Star Trails Over Tipsoo Lake

I’ve wanted to shoot star trails for a couple of years, but with a list of creative projects that grows by the day, it hadn’t risen to the top – until I saw the work of Lincoln Harrison. While most of the star trails photography I see consists of white stars and wispy trails, Lincoln’s shots burst with color and have a serene beauty that motivated me to get serious about trails.

I gave it a try on a night when I had a relatively dark sky, but no great landscape to frame the shot – a perfect night to experiment. I settled on 20 minute exposures at f2.8 and an ISO of 100.

Math makes my head hurt, so I used a simple technique I learned in the Milky Way Photography Workshop I took from Ben Coffman a few years ago. He taught us that one second of exposure at ISO 6400 equals one minute of exposure at ISO 100. I did my test shots at 6400 for 20 seconds, then switched down to 100 ISO and let the camera expose for 20 minutes. I got some hot pixels, but not too many, and no sensor heat noise, which can ruin a long exposure shot. The landscape is unremarkable, but the trails were the best I’d achieved up to that point.


The next time I went out, I blew it. I should have trusted my judgement and stuck with settings that worked well for my test shoot, but I’d read Lincoln was shooting 40 second exposures, ISO 800, around f3.5, and there’s no arguing with his results. So I went with his settings. The image was noisy, the gaps were un-repairable, and the trails were nothing like the clean, smooth lines I was looking for. I spent a fair bit of time in post, trying to extract any beauty from the noise, but to no avail. That image will never see the light of day.

Though the previous outing had been a fail, I learned some lessons and was looking for my next opportunity.

Late in October, we had a string of clear nights, so I wrapped up tasks from my day job at Seattle video production company, GoodSide Studio, and headed out to Tipsoo Lake, near Chinook Pass.

There was snow on the ground, but daytime temperatures were in the mid 50’s, so it was slushy, and I didn’t have proper, water-proof boots. I felt under-prepared for the conditions as I began my scout. I scoped out Upper Tipsoo, Lower Tipsoo, and a smaller pool that is probably also considered part of Lower Tipsoo.

I settled on two locations, both on Lower Tipsoo – one to the south of the bigger lake, and one to the southwest of the smaller pool. I waited for dark to truly settle in. I was using a battery grip, and  hoped to get 6-8 hours of images.

I took quite a few test shots, and finally settled on this framing and these settings for the time lapse of the big lake:
• Canon 6D
• 16-35 (at 16mm)
• f2.8
• ISO 100
• 20 Minute Exposures

I got 24 exposures; I had eight hours of star trails to work with!

Here’s a single, 20 minute exposure with no post processing. A light aurora is visible on the right side of frame, just above the treeline.


I did a fair bit of work in Lightroom to bring up the color and luminosity, then stacked in Photoshop and brought back to Lightroom for finishing. There were some hot pixels to deal with, and a couple airplane trails, but nothing too difficult.

Here’s the final result:

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The second camera ran for six hours. I haven’t completed post production on it yet. When I do, I’ll update this blog post, and feature on the usual social media spots.

Next time out, I’d like to shoot with an even wider lens, maybe stop down, and bump the ISO up to 400 or even 800. I’d also like to find a composition where a landscape object – a tree or mountain – comes closer to the center of the circle, and a composition that pushes the center of the circle closer to the edge of frame.

Update 6/18

Next adventure out was to Wild Horses Monument and Maryhill Stonhenge.

The main thing I discovered is that there are not enough hours of dark in May to get start trails of the length I’m after. While I love the images I got, plan to go back to these locations later in the year, to shoot them again with longer trails.

Here’s the first one from Wild Horses Monument.

Canon 6D

16-35mm (25mm)
ISO 100
9 shots – 20 mins/shot

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Matt Krzycki is the Creative Director at Seattle Video Production Company, GoodSide Studio. GoodSide specialized is marketing, training and corporate video production.

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