I love shooting stars and star trails. Love it. There’s something so meticulous about attempting a long-exposure, the anticipation and delayed gratification of knowing whether it worked or failed miserably. It’s something I’ve only attempted once before in a more rural spot of Colorado, so knowing I would be so far out in the middle of nowhere at Song-Kul, I planned appropriately for some night photography. I’m pretty pleased with my results. With my vast experience of having shot star trails twice now, I offer you some tips on how to go out and try it for yourself.
1. Necessary equipment: Tripod (bonus points if it’s sturdy enough that you won’t worry about it being knocked over by a stray donkey), a camera that lets you set exposure manually and for 30+ seconds, a remote trigger of some sort (bonus points if you can lock it and walk away, I have one like this).
(OMG there’s a shooting star in this one! Can you see it?)
2. Going for static photos of stars? The settings should be higher ISO, wide aperture (the above photo was taken at f/3.5, ISO 2500 for 43 seconds). You probably only want the shutter open for 45ish seconds or less, after that the stars start moving the tiniest bit and end up looking blurry.
3. Going for star trails? Lower ISO, wide aperture (the above photo was shot at f/2.8, ISO 160 for 18 1/2 minutes). You’ll probably want exposures of more than 5 minutes for a good effect. Once you get into the 10-20 minute range, you will get plenty of light and you will, unfortunately, get some noise, so it’s best to keep ISO as low as you can. The aperture shouldn’t be too closed, or else your camera won’t pick up the faint light from the stars to begin with. From my last experiment with star trails, I found that it was useless to go above f/5.6.
4. Focus is important (this was my first shot from the night, I forgot which way the focus ring spun and accidentally set it to focus up-close). Your camera’s focus absolutely must be set manually, otherwise what is it going to autofocus on? For initial prep work, take some high ISO, short-exposure shots to see how the stars look with your current focus settings and adjust from there. Some of my lenses will scroll past infinity, but they look just the slightest bit sharper when I stop just before that. Or, will you have something in the foreground? Use a flashlight to focus on that first before getting rid of all light sources.
(4b. Also take some time to get your horizons straight, that way you won’t have to crop and straighten your photos in post-processing to fix them later.)
5. Either get rid of all light sources, or use them to your advantage. The friends I came with were making light paintings in front of the yurts I was shooting behind, which led to some cool backlighting for some photos (the first and last ones in this post). When I turned my camera to (what I assumed was) a cluster of out-for-the-night yurts for a 15-minute exposure, it seemed like suddenly everybody decided to grab their flashlights and wander around for the duration of the exposure, making the blue squiggly lines at the bottom. The effect was still cool though, in fact it was probably good to have some small light sources bringing more attention to the yurts. (The above photo was shot at f/5, ISO 160 for 13 1/2 minutes. Notice how much less ambient light there is in the sky and how much fainter the trails are compared to the third photo? It’s because of the aperture differences.)
6. Warm clothes. This is specific to Song-Kul, but at 10,000 feet in the middle of September, it gets really cold, especially next to a large body of water. If you have a flimsy tripod and the overwhelming fear that someone (or something) could knock over your set-up, you’ll want enough layers to keep you warm while you dutifully guard your long exposures. (It worked for me. At one point another tourist came over to investigate the floating red light that he didn’t realize was coming from the back of my camera. Luckily I was there to keep him at a safe distance.) In general, it gets colder at night, so dress accordingly or you’ll be miserable.
7. Somewhat related, bring a friend (or a husband) to keep you company while you’re standing in the dark waiting for 20-minute exposures to finish.
8. Post-processing, yes or no? For my shorter exposures, I messed a bit with lighting in the foreground to makes the yurts more noticeable, while I added some contrast to the long exposures if they looked a bit washed out. I was surprised at the natural color variations in the sky, the oranges near the horizons, the greens and blues, the different colored star trails (a great demonstration of photography and astronomy lessons, how the temperature of light affects colors), so I left the colors and white balance alone. If you do plan on post-processing, I suggest shooting in RAW format (if your camera can do that) to give yourself more flexibility.
9. Lastly, you have to get far away from cities to avoid light pollution. That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to go to Song-Kul, Kyrgyzstan (which is totally isolated from any speck of light pollution), but these photos work best when you find a good rural location. Also, higher altitude is better, as is a clear night with no moonlight.