So, as part of a two week stay in the New York town of Lake Placid, successfully photographing stars and star trails was a top priority. Astro-photography, before I go into detail on our own process, requires a little bit of background knowledge about stars, and the movement of stars. For star trails, when you are taking the pictures, you want to know what direction the trail will travel. Figure one shows the star trails moving up and to the right, but depending on where you live the star trails may start forming circles, gradual curves, or just straight lines.
Taking a star trail picture isn’t as simple as leaving your camera exposing for a half and hour or so. Instead you will take at least 50 (at an absolute minimum,) 30″ exposures and then later combine them all in photoshop through layering. Its a long and arduous process, and requires a lot of dedicated time. Make sure you have at least an hour to spare to take your 30″ exposures and another half and hour to photoshop everything properly. Even though it sounds like a lot of work, most of it is not. Taking pictures of the stars themselves is relaxing and even fun, while the photoshop editing, not so much. As for camera settings, have your white balance set to daylight, and your ISO set to whatever allows your camera to see both the feint features of the land and the stars themselves. You will definitely need a stable tripod, because any slight movement can ruin your picture and whatever work you have completed thus far.
Besides star trail pictures you can always take a regular gradual picture that shifts from sky to land. You will probably need to do this just before sunrise or right after sunset. The residual glow of the sun allows you to expose your pictures perfectly and capture both stars and land, with at least a little detail in both. For this, you could try an HDR, but pictures often always look better when they’re natural. In fact, figure 2 is completely straight out of camera no cropping or editing was done to it. For these kinds of pictures you will need a good vantage point, the above picture was taken on top of a mountain called Cascade. You don’t necessarily have to climb a mountain just to get this shot, but any place higher up with a clear view will help. For these pictures you will once again want to have your white balance set to daylight. Other than that, just use settings to your liking.
P.S. For both types of pictures you will always want to manually focus. It may be hard to get the perfect focus, but it usually helps to take a test picture and review it on the camera. Start your focus at infinity and slowly move your focus down until you get the desired results.
*Just a quick follow-up to Roman’s post. We got this picture last night, and I wanted to upload it to give an example of how star trails can bend into really interesting astral spin-art.*
Oh, and one end note, watch out for planes! They can ruin shots with ease.