Shooting star trails with a cheap camera is relatively easy. All you need is the right method and a wired remote.
Shooting Star Trails with a Cheap Camera
Sometimes it seems like you have to have the latest ultra-lowlight camera body and the fastest lens to do astro-photography. However, you can accomplish great things with much more modest equipment. In this video, I walk through shooting and then basic editing of a star trail shot using a Nikon D5000 (circa 2009) with the kit 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 lens.
This method for shooting star trails with a cheap camera will work on any camera and lens combination with the right basic features. The camera needs to be able to shoot at ISO800 or higher. It should have manual exposure mode with 30s exposures. It needs to have a continuous shooting mode (machine gun mode). And finally, you need a wired remote with a lockable button (or a rock and some tape to hold the button down with).
Star Trail Camera Settings
I start by setting the camera to it’s highest ISO, ISO6400 in this case. The camera is in manual exposure mode with the aperture at f/4 and a 1 second exposure. The lens is zoomed all the way out at 18mm and is in manual focus mode.
Framing and focusing can be difficult at night, especially on a crop frame view finder. I take full advantage of digital photography and guess and check using the short test exposure (1s) from above.
Once I have the image framed, I reduce the ISO to the ISO I intend to use for the shot, in this case ISO1600 and set the exposure time to 30 seconds. I take more test shots, checking focus on my subject in each. I make small incremental adjustments to the focus until the subject is sharp.
Making a Star Trail without an Intervalometer
I use a simple wired remote to make the star trail without an intervalometer. The switch on the remote can be physically locked in the pressed position. I put the camera in continuous shooting mode. You would normally use continuous shooting mode for photographing birds or sports. When the shutter is pressed, the camera takes pictures as fast as possible.
For star trails, the camera is set to a 30s exposure. It will take 30s exposures back to back as fast as it can, with as little gap between the frames as possible.
Nikon Shot Limit and Star Trails
For Nikon users, there is one complication. Nikon cameras all include a limit on the number of exposures they will take on a row. Nikon included this limit to prevent the camera from shooting continually in a bag until the card was full, the battery dead or the shutter broken. That is good. Unfortunately, it adds a complication for star trails.
Each camera has a different limit. On the D5000 it is 100 shots. 100 shots that are 30s long is 50 minutes of star trail. The good news is that you can reset the counter by releasing the shutter button for a split second and repressing it. This works even in the middle of a 30s frame when it won’t interrupt the star trail.
To shoot star trails longer than 45 or 50 minutes on a Nikon camera, you will need to release and repress the shutter button once every 45 minutes or so.
Disable Long Exposure Noise Reduction
Many older cameras, like the D5000 have a feature called “Long Exposure Noise Reduction” enabled by default. This feature causes the camera to take a second dark frame immediately after any long exposure. For a star trail, it will create a 30s gap between each frame while the camera take the dark frame. You must disable long exposure noise reduction before you can make star trails.
He is a self taught experiential learner who is addicted to the possibilities that new (to him) gear open up. He loves to share the things he has worked out. Andrew started with a passion for landscape and night photography and quickly branched out to work in just about every form of photography. He is an ex-software developer with extensive experience in the IT realm.