How to Photograph Star Trails

I generally don’t plan to shoot star trails ahead of time, but when we happen to be camping in a spot that is far away from city lights and the sky is clear and moonless, I  scout out potential locations.

I look for areas that will provide a sense of place and that have a nice foreground to make the photograph more appealing.

At the Carson River Hot Springs.
At the Carson River Hot Springs.  Cool star trails, but not the most exciting image.

To photograph star trails, you will need:

  • A tripod – this is a necessity to stabilize the camera during long exposures.
  • A cable release – this allows the camera to do its thing and I can leave it and join my friends for a beer.
  • A fully charged battery – the battery life can go quickly when it’s cold outside.  I always have a second one on hand too, just in case.

When the sun starts to go down I head over to the location I previously picked out and set up my camera and tripod and compose the shot.  Before it gets dark I manually focus the image and take a few shots metering for the foreground.  (Manually focusing now is important, you don’t want the camera to try to auto focus after it gets dark.)

I often layer one of these foreground shots with the final star trail image so the foreground has detail.  The camera does NOT move after taking these shots, as they need to line up exactly.

I also make sure my long exposure noise reduction is turned OFF and that the image review is turned OFF so the LCD screen stays dark while shooting.

At this point, I carefully change the settings on my camera to prepare for the star trail shots.  I set the ISO somewhere between 800 and 1600, I set my aperture to f/5.6 (or sometimes f/8 if there’s going to be light as in the headlamp and camper images).  I set my shutter speed to 30 seconds and make sure my camera is set up for continuous shooting.  Then I walk away until it’s really dark.

When the time comes to start shooting again, all I have to do to is take my first shot with my cable release and put it into the locked position. I stay for the first few exposures to make sure I’ve done everything properly.  (It’s a good idea to review those initial images to make sure you can see stars, if not, your aperture may need to be opened up, say to f/4, or your ISO might need to be bumped up.)

I let the camera shoot for up to two hours.  With digital cameras, we can’t do one single long exposure for star trails as we could with film.  The sensors can overheat and result in weird colors and flare on the image.

Finally, take one final image with the lens cap on.  This shot is used in post production to reduce noise.

First attempt at startrails
My very first attempt at star trails. I love the idea of this image but it wasn’t executed quite right. There’s uneven banding in the sky where I lightened it to work with the landscape and I accidentally focused on the tree closest to me.
Moab Startrails
This was taken in Moab, Utah on the patio of a condo we were renting. It was outside of town so there wasn’t much light pollution, you never know where an opportunity for night photography might come up.

Now that I have a memory card full of images of a black sky, I load them onto the hard drive and open up a star trail stacking software.  I use Startrails (downloaded for free at www.startrails.de).

Once the program is open, you simply load all of your night sky images, including the dark frame.  Then sit back and watch the star trails form.  If there happens to be some frames with a wayward headlamp, maybe while fumbling around with the camera, simply uncheck those files and rebuild the star trail image.  It’s really easy to use!

I always open up the final star trail image in Photoshop and try combining some of those foreground shots I took with a layer mask to really fine tune the image.

It may seem like there are a lot of steps involved in photographing star trails, but once you get the hang of it, it’s quite easy and the challenge then becomes finding the perfect nighttime landscape to make even more compelling photographs.

And, as always, if you have any questions, tips, or other software suggestions for stacking star images, I’d love to hear from you.

Star trails at our campsite
This is one of my favorite shots taken while camping at the Carson River Hot Springs. I used my friends at the campfire as my focal point for the image knowing there would be a lot of movement and extra light, but I love how it came out.
Star Trails at Highland Lakes, California
My most recent star trail photograph from Highland Lakes. I finally feel like I have a handle on the star trail part so I am looking out for elements to make more exciting night shots like this one.

Here are two shots I took in 2014, after this post was originally published.  Practicing really does make a difference, am I right?

Star Trails near Sonora Pass, California

Star Trails at Snag Lake, California

Related Posts: Photographing Fireworks

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