Star Trails - A Success

Last month I went out and performed a test run for shooting star trails. It was a wonderful learning experience and despite the full moon along with the clouds rolling in halfway through I felt the end result was a great start.

Star trails test run
Star trails test run

Taking a few reminder notes I checked the calendar for the next new moon and then kept a close eye on the weather report. When it finally cleared up I grabbed my gear and headed out to a small spot near Kaneville, IL where it looked to be fairly dark with minimal light pollution. Again I knew I wanted Polaris to be close to center of the frame so the stars would spiral around it. It's been a while since I've spotted constellations manually so I decided to use Skyview Free to verify I was on target. I decided to try a vertical shot this time, looking over a small lake in the foreground with a tree breaking up the horizon to add some interest. I set my intervalometer for continuous 30 second exposures, grabbed my chair and settled in for an hour and a half of waiting.

Star trails second run
Star trails over a small lake

I loved how the sky turned out, Polaris was exactly where I wanted, but I wasn't in love with the composition. I didn't get enough reflection in the water as I wanted, and the horizon line was just too cluttered with the tree not standing out how I had imagined it. I chalked it up to another learning experience and started looking at the weather report again.

A week later things were looking good. I had again scoured Google Maps looking for remote locations in the area with a large tree next to a field I could face north while shooting. I had found what looked to be exactly what I wanted out near Maple Park, IL.

Scouting with Google Maps
Google Maps view of a photo location

The next clear night I drove out to my spot and instantly knew I was going to get something special. I couldn't seem to get a good focus dialed in so I wound up backing my car up and turning on the headlights while pointing at the tree which did the trick. After verifying everything was set I sat down for another hour and a half session, shooting 120 frames for the final stack.

Editing star trails in Lightroom
Using Adobe Lightroom to edit photos

Using Lightroom I adjusted my exposure settings and applied them to all 120 frames and exported them to JPGs. The next step was to remove all the planes streaking by since I didn't want them in the final print. Thankfully being pretty far out in the suburbs there wasn't too many frames I had to fix. I had to stack them a few times to catch all the planes, but when I was finished I was extremely pleased I went through the trouble.

Final star trails composite
Star trails over a single tree

The final result was almost exactly what I had in my mind before I even made my first exposure, which is always extremely satisfying as a photographer. An hour and a half made some nice long trails farther outside Polaris, but next time I think I would like to try two or three hours to see how far I can push it. I am definitely in love with this type of astrophotography, and am looking for more opportunities to shoot star trails in different locations as well as during some upcoming meteor showers.