One of my goals this year was to do star trails. I’ve never done it before and I’ve often imagined doing it over the salt flats just outside Salt Lake City, UT.
To get a successful star trail shot you need to have many things fall in place. Some planned and some luck. Here’s my journey and instructions on successfully getting you first set of star trails.
1. You need the right gear.
You need the fastest lens you can get. I ordered some gear from lensrentals.com My gear included a Canon 5D Mark III, a fast 14mm lens, a Benro tripod and an intervalometer. Lensrentals was great to work with while I planned my trip. You’ll also want a compass or a stranding app for your phone so you can locate the North Star.
2. Find the right location and know the weather reports.
You need to find a location without light pollution. Also having landmarks or buildings to create an interesting composition helps make for stronger star trail images.
I start driving out towards the salt flats after I got off work to catch the sunset and I start becoming concerned about all the clouds. Star trails do not exactly work with a sky full of clouds. The weather report didn’t mention that there would be this many clouds. If all else fails it’s looking like it’s going to be an amazing sunset so I stay positive and decide either way, I was going to take pictures. I ended up stopping at a rest stop on the way to the Bonneville Salt Flats to catch the sunset. The clouds, the light, and the salt were so fun to shoot.
3. Understand the moon phase.
As soon as the sun set, the clouds completely disappeared and the moon wasn’t too big. The less moon the better. If you have a full moon, that light will overpower the stars you are trying to get. You can find a great resource for the moon phase here. After the sun set, I made my way to my final destination and began setting up the cameras. I made sure I was pointed in the same direction of the North Star and started to work on getting my settings perfected.
4. Perfect your surroundings and settings.
I had to firmly set up my tripod so that it would not move or get blown over by the wind. The salt flats are notorious for wind. I set my tripod close to the ground for better stability. If wind is a concern, be sure to use sand bags to create extra stability for your tripod.
5. Shoot Manual.
You want to shoot on manual mode so there is no change in exposure between photos with a 30-second exposure. The ISO speed and aperture will change depending on which lens you are shooting with.
The following are common settings typically used for star trails:
- f/1.4 and ISO400 = 30s
- f/2.8 and ISO1600 = 30s
- f/4.0 and ISO3200 = 30s
- f/5.6 and ISO6400 = 30s
I ended up using
f/2.8 and ISO 2000 and 30 seconds on a 14mm lens.
6. Set Focus
The hard part now was capturing focus. You need to find the brightest point in the sky to get focus and make sure you have a nice composition. I had to take several test shots to find my composition. It’s so dark out that it’s hard see if you are level so it’s takes some trial and error to get set up just right. Technically you can set focus to Infinity on the lens, but sometimes this can drift a little.
7. Set the Intervalometer
Now that I have my focus, settings and composition correct, I set up my intervalometer to take a picture every 34 seconds. I tried setting it for 31 seconds but that wasn’t enough time between the shutter closing. I found 34 seconds was perfect. You want your camera to have as little time as possible resting between shots.
The hardest part
I finally hit start and I grab a beer. Honestly, the hardest part about shooting star trails is staying up late. This is ideal to bring along another photographer or two to join in the fun and keep each other company.
The night was a success. I look forward to more star shoots in my future and can’t wait to get better at doing them. Even though I struggle staying up so late, it’s all worth it when I saw what I captured. It made me excited to get better and do it again. I will write another post in the near future on how to process everything including editing out planes.
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