Long Exposure Photography
What you will need:
A wide angle lens
Useful but not essential:
An intervalometer or cable release
Hand warmers / gloves
My first piece of advice for creating long-exposure star trail images is to find an interesting location which will act as your subject matter within your frame. A bridge, lighthouse, castle, even a tree will all give your image scale and another point of interest. It is important to find somewhere as dark as possible, away from towns, cities and roads, to avoid light pollution - a good place to start is Dark Sky Discovery.
If you are not into astronomy or you are unsure how to find the Pole Star, there are some useful apps available such as The Night Sky App. Failing that. simply frame your shot with the camera pointing North.
Set up the tripod, ensuring it is completely steady because I do not want ANY movement in the shots. Before I begin taking my series of shots, I usually take a high ISO shot so I can see the frame and get a basic idea of what the composition will be. A 30-second exposure at ISO 3200 at an aperture of 2.8, or a 15-second at ISO 6400 at an aperture of 2.8 lets me see how my composition looks and, if I am happy, I drop my ISO to 800 and start building my stack of images.
There are two main options when creating a long exposure image. One is to take a VERY long exposure - typically done by switching your camera to Bulb mode - I choose not do this because ANY additional light pollution cannot be removed (passing car headlights, for example). The other is to take a shot at regular intervals. This is my preferred method because if there is an issue such as car headlights, I can remove that single frame without ruining the overall image.
Light Painting Bodiam Castle
Once you are happy with your composition, start taking shots at regular intervals. To keep things simple, these are the settings I tend to use: camera on Manual setting, lens on manual focus, lens set to its widest point (24mm or more), focus set to infinity, ISO 800, F2.8, 30-second shutter, triggered via a cable release which I leave locked so it automatically captures an image every 30 seconds. If you do not have a locking cable release you will need to press your shutter button yourself every 30 seconds.
After an hour or two you should have enough images to show the star trails moving through the night sky. Once you're happy that you have enough shots, head home and start compiling them. One piece of free software which enables you to stack your images is STARSTAX. However, I prefer to use Photoshop because I can make any corrections I need to as I go along - for example, removing any bad frames due to car headlights or condensation on the lens (a common issue when the cold sets in). Or I might just want to clone out aeroplane trails as they can become a nuisance in the final image.
Of course, once you have got the hang of long exposures you might want to start adding in fire! Wire wool spinning is a great way to breathe life into a night scene.
Using simple tools such as a whisk, a chain and 0000 grade wire wool, you can create effects such as these.
Oh, I mentioned company too - star trails take a LONG TIME to capture and doing it on your own can be boring so take a friend and the time will fly by. A bonus is you can both capture the same scene differently and compare the results.
With the right location and conditions, I have no doubt you will create some amazing images. If you do, please share a link to your work so we can all enjoy your efforts.
Dade Freeman is a Brighton photographer producing portraits and headshots for actors, musicians, corporate business and other professional industries.