Shooting Star Trail With Olympus Live Composite

Live Composite is a unique and useful image stacking feature built into Olympus cameras that has been introduced since 2014 in Olympus OM-D E-M10 (first generation). Live Composite allows extremely long exposure shooting without overexposing the image. Typically, an ordinary single frame of long exposure image will capture too much light if the shutter is left open for too long. To prevent overexposure, Olympus' Live Composite basically stacks multiple images of similar exposure over a long duration of time while maintaining balanced exposure from the first frame. The exposure settings are fixed on first frame, set on a shorter exposure duration and are the same for subsequent shots. To illustrate this, instead of capturing a single 60 minutes exposure image which will certainly cause overblown outcome, Live Composite stacks 60 images (all taken at 1 minute exposure each) subsequently and continuously. The compositing process only selectively and additively blends in brighter parts of the subsequent frames onto the previous image. As a bonus, as the blending happens (for example, trailing of light due to slow shutter), you can view it occurring live on the camera's LCD screen, hence the name Live Composite.

While this Live Composite is not a new feature, I have rarely used it. Living in the metropolitan Kuala Lumpur, light pollution negated the possibility of shooting night sky. Furthermore, due to tropical weather, we typically get thunderstorms or lousy cloudy skies at night. Recently, I made a trip to Perth, Australia and did some star trail shooting with Olympus Live Composite. I thought why not do an article about this, and maybe share some tips to those who may want to explore this feature with their cameras?

All images in this entry were shot on Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II and M.Zuiko 7-14mm F2.8 PRO

5 seconds each image, total composite duration 40 minutes, ISO200, F2.8

The beauty of using Olympus' Live Composite was the convenience of having compositing feature already built into the camera, generating results at the press of just a few buttons. Traditionally, to get a star trail image, hundreds of images were taken subsequently and then composited via software processing on a computer. When shooting Live Composite, Olympus gives you not only the ease of capturing one frame with full composite result, all done in camera, but also the ability to preview the star trailing effect as it happens right in front of your eyes.

HOW TO CAPTURE STAR TRAIL USING OLYMPUS LIVE COMPOSITE

1) TRIPOD
You will need a tripod, there is no going around this. You may think that propping the camera against the rock or your backpack will work, but trust me, if you want to get into the photography game, do yourself a favor and get a sturdy tripod.

2) START WITH FULLY CHARGED BATTERY
The last thing that you want to happen is battery dying off in the middle of an almost successful star trail shooting, losing a chunk of precious time and have to restart the process again.

3) TURN ON LIVE VIEW BOOST 2
To enable easy framing using the LCD screen in the dark, switch on the Live View Boost 2 feature. Go to Menu --> Gear/Cogs Icon --> D tab --> Scroll down to Live View Boost --> Live Composite/Live Time --> On 2.
With this setting turned on, you may even see some visible stars in the sky, and you can clearly see the foreground (trees, structures, etc).

4) SET TO MANUAL FOCUS
We are shooting landscape (if you are doing portrait photography then skip this step), so the focusing should be set to infinity. If you have Olympus PRO lenses (12-100mm, 12-40mm, 7-14mm, etc) pull down the focusing ring, and set the focusing mark to the infinity symbol.

5) CAPTURE A SINGLE FRAME
To start, shoot the scene with a normal exposure. For the Crawley Edge Boatshed at Mounts Bay Road scene as shown in the opening image, I did some trial and error using Manual shooting mode, and figured out that a single frame capture of exposure settings ISO200, 5 seconds shutter speed and F2.8 aperture were needed for a balanced shot. The shot below is an example of the single frame taken before replicating the exposure settings for Live Composite.

5 seconds, ISO200, F2.8


6) ACTIVATE LIVE COMPOSITE
Having figured out the exact exposure settings for a single capture as explained in point 4), then we can now turn on the Live Composite mode. Turn the mode dial to M. Dial down (slow) the shutter speed to 60 seconds, then you keep turning it to find Bulb, Live Time, and finally, Live Composite. At this point, the LCD screen may suddenly become dimmed, do not be alarmed, that is perfectly normal as we normally use Live Composite shooting in dark environment, hence the camera intentionally dims the screen.

7) SET EXPOSURE SETTINGS FROM 4)
Based on the single capture settings from point 4), make sure all the settings are the same. You can adjust aperture via the control dial, and ISO from super control panel (or any other shortcuts you have set). However, to adjust the shutter speed, press the "MENU" button. This step is extremely crucial, and is often missed by many newcomers to Live Composite.

8) PRESS SHUTTER BUTTON ONCE TO GET READY
The camera will require capture of first frame to get ready, so just press it.

9) PRESS SHUTTER BUTTON AGAIN TO START
Press the shutter button again the second time to start the Live Composite process. When the process started, you should be able to see capture information at the bottom right corner of the LCD screen, showing number of frames captured and total duration of capture.

Once the Live Composite process begins, you will get live feedback shown on the LCD screen. Within 5-10 minutes, you will start to see the stars trailing a little.

10) PRESS SHUTTER BUTTON AGAIN TO STOP
Please allow about 45 minutes or more for the trails to develop. The longer duration of the capture the longer the trails will be. Once you are satisfied with the developed trails in the frame, press the shutter button to stop.

Additional tip - Live Composite can be shot in RAW, meaning the final composited result can be recorded as a RAW file. This allows better flexibility in post-processing, having full control over white balance and some detail recovery over shadow and highlight regions of the photograph.

Behind the scenes image of the E-M1 Mark II shooting the famous Blue Boathouse at Matilda Bay

30 seconds, ISO3200, F2.8

60 seconds each image, total composite duration 45m minutes, ISO1600, F2.8
Trail was not smooth due to intermittent frames with no star visibility, sky covered by cloud obviously. Trails should be smooth with clear, cloudless sky throughout the duration of shoot. 

60 seconds each image, total composite duration 45minutes ISO800, F2.8
This was taken at Tau Game Lodge at Madikwe Game Reserve in South Africa. Shot from the balcony of my room. 

There are some limitations imposed by the camera while using Live Composite (hardware limit, or software processing capability) which should be taken note of:
ISO highest limit - ISO1600
Shutter Speed - 60 seconds (for single frame)
Aperture  - No limit, but typically set to widest to capture as much light as possible
Image Stabilization is disabled during Live Composite, hence sturdy tripod is necessary

Practically, I highly recommend maxing out the shutter speed, set the aperture to the widest (if you have an F1.2 lens, use F1.2!) and finally, only increase the ISO as necessary. 

If you have an Olympus camera (E-M10 or newer) and you have access to location with not too much light pollution, and the weather is not too cloudy, why not give star trail a try? There is always something magical shooting the stars in the sky. If you have any questions regarding Live Composite please ask!

Acknowledgement - Special thanks to Charmaine and Chris who brought me to awesome places to shoot night skies in Perth, Western Australia recently! 

6 comments:

  1. Thanks for the informative post Robin. I've got to give this a try on my next trip to a remote area or even one of the Great Lakes.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Why do you have to shoot the first picture? For settings? Also, I can't get the live composite working with the olympus image share, which is working poorly anyways. Camera is the first E-M10.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Shooting the first picture allows trial and error to get the right exposure. If you already know for sure what exposure settings you are using then you may skip the first capture.

      Why did you use the smartphone app? Why not just use the feature on the camera?

      Delete
  3. These are fabulous images, Robin.

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