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Ask An Artisan: Tony Gale On Shooting Star Trails, Demystifying Camera Formats, Best Lenses For Hiking

Q: I’ve been shooting star trails this summer, but they aren’t coming out well. The trails are either faint or I get a lot of noise in the shot. How can I get a star trails with crisp bright streaks of light against a deep black background? 

A: Here are a few of my favorite options for shooting star trails. I suggest you try these to find what works best for you as there’s no single best way to do it. 

The first option is to use a long exposure. Set your camera to manual, with a fairly wide open aperture. Try one stop down from wide open. Depth of field shouldn’t be much of an issue (choose your composition wisely). Select an ISO that isn’t too low. Up to about 30-sec, the stars will appear as pinpoints. Typically for star trails you will want your shutter speed somewhere between 15 minutes and several hours. Obviously, a sturdy tripod is a must (see below) and it’s best to use a remote (a smartphone remote app is available at the PlayMemories app store. The main disadvantage of this method is that over time, heat can build up in the camera adding digital noise. 

A very powerful option, but one that takes more time and effort, is to take a series of shorter exposures and use software to stack them into one image. This method reduces that heat buildup in the camera and therefore reduces the noise in the final image. However, you do have to import and stack all the images in the computer which takes time.

You can shoot a star trails movie easily if you shoot with a Sony camera that accepts apps (α7 series, α6000, α6300, RX100, RX10, RX1R), get the Star Trail app in the Sony PlayMemories App Store. The app will automate the entire process and walk you through the steps. It’s a good solution for immediate gratification and if you don’t want to dedicate a lot of time to experimenting. 

Compositionally, having something that doesn’t move in the photo can help make a more compelling star trails photo. A tree, a building, even just the landscape itself can ground the photo in a good way. Many people also like to get the North Star in the photo, which doesn’t move much so all the other stars spin around it.

Whichever method you use, it’s absolutely necessary to have a very stable tripod and head. I use a Gitzo Traveler, but any stable, solid tripod will work. Make sure the head you use will lock down with your camera and lens combination. If the camera moves, even a tiny bit, it can ruin your photo. 

Q: I know this is a big question, but can you help boil down the differences between and relative strengths of a full-frame camera and APS-C or Micro 4/3? I’m especially confused about the “magnification factor” with the APS-C and Micro 4/3 formats. 

A: Here’s the super-brief, back of the envelope answer. Full Frame, APS-C and Micro 4/3 all refer to the size of the camera sensor. Full Frame refers to a sensor the same size as a traditional 35mm film camera. APS-C is a smaller sensor size and Micro 4/3 is smaller still. All other things being equal, a larger sensor will give a better quality photo. On the other hand an APS-C camera is smaller and lighter. Full frame lenses are typically larger and heavier because of the need to cover a larger area while APS-C lenses are smaller and lighter, like the cameras. When using lenses on a APS-C or Micro 4/3 camera people often refer to a magnification or crop factor. Crop factor refers to the fact that the APS-C camera with any given lens has a narrower field of view then a full frame camera. A 50mm lens on a APS-C camera has a field of view that’s roughly equivalent to a 75mm lens on a full frame camera. 

Q: I’m planning a late-summer hiking trip and I need to keep my gear to a minimum. What’s the best single lens to bring for my α7R II?

A: Like any lens choices, it really depends on what and how you shoot. I just spent a few days hiking through Zion National Park and the Grand Canyon North Rim, I used the Sony 16-35 f/4 90% of the time. So for shooting landscapes the 16-35 is fantastic to can get the vast, expansive, iconic landscape shots. If you expect to photograph more wildlife, a longer lens like the 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G Telephoto Zoom or the 70-200mm f/2.8 G Master with the 1.4x and 2x tele-extenders would be my suggestions. They’ll get in tight on wildlife without disturbing the animal or endangering yourself. If you want some of everything, the Sony FE 24-240mm f/3.5-6.3 OSS Super Zoom may be worth considering.

Sony Artisan of Imagery Tony Gale is and award winning commercial photographer based in New York City. He is the National President of APA, a Manfrotto Ambassador, a X-Rite Coloratti and teaches at FIT in Manhattan.
Do you have a question for one of the Sony Artisans Of Imagery?
You can submit your questions to Tony at his Facebook page or send an email to alphauniverse@am.sony.com and put “Ask An Artisan” in the subject line.