Star Trails: How To

Star Trail captured in Big Bend National Park in July 2022.

Star trails, like the image above, are fairly easy to do.  You’ll need some equipment to capture the images and Photoshop to blend the images.  You’ll also need a dark sky with an unobstructed view.  Ideally, the view should be to the north with Polaris in the middle of the frame.

You’ll need:  Camera with a bulb setting, wide angle lens, sturdy tripod, programmable shutter release like the Vello Shutterboss II, fully charged battery, storage card with lots of room.

Set the programmable shutter release to take an unlimited number of photos at a 4 minute exposure with a 1 second break in-between exposures.  (Suggestion: Do this inside in the light because it’s darn hard to read the instruction book in the dark when you’re trying to shoot.) Here’s my YouTube video tutorial.

Outside under a dark sky, put the camera on the tripod and point it at the northern sky.  Hook up the programmable shutter release.  Compose the photo to include some foreground or an interesting subject in the foreground.  Point the camera at the north star for a star spiral. 

Set the camera to Bulb, f/2.8 or lowest possible, ISO 800 if half moon or ISO 1600 if no moon. Note: f/1.8 might only need ISO 400.

Take a couple of test shots to get the stars in focus.  Then turn off your auto focus and image stabilizer.  (Suggestion: take these images are a really high ISO so the exposure is quicker.  Enlarge these photos on the LCD panel to check focus. Delete them when ready to start shooting.) Here’s a blog posting about focusing on stars at night.

Reset the ISO to 800 or 1600.  Make sure the camera is locked down on the tripod.  Press the “Start” button on the programmable cable release.  Monitor the first couple of shots to make sure the shutter stays open for 4 minutes, closes, and then reopens.  Let the camera keep shooting for at least 30 minutes but hours are better.

I cover the camera with a towel and leave it outside all night. 

To process the images, follow these instructions precisely to create a layer blend in Photoshop. 

(1) Download the images into a folder.

(2) Open Photoshop Bridge and then open the folder.

(3) Highlight all the images. In Lightroom, highlight all the images after importing.

(4) In Bridge, click Tools>Photoshop>Load Files into Photoshop Layers. Photoshop should open with the images in a layer pallet.  In Lightroom, click Photo>Edit In>Open As Layers in Photoshop. (Note: Lightroom, Bridge, and Photoshop should all be the same version. This doesn’t work if one of these is a different version.)

(5) All the images open in Photoshop as a series of Layers. If you don’t see the layers, click on Window>Layers to see the layer pallet. Select all the images in the layer pallet and change the blend mode to Lighten. 

(6) You can apply Layer Masks and other things at this point to the individual layers. Most of the time, though, this is not necessary.

(7)  Flatten the image to see your photo of the star trails. Open the photo in Filter>Camera Raw Filter or import back into Lightroom to do final processing with Textures, Vibrance, Saturation, Exposure, and Contrast.

Here’s a link to an older blog post about Direction Does Matter when making a star trail

Enjoy!! Let me know if there are any questions or comments. Thanks for reading.

Keyword Lists

My question relates to the fact that each folder of pictures has a different set of keywords that shows up in the keywords list. So I have to re-enter keywords. How can I make a list universally available? And how can I make it the only list of keywords? I use Bridge.


Quick answer: Once you’ve entered a word on a keyword list, you shouldn’t have to re-enter that word when you’re working in a different folder of photos.

Long answer: 

The Keyword list in Bridge can be exported/saved as a .txt document.  You can import keyword lists as well.  Then you can “Clear and Import” keyword lists.  That brings a new list in and replaces the old list.

Most people, I suspect, have one list.  That’s what happens in Lightroom.  It’s just one big list.  So that place you visited in Scotland stays on the list even though you’ll never use that keyword again. 

I have Keyword lists.  One for Costa Rican birds, for example.  I have another for North American birds.  I have a list for Italy.  I have a list for Iceland, another for Norway, and another for Thailand.  I import these when needed.

My “everyday” Keyword list is the North American birds.  It has all my North American birds, butterflies, dragonflies, mammals, and plants.  It has the seasons, bahaviors, and other things I might need for everyday processing.  That list has locations I’ve birded and visited in the US since I seem to always photograph birds in addition to other things.  I just went to Santa Fe so that’s now on my North American birds list.

I’ll go to Ireland in September.  Before I leave, I’ll export my North American birds list to a folder on my computer where I keep all my keyword lists.  That North American birds list will replace the one in the file, by the way.  I’ve added things to it over the months so I want to keep the latest version.

 Then I’ll “Clear and Import” with my Ireland keyword list.  While working on photos in Ireland, I’ll add new locations.  Beforehand, you can  add new locations and things to an existing list since it’s just a .txt document.  I could take the itinerary for my Ireland trip and add locations to it while it’s still a .txt document on my computer.  (formatting is important by the way. See below.)

While in Ireland and until I finish processing those photos, the Ireland keyword list will be on my computer.  This can be a pain if I wanted to switch between processing backyard birds and going back to the Ireland photos.  That’s why some people like one big list. 

A screen capture of the Keyword list for Costa Rican birds.

Does this help?

Canon EOS R7 — Autofocus

I was eager to try the autofocus on the R7 with a variety of subjects.

I used the same settings on all the photos: Servo, AF[1], Subject Tracking, Subject to Detect is Animals, Eye detection is Enabled. Servo AF is on Case 2 which is “Continue to track subjects, ignoring possible obstacles.”

For those of you new to AF[1], it is a wide zone where the camera looks for a subject based on face and/or motion. Once the camera has found a subject, the focus point lights up with blue dots. Then we can move the camera around to compose the shot while the camera stays on the subject.

Northern mockingbird. The R7 found the bird without hesitation and locked on to the eye.
Great-tailed grackle. I didn’t push the focus button until the bird’s face came into view. Once the eye was clear of the pine needles, then the R7 found the eye and locked on.
Gray Hairstreak. Tiny butterfly. The Flexible Zone AF 1 (AF[1]) was not the best choice for this small butterfly. The R7 found the subject because it was moving. The focus point bounced between the butterfly’s real eye and the fake eye at the base of the tails. I should have changed to 1-point AF and put that point on the butterfly’s eye. Not bad, though.
Gray Hairstreak. Same as above with a slight change in my angle to get a green background.
Clouded Skipper. The R7 found the butterfly’s eye without a problem. It locked on and held focus.
The same clouded skipper perched on a purple passionflower. The R7 stayed on the butterfly but I confused the camera. The R7 tried to focus on the structure on the passionflower. This camera is smart but the photographer has to remember to give clear directions. My error in not changing to the 1-point AF area. Then the camera would have known exactly where to focus.
Honeybee on bee bush. The AF[1] focus area stayed with bee without any effort.

I found the Autofocus on the R7 quick and precise. The R7 is not a mind reader (though it does amazing things) so we have to remember to change AF Areas based on the subject.

The only time the R7 failed to acquire focus was on a tiny subject at the top of a stick. I moved the camera down the stick until it acquired focus. Then I moved the camera back up to the subject and the R7 held. This is not unusual with AF in mirrorless but not as bad as I’ve seen in earlier cameras.

All photos in this post were taken with the 100-500mm RF lens, 1.4x extender. All the insects were at the edge of the minimum focusing distance of 3.94 ft.

All photos are uncropped.

Questions? Post below. I’d love to hear your comments and feedback. Thanks for reading.

Canon EOS R7 vs. R5 and R3

I had a chance this morning to test the Canon EOS R7 against the R5 and R3. All cameras were set to roughly the same menu settings. Each was used in shutter priority (TV), shutter 1250, ISO Auto, and F/11. Each had the same 100-500mm RF lens with a 1.4x converter.

My subject stayed the same as well. Lucky for me, a fledgling eastern bluebird stayed on the same branch during my test.

All images were taken while I was seated in the same chair at the same angle. The sky was partly cloudy with lighting remaining generally the same during the test.

Notice that the bird photographed with the R7 is larger in the frame. The Canon EOS R7 has a cropped sensor so the subject will appear bigger with a telephoto lens. Hence, the reason a lot of bird photographers like photographing with a crop sensor camera.

Here’s the images larger:

Eastern bluebird fledgling with the Canon R7. The bird is larger in the frame due to the cropped sensor.
Eastern bluebird photographed with the Canon R5. Same bird from same vantage-point but notice that I zoomed back a tiny bit by mistake.
Eastern bluebird photographed with the Canon R3.

I was impressed with the auto focus on the Canon R7. The camera was set to Flexible Zone 1, Subject, and Eye Detect. The Canon R7 never failed to acquire focus on the small bird. (Watch for my post on camera set-up.)

I’ll compare ISO in a future post but here’s a look at the Canon R7 image enlarged to 100%.

The same photo from above enlarged to 100% photographed using ISO 6400.

Posts coming up will show my set-up for the R7, file size, ISO, and night photography. Stay tuned!

First impression with the Canon R7 shows that this is going to be a great camera for bird photography.

%d bloggers like this: