I’ve long been enamored with starry night skies. In 2014, I started spending a lot of time capturing Milky Way landscapes—My kind of nightlife! While Milky Way landscapes can be challenging and push technological limits, creating star trail landscapes is more forgiving, can be captured when and where the Milky Way can’t, can be done using less expensive sensors and lenses, and a compelling final image can easily be created with available software.
Star trails introduce motion, curvature and creative abstraction to a night sky composition that we otherwise never sense. I like to capture star trails using wider focal lengths than I use to shoot the Milky Way (e.g. less than 20mm) to emphasize star movement relative to the ecliptic or North Star. Although fairly easy to capture, I can still exercise creativity. If taking multiple shots instead of one exposure, I can create several versions, including ones with long or short trails, as well as render the trails as comets.
Itasca State Park, about 30 minutes south of Bemidji, Minnesota, is one of my favorite getaways, and I can’t get enough of the old growth pine forests the park is famous for.
Although some light pollution occurs, a clear night in the park is more than dark enough to offer great opportunities for stargazing and capturing the night sky.
During a crisp, clear night in early-May, while waiting for the Milky Way to rise high enough, I looked for a composition that would work well for star trails. After locating a tall Norway pine snag, I composed the scene to create circular trails with the top of the snag pointing at Polaris, while still including some foreground brush and large pines in the lower third of the frame.
After taking several light-painted foreground exposures, I attached a dew heater to my lens (connected to a portable 12v lion battery hung from my tripod), set my camera to take the long exposures of the sky needed to create the final star trails, and then laid back to enjoy the ancient light show overhead for the next hour while serenaded by owls and chorusing frogs.
The final processed shot consists of 30 successive sky exposures, with basic adjustments applied to the raw images within Lightroom CC, then stacked within Photoshop using the Advanced Stacker Plus Plug-in to render the star trails as comets (reducing digital noise in the process), and further blended with the foreground exposures using brushing and luminosity mask technique.
Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Samyang 14mm f/2.8 ED AS IF UMC, Gitzo Systematic 5 tripod, RRS Pano-Gimbal Head, and Vello Shutterboss Wireless Release.
Sky exposures (30) – 120 sec., f/2.8, ISO 1600; Foreground exposures (4) – 9 to 25 sec., f/2.8, ISO 1600.
Beau Liddell is a biologist, artist and award-winning photographer, specializing in wildlife and starry night landscapes. He enjoys sharing his work and experiences, and frequently donates his fine art prints to assist conservation groups with their fund-raising efforts. See more of his photography at www.ImagesByBeaulin.com, Flickr, 500px, WordPress and Facebook.