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Two Methods for Shooting Star Trails Made Easy

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As a landscape photographer, it can be easy to find stunning subject matter to photograph during the day. At night, things become more difficult as the sun goes down, but there is still plenty to photograph. With some patience, you can create stunning images featuring the stars as your backdrop, or even your subject.

star trails, night, photography, sky, astrophotography

This image is a composite of 156 separate exposures, merged using StarStax software. Each exposure was ISO 400, f/2.8, 30 seconds. The red glow inside the bus was done by shining a red LED flashlight inside the bus from the other side, during one of the exposures.

Equipment list

Before you get started, you’re going to need a few things:

  • A good sturdy tripod is absolutely essential, I’m using an Induro GTT204M2.
  • A wired remote for your camera is also a necessity. Which model you use will depend on the camera you have.
  • A fully charged battery is a must. The vertical grips that are available for some cameras, allowing you to use two batteries at once for longer life, can also be helpful.
  • A flashlight can come in handy, both for finding your way to the location, and for light painting in the foreground.
  • Finally, a large memory card, or two if your camera has dual slots, will be needed.

#1 – The One-Shot Method

There are two ways to photograph star trails. The first is the old-fashioned way, using a single exposure.

For this method, exposures can range anywhere from several minutes, to several hours. This method was the only way to photograph star trails in the days before digital cameras. When using the single exposure method, your camera needs to be in manual mode, with the shutter speed set to Bulb. Some cameras have a separate mode for Bulb. It is like manual mode, but the shutter stays open for as long as the release button is depressed. A time controller such as the Nikon MC-36A, or Canon TC-80N3 can make things easier by allowing you to lock the shutter button down, or program a set amount of time for the exposure.

ISO should be set to 400. You’ll want to set your aperture somewhere around f/4. The wider the aperture is open, the brighter the star trails will be. If you are photographing in a completely dark setting, with no moonlight, the stars will likely be the brightest object in your scene. Once you’ve set your aperture, you need to decide how long a star trail you want. The longer the exposure, the longer the trails.  The image below was a 30 minute exposure.

This image was created as a single exposure. Exposure time was 30 minutes, ISO 100, f/5.6. The star trails are dimmer due to the smaller aperture, the fact that the moon was still in the sky, and light pollution from the city in the distance, seen as the glow to the right.

This image was created as a single exposure. Exposure time was 30 minutes, ISO 100, f/5.6. The star trails are dimmer due to the smaller aperture, the fact that the moon was still in the sky, and light pollution from the city in the distance, seen as the glow to the right. The street in the foreground was painted with an LED flashlight for several seconds during the exposure.

One thing you need to be concerned with when using a single long exposure is Long Exposure Noise Reduction. If you choose to photograph star trails using a single exposure, the heat generated on the imaging sensor adds noise to the image. Turning on Long Exposure Noise Reduction reduces that noise by using a method known as dark frame subtraction. I previously discussed dark frame subtraction in the article The Night Sky In Landscape Photography. Long Exposure Noise Reduction doubles the length of time needed to make an image. The camera first takes the exposure. In this case, let’s say the exposure is one minute.Long Exposure Noise Reduction then requires another minute to reduce the noise created by the long exposure. That means if you make a star trail exposure for 15 minutes, your camera will be unavailable to take another picture for 30 minutes. You’ll need to make sure you have enough battery to keep the camera powered while it carries out Long Exposure Noise Reduction.

This is a single exposure of 10 minutes, ISO 400, f/5.6.

This is a single exposure of 10 minutes, ISO 400, f/5.6.

In addition to Long Exposure Noise Reduction, another consideration is the length of the exposure itself. There is nothing worse than standing next to your camera while it makes a 30 or 45 minute exposure, and two-thirds of the way through the exposure, a car goes past, shining its headlights across the scene and ruining the exposure. It’s happened to the best of us.

#2 – Merging Multiple Exposures

This is where the second method for photographing star trails comes in. With the advancement of digital imaging, stacking multiple exposures has become possible, and has made creating star trail images easier than ever. By taking a series of drastically shorter exposures, then stacking them in software such as StarStaX, you can increase your flexibility as a photographer, because there are two benefits to this method. The first is that since the exposure are shorter, you can turn off Long Exposure Noise Reduction. The second benefit is that even if a car drives by to ruin the exposure, it’s only one small piece of the sequence, so you can just delete the one frame that was ruined.

StarStaX works by blending a series of images, allowing you to capture the motion of stars in the sky, similar to a single exposure. The one drawback to using software like StarStaX is if clouds are also moving across the sky, it has a tendency to create a stepped shape with them that doesn’t look natural. Better Star Trails Photographs with StarStax is an excellent tutorial for using StarStaX.

Camera settings

To use the stacking method for shooting star trails, set your camera to Manual mode and your camera’s drive to Continuous. Start with your aperture set to f/4. This setting can be adjusted, but the wider the aperture, the brighter the trails. However, be careful to ensure you have enough depth of field, and aren’t overexposing the stars. Shutter speed will be 30 seconds. ISO should be set to 400. Using the time controller or remote for your camera, release the shutter, and use the locking mechanism to keep the shutter button on the remote depressed. With the camera in continuous drive mode, as each exposure ends, another will begin until you stop it. This also minimizes the pause between each exposure, which can cause small breaks in the star trails when the exposures are merged. Alternatively you can use an intervalometer feature if you camera has that, or similar type of remote.

star trails, night, photography, sky, astrophotography

This image is a combination of 121 exposures merged in StarStaX. Each exposure was 15 seconds, ISO 400, f/1.4. To keep the lighthouse from being so bright that it would overpower the star trails, a 3-stop soft-edged graduated neutral density filter was used.

It can be easy to forget the rules of composition when photographing star trails, so don’t get so fixated on the stars that you forget to look at the foreground as well. Chances are your foreground will be shrouded in darkness. A flashlight can come in handy for painting the foreground object with light to make it stand out in the darkness. Colored gels can allow you to get creative with the light painting. When stacking images, you’ll only need to illuminate your foreground for a single frame, as StarStax will use the illuminated exposure for that foreground object.

By the same token, there may be a time where your foreground object is brightly illuminated, as with the lighthouse image above. So I carry a set of graduated neutral density filters, even when shooting at night. For the lighthouse image, I mounted a Vü filters 3-stop soft-edged ND grad on my lens, so that the dark side of the filter was over the bottom half of the frame. This allowed me to keep the lighthouse exposure dim enough to still allow the stars to register in the exposure as well.

This image was created by merging 116 separate exposures in StarStax software in comet mode. Each exposure was 30 seconds, ISO 400 at f/2.8. A red LED flashlight was shone inside the bus for the first exposure.

This image was created by merging 116 separate exposures in StarStax software in comet mode. Each exposure was 30 seconds, ISO 400 at f/2.8. A red LED flashlight was shone inside the bus for the first exposure.

Once you’ve found your foreground, think about the direction you are facing. When facing north, star trails will form concentric circles. When facing away from the north, star trails will simply be slanted lines or arcs in the sky. Both can create interesting and awe-inspiring images.

Now that you know you don’t have to put your camera away when the sun goes down, you need to find some dark sky to get the best results with star trails. The International Dark Sky Association has a great tool on their website to help you find the best places for night sky photography.

Show some of your best star trail images below!

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Rick Berk is a photographer based in New York, shooting a variety of subjects including landscapes, sports, weddings, and portraits. Rick leads photo tours for World Wide Photo Tours and his work can be seen at RickBerk.com and you can follow him on his Facebook page and on Instagram at @rickberkphoto.

  • Thanks for the great article! It really annoys me how the city lights pollute the sky around where I live!!

    Thanks
    NVeal
    http://www.solihullphotography.com

  • usmale9659

    Thanks

  • Michal Rosa

    “ISO should be set to 400” – that’s one sweeping and incorrect statement. ISO should be set at whatever the photographer wants it to be depending ton the exposure time and aperture.

  • adil

    this picture is my first attempt in shooting star trails. I used starstax for stacking 40 exposures of 30 sec each. Made this picture in the backyard of my house.

  • It’s not incorrect. For the method of shooting star trails I am writing about here, 400 is correct. Any lower, and stars will be too dim. Any higher may work, but I’ve found that it shortens the shutter speed too much to effectively capture trails. We’re talking about shooting in a virtually light free environment- star trails generally do not work well once light pollution becomes a factor and ISO becomes more critical.

  • I feel your pain NVeal. I live in a suburb of NYC and getting dark enough conditions is difficult. The shot of the lighthouse was especially tough due to the light around the buildings and the beacon itself.

  • Michal Rosa

    No, it is no. No single value of ISO is correct. What might work for you and in your circumstances does not mean it’s universal and set in stone. The whole article is very sloppy with statements like that.

  • I stand by what I wrote. Those settings have worked for me in multiple and varied situations without a problem. What settings do you use? Have an example to share?

  • MattyD

    Rick, your photos show clearly that you know what you’re talking about. The one with the lighthouse is particularly impressive. I’m going to try ISO 400 for my next attempt at star trails. Thanks.

  • Matthew Peterson

    my first attempt thought it went well

  • Rob

    I have used StarStax for almost a year now, It can also be used with other scenes including daylight compositing too. It’s so easy to use and the results are quite gratifying.

  • Jay Patel

    Thanks for sharing. I do agree that values change depending where you are, but this is your example and it clearly worked for you. I have read somewhere that leaving your camera on bulb mode can wear our the sensor quicker or even burn it out. Have you read this?

  • I’ve found that the exposure at night is pretty consistent anywhere I’ve been in the world, light pollution aside, if it’s not a factor. It’s basically the sunny f16 rule but at night.

  • MattyD

    Does anyone shoot f16 at night? I don’t go smaller than f2.8 and none of Rick’s photos above are smaller than f5.6. Even for a single long exposure he advocates somewhere “around f4”. Am I missing the maths here? By the sunny f16 rule are you saying that you stop down to f16, set any ISO, lets say 400, then shoot at 1/400? You must get a lovely shade of black.

  • The sunny f/16 rule just tells you the exposure IN the bright sun. So for moonlight it tells you the exposure ON the moon, not here on earth which is in shadow. You can also adjust the aperture once you know the EV. So for example the f/16 rule says that your exposure is 1 over the ISO so if using ISO 100 the exposure is 1/100th at f/16. So you can also shoot at f/11 at 1/200th, f/8 at 1/400th, etc. Keeping in mind this is the moon exposure, not the earth.

    But what I’m saying is that if you go to a dark area where the only light is reflected off the moon – the light on the moon is pretty consistent, therefore the light bouncing back here at night will also be. It won’t be f/16 at 1/100 ISO 100 though.

  • And in addition to Darlene’s explanation- when shooting star trails, you try to avoid having the moon in the sky, so the only light should be coming from the stars. Which again, is fairly consistent from place to place assuming that is the only light in the scene.

  • MattyD

    I know exactly what the sunny f16 rule means and how it’s applied. I just have no idea how you have connected it to this article on star trails. It doesn’t matter if the light of the moon is consistent or not. To get the best star trails you would look for a time without any moonlight at all. How is there any room for reciprocity here? In my experience it’s generally big apertures, big amounts of time and usually big ISO’s. Eg f2.8 at dozens of seconds somewhere between 400-3200 ISO. You keep talking about the moon and the sunny 16 applied to moonlight. What’s that got to do with star trails?

  • The point is, that when shooting at night, the light is pretty much constant, much like how the sunny 16 rule works. So if I set an aperture of f/2,8, shutter of 30 seconds, ISO of 400, I know I’m going to be in the ballpark for proper exposure. The whole discussion began when Michael stated that the ISO would fluctuate dependent on lighting conditions. Darlene and I are stating that shooting by the light of the stars, the light is fairly consistent so settings won’t vary much.

  • Exactly

  • Phil Coxon

    Have a look at Michal’s previous posts Rick and you’ll see its not personal. He appears to be a vicious troll of Olympic standard. I spent way too much time scrolling through his previous comments and failed to find a single positive post.

  • Phil Coxon

    Have a look at Michal’s previous posts Rick and you’ll see its not personal. He appears to be a vicious troll of Olympic standard. I spent way too much time scrolling through his previous comments and failed to find a single positive post.

  • Mark Bowers

    How do you go about setting focus for the stars? Slightly less than infinity seems to work for me BUT my foreground object is always out of focus and I have a hard time setting it in the pitch dark. Advice?

  • This is where things get tricky. If you want sharp trails, you have to focus on a star. I use my live view and zoom in on a bright star in the sky, and manually focus until the star is a pinpoint. If you are stacking exposures, you can set an aperture of around 4, 30 second exposures at ISO 800, if using a wide angle lens, you should have ample depth of field, provided you’re not right on top of the foreground object.

  • Having worked for a major camera manufacturer, in a technical role, I can tell you I have never heard of using bulb mode causing a sensor to wear out. I have seen where a laser pointer can ruin the sensor, and where shooting directly into the sun can cause damage, but normal use of bulb mode should not hurt the sensor.
    Now again, if you are in a dark area, with no artificial lighting around (which is more or less necessary for star trails), my base settings will work. The night sky is the night sky. The value is always the same.

  • Tim Bonnette

    Rick,

    Thanks for the article. I’ve been shooting stars for a couple years know and have had some success with star trails but was really impressed with your Montauk Point Star Trails to say the least. Great shot. What caught my attention, and is something I’ve always wondered about, is the use of the ND filter you mentioned. I have several areas in West MI where I live, not to mention other areas, where I’d like to shoot a trail but the foreground that I want to include would blow it out. Can you tell me how the ND filter was used? Was it placed to just cover the corner where the intense light was coming from? I’m glad to have come across your article and enjoyed your images. Any response would be appreciated.

    Tim Bonnette
    http://photosbybonnette.photominator.com/

  • Hi Tim, I use 100mmx150mm Vü Filters ND grads in a holder which can hold three filters. I stacked a 3-stop and a 2-stop for 5 total stops of neutral density. I simply placed the darker side to the bottom. There is some loss of shadow detail, but then, the ground isn’t really important to the scene anyway. I used a soft-edge grad to make a smooth transition from the ND section to the clear, so the stars were free to shine through. You can kind of see where the stars get brighter just above the lighthouse.

  • Tim Bonnette

    Got it, thanks much for letting me know. I have always wanted to try this so hopefully soon. I am a Sony user and have just downloaded an app to my camera that is a built in ND filter capable tool that is working well with sunsets. I may try this with star trails as I can set the area manually in camera that I would like to protect from the light in same manor you suggest here. I’ll try and let you know how this works out, if at all.
    Thanks again,
    Tim

  • Tim Bonnette

    Rick, one other question came to mind. I love the color of the stars you show here as well. Any thoughts on your white balance settings for this? I usually set mine to 3200K but have not gotten results like this. Most of the trails are a various blues. I love the black background as well and must admit most of my efforts have more of the blue sky impact. The night shots give me that rush most other types of photos do not so I’m always looking for any insight I can get to improve on them. Thanks again…

  • Hey Tim, my white balance on the lighthouse was 4800K, but that tends to vary. I think the black background comes more from the fact that the lighthouse is on the edge of an area with heavy light pollution, and contributes to it a bit itself. The bus, on the other hand, is in an area with minimal light pollution and the sky is bluer. As for star color, I believe part of that will depend on your white balance, but also any haze that may filter the colors. Again, the lighthouse is on Long Island NY, with a lot of air pollution and light pollution, while the bus is in Nevada, 3 hours from anywhere. You can see the difference. To avoid so much blue, in processing, try adjusting the tint a bit, adding magenta. Also, try sliding the white balance up to around 4200K. See if that changes things. It should minimize the blueness just a touch.

  • Tim Bonnette

    Again, thanks for your insight. I’m more impressed knowing that you shot this in heavy light pollution. I’ll try some new settings and experiment as you mentioned. I’ve been working in NJ for 10 years and found a few spots to shoot in that are good for stars, such as the pine barons and northern NJ, but ran into too many plains etc. I live by Lake MI which offers pretty good lighting but not there often enough to really work it. I look forward to reading more of your tips and wish you continued success.

  • You’re welcome, and thank you. I lived in North Jersey for a long time and the air traffic there is killer for this kind of work. I get some planes when I’m out on the east end of Long Island, but it’s far less than in NJ, because it’s mostly just the flights from JFK to Europe. If you have the app Dark Skies, it can help you with where to go. Montauk is as dark as it gets locally for me, but it’s still just the upper middle of the scale according to the Dark Skies app. I have to really travel to get less light pollution.

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