7 Tips for Shooting and Processing Star Trails

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Have you ever looked at an image of the night sky where the stars leave long, arching trails? These images, called “star trails”, record the movement of the stars as the earth spins around its axis. This is a compelling way for you to capture a phenomenon not observable to the human eye.

As with many creative photography techniques, there are can be a steep learning curve for shooting star trails. A basic understanding of the night sky, knowing the impact of focal length, and composition can help you maximize a night out with the goal of shooting star trails.

Star Trails, Alaska, Tutorial, Starlapse - 7 Tips for Shooting and Processing Star Trails

This star trails shot adds to the native art of the Hoonah Tlingit.

Some fairly simple post-processing techniques can help you perfect your shot once home. I will walk you through the basic technique of photographing star trails, help you think about how your gear affects the outcome, and highlight two post-processing techniques that I find useful.

1 – Basic Technique for Shooting Star Trails

The concept of the shooting star trails is actually pretty simple. Set up your camera on a tripod and then compose the shot. I recommend disabling autofocus at this time. Once you have your composure right, set the exposure on your camera. In general, you will want to expose the shot for as long as possible without over-exposure. You can check the histogram of your image to decide if it has been overexposed or not.

On dark nights without a moon or light pollution, you can start in Manual Mode, ISO 800, f/2.8 (or lower/wider), and 15-seconds. Modify these settings to best capture your scene. Once you are happy with the exposure, you will need to set your camera to take pictures at a steady interval. You can do this by setting your camera’s internal interval meter or by attaching an external intervalometer.

Each camera model has different intervalometer connections or internal settings (or may not have this feature), so consult your camera’s manual to get this set up correctly. As you set up your camera, think about the number of shots you want to take. The more shots you take the more the stars will move – with many lenses you will start to capture significant movement in about 8 minutes.

Below I will go through a couple scenarios where fewer or more shots may be better. As a rule of thumb, I shoot for a minimum of 45 minutes and as long as several hours. Let your camera shoot and enjoy the night sky!

Processing or Stacking the Star Trails

Once I am done with the shoot, I import the photos to Lightroom and Photoshop (using Adobe Bridge). There are other star-stacking programs that you can experiment with, but I like Photoshop for this task. To import the photos from Adobe Bridge open the program and then navigate to where the photos are stored. Highlight the photos you want to include in the star trail and then go to Tools –> Photoshop –> Load Layers into Photoshop As Layers.

Once the layers have loaded into Photoshop you may want to use the Auto-align feature (disregard this if you are certain your tripod did not shift) by highlighting the layers in the right panel and then going to Edit –> Auto-Align Layers –> Auto. The final step is the use the “lighten” blend mode in the Layers panel and apply it to all the layers.

The lighten function examines all of the overlapping layers and then keeps only the lightest pixel. Keep that in mind as you can use it to your advantage (examples of that below). To complete the image export it to a lossless format (I like TIFF). You may then continue to edit the new TIFF in Lightroom or Photoshop.

2 – Shooting Tips

Know the North Star

Having a basic understanding of astronomy will aid you as you compose your shot. The North Star is often the focus of star trails because it does not move in the sky as the earth spins on its axis. To find it, locate Ursa Major (e.g., The Big Dipper) and then follow the line created by the stars at the end of the dipper to locate the North Star.

Star apps on your phone are also a great way to locate the dipper or the North Star. Once you know where it is, you can use it in your shot. I often like to bury the North Star behind a piece of a foreground element giving the final image a pinwheel effect.

Polaris, North Star - 7 Tips for Shooting and Processing Star Trails

Knowing the north star will help you with your star trails! In this image of Ursa Major, I have circled the stars of the constellation in red and the north star in green.

Star Trails, Alaska, Tutorial, Starlapse - 7 Tips for Shooting and Processing Star Trails

I buried the north star behind this black spruce and shot for nearly three hours to make this shot. The resulting image has a pin-wheel effect.

Star Trails, Alaska, Tutorial, Starlapse - 7 Tips for Shooting and Processing Star Trails

I put the north star behind a Sitka Spruce and shot this image at 14mm providing many stars in the shots and a pinwheel effect.

3 – Find Some Foreground Elements

Foreground elements are always important for landscape photography. When shooting star trails, think about foreground elements that capture the essence of the scene or that you can place prominently and by themselves.

By this, I mean objects that stand away from the background of the image. You may also want to choose elements that can be lit by the light of the moon or by using light painting. I like to think of star trails as telling the story of the night and the objects that you include in that frame will aid you in that storytelling.

Star Trails old barn, Minnesota, Tutorial, Starlapse - 7 Tips for Shooting and Processing Star Trails

I chose this old barn because the moonlight helped light up its character and I felt it captured the essence the Minnesota field in which it stands.

4 – Use Light Painting

Using Adobe Photoshop’s Lighten blend mode provides a lot of options for creativity when shooting star trails! Remember, that Lighten only keeps the lightest pixels in the whole stack of images. So by using light painting, you can selectively lighten objects in the frame.

Illuminate the foreground with your phone, headlamp, or another light source. You can light up the whole thing or selectively light elements of it. Experiment with lighting angles, intensities, and colors. If you don’t like the lighting of a certain exposure simply remove it from the layers that you import into Photoshop. I usually spend the first 10-20 frames lighting the foreground to make sure that I capture the lighting that I want and then let the camera take the rest of the shots.

Star Trails, Alaska, with american flag - 7 Tips for Shooting and Processing Star Trails

Here I used light painting to illuminate this flag that I placed in the foreground. I lit the flag in several different ways and then chose the best frame to include in the final shot.

Star Trails, Alaska, evergreen trees - 7 Tips for Shooting and Processing Star Trails

In this image, I used light painting the softly illuminate the snow-covered trees in the foreground of this shot.

5 – Pick Your Lens Focal Length Wisely

Focal length will strongly impact the amount of time it takes for the stars to move in your shot. Shorter focal lengths (e.g, 14mm) will take longer for the stars to have trails than longer focal lengths (e.g., 50mm). Knowing this will help you plan your shot. The three images below emphasize this effect.

MThe wide-angle of my 14mm wide-angle lens allowed me to capture the North Star and a distant mountain landscape, but I stood there for three hours to get the amount of movement in the stars that I wanted. The second shot was taken at 50mm and only 45-minutes elapsed before significant movement in the stars occurred. The third shot is an extreme example, shot at 300mm. The green streak is Comet Lovejoy and shows only a couple minutes of movement.

Star Trails North Star - 7 Tips for Shooting and Processing Star Trails

This image was shot at 14 mm, full frame and captures about three hours of star movement.

Star Trails landscape night - 7 Tips for Shooting and Processing Star Trails

Shot at 50mm, this image took 45 minutes to capture the star movement.

Star Trails 300mm lens - 7 Tips for Shooting and Processing Star Trails

This image was captured at 300mm on a crop sensor (effective 600 mm) and shows only a couple minutes of movement. The green streak is Comet Lovejoy.

6 – Play with Exposure Times

The length of your exposure will strongly influence the final image that you create. There are no guidelines to what is the right length, instead, you should be guided by what looks good to your eye. As a tip – you can always choose to use fewer shots than you captured so by default I would take as many images as you think you’ll need and then modify the amount once you import them into Photoshop.

Which of the images below do you like better? The longer exposure or the shorter one?

Star Trails, Alaska, - 7 Tips for Shooting and Processing Star Trails

This image captures about 45 minutes of star trails at 50mm and I like how the falling arc of the stars lead my eye to the subtle mountains in the background.

Star Trails, Alaska dock - 7 Tips for Shooting and Processing Star Trails

This image captures 30 minutes of star trails at 24mm. I felt that including any more stars would take away from the dock in the foreground.

7 – Compositing Tips

Photoshop gives you a lot of flexibility to mask and preserve or remove elements of the shot. Since star trail shots are composite images and thus art, I do not worry about these alterations from an ethical standpoint. The two techniques below may help you improve the final shot. They assume you are familiar with masking and healing in Adobe Photoshop. If not you will find the linked articles helpful!

Masking a Foreground

Once you compile the images you may find elements that draw your eye away from the phenomenon you are trying to capture. Since the horizon and foreground are the same for all of the images you can choose which foreground looks best to you. Use that foreground to create a selection and convert the selection to a mask.

You can use that mask and exported TIFF file to maintain the foreground you like. In the images below, I wanted to remove the hikers that walked up to the lava flows in Volcanoes National Park and the bright highlights of the lava which became overexposed as the lava moved. I used a mask to preserve the foreground elements I liked.

Star Trails, Hawaii, Tutorial, Starlapse

Editing out Planes and Satellites

Almost all dark nights will have a plane or a satellite come through your frame. Fortunately, these are very easy to remove! Use the Healing Brush tool and set the tool to replace and content aware. You can draw a linear line with the tool over the track of the satellite or plane. Voila! The offending track will disappear.

Star Trails, Alaska, Tutorial, Starlapse

Star Trails, Alaska, Tutorial, Starlapse

I used the healing brush to remove the satellites and planes from the final image above. Can you tell the difference?

Summary

So there you go! I hope this article can help you get out there on your first night of shooting star trails. Remember, knowing your stars, picking a foreground and playing with exposure length will help bring the shot you imagine to reality.

Once you process the stacked images you have lots of flexibility in Photoshop to fix parts you do not like. As I always say, pixels are cheap. So make lots of them as you learn to shoot and process star trails.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Ian Johnson is a photographer, scientist, writer, wildlife biologist, musician, and woodworker located in Hoonah, Alaska. Described as a Renaissance Man, he lives and breathes the challenges and opportunities that life in rural Alaska can present. You can find him subsisting-in and photographing Alaska simultaneously. Ian writes a personal blog and sells print products on his website here.

  • Ron

    So how do I Stack images with Lightroom?

  • Ian Johnson

    Hi Ron, to my knowledge it isn’t possible to stack and combine images into a composite in Lightroom. I did a quick Google Search to confirm that. What you would need to do is export the images from Lightroom (high resolution is best) and then combine them in Adobe Photoshop as I’ve illustrated in this article or use a proprietary star stacking software if you would prefer to go that route. Hope that helps!

  • James Clark

    Hi Ian, I’ve been wanting to shoot star trails so thank you for this great article! I have a good understanding on everything, except for blending a sharp foreground with a sharp background (stars). I want to shoot a separate foreground with a lower iso and maybe even as the moon sets for better light. That way I can focus on the foreground and have great light. After the moon sets and without moving the tripod, I will focus on the stars and shoot the star trails. How do I blend the huge stack of star trails with the one foreground shot? Thanks again.

  • Ian Johnson

    Hi there James, great question. I have a few tidbits of information for you that can help.

    First, you may look into the process of focus stacking. To focus stack with your star stack I would export the star stack in a lossless format and then open a new photoshop document. Include your newly created star stack image and the sharp foreground image. Use Focus Stacking to complete the image. Two articles for reference : https://digital-photography-school.com/a-beginners-guide-to-focus-stacking/ and http://ianajohnson.com/a-night-in-the-aurora-photography-sandbox/

    The other concept to look into is Hyperfocal distance. You may be able to have a wide aperture and keep sharp distant elements. Check out this article for that : https://digital-photography-school.com/how-to-find-and-use-hyperfocal-distance-for-sharp-backgrounds/

  • James Clark

    Thanks for the quick reply. I will try your suggestion and read the articles. I’m a Photoshop newbie (have Lightroom experience) so I have a learning curve ahead. I have seen tutorials on focus stacking so will give that a go.

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