Milky Way Mike, aka Mike Ver Sprill, is an expert at shooting star trails with digital cameras. He has a great video on removing planes from star trails, titled “How I Edit Out Planes and Create Star Trail Time Lapses (Full Tutorial).” In this tutorial, he discusses how to take star trail photos and then remove the inevitable airplane trails that are all across your image. It’s an excellent tutorial, and it’s not hard to follow Mike’s example on how to do it. He uses the freeware program StarStaX along with Adobe Lightroom, and Photoshop.
If you’re interested in learning a bit of old-school star trail technique, Mike has a video on how to do the “Cosmic Zoom” style of star trails, where the camera zooms into the stars. Mike built a mechanical zooming mechanism using gears and motors he purchased online. If you’re interested in learning that, there’s a link below.
Removing Planes from Star Trails
Mike starts his tutorial discussing how people used to shoot star trails in the old days using a multiple minute-long, single
StarStaX is the Trick
Next, Mike jumps into Adobe Lightroom and takes a look at the photos that he shot earlier in this tutorial. He then drops all the images into StarStaX and processes them with the Gap-Filling Blending Mode. (He suggests you also try Comet Mode and see how you like it.) After processing, you can see something that’s not so cool – the clouds in the base images interfere with the stacking. It’s not pretty!
Once Mike finds a sequence of images with hardly any clouds in them, he selects the photos in Lightroom and then imports the images to Photoshop as Layers.
Preview the Star Trails First
Mike next converts some of the images into a Photoshop Smart Object. Then he uses the Lighten Mode to blend those images. After Photoshop processes for a while, it generates a star trail photo.
Now to remove all the plane trails, Mike first changed the Blend Mode back to “Normal.” He then hides all the Layers except for five or ten of them. These frames remove noise from his foreground.
Blend Your Layers
Mike sets these five or so frames back to visible and then copies them to the bottom of his layers stack. He then turns them into a Smart Object. He then goes to Layers > Smart Objects > Stack Mode > Mean to blend them. The foreground in Mike’s example has water with some waves on it, and after changing the Stack Mode to Mean, the water has smoothed out much of the waves that were visible in each of the individual frame.
Next Mike rasterizes that layer and drags it up to the top. At this point, he hides it, so it is invisible. He then hides the layers that he just used to make the foreground Smart Object as well.
Now he starts removing planes from the individual frames. He selects all the layers and sets them to Lighten Mode. He then Hides all the layers. Starting from the bottom of the Layers stack, he turns the lowest one to Visible. He works his way up the stack removing planes as he goes.
One great tip that Mike offers is first shrinking your images to a smaller pixel dimension and convert them to JPGs. Then process these smaller images in StarStaX or Photoshop. They will process faster so you can see what they are going to look like without spending hours of you and your computer’s processing time. Once you get a star trail image you like, then go back and process your full-sized files for the final image.
Need More Mike?
Make sure you check out more of Milky Way Mike’s content on his YouTube channel. Mike’s been making video’s for over five years – he’s made well over 100 videos, and many of them are about astrophotography. He covers a wide range of subjects, such as gear reviews, Photoshop techniques, and he even takes on the Flat Earthers!
Make sure you check out his video on how to make a motorized slow zoom machine. He points out this effect can be done with post-processing, but when he made it five years ago, it wasn’t that easy to do in post.
If you want even more Milky Way Mike, he was on the Photog Adventures podcast. It’s in the Patreon Only section, so you’ll need to become a patron to listen, but at only $5 a month, I think it’s worth it. I did!
Time Lapses Too!
This technique can be used to removing planes from time-lapses too. Check out our article Introduction to the World of Time-Lapse Photography.