An Introduction to Shooting Stars Trails

An Introduction to Shooting Stars Trails


An introduction to Shooting Star Trails by Trevor Williams.

150minutes.jpgI will attempt to explain here how to capture stars over a long exposure so that they leave behind a “trail” or light stream. In fact, what are recorded are stationary stars and the rotation of the earth. The images that are created have a unique magic about them that captivate viewers.

A lot of people mention that their love of photography comes from capturing that perfect moment in time. When shooting at night those “moments” become a little longer. When shooting star trails those “moments” turn into hours. Capturing that perfect hour or two in time is what makes shooting star trails so fun for me. When I look at star trails pictures, they remind me that this big rock we live on is spinning out in space. For such amazing looking pictures the technique is really quite simple.

You will need a few things before you head out into the night especially a camera capable of shooting in “bulb” mode. You will also need a cable release and a location far way from any city lights. I usually look for a place with some foreground interest like some trees or old buildings. You should also make sure you are prepared for the environment and weather.

Before we get started, I suggest getting into your car and driving far away from the city. The amount of visible stars will greatly increase the farther away you get from any town. There are a few ways to go about shooting star trails. We will start with the basics that do not change whether one is using a film camera or digital camera. Before setting up the camera on the tripod it is a good idea to set the focus. In the dark, it is not easy to get the AF to lock on to anything.

I suggest trying on one of the brighter stars in the sky and if that does not work set the focus to infinity. It may seem to be the obvious thing to do from the start but not all lenses are perfectly accurate. If you do manage to get your camera to auto-focus be sure to set it to MF or manual focus before starting your exposure or it will star searching again when you start the exposure. Once you have set focus set up the camera on the tripod and compose the shot.


Try not to include any direct light sources, like streetlights, in the shot. One more thing to think about is white balance. I tend to shoot night skies with the white balance set to “tungsten” which gives a nice blue look. Warmer colors tend to give the sky a dirty look. I now suggest doing a test shot which aids in composing your final shot. A 2-3 minute exposure at high ISO and wide aperture is enough to be able to see which direction the stars are moving and allow one to imagine what the final shot will look like.

For shooting options, one could choose to do it all in one shot or shoot multiple shots and “stack” them after using computer software. I personally find that shooting multiple images and stacking them yields much nicer images than those done all in one shot. If you are going to do it all in one shot then your biggest concern should be noise.

To avoid noise, one could use a narrower aperture and a lower ISO speed but these settings will typically not pick up very many stars. If this is the route you are going to take, and I suggest at least trying it, then focus and compose the shot. Set the time value to “bulb”, the aperture to its widest, and with and ISO at 200, try for a 30-minute exposure with a wide aperture of 3.5 – 4.0. If there is too much noise then drop the ISO to 100 and either shorten the exposure time or try a narrower aperture.

If shooting this way is your only option, there is something that you can do to increase the appearance of the length of the trails in the frame that will be limited due to the short exposure time. The actual length of the trails is determined solely by time but the appearance of the trail length is determined by the focal length you are shooting at. For example, stars over a 30-minute exposure would appear much longer in the frame at 50mm than they would at 10mm. If you find that you are limited to shorter exposure time due to noise, or any other factor, try shooting at a longer focal length to increase the appearance of the star trail length in relation to the frame.

Now on to my preferred way of shooting which is multiple shots that will be stacked later using computer software. Shooting this way means one can shoot with a wide aperture and a faster ISO that will pick up many more stars than the previous method. One can do this because noise becomes much less of a factor.


Noise generally increases with time so you only have to worry about 30 seconds that means even at ISO 800 it is not really going to cause a problem. There is even an option to include dark frames, which are frames shot with the lens cap on, so that even the tiny bit of noise from ISO 800 over 30 seconds will be removed. With the higher end DSLR’s and the improvement of sensor noise reduction in recent models means that the ISO can be bumped even higher that will result in even more stars.

You will need to find the balance for your camera. Now with the evil “noise” taken care of the only thing limiting your exposure time is your battery life. For this method it is necessary to use a cable release and it is also important to make sure there is plenty of space on your memory card. To get started, set your focus and compose your shot. Set the aperture to its widest and the ISO to 800. Dial in 30 seconds for the time value and the drive to “continuous shooting” mode which allows for non-stop shooting when the cable release is locked. I suggest doing a test shot first to see if it looks all right. If anything is too bright then dial the ISO down.

Once you have taken the shots you will need to stack them using software. I recommend a freeware program, startrails.exe, available from Simply import the pictures, hit the ‘build’ button and wait for it to finish rendering. Don’t forget to save it when it is finished, as the there is no auto-save function built into this software. This is only available for Windows but there are many free actions for Photoshop if you are using a Mac. Simply search “star trail Photoshop action” and you will find what you are looking for.

Single Image

Stacked Image

To complete the shots, an idea is to include a foreground element, like a structure or tree, and light it with a flashlight or flash. I highly recommend testing out how much light is needed before locking that cable release. Too much light will distract from that beautiful star filled sky you are about to create. For foreground lighting use a warm color if you chose to use the recommended “tungsten” white balance.

If you use LED light with such a cold white balance setting as ‘tungsten’, you will find objects in the foreground look very blue. To avoid this, you could apply an amber gel to a flash or use a tungsten light source like a flashlight that has a ‘regular’ light bulb as opposed to an LED bulb. I also suggest doing the foreground lighting at the beginning and again at the end incase one of those is unsuitable for the final shot. You simply exclude those frames from the stack.

If it was done in the middle and a mistake was made leaving those frames unusable it would create a break in the trail that would take away from the shot. A final note for those with experience in night photography, keep in mind that you are now shooting wide open with your ISO bumped to 800 so adjust your lighting techniques to accommodate for that with low power flashes or less lighting time with a flashlight.

All in all, a rather simple technique that yields captivating results.

Trevor Williams (aka tdub303) is a Canadian who has been stuck in Japan for over 10 years. He has busy days that leave him shooting at night. His night shots have led to him being featured in a light painting documentary titled Luminary that is due out in early 2011. He has also contributed two chapters to published book on night photography techniques. He is now shooting weddings and portraits in his free time and exhibits work at various galleries around Japan. Check him out at:

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Some Older Comments

  • Joseph December 29, 2012 02:18 am

    What I have read and come to realise is the noise when you take very long single exposure is due to the sensor heating up (this is only in the case of digital cameras)....hence we need to take multiple shots of 30 secs giving small intervals of 5-10 secs in tht the it gets a time to cool off...if i didnt give break bw shots I wuld start seeing hotspots in my image(spots of green, red and blue)....nd the other cool thing is tht the same images can be compiled to make timelapses of night sky

  • John Velocci August 25, 2012 07:00 am

    with that startrails software, can you combine pictures other than those of stars? for example lets so you keep your camera on a tripod and you put the camera in burst mode and stake sever pictures of someone running by the camera. can you combine those pictures into one shot where you see the person several times in the same picture?

  • Siddharth November 12, 2011 06:24 pm

    great article .. most of my doubts have been cleared... just have 2 left. ..

    will it be better to try this on a new moon day ?

    i wanted to try a shot with lighting the foreground ? i plan to use something like a camp fire.. warm lighting as u suggested.. . will a single shot with foreground lighting suffice ?

  • p h o t o g a l January 27, 2011 05:43 am

    That's incredible! I think that next time I go up to my uncle's camp, I'm going to try that. It looks really amazing, and hopefully mine will turn out half as good!

  • kirpi December 15, 2010 08:49 pm

    They are two differend kind of things, two different animals.
    "Bulb", "B", "T" and "_ _ " are technical terms which refer to shutter triggering (say: exposure time).
    “Incandescent” refers to color temperature and you might well take your time and read this introductory page on the matter
    Anyway, white balance (color temperature) is not an issue for you now, so I suggest you do not bother and leave the default camera settings now.
    Instead, concentrate on what I already wrote as a comment to both @mark and you.
    Please write to me an email for more, if you like :-)

  • John December 15, 2010 04:09 pm

    Kirpi, thank you for your comments & advice I really appreciate all the help & adv ice. I watched the youtube video & found the gentleman's tips very interesting & understood them well.

    However, going back to my initial Q on Bulb, your answer here >>>>>>>>>>>

    >>>Bulb” or just “B” pose is a term which refers instead to the shutter speed: when you set it to “bulb” the shutter stays open as long as the button is kept pressed. Mind that on your camera you’d better set an alternative shutter mode, which is traditionally called “T” and is instead called “_ _” on the D90:<<<<<<<

    still leaves me no clearer than before. Are you still referring to the word “Incandescent” when you speak of " Bulb" or "B"? & what is "T" or "_ _ " on a D90 as you quoted in your 1st reply,

    I am constantly referring to my manual in trying to understand all regarding my camera, but sometimes i even find the manual a little complex & not so much in laymans terms of understanding.

  • kirpi December 15, 2010 08:34 am

    For *this* kind of shots, that is: digitally stacked scenic shots of star trails, it would be safe to go down a couple of stops from the widest aperture of your lens. This way you get a reasonably good optical quality out of your equipment, while keeping exposure times rather short.
    My own previous suggestion to @John ["select the widest aperture (choose the smallest f/ number)"] was intended for testing purposes only, in order to speed up test exposures: every stop doubles exposure time, which might end up in a boring loss of time for someone eager to learn.
    Once @John has learned, he will want to stop down a little: lenses rarely give good optical results at full aperture. He will need reasonably good quality, particularly because, more often than one might guess, these pictures will be cropped.
    Anyway, just to make it clear, such scenic shots do not need high quality optical image overall: the important thing is to make something which is aesthetically pleasing, visually interesting and fun to shoot.

  • Mark Dawson December 15, 2010 04:24 am

    Hi everyone. What would be the best aperture for these sort of shots??

  • kirpi December 14, 2010 08:57 pm

    By re-reading your question about exposure time, it seems (sorry if I'm wrong) that you might take great advantage from your camera handbook
    I suggest you set your camera to M[anual] and disable autofocus (there is a switch on the lens, at left) as well as the vibration compensation (VR).
    Then do make some test by yourself: place your camera on a tripod, select the widest aperture (choose the smallest f/ number), set "Iso" to something like 400 or 800 and try with different exposure times. Digital is fine for this: you can immediately see the results.
    It *will* be an useful exercise.
    (Write to my mail and attach your pictures if you like: I'm more than pleased to help you find your way into the matter :-)

  • kirpi December 14, 2010 08:14 pm

    This video might help you on setting white balance on your camera: Incandescent is a good starting point, anyway.

    "Bulb" or just "B" pose is a term which refers instead to the shutter speed: when you set it to "bulb" the shutter stays open as long as the button is kept pressed. Mind that on your camera you'd better set an alternative shutter mode, which is traditionally called "T" and is instead called "_ _" on the D90: as you press the button the shutter opens, and stays open until you press the button again.
    Hope this helps

  • St Louis Photographer December 14, 2010 02:54 pm

    So one thing that I've noticed my eyes doing with these shots is going to the center of the circles. I know the rule about leading lines, and I'm sure there's a rule somewhere about center of circles, so that would be something to keep in mind. It seems like the viewer's eyes go from outside in.

  • Mark Dawson December 13, 2010 11:56 pm

    Firstly what a great article. I have a panasonic FZ45, does anyone know if the shots above are capable with this camera? and if so what settings would i need to use. It has a 60second starry sky mode, is this enough?

  • John December 13, 2010 05:30 pm

    Thanks for the great tip on shooting star trails Trevor, I am somewhat of a novice at all of this still, but would love to try this using your tips. Where you mentioned in your article that you prefer to shoot night skys with the white balance set to "Tungsten", I have a DSLR Nikkon D90, & I can't find the word Tungsten in the white Balance funtion in the Menu.

    Is there another word for Tungsten? I have found what you suggest to be "Bulb" which is "Incandescent" on my camera {correct?} but cannot find the word Tungsten.

    Another Q Trevor, where you talk of a 30min exposure time, is this time determined by the size of your Aperture i.e. whether you have your aperture set to as wide {large} as it can go, would determine the longest exposure time setting, & likewise the opposite, the smaller the aperture, the shorter the exposure time setting.

    Or to simplify the matter best would be to set the dial on your lens {looking at your lens} & then to ensure you are most exactly where you want to be, & keeping your finger pressed on the AE-L AF-L button where it displays your Fstop, then the number to the left of your Fstop {is this the exposure time?}

    Look forward to your help on those Questions thanks Trevor, along with many more great tips

  • Lamis December 12, 2010 07:02 am

    These techniques are very interesting, especially for beginners in this hobby. However, from the two options, the one shot approach, for my personal taste, looks more natural appealing. The tips are excellent.

  • Shamsul December 11, 2010 11:39 pm

    Thanks for the tips. Have done it many times but never thought about stacking the multiple shots. I love to try it when weather at my place permitted it because now almost every night raining. Here is my latest shot with 30 minutes exposed.

  • kirpi December 11, 2010 11:13 am

    @bryan - You are probably referring to the Amp Glow, which is a know issue indeed.
    The main point here is that people will shoot star trails just for fun, and just in very few occasions.
    They will try shooting glamorous star trails, as opposed to (as an example) detailed deep-sky pictures. So, I wouldn't be too concerned about issues which can be (mostly) solved with (as an example) dark frame subtraction. Also, I wouldn't be concerned about sensor wearing out.
    Instead, in case you want to delve a bit more on the whole matter, I suggest you cast a glance to this page:
    Have a nice time shooting during these winter nights! (Cold temperature helps)

  • Bryan December 11, 2010 09:36 am

    @kirpi - thanks for your reply. i don't own any film cameras anyway but i was just concerned about the sensor overheating issue that was mentioned in a few articles i've read on shooting star trails.

  • estatik December 11, 2010 07:10 am

    More notes: Winter is also the best time to shoot, as the cold is better for the heating sensor. Also, to get those circles like in Trevor's top photo, find the North Star and point your camera at that.

    SAM AN: for the Milky Way you have to shoot wide open with the highest ISO you can get. Shoot as fast as possible to avoid it looking like a dirty cloud.

  • Dan Merkel December 11, 2010 12:31 am

    I used to do this with earlier film cameras but with the newer cameras w/o a fitting for a cable release, I'm not sure how one keeps the shutter open for long periods of time. My later Konicas (film) and my D40x don't seem to have any provision for locking the shutter open for a long period of time. Am I missing something?



  • kirpi December 11, 2010 12:03 am

    @bryan - In case you wonder if it is "best to use film cameras for this type of shooting", rest assured that, for *this* kind of shooting digital photography is the best choice. Noise can be highly reduced, if not zeroed. True, film photography still has some advantages, yet all that glitters is not gold: reciprocity failure could be an issue, just to name one.
    All in all, for this sort of pictures (and as long as you shoot for fun), digital photography coupled with a suitable software workflow will enable the best results with minimum efforts.

  • Joao Luiz December 10, 2010 10:12 pm

    You have again been monstruosly successful with this article!
    I loved it, and will be trying your invaluable tips!
    Thank you very much!

  • Tim December 10, 2010 01:49 pm

    Very nice article, wish I could have read it a month or so ago before I attempted my 1st star trail. To Bryan above, yes long exposures will cause the sensor to heat up and increase noise. This is part of the reason why I believe the author suggested multiple exposures and stacking them in Photoshop or some other tool. The method I used was 4 minute exposures, I think at ISO 100. I did 15 of them for a total exposure of 1 hour. To Westin's comment above, yes there are miniature gaps if you view the stack at 100%, but those can be fixed in post processing. I used a Canon 5D Mark 2, with a canon timer remote. I set the exposure time to 4 minutes (as stated above) with the gap between images to 1 sec. The result are the last two images in this post:

  • Linda December 10, 2010 07:37 am

    Very informative article. Do you have any tips on photographing a lunar eclispe? There will be one on Dec. 20, in the Western Hemisphere anyway. Thanks!

  • Melanie December 10, 2010 07:20 am

    Great article - one of the best I've ever read about star trails. I definitely want to try the stacked approach!

  • Rex Winterton December 10, 2010 05:57 am

    I always see photos of star trails but you are the only one I have noticed that gives complete detail of all the setings. Thank you so much for doing that. You make photography extra fun.

  • Cindi December 10, 2010 04:54 am

    I thought this was your article Trevor. Nicely done.

  • William December 10, 2010 03:14 am

    It is also better to capture startrails in the cooler months as the air is clearer and not so much wind to bend the starlight as opposed to warmer months with dust in the air and and windier nights.,just a thought :)

  • Vishal Sawant December 10, 2010 02:39 am

    Thank you very much for this article and tips. This explains all of my doubts for Star Trail Photography. I have a Canon S5 IS camera which has max 15 sec shutter speed and it never occurred to me that I can take multiple shots and then use a software like startrail.exe to club them all together. Definitely going to try this weekend.

  • Westin December 10, 2010 02:36 am

    My only problem with using multiple stacked shots is that after the image is rendered, the light from each star appears more as a pulse than a constant light. The only guess i had about that was the short amount of time every thirty seconds when the shutter is closed. Any suggestions how to fix this?

  • Bryan December 10, 2010 02:13 am

    Hi, great article!

    I'm interested in star trails photography, however, I read somewhere that it is best to use film cameras for this type of shooting because it uses film and won't overheat, whereas dslr over long exposure will. While shooting in intervals may help reduce the burden on the sensor in terms of overheating, I'm concerned that over the hours it will still cause the sensor to overheat and potentially damage the sensor. Can anyone please advice?


  • Jon December 10, 2010 02:06 am

    Don't get discouraged if you don't get a good outcome on your first try. I've been doing this when the conditions are right and each time i learn something new. I'm going to try 15s exposures next time instead of 30s. Also, if your lens doesn't have an infinity setting, like mine, you can use this little program, , to know what to focus on for sharp trails. Good luck, have fun, and stay warm! :)

  • Sam An December 10, 2010 01:39 am

    Trevor, excellent article. Have recently been interested in star trail photography and this article helps a lot. Do you have any tips on shooting the milky way (not star trails)?

  • Carla December 10, 2010 01:24 am

    Thank you very much for the post! I have always wanted to try this out but never got the chance. With the tips that you give (that I never knew before), I am more than excited to finally try to take the star trails photos!

  • Marcos Oliveira December 10, 2010 01:18 am

    Amazing shots ...You've inspired me to try it out.Thanks for posting.

  • DuckNelson December 10, 2010 01:16 am

    I love this article! The pics are great.

    One thing that I learned the hard way is that one should consider what you set your tripod on to shoot the shot.

    I did a picture of a house on the beach in the night last summer, and I shot it from a deck that was about 50 feet away. Setting up on the little deck was a good perspective, but when I took the shot, I was standing on the deck as well. I'm pretty sure that my shifting around jarred the tripod slightly and ultimately made the picture blur. By blur I mean it kinda ruined the picture that I was trying to make.

    Please keep up the great work!

  • Ben December 10, 2010 01:04 am

    This is very nice indeed. I particularly liked your tip about white balance settings - I had been getting that dirty looking sky and had wondered why.

    Will definitely give it another try now that the warm summer nights are here


  • Peggy Collins December 10, 2010 12:47 am

    A very enjoyable article...clearly written and a visual treat! I vow to finally try this technique by the new year.

  • Chris McIntosh December 10, 2010 12:45 am

    Excellent article. Thank you for taking the time to write this all up and share your knowledge. I'll try these techniques as soon as the weather permits.

  • Adrian December 10, 2010 12:19 am

    I never thought of lighting the foreground with a torch before, i will have to try that! Ohh and i love the first shot the most! =)
    Here are some of my ones.

  • James Brandon December 10, 2010 12:15 am

    Incredible post Trevor! I've always wanted to try this but don't get that far out of the city very much :-/. Thanks for the post!