How To Photograph Star Trails

How To Photograph Star Trails


Photographing star trails can be challenging but also rewarding. If you’ve never tried it, these tips will help you get started.

Choosing the Place and Time

To make a striking photograph of the stars, there are a few requirements when it comes to choosing the right place and time.

  • You must be far away from any city lights since any ambient light will make the stars less visible. If you live in a big city, this could mean traveling some distance. Recently I was in Nevada, about an hour’s drive away from Las Vegas, and I couldn’t believe the amount of light in the sky from the city.
  • For the photograph to have a sense of place, you will need something interesting in the foreground. It must be something that doesn’t move like a mountain or a building.
  • Plan your star photography adventure for a moonless night. Or at least the moon cannot be above the horizon while you are photographing. Similar to what happens with city lights, the stars are not as visible when the moon brightens the sky.
  • It should also be a clear night with no clouds.
Cowichan Lake Star Trails by Anne McKinnell.

Star trails at Cowichan Lake, British Columbia.


The best way to go about making an image of star trails is to take multiple exposures and combine them in post processing.

While it is possible to take one very long exposure, often the heat coming from the sensor will cause hot spots in your final image.

I usually use a 30 second shutter speed and make 60 images.

Gear You Will Need

The most important thing you will need is a tripod to stabilize your camera during the long exposures.

A cable release or intervalometer is extremely handy but not essential.

You can use the 2 second timer on your camera and manually click the shutter continuously for half an hour. It can be done. But, with a cable release you can set your camera to continuous shooting and lock the cable release and your camera will continue to make images until you unlock it.

If you have an intervalometer, you can program it to take a specific number of images of a particular shutter speed. This is the easiest but most expensive way to go about it.

Finally, make sure you have a fully charged battery since the cold night may cause your battery life to be shorter than usual.

Star trails at Guadalupe National Park, Texas, by Anne McKinnell.

Star trails in Guadalupe National Park, Texas.

Taking the shots

Once you are on location and the gear is ready to go, you can set up your composition.

If possible, go one night ahead of time and locate polaris, the north star, in the sky.  If you can manage to get polaris in the frame, all the stars will circle around it.  If polaris is not in the frame, the stars will appear to travel in a semi-circle.  If you can’t go a day ahead of time, use your compass and try to get as much sky in the frame as possible.

I like to set up my composition during the day so I get just the right amount of foreground in the frame and set the focus so that the foreground is sharp. This is much easier to do during the day than it is once it is dark outside.

Remember once you have set the correct focus to turn your auto-focus off so your camera does not attempt to re-focus at night. Also, your image stabilization should be off anytime your camera is on a tripod.

When it’s dark and you are ready to begin, which will probably be a couple of hours after sunset at least, you can do some tests to make sure you are getting good exposures. You will want to use a large aperture (small F stop number) to ensure you have the greatest amount of light entering the camera as possible. If you try to use a smaller aperture, the star trails we be very dim. So, since you need a 30 second shutter speed and a small aperture, such as f/4, proper exposure will be determined by the ISO. Try taking a test shot at ISO1600 and see if you can see the stars in the image. If not, increase the ISO to 3200.

Also, make sure you turn your in-camera noise reduction off because it will require an additional 30 seconds after you make your exposure to do the noise reduction and you will end up with little gaps in your trails.

Star Trails at Joshua Tree National Park by Anne McKinnell.

Star trails at Joshua Tree National Park, California.

Processing the Image

To combine your images, I recommend a free program I have been using called StarStaX which is easy to use and it does a great job. Just point StarStaX to the folder that contains all the exposures, selected “lighten” as the blend mode, and let it go to work.

This can be the most exciting part of the whole experience since you finally get to see what you have created!

Once you have the stacked image, you might find you have some UFO’s in it that look like straight lines crossing your curved star trails. Those can be caused by comets or airplanes. I usually use the healing brush in Photoshop to remove them.

You might have to invest a bit of time in planning, making the exposures, and processing the images, but the final result will be well worth the investment. All you really need is a bit of patience.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Anne McKinnell is a photographer, writer and nomad. She lives in an RV and travels around North America photographing beautiful places and writing about travel, photography, and how changing your life is not as scary as it seems. You can read about her adventures on her blog and be sure to check out her free photography eBooks.

Some Older Comments

  • Anne McKinnell July 16, 2013 04:32 am

    @arturo I think it is always better to shoot raw. When you do, your image contains more data and so you have more to work with in post-processing. When it comes to star trails, I shoot raw, then I make whatever adjustments I want to make to one of the raw files then apply those setting to all the other raw files. Then I export them as jpgs before I stack them. I hope that helps!

  • Arturo Yañez July 13, 2013 03:52 pm

    Hello every one! Thanks for the article Anne and the comments. I have a quick question. Do you shoot raw or jpg? What is your advice in this respect. Thanks one more time!!

  • Denise June 26, 2013 02:19 pm

    Anne, thanks for this very easy to read/understand article. I have a Nikon D3100 and am learning how to use it. I can hardly wait to go and and practice. I look forward to reading more of ur articles.

  • Fred June 6, 2013 11:04 pm

    Note that if you have a computer with a Unix-like system, you can use gPhoto ( to pilot your camera. This way you don't need any intervalometer...

  • Shwetank Upadhyay May 16, 2013 05:38 pm

    thanks Anne McKinnell

  • Anne McKinnell May 5, 2013 02:39 am

    @Steve Jones - I use the Vello Shutterboss too, it works great.

    @shwetank - In most cases, image stabilization uses gyroscopic sensors to control an electromagnet on one element of the lens. When the sensors detect movement, they shift the lens element to correct it. It may be counter-intuitive, but using image stabilization while your camera is on a tripod can actually introduce camera shake because the camera's IS system may detect it's own vibration. I know, it’s odd that it causes the problem it is supposed to remove if your camera is on a tripod. If it’s not on a tripod though definitely use it. Image stabilization is one of the best things about modern cameras. Some newer IS systems can detect when a camera is on a tripod or have a tripod mode that compensates for the tripod resistence or turns IS off. Make sure you read the fine print in your product manual to see if this is the case with your lens or just take matters into your own hands and turn off IS when your camera is on a tripod.

    @michael c - The tripod detection feature depends on what kind of lens you have and how new it is. But in any case, I still recommend taking matters into your own hands and turning off the image stabilization rather than relying on the camera to it for you. Just like how auto-focus isn't always 100% accurate, I'm sure the tripod detection feature isn't 100% accurate either. It's an easy habit to get in to. Put your camera on a tripod, flick a switch. Take your camera off the tripod, flick a switch. Then you don't have to worry about whether then lens you are using at any particular time has that feature.

  • Michael C May 4, 2013 07:56 pm

    @shwetank upadhyay: Please read my comment 14 comments above yours where I discussed this very issue. What the article stated is outdated and does not apply to most newer IS/VR/OS/VC lenses.

  • Shwetank Upadhyay May 3, 2013 04:21 pm

    Hi Anne McKinnell,

    In your article, you have mentioned " Also, your image stabilization should be off anytime your camera is on a tripod". It would be really helpful if you can give me the basic idea behind that. Why is it required to do so?
    I understand that Image stabilization task is to free the frame from shakes , but so does the tripod (when using a timer or an external trigger).

    Thanks in advance for any insights ..

  • Steve Jones May 1, 2013 05:22 am

    I didn't see this anywhere here, but Steve Christenson has a blog that is all about Shooting stars. He also has a free Photoshop action that will do all of the work in Photoshop. Here is his blog post about :

    (He now has some more actions that are for sale, but this one is the original and it works in CS6)

  • Steve Jones May 1, 2013 05:07 am

    It will help...especially if you want to sleep longer than 30 minutes at a time. :-D but if you just have a regular shutter release cable you can get by with that.

  • sameer April 30, 2013 10:06 pm

    Thanks John b, Steve.
    So, I have to get intervalometer!

  • Steve Jones April 30, 2013 04:03 pm

    IMHO if you are not going to do it through Photoshop, Starstax is a better free program.

  • John Harris April 30, 2013 06:09 am

    Another app for comping your star-trails is Startrails.exe. Available from I have yet to give it a spin personally, but would be interested in hearing from anyone who has experienced this. Might run in wine on the Mac. I will see if I can get it to run in wine on Linux and report back.

  • Steve Jones April 29, 2013 02:00 am

    @Sameer, Read what I posted.. I didn't see your post earlier...But that will do what you need to do...I use the Vello Shutterboss (used to be Pearstone) The on board intervalometer at best will put a 3 sec gap between the shots. I have a D800 and have the same issues that you have...maybe if we all contact Nikon, they will issue a firmware update. :-D

    As an alternative, you can also use a regular wired remote and when it gets close to 30- 45 min, release the trigger and push it down again while it is taking a will reset the Ch count. ( 45min. for a 30 sec exposure...every 30 minutes for a 20 sec exposure) That should take care of all your issues

  • John B. April 28, 2013 11:51 pm

    @ Sameer: You say your D3100 only takes 100 images in continuous mode. I have the D5100 and each time I attempted the star trails, it would take about 30 photos and then shut down. You may have experienced the mistake I made.

    I didn't understand how to properly use my built-in intervalometer, so each time I took a 20-second exposure, I allowed only a 2-second interval. That fills up the camera's buffer. Setting your camera in continuous mode would also do the same thing.

    For me to use the intervalometer correctly, it was necessary to allow 22-second intervals between taking shots; 20 seconds to allow the information to be written to the card, and another 2 seconds for the camera to be ready for the next shot. Those 22-second intervals create gaps in the trails but the free Stacker program I used fills in those gaps.

    Nikon's manual doesn't tell you how to correctly use the intervalometer. The "interval" part of the name should be a clue. The interval must be slightly longer than the exposure time. You can buy intervalometers pretty cheaply on the Internet. I had a nice one that I paid about $28 for. You might want to think about that before you splash out for a new camera, unless you really want the D5100.

  • Steve Jones April 28, 2013 05:11 am

    Anne, Ch is your quiets the pixel peepers for the most part ;-) Instead of having the 3 sec gaps, you have at the max a 1 sec gap...almost undetectable

    With Nikon, you have to max the Continuous Shutter Release to 100 and then use your intervalometer and set it for 45:03 So that there isn't an overlap of shutter release and intervalometer release. and around 10 shots or so, and then set your shutter on your camera for 30 sec....It really really makes a difference.

    With Canon, I don't know if they have a Max on their continuous release, so there may be a difference there. But it really works.

  • sameer April 28, 2013 04:58 am

    Thanks Anne!
    I once captured amazing trails using my film SLR by exposing for several hours... tried same with digital SLR and got a colorful photo, thanks to sensor heat!!
    Thanks a lot for tip to shoot in continuous mode... i tried that yesterday night and the result was impressive!
    Although, my Nikon D3100 takes only 100 images in continuous mode. its a crazy limitation... i was hoping that i will get photos till my battery runs out. but...
    so, i guess i have to get an intervalometer or D5100 :)
    Thanks again,

  • Geoff April 27, 2013 02:53 am

    Hi everybody,Good tutorial and feedback. I haven't tried taking Star-trails as yet but this has inspired me to give it a go, .Pls everybody do not make the same mistake as I have by buying a cheap tripod. I bought this useless thing for $130au thinking it would do for luner shots.It did do for awhile while it was new,but new didn't last long.Oh what a mistake.A sturdy tripod is needed for this type of thing.So save up and save money.

  • Derek April 26, 2013 06:32 pm

    How do you get such clarity and color out of your star trails. This is the best that I could come up with Two things I know that when wrong were that I have a crappy tripod, so I had to take out a few photos, which led to the gaps in the star trails. Also it was a full moon, which washed out the sky. Other than that, could you tell me more of how to get more color in the trails and how to get them more sharp.

  • Michael C April 26, 2013 05:50 pm

    Most cameras differentiate between noise reduction done in the image processor (without the use of a "dark exposure" where the shutter does not open) and noise reduction done using a dark exposure equal to the length of the first exposure to subtract the noise generated by the second exposure from the first. Canon calls this second case "long exposure noise reduction". With the default "auto" option it engages for any exposure longer than 1 second, but may be disabled using the custom function menu. The more conventional in-camera NR does not significantly affect the frame rate unless shooting in high speed burst mode. If the resulting files are saved in RAW format, the NR isn't applied until post processing anyway, other than to the jpeg thumbnail preview displayed on the camera's LCD screen. Certain Pentax DSLRs do not allow the disabling of a similar function.

  • Michael C April 26, 2013 05:35 pm

    "Also, your image stabilization should be off anytime your camera is on a tripod."

    For photographing star trails this is generally good advice. But this statement is not always true. Far from it.

    Whether IS should be used when a camera/lens is mounted on a tripod varies widely and is lens specific. Many of the earliest IS lens designs do have problems with a feedback loop whereby the IS tries to counteract the motion caused by the IS trying to counteract the motion caused by the IS trying to counteract the motion caused by the IS... and should always have the IS turned off when used with a tripod. Other more recent lenses with IS have sevearl IS modes and some even have "tripod sensing" capability and will either shift the IS mode applied or shut it off without user intervention. The most recent Canon Super Telephoto lenses even have an IS mode programed specifically to counteract mirror slap when the lens is tripod mounted. This is especially helpful when the subject matter does not allow the extra time to allow for locking up the mirror and waiting several seconds to actuate the shutter.

  • Tom Faherty April 26, 2013 01:16 pm

    Noah, I found a tip (probably here at DPS!) for moon shots. ISO 250, f 11, 1/500 for a full moon, slow shutter speed by a stop or so for each quarter. I was shocked, shocked! when it worked like a charm with my D7000 first time out. There's a ton of tips on the web, but this worked great for me as a starting point to get me close.

  • Mark April 26, 2013 09:39 am

    Very helpful article Anne, I have wanted to try this for some time.

  • Anne McKinnell April 26, 2013 09:03 am

    Thank you everyone for your comments and for sharing your images.

    @Regan I usually use a fairly wide angle lens so that I can get some foreground and lots of sky in the frame. These examples were all made between 10 and 24mm.

    @Cramer If your camera takes as long to process the image for a preview you must have your in-camera noise reduction on. I would try turning that off and do any noise reduction that is necessary in lightroom or photoshop.

    @John About the time-lapse and the dolly, it seems to me I saw something about that recently on kickstarter. You might want to check out kickstarter and see if there's a project there you want to invest in :)

    @Darlene Glad I could help! I ended up buying an intervelometer anyway because the cable release for my camera (a Canon 7D) didn't have a lock. The one for my old XSI has a lock feature on it and that was handy.

    @WillyC thanks for the tip about Google Sky Map!

    @Hagen Yes, I use photographer's ephemeris too, it's great!

    @Noah There are a few things you can do to avoid camera shake. If you are noticing a lot of camera shake when your camera is on your tripod it is probably one of two things: your image stabilization is on, or there is too much wind. The image stabilization is a funny thing. It may be counter-intuitive, but using image stabilization while your camera is on a tripod can actually introduce camera shake because the camera's IS system may detect it's own vibration. Weird I know! If the problem is wind, you might have to wait for a calmer night or see if you tripod has one of those hooks where you can hang something heavy to hold it down.

  • Terry Tedor April 26, 2013 08:57 am

    @noah - Some tricks to try with your tripod:

    Keep it as low as you can. Only extend the legs as far as you need to have the tripod at a comfortable height. NEVER extend the center column. I use a right angle adapter on my viewfinder to keep the tripod low to the ground which will help minimize vibrations.

    If your camera is so equipped, enable mirror lock-up. Use a remote shutter release or self timer (already mentioned in the article).

    If it is windy outside, suspend weights from the tripod to help dampen the vibrations. If you don't have any weights available, carefully drape your camera bag's shoulder strap around the tripod to add extra weight.

    @Cramer Imaging: Sounds like you have "Long Exposure Noise Reduction" enabled, and the extra waiting time is from the camera taking a dark image exposure and subtracting it from the image to reduce noise.

    I shoot a lot of aurora and night images during the winter; these tips have helped me.

  • R.Cooper April 26, 2013 08:01 am

    I enjoyed this article.
    This was my first solid attempt on Star trails.
    This was shot in North East Philadelphia, I was surprised I was able to capture some stars. I had to wait until there was a new moon. It is possible to capture a trail in a big city, all you need is time and the right night. One day I will head out of the city and capture something amazing.

  • Noah April 26, 2013 03:42 am

    The issue that I have run into is that there is a lot of shake (from the tripod?). If I try to zoom in at all I get nothing but camera shake. I would love to get shots of the moon but seems rather difficult. Any suggestions would be great. I am new to photography and love these posts.

  • Hagen April 26, 2013 02:02 am

    Photographer's Ephemeris will tell you what direction north is, sunrise/set, moonrise/set and much more including elevations that may be in your way (using google maps).

    It is available for iOS, Android, Windows and Mac and I use it for most landscape or countryside shooting.

  • WillyC April 26, 2013 01:58 am

    Awesome tips! I have tried my hand at photographing stars, but was running into a similar situation as others: 30 seconds exposure = 30 seconds to process. Now I know what setting to look for and am excited to try it again!

    I found a great free app for my Android phone called Google Sky Map. It shows where planets, constellations, etc. are located, including the moon. Super easy to locate Polaris and get the "full circle" effect.

  • Glendon April 25, 2013 01:25 pm

    Thanks for the great article. There are a lot of tips here I can use. I tried photographing star trails for the first time last summer. Here was the result:

  • Darlene Hildebrandt April 25, 2013 10:09 am

    hey John nice to see you! Cool shot! How did you get the stars to show up without completely blowing out the lights on the house?

    @Jeff love the time lapse that came out of StarTrax. I've yet to try it. Every time I get out at night it's either cloudy or I'm too close to city lights.

    @Cramer is the camera is taking as long as your exposure to show you the preview, you likely have the "long exposure noise reduction" that Anne mentioned turned on. Turn that off in your menu settings and it will appear much faster.

    Great article Anne, I gotta get out and try this. I actually never thought of putting my camera on continuous shooting and locking my remote. DOH! Thanks for that little tip, you just saved me buying an intervelometer.

  • John Davenport April 25, 2013 05:25 am

    @Anne - Time lapses are a lot of fun - but a lot of work! I really haven't done much since the one I linked to here as this one really was just a side effect of photographing the star-trails. I've tried a few other time-lapse sequences (a sunrise, a snow storm), but they didn't really work out so well. I suppose the sunrise was okay the snow storm was a complete bust.

    Anyway - I want to invest in a dolly and add motion to my next one, but I just don't have the budget to make that happen lol. So many other things on my "want" list. :)

    Hope your experiments with time-lapse goes well!

  • Cramer Imaging April 24, 2013 08:18 am

    Thanks Anne. My first attempt at a star trail ended up less than stellar, pardon the pun. I did not realize how long I had to keep the shutter open for those long blazing trails. That was a serious issue for me as the camera takes just as long to post process the image for a preview as the shutter is open. I did not like that. This is a far better option and I look forward to trying out your suggestion on the free software. I hope to soon have my own fantastic star trails pictures to show off.

  • Rob Gipman April 24, 2013 07:13 am did one in france, my first atempt

  • Jeff E Jensen April 24, 2013 07:12 am

    I love shooting star trails, and, John is right, the images make for some good time lapse material:

  • Regan April 24, 2013 04:03 am

    I really appreciate the way that you write, as it seems very do-able. A little more information is needed about the lens types and what might be expected with different types. What lenses did you use with your examples? Thanks for sharing!

  • Anne McKinnell April 24, 2013 03:58 am

    @john davenport Good point! I have just started getting into time lapse myself.

    @timgray Oops, I meant to say meteor! Thanks for catching that.

  • timgray April 24, 2013 03:32 am

    Not comets. Comets dont move that fast.

    Satellites typically move fast enough to make lines.

  • John Davenport April 24, 2013 03:28 am

    Great post Anne! Star-trails are a lot of fun and definitely something that anyone can do with the right know-how. One thing I'd like to add is that due to the fact that typically you'll end up with hundreds of photos you can create some really cool time-lapse shots of the stars moving across the sky as well.

    Here's my first star-trail photograph down the bottom of the page is a time-lapse I created using the very same images. - It's a two for one kind of thing :)