Tips for photographing star trails at night
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Tips for Photographing Star Trails

Photography is a fantastic tool to explore the world around you, especially in ways normally invisible to our eyes. Landscapes at night often reveal untold treasures in the sky, and the stars can be made to swirl around like a dream. The process for photographing the movement of the stars isn’t nearly as difficult as it once was; star trails can be easily captured by any camera with a wired shutter release cable!

Enjoy these tips for photographing star trails at night! 

Star trail open

Composition comes first

There are a few things to consider when making a star trail image; the first is composition. As with any good landscape photograph, you should be able to visually navigate through the image. A foreground element is very helpful, and having water in the scene is a bonus – the stars can reflect off the surface of the water. The image shouldn’t only be about the stars, but how they interact with the landscape.

You should try to shoot with the widest lens you have. This offers more stars to fill the night sky, and also a greater potential to have the North Star somewhere in the frame. Most of my star trail images are photographed with a fisheye lens, because of the 180 degree field of view. The wider the field of view, the more star trails your image can contain.

As the Earth spins around its axis, the North Star is the only star that doesn’t move (much). All of the other stars appear to spinning around this central location, which can add a visual anchor point in your composition. If you’re not familiar with the exact position of the North Star, simply set your camera to bulb mode and take an extra-long exposure in the neighbourhood of 4-5 minutes. This should give enough of a “spin” so the stars to help you pinpoint the center of the celestial circle.

Camera settings

The goal for your final image however, requires a different exposure. Start with the following, set on manual mode:

  • Shutter speed: 30 seconds
  • Aperture: F/3.5
  • ISO: 3200

Take a test shot and see what you get. If the exposure is too bright, decrease the ISO or choose a smaller aperture (higher F-number). If the image is too dark, try increasing the ISO to compensate. Always leave the shutter speed at 30 seconds. When you get an exposure that looks good on the back of your camera, you’re set. Just make sure the camera is set to continuous shooting mode with long-exposure noise reduction turned OFF.

Also be sure to set the camera or lens to manual focus. The focus can’t shift from one image to the next, so dial it in manually. I find that focusing on distant light sources using Live View allows for the best depth of field while still keeping the stars sharp. Foreground objects may appear blurry, so going the “extra mile” would be to focus on the foreground and focus-stack the landscape.

With a wired remote shutter release, press and lock the shutter control. When one exposure ends, the next one will automatically begin. Let the camera continue this way for roughly an hour, and stop it whenever you’re ready to leave. If you left the camera for one hour, it should have recorded 120 separate 30-second exposures. These images can then be combined very easily in Photoshop.

Forgot your remote shutter release, or haven’t purchased one yet? I’ve found myself ready to make a star trail image and digging around in my camera bag offered me no cable release – it was somewhere at home, far far away. In a rare moment of creativity, I grabbed some tape (always keep some Gaffer’s tape in your camera bag!) and a small pebble from the ground. Simply taping the pebble over the camera’s shutter button with enough force to fully depress the shutter, the camera happily clicked away until the tape was removed. The below image was created this this “rock and tape” trick.

Rock tape trick

Post-processing workflow

Combining 120 images may seem like a daunting task, but the process is fairly straightforward – start by editing one image. In Adobe Lightroom, edit your image to your liking. Common adjustments would usually include shadows and whites, white balance, clarity, and noise reduction.

Single frame

Make this one frame as perfect as you can make it, and copy the development settings. Right-click on the image in Lightroom and choose “Settings > Copy Settings” and make sure all of the settings you’ve adjusted are selected.

You’ll need to paste these settings across the entire range of images. To do this, select all of the images you want to use in the filmstrip, and right-click on any of the selected thumbnails in the filmstrip. Now, choose “Develop Settings > Paste Settings” and your adjustments will appear on all of your images.

Alternate method to paste settings

There are a few ways inside Lightroom to copy and paste develop settings. Another way, which is particularly helpful when sharing settings over many images, is to use the “sync” feature. To do a Sync make sure the image you’ve worked on it selected in the filmstrip and visible on screen. Do a “select all” by holding “command+a” on a Mac or control+a on PC. That will select all the images in the folder. Next click the “sync” button in the lower right of the develop side panel. Choose all the settings you adjusted (as above) and click “synchronize”.

Putting them all together in Photoshop

You now need to send all of the images over to Photoshop in a single layer. With all of the frames still selected, right-click on any image and choose “Edit In > Open as Layers in Photoshop” and wait. This will take some time as Photoshop loads each frame into the same workspace as layers.

When all of the layers are finished loading, the next step is simple for users of Photoshop CS6 and beyond. Simply select all of the layers in the layers panel, and switch the blending mode from “normal” to “lighten”. Voila! The path of the stars through the sky will be revealed. This blending mode works by comparing pixels of all layers and displaying the brightest pixel. If the landscape remains static, there won’t be any change there, avoiding the additive effects of light pollution. The stars are moving, and as their position in the image changes the new location will contain brighter pixels.

Stacked frames

For users of Photoshop CS5 or previous, this can still be done but it will take some time. You cannot select multiple layers and change the blending mode on them all at once, it must be done one at a time.

When you’re done, flatten the image and save it. Continue to edit as you see fit, but the star trail is complete!

An alternative to Photoshop

Another option if you do not use Lightroom or Photoshop is to use a free program call StarStaX. It’s easy to use, just drop your images in and it does all the magic for you, AND even fills in the tiny gaps between each of the exposures.

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Don Komarechka is a Canadian nature & landscape photographer. His work revolves around unique perspectives and unseen subjects. Don has recently published a book on snowflakes and macro photography and his work can be seen on his website or on Google+.

  • http://www.gothick.org.uk Matt Gibson

    Great article, thanks! I’ve been meaning to try some star trails for a while, and this should get me started nicely.

    Quick question: “with long-exposure noise reduction turned OFF.” <– Why turn this off? It's kind of the opposite of what you'd expect to do for a long exposure. Does the noise reduction think the stars are noise, or something? Just curious!

  • http://yngvethoresen.com Yngve Thoresen

    I would think this is because the noise reduction takes time, even longer than the shutter sped used, leading to blanks in the trails?

    I have a Nikon D80, so using ISO 3200 is not an option for me. Yes, I want a new camera. :)

  • Don Komarechka

    Thanks for enjoying the article Matt! Long Exposure Noise Reduction
    actually makes two exposures, each as long as the exposure length set in
    the camera (in this case, 30 seconds). The second 30 seconds are
    captured with the shutter closed, giving a black image that shows only
    the noise. This is used to cancel out the noise from the final image.

    This works against you when trying to create a star trail by only capturing
    half of the needed images – you’ll have spaces in between. Blending
    multiple frames together using the Lighten blending mode actually works
    well to reduce noise on it’s own, so this kind of noise reduction isn’t
    required.

    However, if you’re keen to take it to the next level,
    you can always shoot your own “dark frame” at the end of the complete
    sequence and add that in manually. Put it at the top of the stack and
    set it’s blending mode to “difference”. :)

  • Don Komarechka

    You got it about the LE NR, Yngve! Blank spots in the trails are not desirable. Read the above comment for a more lengthy description. :)

    As for the ISO on your D80, you can try with ISO 1600, but you’ll need to make up a stop in either post-processing or shooting with a wider aperture.

    Depth of field is affected by the focal length and field of view of the lens. Many of my star trails are photographed with a fisheye lens, which even wide open at F/2.8 has a decent depth of field. F/2.8 and ISO 1600 should give you some useful results!

  • Dan Nelson

    A quick question. If you can handle the extra space, should I shoot in RAW mode?

  • Don Komarechka

    Sure Dan! All of my star trails are shot in RAW. It’ll take more time in post-processing, but you should have a little bit more flexibility in exposure adjustments, noise control and white balance. Go for it!

  • Jeff E Jensen

    Great article and pointers! I love shooting stars (sorry, bad pun). I got out a few times this summer, but it is never enough. Here’s a couple of images from back in July:

    http://jeffejensen.blogspot.com/2013/07/sun-tunnels-and-star-trails.html

  • David

    Hi. great article! I love taking star trails but be aware of the long, late and potentially lonely nights needed to do them in the right location. A supportive partner helps too!

    You can shoot in bulb for the length of time required but some cameras may build up heat and affect the image quality. A couple of points that I learnt along the way…

    – use your compass on your smart phone for south in the southern hemisphere as there isn’t a bright star for the south pole,

    – the foreground is key for a quality shot,

    – if you get airline trails – just find the frame and erase the line (unless you want it in)

    – small amounts of cloud can add to the picture

    – if close to a city, point the shot away from the city lights as much as possible

    – have the first shot exposed for the foreground and then the rest at a higher ISO. I tend to use ISO320 for the star shots. Alternatively, you can use graduated filters upside down to reduce the foreground exposure.

    – moving foreground objects can add or detract from your shot. choose your location, foreground elements or make them a feature (plane trail, car/boat lights, gently moving boats in the harbour etc)

    I have a set of star trails at
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/davidmarriottsydney/sets/72157636635320805/

    Enjoy!

  • Hendry

    you should do diving in Bali to get great underwater pictures :D

  • Karen Quist

    I love your images, Dan – they are absolutely mesmerising. Great article, too. I am surprised at how long and complex the process is. I didn’t realise how much was done in Photoshop. I have neither the patience nor technical competency for this right now, so I’ll just admire and observe. Thanks for posting :-)

  • Karen Quist

    Nice pics, Jeff.

  • Peely

    My biggest concern is lens fogging, from condensation. How do you avoid it? Or is dew not an issue where you shoot?

  • http://www.gothick.org.uk Matt Gibson

    Thanks both! I’d forgotten how the long exposure noise reduction feature worked, even though I’ve used it before! Yes, that makes perfect sense.

  • Waqas Jamil

    Who can we Compose pictures ???

  • Waqas Jamil

    How can we compose pictures ??

  • Jeff E Jensen

    Thanks, Karen!

  • Don Komarechka

    Thanks Karen, glad you like my work! The photoshop process is actually quite simple compared to many of the other subjects I work on (like snowflakes). Star trails are a walk in the park!

  • Don Komarechka

    Great comment Peely. Fog or even frost can be an issue at times, but the conditions have to be right for it to appear. I’d say most nights are perfectly clear around here, and many other places that I’ve visited to do this kind of work. I know that anti-fog and frost heating units are made for astrophotographers that wrap around the end of the lens to keep them warm and unaffected, but I can’t recommend what I haven’t used. It might be a solution, though!

  • Don Komarechka

    Great tips David! Your approach of using ISO 320 for the stars is interesting, but adds complexity to the process. You might also miss some of the fainter stars that way – I know my single-exposure star trails at lower ISOs often capture fewer stars.

    There have been many lonely nights spent on dark hillsides, scared of the tiniest sound around me. A partner is always a great thing to have, too. :)

    I’ll argue that you can make a great star trail shot around a city, I’ve done so a number of times: http://www.donkom.ca/swirling-sky/ – nailing the exposure can be tricky, but the composition can be very rewarding!

    Great images too! Love the control tower.

  • Doug

    You didn’t mention that some cameras have interval functions built in to them to do this automatically. No remote release or pebbles required. :) (My Nikon D200 does this, not sure about others)

    I did some night shots a while back and I think I am going to go back and combine them to see what I get (but I only did shots for about 10 minutes or so).

    I will definitely try this out as soon as all the clouds leave from around here.

  • Bob Bevan Smith

    Visit the location during daylight or just after sunset to get an idea of what will be in the foreground. Or take a powerful torch and shine that around before taking your first exposure. Make sure that your horizon is level! (Or not, if you want to be creative ).
    Also, try pointing the camera due East or West for a different aspect.
    Look up the times of moonrise/set to see when NOT to shoot.
    DO NOT FORGET YOUR TRIPOD!!!

  • Don Komarechka

    Good point Doug, but I’ve heard from people with built-in intervalometers that they don’t always work as planned. Yours may be different, but some have a fastest interval of one second – this can lead to a larger gap between frames than a remote shutter would offer. Some also kick off after a lower number of frames, not good if you plan on doing an extra-long star trail shoot (good for timelapse video as well).

    Most people have access to a remote shutter for about $7 from B&H or ebay, or a rock and tape is even cheaper. :) Let me know how you made out with your images when you get a chance to process them!

  • Don Komarechka

    Hah, yes Bob a tripod is a must. :) Good tips about visiting earlier or bringing a bright flashlight (torch). It can help with your focusing as well!

    The time it takes to make one star trail usually means you’ll attempt only one or two over a night. I’d still recommend starting with the North Star in mind before branching out to different corners of the sky, but the results can be very interesting no matter where you point the camera! I’d say let the composition possibilities be the ultimate guide.

  • Raghavendra K Pande

    Instead of 120 images of 30seconds each could it not be a 1hour single expose.

  • Obretana

    Your image will have a large amount of noise with one long exposure

  • obretana

    Good concern, however, believe or not, you can wipe your lens and no harm will come up, when you combine the startrails image, either i photoshop or other ‘startrails’ software, it will only keep the lighter pixels, so your wiping action will nve show.

  • Don Komarechka

    Obretana makes a good point about the noise, the image will get very noisey over a long exposure like this. The other concern is light pollution. Even the smallest bit of light pollution will be amplified and could ruin the image. Shooting in 30sec pieces will allow for lower light pollution. :)

  • Raghavendra K Pande

    Thanks for your valuable tips.

  • Raghavendra K Pande

    Thanks for your valuable tips

  • Obretana

    All these pictures are really nice and clear, and no noise is visible at all! mine are not nearly as clean. Good work and nice tutorial!

  • Richard

    What about meteors? Last week I was shooting star trails during the Geminid shower. Although I saw many bright meteors while the camera was shooting, I was disappointed that few showed in the captured images, and these were faint. I then figured out that this was because a meteor flashes into view for a split second, which is a small fraction of a 30 second exposure. I fared better the second night by halving the exposure time, which let me double the ISO so the sensor would be more sensitive to those short flashes. But I feel I could have gone further still, with 8 second exposures perhaps.

  • Richard

    If you shoot a dark frame, you should forego any post-processing until after the dark frame subtraction is done, because the dark frame pixels won’t properly cancel the noise in the light frames, due to uneven scaling of values.

  • NoLions

    I don’t bookmark many articles from here but this one is a must – thanks for the great tips and ideas Don. One question, I see you mention you do photograph in RAW. When the shutter closes, do you not find that you get a long delay while the sensor “writes” to the card and so the next shot is not actualy following immediately from the preceeding one. When I have done timelapse photography of graffiti artists on rooftops I certainly noticed this long write time (using Nikon D90). SInce you ask ;-) here is an example of the kind of rough result I got trying long run timelapse photography of people being naughty and not wanting light shone on their activities http://vimeo.com/22857612.

    I cant wait to try out your suggestions at my parents place in a few weeks time, a completely light pollution free coastal location.

  • JayCee

    I’m just now experimenting with “hand warmers” held to the barrel of the lens with a rubber band (re-focus after attaching). Heard this advice on a T. Ratcliff g+ hangout and my first try is quite promising. I’m not expert with all the conditions that lead to condensation on a lens, but so far one handwarmer packet appears to eliminate the fogging that occurs as the temperature drops from the upper 60s to the upper 40s.

  • JayCee

    Don, I was wondering if there was a disadvantage to stacking and flattening in Photoshop first, then “developing” the merged image when you’re back in Lightroom?

  • https://www.flickr.com/photos/jpmiss/ jean-paul mission
  • https://www.flickr.com/photos/jpmiss/ jean-paul mission
  • https://www.flickr.com/photos/jpmiss/ jean-paul mission
  • https://www.flickr.com/photos/jpmiss/ jean-paul mission
  • Don Komarechka

    I do a bit on either side, JayCee. I find that adjustments that recover shadow and highlight detail work best when dealing with the RAW data. Some provements to noise reduction and sharpening can also be achieved while the original RAW images are still in Lightroom. Once the final flattened image is saved, I have a better feeling for how the final image should look, and more adjustments are applied in Lightroom. I always try to do as much as I can with the RAW data, as the image returning to Lightroom from Photoshop is a TIF file. While it still contains plenty of information, the RAW data offers a bit more flexibility. :)

  • http://www.thetravelingscholar.com/ Shannon Kircher

    Wonderful tips! Thank you so much for sharing!

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