Learn star trails photography and photo editing in this step-by-step, easy to understand tutorial for all skill levels.
Jump to any section on this page by clicking the following steps or scroll down to read the entire tutorial:
Step 3: Learn to Focus at Night
Step 7: FREE Star Photography eBook
|Learn How to Edit this Exact Photo, Below|
Camera Equipment – Star Trails Photography
Provided below are the minimum requirements to start taking star trail photos. View the brands and equipment I use and recommend on the Night Sky Photography Camera and Lens Recommendations & What’s In My Camera Bag pages.
Tripod – A well made and steady tripod is very important for star trail photography. Cheap tripods usually shake and vibrate easily, making your pictures blurry. I currently use and recommend Really Right Stuff tripods, ball heads and L-brackets.
Camera with Manual Mode Functionality – “M” or manual camera mode means you can manually, and independently adjust the Aperture, ISO, and Exposure settings on the camera.
Camera Timer / Intervalometer: A timer is essential for star trail photography. In short a camera timer / intervalometer allows you to take multiple, long exposure photos, one after another. Most cameras only allow a 30 second maximum exposure time. Star trails photography will require exposure times much longer than 30 seconds. Click Here & Type “Camera Timer” and your camera model into the search bar.
Fully Charged Batteries: Three to five fully charged batteries. You will be shooting over a time ranging from 30 minutes to 3 hours.
Wide Angle Lens ( Optional ): Star trail photography is much more forgiving than Milky Way photography. A “fast” ( number under the “f” is small ) lens is still recommended. The smaller the number under the “f”, the wider the aperture in your lens will open, allowing the most light to propagate through it in the least amount of time. In turn more light will hit your camera’s sensor, providing a higher quality image at night.
- For full frame cameras I recommend wide angle lenses between 14-24mm and f/4 minimum aperture.
- For crop sensor cameras I recommend wide angle lenses between 8-20mm and f/4 minimum aperture.
Table of Contents ( Next Section Below )
Planning Your Shoot – Star Trails Photography
Free Video Tutorials Included
Follow these quick and easy steps to start taking star trails pictures. For more detail on each section / topic reference the Scouting & Planning for Star, Milky Way, and Night Sky Photography Tutorial & Video Series.
Moon Phase & Dark, Clear Skies
Step 1 – Calculate the Moon Phase: Shooting under a 25% to full moon is ideal for star trails photography. This allows the moon to light the entire landscape which provides added foreground detail to your images. Shoot in the opposite direction of the moon, allowing your stars to be the brightest light in the sky. Use Star Date’s Moon Calculator for precise results.
Step 2 – Find Dark Skies: Blue Marble Light Pollution Map – 2014 Edition is a great website for finding dark sky locations near you. Areas that are black are ideal for photographing the night sky, were white areas are light polluted and should be avoided.
Step 3 – Find Clear Skies & Predict the Weather: You will want to shoot with cloud cover percentages of 0 – 50% maximum for star trails photography. In video 1 below I teach this technique and provide more insight.
Learn The Photographer’s Ephemeris & Google Earth
Step 4 – Learn The Photographers Ephemeris ( TPE ): TPE is a great tool / app for planning moonset and moonrise times and locations for star trails photography. Learn how to use it in the video below. Get TPE For: Desktop | iPhone | Android
Step 5 – Learn to Use Google Earth / Maps: Google Earth / Maps is the best way to plan your shooting location, prior to arrival. Learn my exact techniques for photography planning with Google Earth in the video below. Get Google Earth For: Desktop | iPhone | Android
Focusing Your Lens – Star Trails & Night Photography
You can use the same focusing methods for all kinds of night photography. I provide the best focusing techniques for night photography in my Milky Way Photography Tutorial linked below.
Click & Learn to Focus at Night
Table of Contents ( Next Section Below )
Camera Settings – Star Trails Photography
To be clear and concise on the camera settings for Star Trails Photography, I’ve provided a quick reference overview list below. In the sections that follow I’ll explain the most important settings in more detail.
Here are the best camera settings for star trail photography:
Camera Mode: Manual Mode – This mode allows you to independently and manually adjust the ISO, Aperture, and Exposure time by hand.
Image Format: RAW Image Format
Metering Mode: I find Matrix Metering on my Nikon D800 to work the best for star trails photography. This is Evaluative Metering for Cannon. Test your settings to find the best fit.
White / Color Balance: Kelvin Values between 4000K-5500K work well for night photography. You’ll want the color balance seen on the back of your camera ( image review ) to be as close as possible to what you see in front of you ( the landscape / night sky ). A neutral color balance such as this captures the best data for photo editing. You can adjust the color balance to anything you want, while editing star trails photos, as taught below.
Aperture: Aperture settings of f/2.8 – f/5.6 work well. The aperture setting is not as important in star trail photos as in Milky Way photos. You can experiment to see what works best. I prefer to shoot at f/2.8-f/4 for star trail shots.
Focal Length: For star trails any focal length will work. The larger the focal length (zooming in with your lens), the longer your star trails will appear over a shorter amount of time ( Reference – Selecting Exposure Time for Milky Way Photography ).
If you don’t want to wait around all night to capture a star trail scene, a zoom lens will be your best choice. If you’re interested in capturing a full, wide angle star trail scene showing a long star trail transition across the sky, a few hours will be required.
The best way to see this in physical form is to go out and try some test shots in the field. This will show you how different lenses or focal lengths exhibit different star trail lengths over a given period of time. Another good reference is the 500 Rule Chart & 500 Rule Equation which will show the direct correlation between star trails and focal length in a mathematical manner.
Full Frame Camera: 30 – 60 seconds works well to capture star trails per Method 1 as described below. The longer the exposure the more “far away light” your camera will capture.
A longer exposure picks up more light at a greater distance from our planet. In turn you will see stars that you wouldn’t have with a shorter exposure time.
On the other hand, light sources closer to our planet will appear even brighter at longer exposure times. This applies for any type of night photography. Using a longer exposure will allow you to keep your ISO low, reducing noise, and providing a higher quality image.
Crop Sensor Camera: 30 – 120 seconds works well when shooting per the instructions provided in Method 1 below. Since crop sensor cameras don’t handle high ISO as well as full frame cameras, the exposure time may need to be increased. Don’t be afraid to try out 120 second exposures and see how they work using a lower ISO and in turn providing higher overall image quality.
Reference the Exposure Time Settings Section below for complete details.
ISO / Film Speed: ISO settings for star trails photography depend on how much ambient light ( moon / light pollution ) is present in the scene you are shooting.
It works well to shoot star trails when the Moon is visible in the sky. Make sure to shoot in the opposite direction of the Moon. The Moon light allows you to capture well exposed star trail shots while keeping your ISO fairly low. Try starting at ISO 300, increasing as required to approximately ISO 800. Increase your ISO until your image is correctly exposed.
Night Photography Tip: If your shot isn’t bright enough, and you can still increase your exposure time, always do this instead of increasing your ISO too far beyond 800.
ISO is the worst case method of increasing the brightness of your star trail shots since it is the only setting that degrades image quality. For those of you shooting with a crop sensor, it’s best practice to stay within the range of ISO 160-500.
Trying higher ISO values such as 800 will never hurt. It’s all about getting a nice exposure, without much noise.
In Camera Noise Reduction Settings: Reference my Simple & Powerful Noise Reduction for Star, Milky Way & Night Sky Photography Tutorial for complete details on why I choose each of the following settings:
- Long Exposure Noise Reduction Setting – Set to Off
- High ISO Noise Reduction Setting – Set to Normal
Table of Contents ( Next Section Below )
Exposure Time Settings – Star Trails Photography
I highly recommend Method 1 for the best quality of star trail photos. Method 2 can also be used but degrades the photo quality as described below. The following section discusses both Method 1 and Method 2, but goes into much more detail for Method 1 since it is preferred and recommended.
Method 1 – Stacking Star Trails Photos
The preferred method for capturing star trail photos involves using multiple exposures, each capturing small star trails over an elapsed period of time. The star trail camera settings for each of these overlaid exposures is exactly the same. The only thing that changes is the position of the stars relative to the Earth.
Next, each of these night photography images can be batch processed in Adobe Lightroom or Adobe Camera RAW then imported into Photoshop and processed as described in the Star Trails Post Processing section below.
Why is Stacking Star Trails Images the Best Option?
Using multiple exposures will allow you to keep your exposure time and ISO fairly low, in turn reducing noise. Almost all cameras, when pushed to take very long exposures ( 3+ minutes ) start to exhibit what is known as long exposure noise.
Many cameras have a Long Exposure Noise Reduction setting ( L.E.N.R ) on them which works well, but not quite as well as using the Multiple Exposure Method 1. The L.E.N.R settings are discussed in more detail in the Method 2 Section directly below.
Selecting the Number of Exposures – Star Trail Photography
All of the topics covered in the following section are used for shooting with the Method 1 ( Preferred ): Multiple Exposures skill set since it achieves the best quality photo.
Since your location on Earth, your lens and camera model, composition, and the desired effect ( long or short trails ) will directly effect the number of exposures required, it is impossible to provide a chart showing the exact settings as was done with the 500 Rule for Milky Way Photography.
The only real way to perfect this skill set is going out and taking practice shots until you get the desired results. The number of exposures required for star trails directly correlates to the percentage of the composition that is taken up by the night sky.
Night Photography Tips: For example, if your composition is half sky and half foreground, then your stars would have to move across half of your photo to produce star trails across the entire sky.
If your composition is only ¼ night sky, and ¾ foreground, then the stars only have to move across ¼ of your photo. In turn this requires less elapsed shooting time and a smaller number of exposures.
Calculate Shooting Time – Star Trail Photography
Method 1: PhotoPills provides a nice tool within their application that will allow you to calculate the elapsed shooting time required to capture star trails for a given composition.
Method 2: Another option is to set your camera up using a timer and let it run for 3-4 hours. No matter your composition, this method will capture enough single exposures to produce some nice star trails. Most likely you will have more photos than required. These can be discarded later on.
Method 3: Trial and Error – After taking multiple star trail images with different lenses and compositions you’ll start to get a good idea of what works and what doesn’t. This proves to be the best overall method for perfecting star trail photography. This is the method I use most often.
Camera Timer Settings – Star Trails Photography
I highly suggest using a camera timer or intervalometer. Otherwise you will be pushing the shutter button again and again for hours. Some cameras have an interval timer mode built into them, this works as well.
After calculating the elapsed shooting time per the steps above, adjust your camera timer to mimic these settings. Input the following settings into your camera timer / intervalometer.
Star Trail Exposure Time: The length of each exposure. For example, you may choose an exposure time of 36 seconds.
Time Between Each Exposure: I would suggest using 1 second between each photo. For example, if the time between exposures was 1 second, your camera will take a photo, wait 1 second, then take the next photo. This will continue until your elapsed shooting time ( described below ) has ended.
Elapsed Shooting Time / Total Number of Exposures: The total length of time that your camera will be taking photos or the total number of photos you would like your camera to take. Since these are dependent on one another and the time between each exposure, only one needs to be input into your camera timer. For example, you may want to take 100 exposures at 30 seconds each, with 1 second between each shot.
Reference the Photo Editing – Lightroom & Photoshop Tutorials Section below for complete details on how to edit / blend these images together.
Method 2 – Single Exposure ( Second Best Option )
Another method to photograph star trails is a single long exposure, captured over a few minutes of elapsed time. In most cases single exposure star trails won’t be able to transverse the entire composition of the photo. Instead, these star trails will resemble long streaks of light in the sky.
Follow these steps to try this method:
- You will need to turn on your camera’s Long Exposure Noise Reduction setting. Find this setting by looking in your camera instruction manual or online. Not all cameras have this setting, but nearly all full frame cameras do.
- After doing so, focus your lens per the steps in the Focusing Your Lens at Night Section.
- Next, select your composition and try an exposure time of 3-4 minutes with an ISO of 600-800 and take a picture.
- If your picture is too dark, increase the exposure time. If your trails aren’t long enough, increase the exposure time. This is all personal preference.
- Increase and decrease the ISO as required if there is too much noise in the photo.
Method 2 is all about trial and error, finding which settings work best and which don’t. Eventually you will start to see photos you like! That being said, USE METHOD 1 if at all possible:)
Table of Contents ( Next Section Below )
Photo Editing – Star Trails Photography
Lightroom & Photoshop Video Tutorials
Now that you learned how to take star trails photos, it’s time to post process / edit your pictures.
I’ve created a free video tutorial showing you the quick and easy steps for creating star trails in Lightroom and Photoshop using Method 1 as described above.
Start to Finish Photo Editing Video Tutorial
Watch Me Edit the Photo Below, From Start to Finish
|Nikon D800, 14mm, f/2.8, ISO600 @ 60 Seconds X 45 Shots|
- Session 3: Live Photo Editing Session ( Featuring Picture Above )
- Session 1: Live Photo Editing Session ( Mount Fitz Roy Image from Patagonia )
- Session 2: Live Photo Editing Session ( The Oregon Coast Under Moon Light )
Photograph the Night Sky eBook
My 170 page eBook, Photograph the Night Sky, teaches every skill, technique and workflow for Milky Way, Northern Lights, Moon, Star Trail and Night Sky Photography.
PDF format makes this eBook easy to take on your next shoot ( smart phone / tablet compatible ), and the step-by-step instructions guarantee great photos!
Get the first 70 pages of Photograph the Night Sky for free. You can also purchase the complete copy for 10$ from inside the free sample copy:)
Table of Contents