The easy guide to photographing star trails

So, star trails. Striking images certainly but surprisingly easy to do with the right software.

First things first, to make your life a million times easier, if you’re using a Mac, download StarStax and on a PC, Startrails.exe, Google them, easy to find and both a free download. This is the software that will combine your final set of images into the star trails shot. If you really enjoy spending ages with Photoshop you can blend each image separately but these make life a lot easier.

Other than that all you need is a camera capable of doing 30s exposures, a tripod, remote control and a nice dark area where you can see plenty of stars. Don’t underestimate the power of light pollution to ruin a shot, the example below was taken in my garden in a built up area of Edinburgh, the light pollution is easy to see so try and get out of town somewhere.

The effects of light pollution

With everything in place you now need to locate Polaris. It’s not essential but if you can keep Polaris in the image then the stars will nicely rotate around it. To find it look for the Plough, one of the more well known star clusters. It’s in the shape of a soup ladle (roughly) so follow the handle around to the scoop and locate the last 2 stars in the Plough. From there in a straight line around 3 times as far away as the 2 stars are from each other will be a slightly duller star, this is Polaris. Or even easier, get one of the smartphone apps such as Star Walk on the iPhone and use that to locate Polaris.

With this done compose your image. You want a 30s exposure that doesn’t overexpose any foreground interest but shows up a lot of stars in the preview image. Usually you’ll be around f7.1 or wider and ISO400 or above to get what you want. The more stars you see on the preview, the more trails you’ll get in the final image. Shoot in RAW mode too if possible. I’ve also found that the wider the lens the better. You’ll want to be on manual focus, and with focus set to infinity.

Once you’re happy with the shot it’s time to settle in for the long haul. You’ll need at least 40 shots to get a decent trail in your final image. The more the better but you’ll be there longer to get them. A decent compromise is around 60 shots if you are picking up a lot of stars. You’ll either need to fire the shutter every 30s or if you have a programmable remote set it to 30s exposure with 32s delay to give the camera time to process each image.

With your shots in the bag, it’s time to thaw out and start the process magic.

First thing to do is to process the first RAW image, how you do it is personal preference but make sure that you get a decent mix of stars in the sky, the sky kept darker and don’t blow out any foreground. Once you have a image you’re happy with, save the settings and then process every image with the same settings. It doesn’t take that long to do with ACR or Lightroom, and save each as a jpg.

Now, open all the jpg’s in your processing software, either StarStax or Startrails.exe and start it off processing them using blend lighter to combine the images. After less than a minute you’ll have the stacked image. If you find cloud has passed through the shot you can exclude these images and start again but remember you’ll get breaks in your trails. Best plan in this case is to try and blend again missing the offending frames and see if it’s any better, sometimes the cloud doesn’t matter that much.

Save the final image and open it in Photoshop or similar. From here you can do your final adjustments, usually darkening the sky, upping contrast and that it, and this is what you should get…

FRB Star Trails 29 Dec

This panoramic shot was slightly different to do. Had I shot this with the bridges at the bottom of the shot the verticals of the bridges would have been hugely distorted, to get around this I shot a single long exposure image with the bridges in the middle of the frame where the distortion isn’t an issue. I then moved the camera to where I wanted the bridges in the final shot and shot the multiple star images. I finally took the long exposure image, moved the bridges to the bottom of the shot and extended the sky with content aware fill, I then blended in the star trails image and selectively erased the bridges until I had the correct verticals version overlaid with the star trails. A bit more mucking about but a much more pleasing final image.

Forth Bridges Pano Star Trails

So, a final checklist…

Warm clothes if doing this in winter, a simple MUST have.
Sturdy tripod
Camera capable of 30s exposures
As wide a lens as possible
StarStax or Startrails.exe software
Remote control for camera
A clear night
A dark(ish) location

That’s it. Off you go and shoot those stars!

Photographic ambitions for 2012

With the year drawing to a close and a new year looming ominously on the horizon rather than reflecting on the year past I’m going to look forward to the new year and the new photographic challenges I’m going to set myself, some of these I might achieve, others will be dependent on the full co-operation of Mother Nature but if I tick all these off I’ll be a happy man come this time next year.

1. To capture the Aurora

The night sky has become quite a fascination in recent months, the increased hours of darkness seem to make you more aware of what’s “up there” and without a doubt the Aurora must be one of the most magical of these night-time phenomenons. If I lived in Iceland I suppose I’d be quite blasé about photographing natures greatest light show but it’s not something you get in Central Scotland a lot. Now I’m a bit more up on how to make an educated guess on when it might happen this year will be my first attempt at really giving it a go. Locations might prove difficult near Edinburgh but I’m intending on a scouting mission to see where further North I could reasonably get to from Edinburgh at short notice and even North Berwick/Dunbar area seems possible so who knows, all I need now is a decent magnetic storm!

2. The Milky Way

Sticking with the night sky, this is one I’m looking to tick off the list sooner rather than later. Having had a few goes at capturing the Milky Way from up in the Pentlands with minor success a trip to the dark skies area of Galloway Forest Park will be on in the not too distant future. The Milky Way is visible to the naked eye in the dark of Galloway so it should easy with the camera, shouldn’t it?

Stars over Harlaw
Best attempt at the Milky Way from the still too light Pentland Hills

3. More attempts at star trails

Despite knowing the theory behind star trail shots for a long time I’d never actually tried it until a couple of weeks ago and there is a massive sense of satisfaction when you start to blend those stacks of images and see the pic grow in front of you. Aim for the year though is to try and “star trail” as many of the Edinburgh landmarks as I can, obviously some are easier then others due to light pollution but it’ll be an interesting project if nothing else.

Forth Bridges Pano Star Trails
Star trails at the Forth Bridges

4. Lightning

This has to be the year I get the lightning shot. We had some cracking storms this year but every time I was caught out without the camera or my storm chasing skills took me in the wrong direction. The nearest I got was capturing the huge anvil cloud that hammered Edinburgh in the summer causing widespread local flooding. My aim though, has never been to capture lightning from the garden or anywhere mundane, oh no. I want it in a classic Edinburgh shot so you might we see me heading to Calton Hill if the skies start to rumble.

Edinburgh Storm 8 July 2011
The storm that hammered Edinburgh retreating over the Pentland Hills

5. Better Fireworks

I really enjoy fireworks photography, it’s just a pity there’s only really a few brief chances a year to have a go at it, the only chance I really had to experiment was the 30 minutes of the Festival Fireworks. Despite some decent results I still feel it’s all a bit hit and miss so this year I’m going to try and step up a gear and put all the experience of the last few years together and see what I can come up with!

Festival Fireworks 1
Edinburgh Festival Fireworks 2011

6. Extreme Macro

As the summer arrives and the insects become plentiful my attention generally turns to macro photography. I really learned a lot last year with regards to using flash in macro and the results showed but what I really hanker for is to get REALLY close in. The Sigma 105mm f2.8 Macro is a great lens but 1:1 is no longer enough, I want magnification and it seems reversing/coupling rings are the way to go along with focus stacking. Fiddly and frustrating but my god, the results when you get it right!

Ready to Launch
One of my better macro attempts over last summer

7. More Street Photography

I’ve really enjoyed my Real Edinburgh photo project this year. Wandering the streets of the city capturing everyday life has both been enjoyable and eye opening and despite the dark nights doing their best to slow the project down I intend to keep it moving through the year, it’s been too enjoyable not to.

So that’s mine, some things I’ve never done, others I want to improve at. Why not leave a comment and let us know what you want to get from your photography in 2012?

Tackling image copyright theft in the real world

What do I mean by real world? Surely all avenues to deal with copyright theft is “real world”. The big difference is, do you have the financial means to back up any threatened legal recourse when dealing with those who would infringe your copyright? 99/100 of us don’t. If you can hire a lawyer to deal with on your behalf, go right ahead and you’ll probably do ok from it, but if you can’t you’ll have to use different tactics.

First things first though, how do you know when someone has been nicking your work? Luckily for us those nice people at Google have made it very easy for you to see where your work is being used, on the internet at least. If you have any online photo account, Flickr etc there is a VERY good chance your work is being ripped off. Try, just for instance, picking the most popular image on your Flickr photostream, have Flickr in one window and a Google image search in another. Now click on the Flickr thumbnail and drag it into the Google image search and within seconds you’ll be able to see where that image is being used.

Most of the time you will find a stack of results that are Flickr, the search will pick up where people have added the image as a favourite and then there’s all those sites built up around the Flickr api but now and again if you check a few you WILL find instances of copyright violation.

I should point out here, this only applies as long as you don’t grant a Creative Commons licence, if you do move on and accept that your hard work is going to be distributed and mangled as anyone see’s fit. If not then read on.

From a quick search of Flickr thumbnails I found many instances of unauthorised use. These seem to fall mainly into 3 categories.

1. Blogs

Blogs are far and away the biggest of these infringements. Really though, are they worth bothering about too much? Most bloggers are just ordinary people and if you really disagree with the context your image is being used then contact them and request a removal or at least a credit, don’t weigh in with both feet demanding a million pounds and their first born in compensation, be fair, ask them politely to remove the image and if they don’t most blogs are hosted somewhere by someone so complain to the host, be it WordPress, Blogger or similar.

2. Sites where the content is user generated

The biggest issue here is those free wallpaper sites but the likes of Facebook will also turn up fairly regularly. The wallpaper sites will generally respond pretty quickly to removal requests, others will spout on about DCMA regulations but will usually remove. Don’t expect any payment, you won’t get if from these sources as they don’t upload the content and as long as they remove it, you have little recourse. Facebook ask you to fill in their automated DCMA form and are actually very good at suspending accounts where the violation has taken place.

3. Commercial Operations

This is where you take your chances. If a commercial website is using your image then you must demand payment for the unauthorised use. Don’t threaten legal action unless you can back it up. It’s usually better to send a polite email, pointing out the image, where your original version sits, the copyright notice on the page the image is on and request a realistic amount as compensation. Don’t ask for a tenner, you’ll get laughed at; similarly don’t ask for a million pounds. Be realistic, if it’s a huge multi-national go in higher they can afford it and it’ll likely be a pittance you’re asking for in their financial terms, if it’s a smaller company don’t be a dick and try and bankrupt them over it, be realistic but don’t undervalue your work and be prepared to negociate.

In some cases you’ll get emails back apologising and informing you they have removed the image, if it’s a small local business I’d accept the apology and move on, if it’s bigger stick to your guns and continue to demand payment for the image, a lot of the time you will get some sort of compensation just to go away if nothing else.

At the end of the day, if you don’t want images nicked, then don’t upload them to the internet. It’s a simple as that. If it’s a major bugbear of yours then watermark them to make the image unusable to anyone else, remember though it also spoils that image you worked hard to get and want to show off.

The biggest single bit of advice I’m going to give you though is this. Whatever you do, don’t be an utter tool about copyright violations. Don’t try and bankrupt a small business, don’t try and extort money from a little amateur blogger. Most of these people use the image without realising about the copyright. It’s not right but we all make mistakes don’t we? Stick to your guns with the bigger organisations though, they DO know the law and they CAN afford to pay you. How much is down to your negotiating skills!

A year in pictures, month by month

As we near the end of the year I’m going to take a look back over the last year and pick my favourite shots each month. I’d love to see what other photographers rated as their best shots by month too!

January

The year started well as I’d make the decision to shun the traditional Scottish Hogmany in favour of staying sober so I could get some shots of the fireworks from Edinburgh Castle at midnight. Standing on Bruntsfield Links stone cold sober while all around you could hardly stand was “interesting” to say the least, at least I got this shot as way of compensation.

Edinburgh Hogmanay Fireworks 2011 - FP, Explore #2

February

February was a pretty difficult month for me personally, as I spent most of it ill, a culmination of 5 months of feeling like crap. The intense low temperatures in February didn’t help although with the Western Harbour frozen solid it did let me get some killer reflections in the ice.

Western Harbour Reflections

March

March was the month of the “Supermoon”, although cloud cover did all it could to scupper any chances of a decent shot. Funnily enough it was a freak weather condition that sorted out my favourite for March. This shot from Calton Hill after some late winter snow was sheer chance. 10 minutes before it was clear and 5 minutes after it was clear again, for 5 minutes the Castle disappeared into the fog.

There used to be a castle there

April

April was the start of my long exposure period. A Helipoan 10 stopper was bought and the long exposures commenced. To be fair I really enjoyed it at the time but couldn’t see past it. Everything had to be at least 60s exposures or it wasn’t good enough. I did get some nice shots out of it though, of which this of the Falkirk Wheel was one.

On Top of the Falkirk Wheel

May

Still in long exposure mode I found the bridge to nowhere in Behlaven Bay near Dunbar. It took a few trips to get high enough tides but finally I got a shot of the water all round the bridge.

Belhaven Bridge Revisted 2

June

In June, I finally figured out how to time the tides at the Cramond causeway so I could catch the tide coming in from down at the water’s edge. After several goes and wet feet to be going on with, I had this shot in the bag.

Timing of the tide - Explored

July

July was a good month. A lot happened including the mother of all thunderstorms over Edinburgh. The shot of the anvil cloud retreating over the Pentlands was a tempting pick for this month but July was really about macro for me, and this may well be one of my favourite ever macro shots, taken in the Botanic Gardens lying flat on my back in the dirt getting funny looks from all around…

A Brace of Coneflower

August

August was a hard month to choose but this had to be the shot for the month. Probably one of the best I’ve ever taken and the first trip out with my new Nikon D7000.

Newhaven Cobbles - Explored

September

September was all about the Festival Fireworks or Leuchars Airshow. The Red Arrows pip the fireworks to the post for me, quite an awesome sight.

Red Arrows Leuchars 2011

October

This was an easy winner for October. I’d been playing about with twisting the zoom during long exposure shots and this was the result down on a still night at the Victoria Quay with the Scottish Executive building, a single exposure!

Scottish Executive Streaks

November

We got the best sunset I’ve ever seen one night in November and was lucky enough to be up on Calton Hill waiting for it. This was the pick of the bunch from that night.

November Sunset from Calton Hill

December

No contest here, December was the first time I had really tried to do a star trails shot and this was the result. 100 30s exposures over 50 minutes blended to get the final result.

Forth Bridge Star Trail - Explored

Never be afraid to try something new in your photography

I’ve had my eyes opened photographically recently. I had absorbed myself so far in a world of trying so hard to get that “perfect” image I had started to become more obsessed with getting hold of the right kit to do a job rather than look at what’s important. Which is of course, the image you produce. I never seemed to go anywhere without a tripod, a stack of filters, remote controls and a collection of lenses, which is all very well but I was becoming to purist.

I became obsessed with only ever wanting to shoot at ISO100 to ISO200 to make sure I eliminated noise. I only used a tripod, never shot handheld if I could help it. I used filters all the time, more so when I went through my 10 stopper phase.

Three things changed all that. Getting my Nikon D7000 was the start, it’s get exceptional high ISO performance so gradually I’ve been started to worry less about noise. Next up was the Nikon 18-200mm VRII, which coupled with the D7000 means I can practically shoot handheld in the street at night easily. Third, and probably most importantly, getting an interest in street photography.

What the street stuff done, was got me back shooting handheld. I now reckon I shoot 75% of my stuff handheld as opposed to 0% this time last year. I think more about the composition and the shot than the technicalities and it’s from this that I’ve started to explore other things to try and create “different” images.

This was shot at the Edinburgh Christmas funfair handheld with the D7000 and 18-200mm VRII. VR switched on and a slow-ish shutter speed. At the point of opening the shutter I quickly twisted the zoom back a little and got this effect. It’s quite abstract and not to everyone’s taste but compared to the legions of identical tripod shot images of this that appear every year, it’s different and that’s what I like about it.

Christmas Abstract 2

This shot used the same technique from further out.

Christmas Abstract 1

This also used the same technique but was shot over a longer exposure on a tripod. It still adds a new unusual quality to the image.

Scottish Executive Streaks

Back at the Christmas fair, this image was shot with the same sort of exposure as the twist shot but rather than twist the zoom, I twisted the entire camera at the time of opening the shutter.

Christmas Abstract

This image was shot using a slow shutter, handheld. Again, a shutter speed just long enough to blur the motion. No twisting or zooming this time.

Big Wheel blurs

Traditionally I’d have shot this on a tripod but in this case, I upped the ISO and shot handheld, this gave a freedom to quickly try different compositions as the sunset was fading rapidly.

Big Wheel Sunset

Remember, exploring these sorts of techniques in this digital age costs you nothing. It’s not like film where you could spend a fortune and get nothing. If the image isn’t to your liking, try again and again and again. You can always delete them later. Of course, these sort of techniques can be a little hit or miss but it’s simply doesn’t matter and the more you explore these type of things, rather than just frame and click the more you build up the chances of getting a unique shot. These won’t work in every situation but when you find the ones that do you’ll know and might actually enjoy the experimentation.

As an aside, I now find that when I do shoot on the tripod with the filters and remotes I actually enjoy it more now it’s no longer the rule. Photography is a limitless hobby so don’t impose limits, push those boundaries of your imagination and you might just like what you come up with.