Star Trails Over San Francisco

I’m really excited to share this series over the next week, releasing an image each day. I’ve been working on it for over a year, and I think you’re going to love it. This post on 500px has more detail about my technique, and here’s some extra insight.

Star trails over San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Star trails over San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge.


Every shot is physically accurate—I shot both the foreground and the sky at the same time, in the same location, with the same setup, over many hours. We had a really mild winter this past year, but let me tell you that spending hours outside at night when it’s 55°F gets really cold. I’d often have on long underwear, gloves, winter jacket, etc. and still be shivering when I came in for the night.

There are only a few opportunities to shoot urban star trails. I need a dark and clear sky, ideally with a longer night so that I can let my camera shoot longer and collect more stars. Between fog and short nights, this largely rules out summer in SF. And there were many times where the sky would be clear around a full moon and cloudy during a new moon. It was frustrating. When I did get out to shoot, little things (e.g., a strong gust caused my tripod to shift) would frequently cause me to have to reshoot a location. It’d be very hard to visit a city and expect to go out and shoot an urban star trail sequence.

Each of these shots represents more hours of work than any other photo I’ve taken. I generally aim to get everything as correct as possible in-camera, as this lets me be effective with my post-processing. Each of these pictures involved standing outside for 4-8+ hours and then a week or more of post work. 95% of that post work involved cleaning up airplanes. Unfortunately because flight paths are unpredictable, faint planes can appear like stars, helicopters can seem like stars, etc.: I didn’t find a good way to automate this. This image shows a composite with the air traffic. It’s probably the worst case image since it’s looking at SFO and OAK. The plane trails are interesting and tell a story about all the air traffic, but it wasn’t the shot I wanted to take.

There are a lot of planes flying over San Francisco!

There are a lot of planes flying over San Francisco!

These shots are high-res. Aside from the original shot, I took all of these on a Nikon D800E (graciously loaned to me by my dad) as I suspected they’d be cool, and I thought I’d want to print them big. The D800’s sensor let me pick up more stars than I could with a lower-res camera, too. The “Shot on iPhone” campaign started recently, and while I’m always amazed with what you can do with an iPhone, I don’t think I could shoot these on an iPhone: there’s still a need for big gear. I’m looking forward to shooting some of these in the future with the Canon 5DS, possibly even re-shooting a location or two from this series.

These shots stress lenses. Edge-to-edge sharpness and resolving point lights across the frame turns out to be hard! Lenses that are generally considered excellent and truly are with most subjects are pushed to the extreme with urban star trails. I used a Nikon 24mm f/1.4 stopped down to ~f/4 as my primary lens. It’s quite sharp across the frame and gave me the best results, but I’d notice softer stars in the corner. The Nikon 14-24 is definitely not as sharp, and the Nikon 24 PC lens is in between those two. I used a Nikon 24-70 for one image, and it didn’t hold up nearly as well. Again, these lenses are all amazing glass, and I’m sure they performed as well as any brand’s would. These shots are an extreme use case.

There are more photos to come. I have a list of locations around the Bay Area that I want to shoot, and I’ve unsuccessfully tried a couple locations already (and know what I need to do to make them successful). That being said, this first series represents the best locations I could think of, ones I’m really psyched about. I hope you like them, too, and I’d recommend you order a print of your favorite!

Getting setup for one location (I can't wait to share this image!).  Photo by Kellie Hudson

Getting setup for one location (I can’t wait to share this image!). Photo by Kellie Hudson