Olympus OM-D E-M10: The easiest way to create star trails

Star Trails - Terlingua, Texas

Star Trails – Terlingua, Texas

You may recall, before my Big Bend trip, I blogged that I was bringing the Olympus OM-D E-M10 for something special. Charles from Olympus loaned me the camera along with the Olympus 9-18mm f4-5.6 super-wide lens. Here is the result. This camera is the easiest way to create these dramatic star trails. I’ll explain how, below.

I shot this outside my cabin near Big Bend National Park, more precisely, in Terlingua, Texas. My first several tries, earlier that night, were less satisfying, mainly because of composition and the occasional passing vehicle. It takes a long time to do nice star trails and even that far in the country, car lights were surprisingly numerous.

So how do you create these star trails? With most cameras, it’s a real effort. First, you need to take hundreds of photos continuously, on tripod. Then, in post processing, you need to stack and combine all the photos into a single image with software like Photoshop. Also, most cameras don’t have the built-in controls to take continuous time-lapse photos, so usually you need external hardware to control the camera. With the Olympus E-M10, all this is automatic.

I did a detailed review of OM-D E-M10 last summer but didn’t know about this feature. It’s something that isn’t talked about much, I think. Called Live Composite Photography or LIVECOMP for short, everything is done in-camera with a few simple settings. The E-M10 was the first camera to do this and it’s also available on the E-M1 via the firmware update 2.0. Of course the just announced E-M5 Mark II also has LIVECOMP.

This nifty feature is also hard to find in the manual, especially if you don’t know what it’s called. But it is easy to setup. Here’s how.

1. Select M on the mode dial.

2. Using the top control dial (closer to the rear) set the exposure time past 60 seconds, past BULB and past LIVE TIME to LIVECOMP. It’s the last setting.

3. Select the “Menu” button to set the exposure time for each image.

4. The first picture you take (by hitting the shutter button) preps the camera and sets the baseline for the composite.

5. The next picture starts the composite process.

6. Finally, press the shutter button again to stop the composite.

7. It will take a couple of minutes as the camera creates the final stacked composite right in the camera.

That’s it for setting up and using LIVECOMP. But you also need to decide on the exposure settings. This is where a little trial in error is in order. First you need to determine the aperture size, the ISO setting and the exposure time. In photography, these three settings work together to set a certain exposure level. There is no absolute correct exposure level, that’s the creative part of photography. The ISO values and aperture size can be adjusted using the standard controls on the camera. The exposure time is set in step 3, above.

What were my settings for the star trail? This is what worked for me but other combinations should work too.

ISO: 800
Aperture: f4.5
Exposure Time: 20 seconds
Focal Length: 9mm
Duration: 3 hours

Your settings might be different depending on the ambient light and the lens used. Why did I pick these settings? I did some testing but here was my reasoning.

With a super wide-angle, f4.5 will allow me to get everything in focus. 9mm on the Olympus is equivalent to 18mm (2x crop factor) in 35mm “full frame” terms. There’s the “500 Rule” in star photography that says divide 500 by the focal length to get the maximum seconds you can shoot without seeing any star movement. In my case that’ll be 500 / 18 = 27.7 seconds. I just rounded down to 20 seconds to be safe. Given an aperture of f4.5 and an exposure time of 20 seconds, ISO 800 gave me the look I wanted. Plus, I knew on the E-M10, ISO 800 should still be clean without a huge amount of noise.

Did I need to stack perfectly still stars to do star trails? Perhaps not, but I wasn’t sure. Would there be small gaps in the trails or would they blend smoothly together? Logically it seems like it would. If I used an exposure time of 40 seconds instead, I could have shot at ISO 400, which would even be cleaner.

I shot this starting at 1am for 3 hours. 3 hours is the maximum duration but the manual says other factors, such as battery life, can reduced the total time. At 20 seconds per exposure for 3 hours, there were 540 pictures stacked to create this single star trail. All of this was done automatically in camera. I was left with a singe RAW image. Pretty neat, isn’t it?

It’s even better, as the name LIVECOMP suggests, you see the results LIVE on the LCD. You actually see the star trails building in real-time. You can stop the LIVECOMP when things look good on screen.

HEB Light Trails - Austin, Texas

Star trails are perfect for LIVECOMP but what else? Fireworks would also be fun, especially if they are shot from multiple locations. But what else? I’m not sure, I guess that’s the fun, creative part of this feature. I shot this the other night at a local grocery store called HEB.

This photo illustrates an important point. LIVECOMP is not the same as a single long exposure. I shot this for maybe 10 minutes. A long exposure will completely blow out the exposure, making the image too bright. Notice how nicely the HEB sign is exposed. No, these are a series of short 1 second exposures stacked together. Same principle as the star trails but with a more common subject.

The settings for this photo?

ISO: 200
Aperture: f7.1
Exposure Time: 1 second
Focal Length: 10mm
Duration: about 10 minutes

The Olympus OM-D E-M10 is a fine camera and I recommend it highly. It’s even better if you want this unique LIVECOMP feature. I have to admit that I’m too lazy or undedicated to do star trails manually, however, with the E-M10, I am more than willing to create them. Because, after all, it’s easy and fun.


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36 thoughts on “Olympus OM-D E-M10: The easiest way to create star trails

      1. Hi Albert C, Unfortunately you can’t change the battery during the live composition. Also, I think the LiveComp is limited to 3 hours so hopefully a fresh battery will last that long.

        Colder climates may be a problem, since battery performance decreases in the cold. I’m not sure if somehow wrapping with insulation will help at all.

  1. I’ve just started playing around with Livecomp on my E-M1, and can’t say I’ve had much (any) success as of yet. But I’ll keep trying. It’s a cool feature, and on the E-M1 you can go for 6 hours, assuming your batteries last that long (both mine and the cameras). As always, nice photos and a good write-up.

  2. Hi Andy,

    Thanks again for this post. I’ve been playing around with the feature a bit more after the conversation with you and Charles from Olympus. Here are a few photos I was able to grab using Live Comp:

    Last night during Austin City Limits (20 second exposures using a Rokinon 7.5mm fisheye (later corrected)
    //embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js

    Same shot from a couple of weeks before. Same lens but with 60 second exposures.
    //embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js

  3. Interesting article. I don’t find a long job to do mounting the trail shots in photoshop. There is a command in Bridge allowing you to do that quickly. Anyway this Livecomp feature is fantastic and for sure saves a lot of time! I don’t understand why you shoot in order to avoid star trails. In this way you enhance the risk of having lot of gaps between each shot.
    all the best
    Antonio

  4. I just ordered the E-M10 to take on a trip to Asia. I am an old guy that likes the film cameras. I never knew the process of what you call “stacking” until I read this post. It all makes sense now. Great stuff, thank you!

  5. Glad I found this website. It is nice to learn from others, that have done this, rather than get frustrated trying to figure it out yourself. If there are other picture examples that were taken in many lighting conditions (i.e. star trails, water falls, etc) with ISO, APERTURE, EXPOSURE TIME used that would be great for Olympus O-MD E-M1. Thanks

  6. Cool pics … Btw, Canon has had this capability in some of their compact cameras for quite a while now. They call it the Star Trails mode.

      1. it works great. All you do is set it to Star Trails mode and then press the shutter button. You can set the time or I just watch it until I get what I want and then stop the process. It has a fast lens which is a bonus for night sky, but the Olympus has a larger sensor so I am sure the quality you are getting is better. The Canon also sets the camera automatically to 24mm which I wish I could override. Will have to consider the Olympus with maybe a short zoom so I have more options.

  7. You should try it during the day with clouds to capture cloud movement. I do the same with my Canon G7x, which has a Star Trails mode.

  8. So happy I found this page! But how about battery life? In the first picture (which is fantastic!) the duration is 3 hours. I assume one battery was not enough for this job?

    1. Hi Kaapo,

      Thanks for your visit. I used only one battery, fully charged. I did not swap batteries, which would have messed up the live composite with the loss of power.

      Andy

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