Photographing Star Trails on Color Film by Jen Golay

Medium format film photography of star trails in the night sky - Star Trails on Color Film by Jen Golay on Shoot It With Film
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Written by Jen Golay

35mm film photography of star trails in the night sky - Star Trails on Color Film by Jen Golay on Shoot It With Film
I love how the stars appear to be flying through the trees.
Kodak Ektar 100 +2 with the Nikon F100

This is an article I have been meaning to write for years, because whenever I post a star trail photo, I almost always get questions on how to create these images.

Of all of the different types of photography I have done over the years, star trails are the easiest.

The great thing about doing star trails on color film is that you can “set it and forget it,” and then send the film off to be processed. With digital star trails, you need to set up a timer to take many (sometimes hundreds) of images at regular intervals and then stack them all together in Photoshop or other astrophotography software to create the final image.

In this article, I’ll be going over the equipment I use for star trails, my process, and specifically capturing star trails on color film. If you want to read more about star trails and see lots of examples on b&w film, check out this article by James Baturin here on Shoot It With Film.

How to Photograph Star Trails on Color Film
How to Photograph Star Trails on Color Film
How to Photograph Star Trails on Color Film

How I Got Started with Star Trails

Person looking through a telescope - Star Trails on Color Film by Jen Golay on Shoot It With Film
My son getting his “first light.” First light is the experience of looking through your telescope for the first time.

My experience with star trails began Christmas Day, 2013, when we gave our boys an eight-inch Celestron 8SE telescope.

Both of my boys have always been interested in space, and we thought this would be a great family hobby.

And it has been! In fact, my oldest son is now an astrophysics major in college.

Our stargazing outings usually begin around 10 p.m., with my son setting up the telescope and me setting up my cameras. I’ll start an exposure, and while the shutter is open, we will look at various celestial objects through the telescope.

So, let me tell you how I do it!

Medium format film photography of star trails in the night sky - Star Trails on Color Film by Jen Golay on Shoot It With Film
Kodak Ektar 100 with the Hasselblad 500CM

What’s in My Bag

  • At least two cameras
    • I prefer completely mechanical cameras so that I don’t have to worry about batteries dying during the middle of an exposure.
  • A tripod for each camera
  • A wide angle or “normal” focal length lens
  • A flashlight or a headlamp with a red light setting
    • The red light will keep your night vision sharp.
  • A cable release that locks for each camera
  • A viewfinder cap or piece of gaffer tape to cover the eyepiece
  • Extra gaffer tape
  • A timer (I use my iPhone)
  • A low ISO film like Kodak Ektar or slide film
  • Fingerless gloves to keep my hands warm but still useable in the cold weather
  • A notebook to record exposure notes
  • The Star Map app on my iPhone
Accessories for star trails film photography - Star Trails on Color Film by Jen Golay on Shoot It With Film
My Nikon FM is a completely manual camera that does not require a battery to operate. I also like to use my Hasselblad 500CM.

What to Know Before You Go

Weather

You need a clear night with low humidity.

Winter is the perfect time to do star trails because it gets dark earlier, the atmosphere is clearer, and there is usually much less humidity. Humidity can cause condensation on your lens.

Medium format film photography of star trails and moon trails in the night sky - Star Trails on Color Film by Jen Golay on Shoot It With Film
Notice the break in the star trails near the horizon. That was the remnants of a few wisps of clouds. The brightest trail is actually Venus setting.
Kodak Ektar 100 with the Hasselblad 500CM

Light Pollution

Find a place with little or no light pollution.

This is the biggest challenge when making star trails. We have to drive nearly two hours outside of the city to find a place that isn’t too far away but is as dark as possible.

You can check sites like lightpollutionmap.info (be sure to choose the most recent map—VIIRS2019) or darksitefinder.com or use the Dark Sky app available at the app store.

35mm film photography of star trails in the night sky with a tree in the foreground - Star Trails on Color Film by Jen Golay on Shoot It With Film
Kodak Ektar 100 +2 with the Nikon F100

The Phase of the Moon

Know when the moon rises or sets.

The best night to stargaze or shoot star trails is the night of the new moon, because you don’t have to worry about the moon spoiling your shot or outshining all of the other celestial objects and stars.

If you need to go on a night when the moon will be out at all, wait at least an hour after it sets before trying star trails. If you don’t, the moon will make the image look like a sunset.

35mm film photography of star trails as the sun sets - Star Trails on Color Film by Jen Golay on Shoot It With Film
This is an image of a moonset. Even after the moon has dipped below the horizon, its light continues to affect this 30-minute image of star trails.
Kodak Portra 400 with the Nikon FM

Location Safety

Is your location safe—safe from wildlife and safe to remain late at night? If you’re in a public park, is there a curfew?

If you think you may want to shoot on private land, be sure to obtain permission.

Medium format film photography of star trails in the night sky - Star Trails on Color Film by Jen Golay on Shoot It With Film
Kodak E100VS with the Pentax 645NII
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A Few Tips for Shooting Star Trails

Load your film at home before you head out. It’s much easier to do it indoors with good light than outdoors in the dark and probably cold weather.

I take at least two cameras with me because each exposure is at least 30 minutes, but usually 60-120 minutes. If I have two or more cameras going at once, I can come away from a star trail expedition with at least two to four images.

Medium format film photography of star trails in the night sky - Star Trails on Color Film by Jen Golay on Shoot It With Film
Kodak E100VS with the Pentax 645NII

Composition

Choose your site and composition carefully. Hopefully, you’ve found a dark location with something interesting to look at. Unfortunately, living in Iowa, the darkest locations are out in the middle of a cornfield.

It’s nice to have something interesting in the foreground, but it isn’t absolutely necessary. I’ve used leafless trees or simply the horizon.

Also, consider how you want your start trails to look. Do you want them to circle around Polaris, or do you want them to streak across the sky?

Medium format film photography of star trails in the night sky - Star Trails on Color Film by Jen Golay on Shoot It With Film
This 60-minute exposure produces quite long star trails. Compare it to the 60-minute exposure of Polaris a few images down.
Kodak Ektar 100 with the Hasselblad 500 CM

Lens Choice

I like to use a “normal” focal length (50mm for 35mm film or 75-80mm for medium format film).

You can also use a wide angle or telephoto lens, but any lens you choose will affect your exposure and the look of your image.

If you choose a wide-angle lens, you can shoot it wide open. If you choose a telephoto lens (anything above 200mm), you may want to stop down a couple of stops because the magnification will be too much, and the trails will be wider than you might wish.

You will also see fewer trails because of the smaller angle of view.

I think what makes star trails so beautiful and interesting to look at is the magnitude of stars in a large sky and the illusion of movement they create with a stationary foreground or horizon. A telephoto lens won’t give you that perspective.

Medium format film photography of star trails in the night sky - Star Trails on Color Film by Jen Golay on Shoot It With Film
The number of stars visible on film is amazing. Seeing the many colors of stars on film is spectacular.
Kodak Ektar 100 with Hasselblad 500CM

Choosing a Color Film Stock and Reciprocity Failure

When doing long exposures on film, I like to choose a slower speed film, usually ISO 100 or less.

The longer your film is exposed to light, the more pronounced the grain will be when the film is developed. That is slightly minimized when you use a slower film with smaller grain to begin with.

For star trails on color film, I like slide film the best because the colors are so vivid.

But be warned, long exposures with any film, but especially slide film, will cause distinct color shifts, which is part of reciprocity failure.

When making star trails or any long exposure on film, it’s good to have a basic understanding of reciprocity failure of film. It’s important to understand that the longer your film is exposed to light, the less light sensitive it becomes.

With prolonged exposure, the dye layers will absorb light unevenly. The dark night sky can become a bright magenta. For me, this is one of the beauties of shooting long exposures with color film.

Medium format film photography of star trails in the night sky - Star Trails on Color Film by Jen Golay on Shoot It With Film
A 90-minute exposure on Fuji Provia 100F with Pentax 67. The reciprocity failure caused the color shift to magenta.

Setting Up Your Camera and Focusing Your Lens

Focus your lens at infinity. To guarantee that your focus doesn’t shift during the long exposure, you can use gaffer tape to secure the focus ring.

If you’re including something like a building or other object of interest in the foreground, be sure to make that focus priority.

Open your lens to its widest aperture. I like to use a lens with at least an aperture of f/2.0. Set your shutter speed to B (bulb). Attach your cable release.

If your camera allows it. Use your mirror lockup function to avoid any camera shake.

Cover your eyepiece with a viewfinder cap (these can be purchased separately for some cameras, and some cameras like the Contax 645 have a built-in viewfinder cover) or a piece of gaffer tape.

When the shutter is open for a long time, light can leak in through the viewfinder. I think it’s a fairly rare occurrence, but this is an easy fix or precaution to take.

If you use a camera that requires batteries, be sure to bring extra batteries or use a battery grip to extend your battery life.

If you have a way to attach your camera to a DC-power car adapter, that would also be a good way to prevent power loss.

Medium format film photography of star trails in the night sky - Star Trails on Color Film by Jen Golay on Shoot It With Film
Kodak E100VS with the Pentax 645

Exposure Time

Exposure time will vary depending on your lens focal length and how close you are aiming at Polaris. At minimum, you will need at least a 20-30-minute exposure to show any movement.

If you are shooting with a wide-angle lens or including Polaris in your frame, you’ll need a longer exposure—at least 60-90 minutes.

With a longer lens or a composition that does not include the North Star, you could have shorter exposure times with longer trails.

35mm film photography of star trails in the night sky with a tree in the foreground - Star Trails on Color Film by Jen Golay on Shoot It With Film
This is about a 20-minute exposure.
Kodak Ektar 100 +2 with the Nikon F100

Taking the Shot

Push the shutter button on your cable release and lock it into place.

Start your timer.

Go take a nap, read a book, look through the telescope while you wait for your long exposure to finish.

Repeat for as long as you can stay out or awake or until the sun comes up.

Medium format film photography of star trails in the night sky - Star Trails on Color Film by Jen Golay on Shoot It With Film
Kodak Ektar 100 with the Hasselblad 500CM

Which Direction to Point Your Camera

When choosing which direction to point your camera be sure to take into consideration which direction the largest town or city is from your location.

Point your camera in the opposite direction unless you want to include the glow that the city lights will create in your image.

You may not be able to see the glow with your naked eye, but with a long exposure, that glow will be very prominent.

Sometimes that glow adds interest to an image, but often it is undesirable.

Medium format film photography of star trails as the sun sets - Star Trails on Color Film by Jen Golay on Shoot It With Film
I pointed the camera toward the city, and the light pollution nearly overwhelmed the star trails. Note the color shift as well.
Kodak E100VS with the Pentax 645NII

Stacking Images

One other thing you can do that is similar to digital star trails is that you can take more than one long exposure and stack them together later in Photoshop.

I don’t consider this “cheating” because you could achieve the same effect in the darkroom, just with a lot more work!

35mm film photography of star trails in the night sky - Star Trails on Color Film by Jen Golay on Shoot It With Film
Two stacked long exposures.
Kodak Ektar 100 +2 with the Nikon F100

A Little More Information

What I love about star trails is that they are the visual representation of the passage of time.

One of the first things that struck me when I looked at my first star trails was just how many stars were recorded. When the images are magnified to 100% or greater, even more stars are visible, though much dimmer.

And while it is possible to see the different colors of stars with the naked eye, the colors recorded on film (especially slide film) are magnificent. (Stars have different colors because of their temperature.)

Medium format film photography of star trails in the night sky - Star Trails on Color Film by Jen Golay on Shoot It With Film
Kodak E100VS with the Pentax 645NII

Understanding Star Movement

It’s important to remember that the stars appear stationary (even though they are moving, too), and we are the ones moving.

If you want to have the longest star trails in the shortest amount of time, point your lens toward a horizon. If you want your star trails to appear to move in a circle, point your lens at Polaris.

If you don’t know how to use the Big Dipper to find the North Star, use the Star Map app.

This app is really fun. Hold your iPhone or iPad up to the sky, and the app will tell you what stars, planets, galaxies, and other celestial bodies are out there. Move the device, and the app will move the star map to keep up.

Note, that if you include Polaris in your image, you’ll need to have a significantly longer exposure to show much movement compared to an image that includes the horizon.

Medium format film photography of star trails in the night sky - Star Trails on Color Film by Jen Golay on Shoot It With Film
Notice how the star trails closer to Polaris are shorter than the trails farther away from the North Star.
Kodak E100VS with the Pentax 645NII

To help you understand why that is, imagine the sky as a giant sphere and the earth in the center of that sphere.

Then, imagine that the sky sphere is spinning on an axis that goes right through Polaris.

The stars spinning around Polaris will appear to travel much shorter distances than the stars closer to your horizon in the same amount of time because the space at the top of the sphere is smaller than the space nearer to the horizon.

Here’s another way to think about it: Think of a spinning basketball on your finger.

If you put a dot close to your finger or at the top of the ball near the axis that your finger creates, that dot will create a circle while the ball spins.

If you put a dot farther down on the ball, it will also create a circle while it spins.

The circle near the axis will be smaller than the circle farther away from the axis. This is why star trails that include the North Star appear so short compared to star trails that are farther away from the North Star.

35mm film photography of star trails in the night sky with a tree in the foreground - Star Trails on Color Film by Jen Golay on Shoot It With Film
Kodak Ektar 100 +2 with the Nikon F100

Where to Go From Here?

There are still lots of things I want to try with star trails on color film. I want to try light painting something in the foreground with the trailing stars in the sky. I’d also like to try even longer exposures than I have done already.

While researching this article, I learned that some photographers like to stop down to f/5.6 to f/11 to reduce the light pollution glow. I’d like to try this for myself to see if it works and if the star trails are dimmed at all.

Hoya makes a filter that reduces the effect of light pollution for night and long exposure photography. I would love to do some comparison shots.

Finally, I am really inspired by an amazing photographer named Jason De Frietas who has created some phenomenal film images of the Milky Way using a tracker similar to the one on our telescope that compensates for the earth’s movement when looking through a telescope or making a long exposure without showing movement.

I would love to give the tracker a try with one of my film cameras.

Medium format film photography of star trails in the night sky - Star Trails on Color Film by Jen Golay on Shoot It With Film
Kodak E100VS with the Pentax 645NII

Conclusion

Star trails are some of the most fun and most beautiful images you can create on color film.

The process is fairly simple, but it requires some advance planning and a few pieces of special equipment such as a tripod and a cable release. It’s also time-consuming, and one outing may only produce a couple of images.

Under the right conditions with the right gear and a little forethought, you can create a timeless image of the passage of time.

35mm film photography of a car with it's lights on - Star Trails on Color Film by Jen Golay on Shoot It With Film
A long exposure of the telescope and the car. We moved in and out of the car, but because of the long exposure, we have become invisible. The red light that you see on the ground and inside the car are our red head lamps and a red flashlight that is really not very bright but appears bright because of the long exposure. Red lights help you keep your night vision sharp.

Thank you so much, Jen! Jen is a regular contributor here at Shoot It With Film, and you can check out her other articles here, including How to Shoot Kodak Gold 200 and a review of the Rolleiflex 2.8F. You can also check out more of Jen’s work on her website and Instagram.

If you have questions about shooting star trails on color film, leave them below in the comments!

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Jen Golay

Jen Golay is a regular contributor for Shoot It With Film. Find her other articles here, such as How To Shoot Kodak Gold 200 and Olympus Pen F Half-Frame Film Camera Review.

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Blog Comments

Lovely work as always Jen

Thanks so much, Rick!

Going to try my hand, haven’t used film in ages but I really love it over digital, I’ll be using a Canon EoS Rebel G the only film camera I own and I love it still, only have 2 lenses a Canon 35-80 1:4 – 5.6 and a Canon 75-300 1:4 5.6 so I’ll be using the 35-80. Could you offer guidance as to what settings to start at using Ektar 100 film? Never tried it with film and am at a total loss, will be using a remote shutter release.

Hi Jerry! Thanks for the comment! I am excited for you to give star trails on film a try, and I hope you’ll let us know how it turns out. Set your focus to infinity. Set your shutter speed to bulb. Open up your aperture as wide as it will go. Set a timer for at least 30 minutes and take a nap! 🙂 Since your lens isn’t especially fast, I would probably keep my shutter open for an hour or more, especially with Ektar, a slower film. Good luck!

Thank you so much for the useful information Jen. I’m going to be going on a backpacking trip in Sequoia soon and plan on trying out some astro-photography. Thanks again for the tips!

Hi Nic! I am so glad you found the article helpful! Your trip sounds fantastic, and I hope you will let us know how your star trails shots turn out. Best of luck and safe travels!

I have done star trails with digital cameras and have have done some long exposures (30 seconds or so) with film. However, I haven’t done star trails with film. I would like to, but a bit hesitant.
After reading this blog, I feel as if I should just give it a shot.

Hi Orrin!! I think you should definitely give star trails on film a shot! And I hope you will let us know how it goes!

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