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My first attempt at star trails

I’ve seen a lot of inspiring star trail photography on Flickr and always wanted to give it a shot myself.

Without researching the technique, I just assumed it was achieved through really long exposures in the ‘bulb’ setting. I’ve since learnt that a lot of star trails are taken by merging multiple exposures – although I still like the idea of trying to capture the effect in-camera.

Living in London and generally visiting larger cities on holidays means that it has been a challenge to find a scene dark enough to capture the stars clearly.

While on holiday in South Africa in April/May 2013, the opportunity finally presented itself on an overnight visit to the cottage my grandparents built in the 1950s. The beach-front cottage is in a small town called Southbroom and on a clear night like the 1st May, the stars filled the sky.

I set my tripod up and manually focussed on the iconic garden bench in front of the cottage. I wasn’t sure which direction the stars would move but hoped they would create a pleasing arc in the gap overlooked by the bench.

Once satisfied with the composition I flipped the main light switch, plunging the cottage and garden into darkness, leaving my family to continue their conversation by candlelight.

The problem with really long exposures is that they take a really long time. So the trial and error method that can be applied to most digital photography is a lot more time consuming.

My first test shot was a 10 minute exposure. I guessed the settings I would need and tried an f5.7 aperture with an ISO of 100.
The results weren’t great. The image was very under-expsosed, but I could see a slight trail behind the stars bright enough to shine through.

So with one test shot to learn from I adjusted my aperture to f3.5 and ISO to 200, started my stopwatch and waited in anticipation for a full 30 minutes.

After half an hour of pacing around the garden I closed the shutter and couldn’t have been happier with the results. The foreground wasn’t over-exposed and the trails created a pleasant arc through the gap in front of the bench. My only concern was that the sky was quite bright, so with a few subtle Lightroom tweaks I was able to increase the contrast between the sky and the star trails.

I could have spent all night trying different settings but I was satisfied with the shot, the candles were running out of wax and I was there to spend time with my family after all.