How To Photograph Star Trails – We Show How Easy It Can Be To Capture Your First Star Trail Photo

How-to-photograph-star-trails

Star trail photography looks incredible, there's something about the way the stars seem to be moving in an image while everything else is just frozen in time.

While it may seem complicated, in this article we will show you it is actually quite easy and requires minimal equipment to plan, shoot, and edit star trails.

So follow along, because, by the end of this article, you will have learned how to capture the night sky star trails and produce spectacular imagery from your backyard. 

So What Is Star Trail Photography?

If you've ever seen a night time image of the sky where the stars seem like they are streaked across the image, then you've seen a star trail image.

It is a technique of astrophotography which captures the movement of the stars (the earth’s actually), and commonly has a fixed object as the point of focus in the foreground.

So the foreground image is “fixed” while the background stars are “trailing” across the sky.

As for the foreground object, it can be anything, as long as it is large enough. Some ideas that I usually see are trees, mountains, and houses. But really you can let your imagination run wild and be creative with different focal points that will give that contrasting effect with the night sky.

The 2 Style Effects Of Star Trails You Can Capture

Depending on where in the sky you setup and point your camera to capture star trails you will get one of two effects,

Star Lines Photography Effect

Appears to streak in a straight line across the sky. To achieve this effect, it's recommended to aim your camera in the direction of either east or west. Because of the rotation of the earth, you'll get a straight line effect in your photos.

star-lines

Star Circles Photography Effect

Appears to swirls around and around in a circular motion. This effect is achieved by aiming your camera at the south celestial pole or northern celestial pole (depending on where you are located in the world).

star-circles

How long does it take to get star trails?

Everything you need to capture star trail images can be done in a single night.

Once your camera is set up and ready to take photos, the capturing process can be as little as 30 minutes to several hours. 

All depending on how long you want the star trail effect to be in your images.

Planning Your Shoot

If you're ready to get started in photographing star trails, there are a few things you really should do before you even touch your camera. 

Because our goal is to capture the stars, which are only faintly visible to the naked eye. We plan and set our specific exposure, aperture settings, ISO, and location. Pre-planning is just as important as actually taking the picture because the best equipment in the world won't do much if you're trying to capture star trails on a cloudy night or on a full moon.

The following (moon, dark skies, weather, and location) all affect the end image result so definitely need to be taken into consideration before you load up your equipment and start capturing your star trails.

equipment-to-shoot-trails

Moon

The brightness of the moon is useful for various astrophotography image effects, but when it comes to taking pictures of star trails were looking for the least amount of light possible. 

Tip: photographing at 25% or less moon phase is an excellent range for capturing star trails. Dark enough to see the full brightness of the stars but with a subtle amount of light to bring enough detail into the foreground objects in your images.

If the moonlight is too bright, it will make the stars look much dimmer and also doesn't allow for long exposures as it'll also wash out the image.

Luckily you don't have to guess, there are some great tools online to check the moon phase for the following months. Check out this useful moon phase calendar, It’ll give you a whole months worth of moon phase so you can plan ahead.

Simply set your month, year and whether your northern or southern hemisphere (it should auto pick this up) but always good to double check its correct. 

moon-phase-calendar-for-month

Dark Skies

Light pollution can turn the most well-planned shoot into a nightmare. You’ll notice that even while it may look dark in your backyard, there is usually quite a lot of light pollution from all around you. Things light street lights, building lights, cars all add to the ambient light pollution.

If you can, we recommend driving out to somewhere a little more remote away from the bright lights of the suburbs or city.

Because the darker the sky, the more you can open up the exposure and aperture settings to get as much brightness and detail of the star trails possible. Too much light and your star trail images will start looking pale and washed out real quick. 

Blue Marble Light Pollution Map is an excellent site to find surrounding locations near you that don't have or have minimal light pollution near you.

blue-marble-light-pollution-map

Weather

You also need to look at the weather forecast before a photography shoot. If it's a cloudy night, then there won't be much available for you to capture. Going out on a night that has clear skies is your best bet, so checking a site like cleardarksky.com allows you to find the next 48 hours reports of when the sky will be clear. 

clear dark sky website of Utah area

Location

Star trails look best when there is a “fixed” featured foreground object to contrast against the moving star trails in your image.

Look for a location that has something interesting you can use as a foreground image for your picture. Some ideas are big trees, mountains, light tower, bridges, houses, and buildings. These were just a few ideas, but you can really get creative here.

What Equipment Is Needed For Star Trail Photography?

To capture star trails, the equipment needed is minimal when compared to deep space astrophotography.

Below is a quick list of the core equipment pieces you need to have and also some optional equipment to make things a little more comfortable during your photo shoot.

Camera

The most important (and obvious) piece you'll need is a camera with "Bulb" mode. If you already have a DSLR camera, then that will should do just fine. 

All modern DSLRs and mirrorless cameras have the "bulb" mode. This lets you shoot for as long as you're holding down the shutter button that could be from 31 seconds, up to 3 hours.

You don't actually have to hold down your shutter button by hand for that long. You need something that will do it for you like an intervalometer.

Just make sure whatever camera you decide to use has a manual mode “M” so you can manually adjust the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. This is critical as anything “auto” just doesn't do the job for astrophotography.

Tripod

Look for a strong and sturdy tripod to house your camera and lens. The bigger and heavier the better, a well-made tripod can withstand windy conditions, and that's what we need here because even minimal movement can result in blurry pictures.

Camera Remote / Intervalometer

A stock camera usually allows images of up to 30 seconds, with an intervalometer attached you now add the option to take continuous photos one after another at much longer exposure times. Perfect for the effect of star trails.

Wide Angle Lens

A lens with a focal length of 14mm to 24mm is a good range for star trails. The aim here is to try and capture a landscape image, so we're looking for a more zoomed-out look to get the full star trail effect in the background.

For some quick tips and ideas in landscape photography, Artisan HD have written a quick guide.

As with all types of astrophotography images, look for a lens with an aperture of f/2.8 or less to allow as much light as possible into the sensor of the camera.

If you're looking for an excellent lens recommendation, then one that has served me very well over time has been the Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 lens.

Batteries

Always have a few spare batteries with you when capturing star trails, because you’ll be shooting from 30 minutes to 3 hours.

The last thing you want is having driven out to a remote location and be halfway through a multi-image capture, and your battery dies.

Also, bear in mind that because we're out at night capturing night sky images, it can get really cold out there and cold weather can deplete your batteries a lot quicker than normal.

Memory Card

Try and get the largest storage card you can, because you’ll be taking continuous images over the space of 30 minutes up to 3 or more hours you need a lot of storage for all those pics. 

Add in the fact that is also best to record your images in RAW format over .jpeg, your storage needs will go up even more.

Optional Equipment

Just a quick list of some optional equipment to bring along during your photo shoot.

  • Flashlight
  • Headlamp
  • Warm clothing
  • Gloves 
  • Compass
  • Microfibre cloth (wipe condensation off the lens)

Lens Warmer

Because it can get very cold at night, sometimes you get the unwanted effect of your lens fogging up or getting condensation during a shoot. An easy workaround is to wrap a hand warmer with a rubber band around your lens.

camera-lens-warmer

Camera Settings To Capture Star Trails

Before you start shooting your star trails, here are some fundamental settings you should be adjusting. Here is a quick description for finding the best camera settings for star trail photography.

Aperture / F-Stop: Wide Open or Narrow?

Always start at the lowest possible aperture setting for your lens. For example, if your lens is a Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 lens, then start your aperture at f/2.8 and work your way up from there after a few tests.

The aperture scale seems a little awkward at first, the lower the number more wide open the hole becomes to allow light to the sensor. 

An f/1.4 is a very large hole while f/16 is very a narrow hole. It would seem it should be the other way around, but that’s not the case.

While the aperture setting for milky way astrophotography needs to be spot on, the aperture settings for star trails has a little more tolerance for adjustments. Take some test shots at the lowest setting, and if it seems a bit too bright, then raise up the aperture slightly.

Shutter Speed / Exposure Time

The longer the exposure time is set, the more light the lens can capture during a single image exposure. 

This is especially important for any type of night time photography where there is little natural light, by extending the exposure time you are allowing the sensor to extract much more light, color, and detail from a dark image.

A good working range for multiple images of star trail photography is 30 - 60 seconds per exposure time.

ISO Settings

ISO is like a light magnifying setting. The higher the number, the brighter the image becomes, but it comes at a price.

Too much ISO and you start adding unnecessary noise into the image, so a good range for star trails is 300 - 800 ISO. 

Anything much beyond 800 ISO and you increase the possibility of degrading your image quality due to digitally multiplying the image brightness.

iso-settings

White Balance

When you take an image, depending on your white balance settings, your images will appear either warmer or cooler. A warm image will add more orange to the image while a cool image will seem more blue and have a colder feel to the image.

An excellent white balance setting for star trails (or astrophotography in general) is "tungsten." It adds a crisp cool blue color to the sky. 

While these can all be changed later in Lightroom or Photoshop, it's always recommended getting your foundational settings the way you want them to eliminate unnecessary editing later on.

Bulb Mode

By default, most cameras allow image exposure times of up to 30 seconds. When doing star trail photography or any sort of astrophotography for that matter, you may want the option to have the exposure open for much longer than 30 seconds to capture more image detail and light.

In your camera settings, switch the exposure time to “Bulb” or “B” mode. This allows the shutter to stay open for as long as the shutter button is held down. Still not quite ideal because even the slightest movement of the camera during a long exposure will cause image blurring.

The solution is to use an intervalometer, here you can set how long each exposure image must be, and the camera does the rest. 

You can go inside, make a warm cup of coffee and come back and it'll still have the exposure held open for as long as you set it for without you ever having to press the shutter button on the camera.

RAW Mode

While it takes up quite a bit more space on your memory card, it’s always recommended to capture your images in RAW mode. This allows you to more easily adjust any mistakes you might make during your photo shoot of the star trails.

RAW files save much more of the image data, allowing you to edit more during the processing and also adjust how the image light may change throughout the night.

Note: If you're really short on memory space, you still can shoot in .jpeg, you can make that work. You just have to make sure everything else is spot on as you’ll have less tolerance in your exposure settings.

Inbuilt Noise Reduction Settings

Most cameras have this and while it may be named slightly different for various camera brands when it comes to multiple image captures in succession, we definitely want to turn this off. 

The reason is it adds too much time in between each successive image, causing your star trails to not look like one connected “trail” but look more like sperate star images in the sky.

Also adds the possibility of the noise reduction feature accidentally mistaking a faint star in the sky as “noise” and removing it from the image. Overall, that's not what we want so always best to turn off this feature.

Also, check and turn off the following,

  • Long Exposure Noise Reduction
  • High ISO Noise Reduction

Setting Up The Scene

Composition - Framing Your Image

Use the live view on your camera to get an idea on what your composition will look like. Find interesting objects you can use as your foreground in the image.

There's no right or wrong way to do this, it's all just personal preference on how you want your image to look. If this is your first time capturing star trails, then you can always start at a 50-50 composition. 50% of the image is the foreground image, and 50% of the image is the night sky containing the star trails.

After a few test images, then you can adjust it more or less according to your preference.

Note: Be aware not to set up and aim the camera towards any areas that emit light, like towns, street lights, and buildings. This will cause unwanted light pollution in your image and creates much more work during the editing phase of your photo. 

star-trail-composition

Test Shots

Once you have your composition worked out, then it's always recommended doing some quick and dirty test shots just to get a feel of what the images will look like. 

The last thing you want is to do a 3-hour star trail session, and the realization that your horizon was uneven, your focal object in the foreground is not clear in the image or your initial set up or settings are wrong. This is coming from experience, I've learned the hard way a few more times than I'd like to admit.

  1. Aim your camera in the general composition you think will look good.
  2. Set your ISO really high (4000 or higher)

How do you focus on star trails?

Focusing your lens at the night stars is not quite as easy as autofocusing on an object during the day. Because we're trying to focus on an object deep in space during the night, our cameras just can't autofocus effectively. So here we need to switch to manual focus and do the following to get your stars nice and sharp in the image.

  1. Set your camera lens to manual focus.
  2. Adjust your camera focus as close as you can to the infinity symbol.
  3. Set your shutter speed to 30 seconds.
  4. Set the lowest aperture setting your lens supports.
  5. Then set your ISO to 1600 and take a picture.

Use your camera live view to preview and zoom in to the picture to see a closeup of the stars. 

If the image is too bright, then lower your ISO settings down a little. If it's too dark, then raise your ISO number a little higher till you get a good enough picture to work out the focus.

The image, in general, will look a little ugly but all we're doing here is just a quick test to get the focus right before we progress any further.

With the stars zoomed in, look to see if they are nice and sharp. 

If they do not, then you need to make a slight adjustment to the manual focus and retest your picture until you get them nice and sharp.

Tip: If you zoom in on a star and you see a blue or red hue on the outside of the star, this is called chromatic aberration and means your star is still slightly out of focus. 

Make some minor lens focus adjustments until you have either none or very little blue or red hue surrounding the stars. Then your stars will be in focus and nice and sharp. 

How Long Should Each Photo Be?

To capture star trails, you will need to photograph the stars much longer than you would a typical landscape image during the day. The amount of time you need to set will vary on the technique you use to photograph your star trails.

The 2 Methods To Photograph Star Trails

As I mentioned above, there are 2 main shooting techniques for capturing star trails. Both will give you a good result with a bit of testing. 

If I had to recommend one style, it would have to the short exposures stacked together. The short exposure method is much more forgiving for a nights session of photography.

If something goes wrong with one image of a short multi-exposure session, then you still have 100+ images to use. If something goes wrong with a single exposure, then a whole nights photography shoot is wasted.

1. Short Exposures, Imaged Stacked Together

My much-preferred style of shooting star trails. Capturing the stars this way is by taking multiple shorter images and later “stacking” them over each other on your computer.

Each image captures the star “trailing” just a little bit more with every new short exposure, resulting in the star having a trailing effect across the sky when all the images are overlaid and stack on top of each other with a photo image software (we’ll discuss this later on in the article).

There are quite a few benefits of doing it this way, by taking shorter image exposures, it means you get a lot less noise in the image file. With most cameras, when the exposure (shutter speed) is set for three or more minutes per single image, this dramatically increases the level of noise in the image. 

If you're not sure what “noise” is, the easiest way to describe it is little speckles or artifacts that appear on the image. 

The added bonus to this is you can lower your aperture to allow much more light to the sensor and also raise your ISO sensitivity to bring out more of the star trail brightness.

Quick Starter Settings For Short Exposures (Image Stacking)

Use the below settings as a quick guide. Depending on the weather and light pollution, you will probably have to make some minor adjustments. Usually, the two main changes will be the aperture and ISO settings.

Also, note that if your camera doesn't have an internal timer built in then, you will need an attached to your camera.

  • Set your image composition.
  • Set your lens focus (use the focus tip above).
  • Set aperture to the lowest setting for your lens
  • Set ISO to 800
  • Set exposure time (shutter speed) to 30 seconds.
  • Set camera to “Continuous Shooting” mode (with 1-second intervals)

Once you have done a few small test runs and are happy with the results, then set your camera for 100 images at 30 seconds exposures, with each image having a one-second interval between each image capture.

2. One Very Long Exposure Shoot

This method uses a single image capture, set for a very long exposure. The actual exposure time will vary on your personal preference, I would assume somewhere up to 30 minutes or more. 

While taking a single image is much easier than taking a hundred shorter images or more, it does have its drawbacks. 

The biggest issue with taking very long single exposure is the level of noise in the image. 

This is caused by the sensor being run continuously for an extended period of time, thus it heats up the sensor and causes unwanted noise "random colored speckles" all throughout the image.

Because the image exposure is set for so long, you need to make sure the night sky is during a new moon (this means the new moon cycle has just started and thus you can't see it yet). If there is even a slight amount of moonlight visible, you will need to reduce your exposure time or your image will be washed out from the light. 

That, in turn, will defeat the purpose, because you won't get much of the desired star trail effect in your image.

Quick Starter Settings For Single Long Exposure

Image noise is by far the biggest issue here, to offset the noise factor I would recommend increasing the aperture number (making the aperture hole smaller) and lowering the ISO sensitivity number.

  • Set your image composition.
  • Set your lens focus (use the focus tip above).
  • Set aperture to the lowest setting for your lens
  • Set ISO to 200.
  • Set camera to “Bulb” mode.
  • Set image exposure to 30 minutes (shutter speed)

How many exposures do you need for star trails?

This can vary, but here are some things to consider if you want to know how many exposures you’ll need. 

Take into account your image ratio of land vs sky in the image (composition), if half your photograph is taken up by the night sky and the other half is taken up by foreground (50-50 ratio) then the stars would have to move at least way across the image to get the effect that they are trailing across the whole image.

If the composition is 25% sky and 75% foreground, then the stars only need to cover ¼ of the image, so less exposure and capture time is required.

Lighting Up the Foreground Object

An optional step and something to take into consideration is the technique of lighting up the foreground image in your photos. Because we are photographing during the night, (and if you’ve followed our advice, with very minimal moonlight) most foreground objects will have little to no detail because of the lack of light in the image.

A technique I sometimes use, picks out the main focal object in the foreground, usually something unusual like an old building or tree and light up the object with a flashlight or camera speedlite. 

Bear in mind that you only need a subtle amount of light to bring out the detail in your images, too much light, and it becomes a distraction rather than an addition to your image.

foreground lightpainting

Post-Processing Your Star Trail Images

Now that you have taken your images, the next step is to transfer those images onto your computer and edit them with software.

Don’t worry, you won't need years of photoshop experience to do the next step. It's actually quite easy and anyone can do it.

The process is broken down into two parts, 

  • Part one is to edit and clean your images, so the stars become more prevalent in the image.
  • Part two is getting those images and using software to stack them over one another to merge them into a single image file (the final product).

Editing Star Trail Photography

In this tutorial, we'll be using Lightroom. The editing part of the process can be done with several different programs such as Photoshop or even the free image editing alternative Gimp. 

But I find Lightroom easy and quick for this task, so I’ll be using that in this example. 

Step 1:

Put all your images into a single folder on your computer and then load them up inside of Lightroom.

Step 2:

When it comes to star trail images, I don't have an exact editing setting that I use for each starry night photography session because each night and location will produce slightly different images, brightness, exposures, and noise, but in saying that there are a few general tips I have for working with stars.

  • Temperature - Cooling the white balance a little, brings out the blue in the night sky nicely.
  • Exposure - Boost exposure a little to bring out the stars and detail a little more.
  • Contrast - Add a tiny bit of contrast
  • Clarity - I usually add more clarity to star trails than I do for any other type of photography because the clarity really helps make the stars “pop” in the image.
Lightroom-settings

Step 3:

Once you have edited your image to the point you are happy, a really nice feature in Lightroom is you can now sync all those image adjustments to all the other images you have taken.

Select all your other images from the star trail session you just took and then press the Sync button. This will now apply all those settings to the pictures in the set you have selected.

lightroom-sync

Step 4:

Export all those images into .jpeg format back into a new folder on your computer. You have now edited your images, and now we move on to the "stacking" part of the process.

Stacking Your Star Trails

The final part of the process, and actually the most exciting because here we finally get to see the final result of our work.

This is the process of layering all our images over one another, blending the star trail movements from each image together to give the effect that the stars are moving in the sky with a trailing effect while the foreground objects are stationary.

Stacking Software

The image stacking process can be done with many different imaging software, you can do this with Lightroom, Photoshop, Gimp, or a host of other image software.

 But what we’re using today is a free program called StarStaX which is available for both Windows and Mac. I love using this because it was created primarily for star trail photography and It's quick and straightforward to use.

StarStax

Download and open StarStaX. Follow along with the next few images, and you'll have your final "finished" image in no time.

starstax

Import all the images into StarStax (the ones that you exported out from Lightroom).

Once you import your images into StarStaX, it should look similar to what you see in the image below. From here we could just hit "Start Processing," but there are a few quick settings I want to show you first.

startrax-ready-to-process

Inside the "Preferences" button on the right-hand side, there is a dropdown menu under "Blending Mode." Here you can test what each filter has on your final output image, but we seem to like the "Gap Filling" filter. It fills any gaps between images to make sure you have a continuous star trail in your images.

Comet Mode is another subtle effect, gives the impact of a little tail at the end of your star trails. It adds the visual effect of making the comets seem like they are moving all in one direction.

comet-mode

Lastly, click the "Start Processing" button, and your image will be rendered. You'll be able to see the progress of the image right up till its complete.

processing the image

As far as how long does it take to process? In this example, I added 90 images at 1600 pixels wide, which took 13.08 seconds to complete.

How do I merge star trail images in Photoshop?

While I much prefer using the option above, just for simplicity and speed. I know many prefer the extra control that photoshop gives you.

Here is a quick video on how to accomplish the same stacking effect in photoshop.

Conclusion

Photographing star trails can seem quite intimidating, but with a little planning (and some patience), you can get some spectacular results with minimal camera equipment needed.

We hope after going through our ultimate guide to photographing star trails, you get some amazing results out there in the wild. If you do, we'd love to hear from you and see what results you were able to create!