360 Degree Star Trails
Astrophotography,  Landscapes

How to Create a 360 Degree Star Trail with an Olympus OM-D Camera

Olympus has created a Live Composite feature that greatly simplifies long exposure photography including star trails, street scenes, fireworks and light painting.

How Does Live Composite Work?

Live Composite mode takes an initial image as the base exposure and then only records those parts of the remaining exposures that have new bright pixels.  This prevent blowing out parts of your final image.  The Olympus firmware then composites the images together in camera and outputs a single JPEG image.

You can also watch your image being built on your LCD screen.  This is helpful in knowing when to stop the image recording.

Camera Settings

  • Here is what I used for the shot in this blog.  It’s a good starting point but you may need to experiment.  ISO 1600, 17mm, f/2.5, 20 second exposures.
  • To preset the length of time for each exposure, change the Composite Settings in Custom the Menu Settings.  

You can also do this right before you start the Live Composite by pressing the Menu button, but this will save you one step in the dark.

Here are the menu locations of the Composite Setting for the Different OM-D Models

  • If you don’t have zoom / magnify programmed as one of your camera buttons, you may want to do this.  Astrophotography requires manual focus, zooming in on a star makes it a lot easier to manual focus.
  • Turn the focus mode on your camera to Manual Focus.
  • Set your camera to Live Composite Mode.
    • For the E-M1X and E-M5 Mark III, turn the shooting mode dial to Bulb (B) and turn the rear dial until you see LIVECOMP in the LCD.
    • For the remainder of the OM-D line, turn the shooting mode dial to Manual (M) and turn the rear dial to the left until the shutter speed on the LCD shows LIVECOMP.

Set Up Your Shot

  • To start, you’ll need a clear, dark sky at night for at least a couple of hours.  My full 360 degree star trail took about 40 minutes. I took this photograph from my backyard which is a class 5 on the Bortle Sky Darkness Scale.   Class 5 is a typical suburban backyard.  The Bortle Scale goes from Class 1 (Truly Dark Sky) to Class 10 (Inner City).  Check out this website out to see your backyard Bortle rating. Click on the map to get the Bottle class and other information on that location.
  • Make sure you have a sturdy tripod so your camera is stable.  Use the bubble level on your tripod or camera to ensure your tripod is level.  Gently push down on the tripod to ensure it is stable.
  • Make sure your battery is fully charged and have a spare.  It took 40 minutes for one 360 degree star trail.
  • Pick a lens with a wide aperture.  I used the Olympus 17mm f/1.8 set at f/2.5.  The Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 Pro, set wide open would also be a good choice.
  • Align your composition to the north star (Polaris).  See the diagram below. 
Finding Polaris, the North Star
Finding Polaris, the North Star
  • Find the Big Dipper. If you can’t find it, try an app like Star Walk 2 or Stellarium to help.
  • Find Merak and Dubhe and follow the imaginary line between Merak and Dubhe over to Polaris.
  • Polaris is about 5 times the distance that is between Merak and Dubhe.
  • Your composition should be centered on Polaris.

Take the Shot

Now that your camera settings are correct and camera is mounted and aimed at Polaris, it’s time to take the shot.

  • Zoom in on the LCD and manually focus on a star.  The smaller the star gets the more it is in focus.
  • If you haven’t pre setup the Composite Settings (exposure time), press the menu button to set the exposure time that the camera will use for each image.
  • While in Live Composition mode, press the shutter button once to “prepare the camera for composite shooting”.
  • When the camera indicates it’s ready, press the shutter button again to begin the shooting sequence.
  • You can monitor the progress on the camera’s LCD screen, and when you have the desired results, press the shutter button again to stop recording.  It took around 40 minutes for my complete 360 degree star trail.

Try several other shots facing away from the north pole with different durations.  It can be fun seeing the different patterns.

Stay tuned for Part 2 – Post Processing your Star Trail Photographs 

Written by Martin Belan

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The Olympus OM-D E-M1 is now my Go To Camera for Landscape Photography

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