits of your labor.

Post process software such as: Startrial (itunes app); Starstax; ImageStacker and DeepSkyStacker will automatically throw all your images together and produce a stunning star trail.

star-gaze-night-photography

For the more professional photographers, post processing can also be done in various post-processing programs such as Bridge and Photoshop.

Another benefit to image stacking is that you have all the necessary photos to make a time lapse video.

If you want to take an image of a stargaze (image with just the milky way) the same setting will apply, the only difference is that it will be a single shot with an exposure of 25/30seconds.

star-struck-photography

We would like to invite all the shy photographers and amateurs out there to start sharing your photos and embrace your humble beginnings! If you are open to proper guidance, constructive comments or compliments, post your photos with the hashtag #icapture_forum or @icapturephotosafaris on Instagram, and our iCapture Photo Safari team members will gladly guide you in your development from rookie, to amateur, to professional photographer. Your transformation could be remarkable and who knows, maybe one day you too will be able to mentor your followers.

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HAWK Photography

HAWK photography is a group of passionate wildlife photographers who organise, and host, small and exclusive photo safaris in Namibia, South Africa, Kenya, Botswana and Uganda. We will make each of your photo safari dreams a reality.