Learn star trails photography camera settings and photo editing, in this step-by-step, easy to understand tutorial, for all skill levels.
|Learn How to Photograph & Edit This Photo, Below|
Table of Contents
Click on the section of your choice or scroll down & read the entire guide.
Camera Equipment for 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 sturdy tripod is very important for star trail photography.
Cheap tripods usually shake and vibrate easily, making your pictures blurry.
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.
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.
How to Plan Your Shoot – Moon Phase & Dark Skies
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
(These Steps are shown in the Video Below)
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 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
(These Steps are shown in the Video Below)
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.
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.
How to Focus Your Lens at Night
Prior to correctly focusing your lens, it will be impossible to effectively perform any type of night photography.
I would highly recommend reading my Complete Sharp Focus Guide as supplemental information to this guide.
Basic Concepts to Apply While Learning the Section Below:
- Since the stars are very far away with respect to where we stand on Earth, focusing at or near infinity (∞) will provide perfectly sharp photos of the stars, Milky Way & night sky.
- Most lenses have an “∞” symbol on them which is used to mark the approximate infinity focus point. Just because you focus your lens to this infinity symbol doesn’t mean it will take a perfectly sharp photo. This proves true for all types of photography.
- Most lenses need to be adjusted slightly more to ensure sharp focus, but “∞” is a great place to start.
Preset Your Focus Point During the Day
It’s much easier to focus during the day than at night, for you and your camera’s autofocus software.
Step 1: Set up your camera during the day with the lens you will be using to take your night / low light photos. You can do this at your house, or anywhere else that’s easy, it doesn’t have to be at the location where you plan on taking your night photos.
You’ll want to open the lens to the widest focal length possible. For example, this would be 14mm on a 14-24mm lens.
Step 2: Adjust your lens to focus at infinity, or at a far away horizon. I always like to use my camera’s Live View Mode, zoomed in, and focus on the furthest horizon in my composition.
This will ensure that you’ve focused at infinity. You can also focus by looking through your camera’s view finder. This works very well too.
Step 3: Manually make the final adjustments if / as required using the focus ring. I find that Auto Focus usually does very well during the day, but sometimes needs manual input to nail down the final focus in low light.
Step 4: Take some more practice shots at an aperture of f/8 – f/11 and make sure the entire photo is in focus. If it isn’t focused, repeat Step 2 and Step 3, until it is. This is your infinity focus point.
Step 5: Using a permanent marker ( silver sharpie is easy to see at night ), mark both the focus ring, and the barrel of the lens (non-rotating part of lens). Tape works as well, but may fall off over time.
Step 6: You found your infinity focal point for a given focal length. Remember! If you change your focal length your focal point will change as well. I shoot all my night sky photos at 14mm to make things easy:)
Camera Settings for 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 & Lens Setup
Shooting Mode: Manual Mode – This mode allows you to independently and manually adjust the ISO, Aperture / F-Stop , and Exposure time by hand.
Image Format: RAW Image Format
Metering Mode: I find Center-Weighted Average on my Nikon D810 to work the best for star trails photography. 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.
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.
In Camera Noise Reduction Settings: The following settings only apply to JPEG files. Since we always shoot in RAW, turn all of them off.
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 Off
Aperture / F-Stop: 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.
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 Settings: 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.
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.
How to Calculate the Exposure Time
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. To prevent this, Method 1 is used.
Selecting the Number of Exposures
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.
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.
Calculating the Elapsed Shooting Time
Option 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.
Option 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.
Option 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 for 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:)
Photo Editing Video for 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.