One of the best parts of being a photographer is stretching the limits of creativity and creating images that transform the ordinary into the extraordinary. Chances are, you’ve seen photographs of “star trails” floating around the internet. Ever wonder how photographers achieve that magical effect?
By learning to use your camera’s settings to the fullest, you can adjust your shutter speed, aperture, and ISO to capture beautiful star trails and this guide will show you exactly how to shoot perfect star trails. Let’s start with required equipment.
For starters, you’ll need the right equipment for the job. There’s more to it than just the camera and lens, although those are two good places to start.
The right camera
You’ll need a camera that allows you to utilize Manual mode to adjust your shutter speed, aperture and ISO independently of one another. Check out our reviews of the 5 best cameras for slow shutter speed photography to get started.
The right lens
While there’s not necessarily a “right or wrong” focal length for star trail photography, many photographers recommend using a wide angle lens to capture as much of the sky as possible. Try a lens between 8-24mm depending on your camera and preferences.
Besides focal length, you’ll also want to look for a lens with wide aperture capabilities (often referred to by photographers as “fast” lenses). The lower the f number, the “faster” the lens. This means that more light that will be allowed to reach your camera’s sensor during the exposure.
This should go without saying, since your camera’s shutter will be open for a minimum of 30 minutes. It’s essential to invest in a sturdy, high-quality tripod for star trail photography. A flimsy tripod will vibrate and create noticeable camera shake – not the look you’re going for.
(Note: good place to link to a future article with tripod reviews.)
Remote shutter release/cable release
Unless you want to physically hold your camera’s shutter button down for over 30 minutes – not recommended! – you’ll need a remote shutter release (also known as a cable release).
Some photographers use an intervalometer, which can be programmed to take a specific amount of images at a shutter speed you choose. Once you’ve set up your composition and exposure, this method is literally as simple as “set it and forget it.” Intervalometers can come with a steep price tag, but make the process much easier in the long run. Whether you use one will depend on your budget and the amount of time you plan to spend photographing star trails – if you’re just a hobbyist, stick with a cable release for now. You can always invest in an Intervalometers later, or rent one from your local camera shop to give it a try.
Photo editing software
The software you use will depend on the technique you use for your star trail photography. We’ll discuss the two main techniques later, as well as the software recommended for each one.
Time & location
A successful photograph of a star trail isn’t as simple as just having the right equipment. You’ll also need to be in the right place at the right time. Luckily, there are several online resources available for just this purpose.
Get away from light pollution
Have you ever noticed how much brighter the stars look when you’re camping versus when you’re in the city? That’s because all the artificial light in the city dilutes the light naturally emitted by the stars. Look for a location as far from artificial light as possible.
This website is a great resource for finding dark areas near your location so you can capture the stars in all their brilliance.
There are two different directions you can go here. Shooting during a new moon (when the moon is completely invisible or just barely visible) will allow the stars to be the brightest source of light in your shot. Think of the moon as ambient light, similar to the lights from the city that you’re trying to avoid.
On the other hand, when it’s done correctly, a moon that’s more visible will lightly illuminate your foreground and add some visual interest to your landscape. If you opt for this method, be sure to shoot with the moon behind you and not in the frame of your shot.
The technique you choose to shoot star trails will dictate which phase of the moon you should aim for (we’ll talk more about the two primary techniques, and which phase of the moon you should look for, later.)
You can use this moon phase calculator to plan for the right time.
One you’ve identified the right location and moon phase for your shot, you’ll want to make sure you’re shooting in clear skies. Too much cloud cover will hide the stars and you’ll end up with cloud trails instead of star trails!
Check out this clear sky chart to make sure you’re in for a clear night. Ideally, aim for a night with 0 – 50% cloud cover. The lower the better.
Camera settings for star trails
The right camera won’t do you any good if you don’t know how to adjust it properly. Take the time to set up your camera properly and you’ll be on your way to taking beautiful pictures of star trails.
Set your camera to manual mode (“M” on most DSLRs).
A wide aperture is ideal for shooting star trails as you want to allow as much light as possible into your sensor. Between f/2.8 – f/5.6 is recommended by most professional photographers.
Matrix metering (for Nikons) or evaluative metering (for Canons) is ideal for star trail photography.
The ISO you choose will depend on the amount of ambient light around you. If you’re shooting while the moon is fairly bright, try starting out with a lower ISO between 100-300. If you’re shooting on a new moon, you might need to bump it up to 800 or higher.
Some cameras handle high ISO better than others. The higher the ISO, the more noise will be present in your image. That’s why it’s important to start with a low ISO and slowly adjust to a higher ISO if needed – you want to choose the lowest ISO possible while still maintaining proper exposure.
Properly focusing your lens
It’s essential to nail your focus when you’re photographing star trails. You don’t want to get your image into post-production after several hours of shooting just to find out that the stars or foreground are soft and out-of-focus.
Most lenses have a symbol marked “∞” which is about where you’ll want to set your focus. This is referred to as photographers by “focusing to infinity.” Set your camera to manual focus and get close to the ∞ mark, adjusting slightly until the stars are as sharp as possible.
How to photograph star trails
Now that we’ve gotten the planning out of the way, it’s time to dive into the real “how-to” of how to photograph star trails. There are two popular methods used by photographers: multiple stacked exposures or one ultra-long exposure. We’ll look at both methods in the next few paragraphs, as well as discussing the pros and cons of each.
Multiple stacked exposures
Many photographers prefer the “stacking” method as it allows you to work with a lower ISO and therefore reduce the amount of noise in your image. In this method, you take multiple exposures over a pre-selected period of time. This is the preferred method for most photographers – we’ll discuss why in the coming paragraphs.
Using an intervalometer
If you choose this method, you’ll quickly see why an intervalometer can come in handy, as you can set your camera to shoot continuously until you’re finished. Some cameras also come with an internal timer option; consult your camera’s manual to learn more.
However, it’s not absolutely essential to have an intervalometer even if you’re using the stacked exposures method. You can choose to manually release the shutter, which we’ll discuss next.
Manually releasing the shutter
If you’re not using an intervalometer or a timer, you’ll need to stay near your camera to press the cable release button for each exposure. For example, you might opt to shoot 100 exposures of 30 seconds each (which will give you plenty of images to work with). After each 30 second exposure, you’ll need to press the cable release button again to create the next exposure, waiting 1 second between each exposure.
Important: You’ll need a cable release even if you choose to manually release the shutter, as pressing the shutter button on your camera will cause camera shake.
If your camera has an in-camera noise reduction feature, you’ll want to be sure it’s turned off if you’re using this method. While you might think this feature would be helpful for shooting star trails, it can actually do more harm than good. The time it takes your camera to process the noise reduction after each exposure can result in gaps in the star trails. Most professionals recommend leaving this setting off, unless you plan to use one long exposure (as discussed below).
Now that you’ve got anywhere between 50 and several hundred images, depending on the length of each exposure and how much time you invested into your project, you’ll need to stack them together to create a cohesive image.
There are myriad ways to do this effectively. Some photographers prefer to do it manually by importing their images into Adobe Bridge and then stacking them in Photoshop. This is the most time-consuming method, but it allows the most control over your final result.
However, there’s a much simpler and less time-consuming method, and all but the most discerning (read: picky) professional astrophotographer will find the final image to be more than suitable. StarStaX is a free and easy-to-use software that makes stacking your photos a breeze. Oh, and… it’s free. Did I mention it’s free?
Once you’ve used StarStaX to stack your photos, you can import the file into Photoshop or your preferred post-processing software to tweak and make final adjustments, like brightening or adding contrast.
Pros of the multiple exposure method
- Lower ISOs mean better image quality
- More control over your final image
- Your sensor won’t overheat – a common problem with extremely long exposures
Cons of the multiple exposure method
- If you don’t have an intervalometer or timer, it can be quite tedious to press the shutter button over and over for 30 minutes or more
- Post-processing will be needed to create the final image
One long exposure
It is possible to set your camera’s shutter speed to an extremely long exposure to capture star trails in one image. This method is easier in the sense that it won’t require you to press the shutter button repeatedly or buy special equipment like an intervalometer or a timer. However, it’s worth noting that the heat coming off of the camera’s sensor during extremely long exposures can cause hot spots on the finished photograph.
Star Trail Shooting Equipment
You won’t need a fancy timer or intervalometer here – a simple cable release will do just fine. Make sure it has the option to “lock” down the shutter so you don’t have to keep your hand on the button.
First things first, you’ll want to take a few test shots to make sure your exposure and composition are just right. Otherwise you’ll leave your camera’s shutter open for 30 minutes (or more), just to find that the image isn’t what you had envisioned. Start out with a few 30 second exposures and adjust accordingly before you go in for the final shot.
Once you’ve got the exposure and composition down, set your camera to Bulb mode (“B” or “bulb” in most cameras). Most cameras have a maximum shutter speed of 30 seconds unless you select bulb mode, which allows you to keep the shutter open for as long as you choose.
Plug in your cable release, hit the shutter release, and set it to lock. You can leave it locked for as long as you want, depending on the length of the star trail you want. Obviously, the longer the shutter is open, the longer the star trails. Start out by trying a shutter speed of 5-6 minutes and check your viewfinder. For long, extravagant star trails, it’s not uncommon for a photographer to use an exposure time of over an hour.
Unlike the previous method, you’ll want to use your camera’s built-in noise reduction feature if it has one. Since you’re only shooting one exposure, it will only have to apply noise reduction once (as opposed to after every single exposure).
This method is best done on a new moon, as the ambient light from the moon will detract from the brightness of the stars. If you know you’ll be using one long exposure, be sure to plan for a shoot as close to a new moon as possible. You want as much darkness as possible.
Unlike the stacked exposure method, you won’t need any special software to process a single long exposure. Photoshop or your post-processing software of choice is all you’ll need to tweak contrast and brightness.
Pros of the single long exposure method
- No need for an intervalometer or timer
- No need for post-processing
- Easier to “set it and forget it”
Cons of the single long exposure method
- Your camera’s sensor can overheat, leading to hot spots in your final image
- Typically requires a higher ISO which can degrade image quality
- Less control over the final image
As with all things photography, trial and error is the only way to nail the perfect star trail photos. Experimenting with your camera’s settings and exposure times will allow you to capture star trails you’ll be proud to add to your portfolio.
Ready to get started? Learn all about shutter speed and stop by our in-depth review of our 5 favorite cameras for long exposures so you can shoot perfect star trail. Have you managed to shoot a perfect star trail? Let me know in the comments by sharing your picture.