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How To Find The North Star And Why You’d Want To

Pole-Star-Light-TrailsAnd before those of you in the Southern Hemisphere jump all over the title, with its clear Northern Hemisphere slant, don’t worry, I’ll be talking about the Southern Cross (Crux) as well.  There just wasn’t room in the title to fit in all of that.

Let’s start off with the ‘why’ and then move to the how.  For those of you well versed in astronomy this may all seem very simple to you and you’re welcome to skip right over.  But as I’ve traveled I’ve been amazed at how many people, while sitting around a campfire or on a beach, can’t find the North Star or Southern Cross.  I’ll admit, for most people, it doesn’t matter.  They just like seeing stars overhead, making up constellations and looking for shooting stars.  And that fine.  But if you are looking to take pictures of the night sky, it can be helpful to find either the North Star (Polaris) or Southern Cross.

The reason is that it will tell you how light trails from the Earth’s rotation will show up in your picture.  Are you looking for streaks across the sky when using a long shutter speed or stacking photos?  Or do you want that cool circular effect?  It can be fun to play with different directions and foreground objects and unless you’re familiar with finding the right locations, it can be tricky.  First, some explanation.

A Pole Star is a star that sits near the point of rotation for the axis of the Earth directly above either pole.  In the case of the North Pole, it’s the North Star. In the case of the South Pole there currently is not a single star close in that is easy to spot with the naked eye, so the Southern Cross is often referenced.  Unless you are on the equator, you can only see one or the other (or very high up a mountain near the equator, like Mt. Kilimanjaro).  When you point a camera at either Polaris or the Crux and leave the shutter open for a while, you’ll get a swirled pattern as you see in the photo above (shot in Arches National Park, Utah, USA).  If you point the camera away from the pole, you’ll get more gradual curves depending on your location.  The photo at the bottom of this post was taken near the equator, in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania, while pointing Southwest.

Speaking of location, let’s find the North Star.  It’s fairly simple and you only need to know one constellation, the Big Dipper or Ursa Major.  I usually reference this constellation rather than the Little Dipper (Ursa Minor), even though Polaris is part of the Little Dipper, because the Big Dipper has ‘brighter’ stars (I know I’m disturbing some astronomers out there with a few colloquial terms and I apologize).  Once you have found the Big Dipper, connect the dots from the bottom of the outside of the dipper (farthest from the handle) to the top of the outside of the dipper.  Now follow that line until you meet the next bright star.  That’s Polaris and it is at the tip of the handle of the Little Dipper.

Serengeti Star Trails As I have practically no experience finding the Southern Celestial Pole, I’m going to borrow from Wikipedia (this is where the astronomers can jump in and give some pointers (har har har)) “Since the southern sky lacks an easily visible pole star, Alpha and Gamma (known as Acrux and Gacrux respectively) are commonly used to mark south. Tracing a line from Gacrux to Acrux and extending it for approximately 4.5 times the distance between the 2 stars leads to a point close to the Southern Celestial Pole. Alternatively, if a line is constructed perpendicularly between Alpha Centauri and Beta Centauri, the point where the above mentioned line and this line intersect marks the Southern Celestial Pole. The two stars of Alpha and Beta Centauri are often referred to as the “Southern Pointers” or just “The Pointers”, allowing people to easily find the asterism of the Southern Cross or the constellation of Crux.”

A helpful reminder when finding either celestial pole is they are as far off the horizon, North or South, as you are from the equator. In other words, the photo at the top was taken in Utah at approximately 38.7°North Latitude, so the North Celestial Pole is 38.7° off the horizon to the North.  This is helpful for visualizing a trip in advance.  If you know your latitude, you can guesstimate what your star pattern will look like.

And that’s the how and why of finding either celestial pole.  Armed with that knowledge, and the DPS post 4 Steps to Creating Star Trails With Stacking Software, it’s time to head outside when the sun goes down and see what you can create!  Feel free to post some of your memorable star trail photos in the comments section.

PHOTO NOTES: The top photo is a stack of 36 images taken over 51 minutes. Each image is 75 seconds in duration shot at 16mm, ISO 1250 f/6.3. The second photo is one single image lasting 618 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 400, 16mm.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category.

Peter West Carey is a world traveling photographer who now is spending a large amount of time going back through 6 years of travel photo and processing them like he should have to start with. He is also helping others learn about photography with the free series 31+ Days Of Photography Experiments which builds off of the 31+ Days To Better Photography series on his blog.

  • Ivana

    Wau….thanks….this is really a great tip :-)… I hope I will have atime during the weekend to test it :-)… Thanks a lot again.

  • http://web.me.com/tjdhulst/Pura_Vida_Photography/Albums/Pages/Starry_Nights.html#12 Tyler

    Another concept in astrophotography that you will want to know for star trail images is that of the “ecliptic”. This is the path across the sky that the moon and planets tend to follow. I’ve noticed in my own astrophotography that in some shots the stars tend to rotate in different dirrections.

    http://web.me.com/tjdhulst/Pura_Vida_Photography/Albums/Pages/Starry_Nights.html#5

    I’ve found that this rotation change happens at the ecliptic, this is not backed up by research but rather by my own experiments. Look at the shot below with the moon rise and star trails.

    http://web.me.com/tjdhulst/Pura_Vida_Photography/Albums/Pages/Starry_Nights.html#2

    The farther north you point the camera (in dirrection of Polaris) the less of the ecliptic you will get and your star trails will not have different arc rotations.

    http://web.me.com/tjdhulst/Pura_Vida_Photography/Albums/Pages/Starry_Nights.html#2

    Knowing where the ecliptic is, and what it is, will also be an important factor when doing your astrophotography so you get the kind of streaks that you want.

  • Shane

    “Unless you are on the equator, you can only see one or the other (or very high up a mountain near the equator, like Mt. Kilimanjaro).”

    Not quite true. I live in Trinidad, 10 degrees north of the equator, I see the North Star fine, 10 degrees from the horizon, as well as the Southern Cross at the appropriate time of year. This should have said “close to the equator”, like on the north side in the Tropical Zone. (On the Equator itself the North Star should sit on the horizon, and anywhere south of that it should be invisible.)

    On the other hand, that “cool circular effect” has less full circles in these parts.

  • http://www.andyphoto.co.uk Andy MIlls

    If you’re like me and couldn’t imagine the stars of the big dipper pointing to Polaris, you can see it in this image:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Polaris_alpha_ursae_minoris.jpg

  • Heidi

    Thanks Andy – I was having trouble picturing that in my head. Going to give this a whirl! : )

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/andricongirl/ andricongirl

    this web site shows the southern cross and best way to find the southern pole star , a good visual of what is said above
    http://www.southernskies.com.au/astronomy/cross.htm

  • Martinho

    http://www.google.com/sky/skymap/

    maybe this aplication for pocket pc can resolve some orientation problems ;)
    I love photograph star trails and DPS articles!

  • http://web.me.com/tjdhulst/Pura_Vida_Photography/Home.html Tyler

    Another concept to keep in mind is that of the “ecliptic”. This is the imaginary line in the sky that follows the path of the moon and planets across the night sky. From what I have observed (purely anecdotal) I’ve noticed that the stars on opposite sides of the ecliptic rotate along a different arc. See the image below as an example:

    http://web.me.com/tjdhulst/Pura_Vida_Photography/Albums/Pages/Starry_Nights.html#1

    Before I remembered the concept of the ecliptic I couldn’t figure out why the stars rotated in opposite directions, until one night when I took this image of the moon rising.

    http://web.me.com/tjdhulst/Pura_Vida_Photography/Albums/Pages/Starry_Nights.html#2

    After seeing this image I realized that the ecliptic is that point in the sky where the patterns diverge. The farther north I pointed my camera (towards Polaris) the less of the effect I saw of the ecliptic on the star rotations.

    http://web.me.com/tjdhulst/Pura_Vida_Photography/Albums/Pages/Starry_Nights.html#0

    The three images above were all taken from my backyard but looking in different directions. I keep this concept of the ecliptic in mind when I want to do star trails and where I’ll be pointing my camera for the evening.

    http://web.me.com/tjdhulst/Pura_Vida_Photography/Albums/Pages/Starry_Nights.html#12

  • http://photokimbo.posterous.com Kim Stevens

    Nice article Peter :-)

    Just last week I had my first attempt at shooting star trails in the Southern Hemisphere (Australia), and blogged about it with a few easy tips for finding the South Pole Star – http://photokimbo.posterous.com/star-trails-over-lake-samsonvale

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/marnix_dl/ Max

    In the southern hemisphere, we need to look south. Here is a startrail I shot recently – you can see the location it on the Flickr map.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/marnix_dl/4792030013/in/set-72157624366065639/

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/katesi/ kate

    That second image is insane. You’d never think that’s how fast the stars move in 10 minutes although, to me at least, the moon moves very quickly.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/oindypoind/ Andy Talbot

    If you’re like me and have a smart phone, I’ve installed the google skymaps app, simply hold it up to the sky and it will show you where polaris is. The hard bit is getting polaris to sit well within your composition.
    http://www.google.com/sky/skymap/

Some older comments

  • Andy Talbot

    July 23, 2010 09:38 pm

    If you're like me and have a smart phone, I've installed the google skymaps app, simply hold it up to the sky and it will show you where polaris is. The hard bit is getting polaris to sit well within your composition.
    http://www.google.com/sky/skymap/

  • kate

    July 23, 2010 09:33 pm

    That second image is insane. You'd never think that's how fast the stars move in 10 minutes although, to me at least, the moon moves very quickly.

  • Max

    July 23, 2010 02:22 pm

    In the southern hemisphere, we need to look south. Here is a startrail I shot recently - you can see the location it on the Flickr map.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/marnix_dl/4792030013/in/set-72157624366065639/

  • Kim Stevens

    July 23, 2010 08:05 am

    Nice article Peter :-)

    Just last week I had my first attempt at shooting star trails in the Southern Hemisphere (Australia), and blogged about it with a few easy tips for finding the South Pole Star - http://photokimbo.posterous.com/star-trails-over-lake-samsonvale

  • Tyler

    July 23, 2010 05:49 am

    Another concept to keep in mind is that of the "ecliptic". This is the imaginary line in the sky that follows the path of the moon and planets across the night sky. From what I have observed (purely anecdotal) I've noticed that the stars on opposite sides of the ecliptic rotate along a different arc. See the image below as an example:

    http://web.me.com/tjdhulst/Pura_Vida_Photography/Albums/Pages/Starry_Nights.html#1

    Before I remembered the concept of the ecliptic I couldn't figure out why the stars rotated in opposite directions, until one night when I took this image of the moon rising.

    http://web.me.com/tjdhulst/Pura_Vida_Photography/Albums/Pages/Starry_Nights.html#2

    After seeing this image I realized that the ecliptic is that point in the sky where the patterns diverge. The farther north I pointed my camera (towards Polaris) the less of the effect I saw of the ecliptic on the star rotations.

    http://web.me.com/tjdhulst/Pura_Vida_Photography/Albums/Pages/Starry_Nights.html#0

    The three images above were all taken from my backyard but looking in different directions. I keep this concept of the ecliptic in mind when I want to do star trails and where I'll be pointing my camera for the evening.

    http://web.me.com/tjdhulst/Pura_Vida_Photography/Albums/Pages/Starry_Nights.html#12

  • Martinho

    July 23, 2010 03:34 am

    http://www.google.com/sky/skymap/

    maybe this aplication for pocket pc can resolve some orientation problems ;)
    I love photograph star trails and DPS articles!

  • andricongirl

    July 23, 2010 03:02 am

    this web site shows the southern cross and best way to find the southern pole star , a good visual of what is said above
    http://www.southernskies.com.au/astronomy/cross.htm

  • Heidi

    July 23, 2010 02:31 am

    Thanks Andy - I was having trouble picturing that in my head. Going to give this a whirl! : )

  • Andy MIlls

    July 23, 2010 01:51 am

    If you're like me and couldn't imagine the stars of the big dipper pointing to Polaris, you can see it in this image:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Polaris_alpha_ursae_minoris.jpg

  • Shane

    July 23, 2010 01:42 am

    "Unless you are on the equator, you can only see one or the other (or very high up a mountain near the equator, like Mt. Kilimanjaro)."

    Not quite true. I live in Trinidad, 10 degrees north of the equator, I see the North Star fine, 10 degrees from the horizon, as well as the Southern Cross at the appropriate time of year. This should have said "close to the equator", like on the north side in the Tropical Zone. (On the Equator itself the North Star should sit on the horizon, and anywhere south of that it should be invisible.)

    On the other hand, that "cool circular effect" has less full circles in these parts.

  • Tyler

    July 23, 2010 12:59 am

    Another concept in astrophotography that you will want to know for star trail images is that of the "ecliptic". This is the path across the sky that the moon and planets tend to follow. I've noticed in my own astrophotography that in some shots the stars tend to rotate in different dirrections.

    http://web.me.com/tjdhulst/Pura_Vida_Photography/Albums/Pages/Starry_Nights.html#5

    I've found that this rotation change happens at the ecliptic, this is not backed up by research but rather by my own experiments. Look at the shot below with the moon rise and star trails.

    http://web.me.com/tjdhulst/Pura_Vida_Photography/Albums/Pages/Starry_Nights.html#2

    The farther north you point the camera (in dirrection of Polaris) the less of the ecliptic you will get and your star trails will not have different arc rotations.

    http://web.me.com/tjdhulst/Pura_Vida_Photography/Albums/Pages/Starry_Nights.html#2

    Knowing where the ecliptic is, and what it is, will also be an important factor when doing your astrophotography so you get the kind of streaks that you want.

  • Ivana

    July 23, 2010 12:34 am

    Wau....thanks....this is really a great tip :-)... I hope I will have atime during the weekend to test it :-)... Thanks a lot again.

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