astrophotography, Aurora Borealis, Big Sable Point Lighthouse, Brad Reed, Lake Michigan, Lake Superior, Little Sable Point Lighthouse, Ludington, Ludington Lighthouse, Ludington Michigan, Ludington State Park, michigan, Michigan Tribute, Nikon, Northern Lights, outdoor photography, Photography, Reed Photography, Silver Lake Sand Dunes, star trails, Todd Reed
We get a lot of questions about Brad’s image “North Star” (seen above) which we have on canvas in the gallery and we also used for the cover of our “Tuesdays” book. The photo features Little Sable Point Lighthouse and a purple sky filled with star trails. Most people don’t know what the effect is called or how it is accomplished – they just know that it looks really cool.
In “North Star” you can see that the star trails travel in a circular pattern around a single star – Polaris, aka the North Star. Polaris is near the celestial north pole (earthsky.org) meaning that all the stars we see in the Northern Hemisphere appear to travel around Polaris as the night progresses, though in actuality, Earth is moving, not the stars. Polaris is one of the brightest stars in the northern sky and is at the end of the tail of the constellation Ursa Minor (The Little Dipper). If you have a smart phone, there are several apps that can help you navigate the night sky.
So if you are ready to try shooting star trails, here’s what you will need:
- Clear skies in an area with low light pollution (Check out the website, Dark Sky Finder, to see Google maps with a light pollution overlay)
- No moon, or a moon that hasn’t risen yet
- Camera with manual mode - use a low ISO and low F-stop
- Wide-angle lens
- Cable release or remote shutter release
- Compass (to find North)
- Flashlight – this should be a standard item in your camera bag
It’s a good idea to plan out your photo during the daytime, especially if you are not familiar with the area you’re shooting in. Most of our star trail images have something stationary in the foreground, giving the overall image more impact. Scout out the area you want to shoot at to figure out what you do and don’t want in the image. This would be a good time to figure out your focus as well since it will be dark when you return to photograph.
Once you have your camera set up on your tripod at night, you’ll want to connect your cable release and do some test shots. If you’re the type of photographer who religiously checks their light meter for correct exposure, this is going to be hard because you want to overexpose these images. We’re serious – ignore the light meter! Set your aperture at a low F-stop, Brad likes to use F8 or F5.6 but Todd used F3.2 for the image below. Also set your ISO to a lower value like 100, 200, or 400 which will help keep the level of digital noise down as your shutter speed lengthens.
In order to photograph the apparent movement of the stars and create star trails, your camera’s shutter speed needs to be set to at least 25 seconds (on some cameras seconds appear as a number with tick marks afterward, like 25″). The longer the shutter stays open, the longer the star trails will appear to be. Todd’s image, “Royale Experience,” made on Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior, was a 7 minute 11 second exposure meaning his shutter stayed open for that long. That’s on the short end of our star trail images. In contrast, Brad’s “North Star” was a 32 minute exposure!
While digital cameras do capture more color in the night’s sky than the human eye can see, the assortment of colors in Todd and Brad’s star trail images is due to the appearance of Northern Lights. Sometimes when photographing the night sky, our cameras will pick up things we didn’t actually see, like Big Sable Point Lighthouse’s beacon in the lower left portion of “Solar Wind” or the twinkling lights of a Wisconsin city in “Jupiter and Venus at Little Sable Point Lighthouse.”
One final note for all the photographers out there – all of these images were captured in single exposures, but you don’t have to hold yourself to that. Using software like Adobe Bridge, you can “stack” several long exposures together to create longer star trails without compromising image quality or dealing with digital noise. There are great online tutorials on how to accomplish this. One photographer taking star trails to the extreme is Lincoln Harrison, who provides an excellent tutorial on image stacking in CS6 on his blog.
Thanks for reading!