Photo Stories

Star Trails & Timing

Let me first say, "RTFM!" When you're finished come on back.

Okay, now that you read your camera's manual you know how to use it. Or so you think. And that is why this star trail picture is not a picture of star trails, but star dots. Though I screwed up, it did make a pretty cool image. So how did I mess it up? Easy, I did what any photographer can do. I confused minutes with seconds. 

Before I get to that, a little back story. When this image was created we were camping in the Eastern Sierra at Twin Lakes just west of Bridgeport, California. The weather was tremendous with a New Moon, so the sky was good and dark. It was a perfect night for capturing star trails. 

To create a nice circle, if you aren't sure how to do it, point your camera in the direction of Polaris, the north star. The earth's axis points, more or less, right to it. If you are in the northern hemisphere, that is.

For this image, I set my tripod in an alpine meadow adjacent to the campground. On it was my old Nikon D7100 with a 17-50mm f/2.8 Sigma lens. I shot at 17mm with the lens wide open for 20 seconds/interval at ISO 1600.

The way star trails were made in the film days you shot with your lens wide open and the shutter would stay open for a length of time long enough to get trails. The longer the shutter was open the longer the trails. It was best to have a fully mechanical camera so the shutter could stay open as long as needed.

With an electronic shutter it would only stay open as long as your camera battery would last. The downside of star trails on film is that you would record skyglow along with your trails. So you would get both star trails and an orange glow from distant cities. Not ideal.

With a digital camera you instead take a series of shots at a specific interval then compile all the images in stacking software. If you want longer trails you take more photos over a longer period of time. Ideally, you want a couple of hours of images taken every 5 seconds for about 20 seconds each with the widest lens you have set to the widest aperture focussed at infinity. Doing so will get you nice trails on a black sky and no skyglow. 

Here is where the "500 Rule" should be mentioned. This isn't as important for star trails because, well, you want trails, but if you are photographing the night sky and want to avoid star trails you have to apply the 500 rule. That is, 500 divided by the focal length of your lens, which equals the longest exposure (in Seconds) before stars start to “trail” in your picture.

Why are there dots?

As I stated above, RTFM to mitigate mistakes. Or at least know the difference between 5 seconds and 5 minutes. And that is how this image has dots and not trails. When I set up the shutter interval in camera I set it to take a 20 second photo every 5 minutes when in fact I thought I was setting it to 5 seconds. 

To my surprise, when I woke up the following morning the camera was still working. As I calculated my intervals, it should have finished sometime around 4am. Yet it was still going at 6am. It was early, which further lead to my confusion until I realized my interval timing was wrong. Had I done 5 seconds I would have had trails.

After I got home and compiled the photos into a single image I was pleasantly surprised. This image is unique such that I have never seen anyone post a photo like it. So a mistake actually made for something unique and interesting, and gave me something to write about.

The takeaway is that you can salvage a mistake and make something interesting. The other takeaway is that you need to check and double check your settings making sure you will get what you think you will get. Lastly, pay attention to what the camera is doing after you start the series of intervals, and don't just walk away like I did. Let it take a few test shots.

I use StarStax to compile all of the images to create a star trail photograph. It's free to download and use on Mac, Windows, and Linux.


Reflections happen all around you, not just in mirrors. The story behind this image has to do with Jake and the backyard, or more specifically, the outside. I'm speaking in metaphors here.

Jake loves being outside. Even when the family is inside he will sit by the back door staring outside. Sometimes when you open the door to let him out he will just sit there, and won't move. I think he gets conflicted. He's a pack animal, so he wants to be with his pack, but he loves going outside, so he sits and stares out. He is happiest when we are outside with him... especially throwing the ball in a game of fetch.

I made this image inside by the backdoor with Jake looking upward towards it. It captures his personality well suggesting that Jake, when not outside, sits and dreams of times when he is playing a game of fetch, swimming in a lake (see below), or just lying in the sun.

To capture this image he had to sit still for me. Sometimes Jake is a bit rambunctious, so sitting still is difficult for him. He's a Labradoodle, so he has a lot of energy. I 'commanded' him to sit and stay, and lo and behold he sat still for a while. 

To make this picture I used a circa 1970's Tamron 300mm f/4-5.6 macro. It's an all manual lens, so unless you have perfect vision manual focussing is adequate at best.

That's one thing I love about mirrorless cameras with electronic viewfinders (EVF). They have a focus peaking feature, so when your image is in focus the EVF will highlight the part of the image that is in focus taking much of the guesswork out of the equation. 

Notice that I took this photo at 300mm with a shutter speed of 1/125. We have to also consider that the Nikon D7100, which I used for this shot, has a 1.5x crop factor. Ugh! there is that pesky math again. So this 300mm has an effective focal length of 450mm. The rule of thumb for setting your shutter speed while hand holding is that your shutter speed should not be less than the focal length of the lens. 

Keeping the shutter speed at or faster than than the focal length number will keep you from taking a blurry picture while hand holding due to the fact a telephoto reaches out so far exaggerating subtle movements. Knowing this, I placed the camera on a tripod to keep from camera shake.

So with Jake sitting still, and with the camera on the tripod, I composed the frame and took a couple of shots trying to get the perfect reflection. After a half dozen or more attempts I came away with the above image. I love how clean the Nikon D7100 handles ISO 3200. 

What I enjoy most of this image is the story behind it. Sometimes your favorite images have a great story behind them. I can only imagine Jake looking out the door dreaming about the fun he had swimming in Barney Lake after a long hike to get there. Once in the water it is hard to stop him. 

What I love most about the below image is when we arrived at the lake. There was a women's hiking club sitting on the beach taking a break. They were between 70 and 80 years old, and loved tossing sticks for Jake to retrieve. These women had a lot of energy, and had Jake in the lake for quite a while.

When we were finished at the lake we hit the trail back to camp. Jake has a lot of energy, to be sure. I can only imagine the things he thinks about while staring outside when sitting by our backdoor. His time at Barney Lake must be one of them.

Motion Blur

Most of the time you want to freeze action to avoid blurry pictures while making them tack sharp. On the other hand, there are times when you want to capture motion blur. It can add interest to an image giving it a lively feel, especially when panning.

The above photo was taken on Bourbon Street the night after Mardi Gras. Fat Tuesday is one crazy time (see below). If you want to take in, and enjoy New Orleans' culture I recommend avoiding Mardi Gras all together. During Mardi Gras you won't experience the French Quarter's quaint streets, and it smells like piss and vomit everywhere. 

Daytime on Fat Tuesday was much better than the evening. At that time of day it is an older crowd who are calmer with many fantastic costumes. Whereas the nighttime crowd is younger, smashed, and more aggressive.

Arguably, the best thing about New Orleans is the food. I challenge you to find a bad meal in this town. The food is great everywhere! There's a lot to do with a rich history and fun to be had wherever you go. 

To capture this photo I was out walking Bourbon Street around 10pm and noticed there were few people on the street, though just enough to make for an interesting photograph. I suppose the Wednesday after Fat Tuesday is the slowest night of the year here.

Both the above and below photos were taken with my Lumix GM1. It's the smallest micro 4:3 camera on the market. It is a tiny camera with great imaging quality. It has the same sensor as the Lumix GX7. The downside of this little gem is that much of the camera settings are menu driven rather than adjusted with dials, knobs, and buttons... though there are a few. The small form factor makes changing settings a bit slow. 

Another downside of this tiny camera is the touch screen. Don't get me wrong, having a touch screen is great, but the GM1 is so small that the palm of your hand will often touch the screen while shooting, which causes you to inadvertently change settings.

I missed a number of shots this way. I thought I had the settings adjusted for the picture and later realized they changed. Now that I am aware of this I pay closer attention to where my hand sits, and what the settings are before shooting.

You can turn off the touch screen, but as I stated earlier, much of the camera is menu driven. Turning off the screen limits your use of the camera. Since purchasing the Lumix GX8 I now mostly use the GM1 when mountain biking, hiking, trail running, etc. It's small size makes for light weight and I can easily fit it into a small pack.

Now let's get back to the photo. The key to capturing motion blur is holding the camera steady so the environment is still and tack sharp while people move through it. Notice how some people are moving while others are still. Also notice how bright and "clean" the scene is. I shot as wide as my lens would go at 12mm using the kit lens. I also set the aperture to f/5.6 creating a greater depth of field (full frame equivalent of f/11).

Quick side note. Micro 4:3 cameras have a sensor that is half the size of a full frame (the size of 35mm film). That creates a 2x crop factor. So not only does the lens angle get multiplied by 2, but so does the aperture when considering how much background blur (a.k.a. bokeh) you will get.

In my example, shooting at 12mm is like shooting at 24mm full frame, and setting the aperture to f/5.6 lets in f/5/6 amount of light, but the depth of field get's multiplied by 2 as well. So my shot would look like a 24mm angle of view with an f/11 depth of field while gathering f/5.6 amount of light.

Why is this important? A "normal" lens is between 40mm to 50mm, which is the human eye's angle of view. I continuously make these conversions in my head because I want to know what the angle of view will look like when compared to what I am seeing, and how much of the background I want in focus.

Now back to our story. The way you capture motion blur is to hold the shutter open for one to two seconds while people are moving through the frame, or shorter if the action is fast. To get the proper exposure I set the ISO to the camera's native ISO of 200. The key to avoiding camera movement with a 1.6 second shutter speed is to carefully push the shutter button without moving the camera. 

This brings up the issue of camera movement vs. subject movement. Sometimes you want camera movement, and other times you want subject movement. Sometimes you want both such as when panning. If you have a heavy finger and move the camera every time you push the shutter button then you can either use the camera's timer, a remote trigger, or connect it to your phone via wifi then use the phone's touch screen to take the shot. 

With the above image I placed the camera on a trash can (a tripod would have been better) and held it as still as I could then waited for people to walk by. When there were enough people in the frame I took the shot. I took six different photos to get a keeper image. After the first two I checked the exposure and framing, then a couple more were taken trying to get enough people in the frame with the right amount of movement. 

Finally, while editing in Lightroom I turned down the highlights to bring out the details in the neon signs. They are so bright that holding the shutter open for nearly two seconds blows out the highlights. I also lowered the color saturation for those same signs. They made color correcting a bit difficult, but shooting in RAW format makes these adjustments possible.

Take the time to try these techniques, and definitely make time to visit New Orleans. You won't be disappointed by either. 



My cousin Gina was married a few weeks ago. We had a great time at her wedding and I captured a number of great moments. I didn't steal too many pictures because she did hire a photographer, after all. So let's talk about the above photograph.

It works on a number of levels and doesn't on a few others. To start, I didn't want to be that guy who gets in the way of the photographers who is there and paid for to document their wedding. So instead, I hid out on the sidelines getting what I could get, which isn't optimal. 

Let's first talk about what doesn't work in this photo. The lighting that was provided by the videographers was damn bright. Every so often I looked right at the 'sun' and was blinded. The benefit of their bright lights was that they were able to light the room well enough to capture photographs without using a flash.

On the other hand, the lights made it difficult to get a good pictures. Notice how her arm casts a shadow across her face. I'm sure that was a problem for the photographer, too. In this photo the photographer in pink is taking a photo of the groom. She is using the videographer's lights and probably waiting for his arms to move away from his face.

You'll also notice the light above Gina's head. I was moving around trying to get a better angle, but the videographer kept moving, and it was tough to avoid.

The biggest challenge with photographing this way is that you have no say in the process, which leads me back to my earlier statement about getting what I could get. 

On another note, there are a few things that work well in the image, too. I think the composition tells the story of how things played out. The photographer was capturing the wedding with tight shots, and was trying to avoid getting the videographers in the frame. Whereas, this is more of a behind the scenes photograph showing the viewer what it was like to be there.

Her dress pops with those beaming bright lights. Below is a better example of how her dress popped with the videographer's light. I don't like the way it is framed, however.

The moral of the story... when you aren't in control of the photographic scene you just get what you get. Perhaps it makes for a more candid and challenging situation. That is what I love about making photographs. There's power in limitations.