A star trail is a star like streak caused by the Earth’s rotation on its axis. Technically, star trails are not really stars at all and can be seen in both day and night. The long exposure photos of star trails create beautiful images that show the movement of celestial objects over time. In this article we will guide you through how to shoot star trail photography so you can capture these beautiful moments for yourself!
Star Trail Photography Basics
To shoot star trails you will need a camera that can do long exposures, a tripod, and ideally an intervalometer. The longer the exposure of your photo, the more pronounced the star trail effect will be. To get started, find a dark location with as few light pollution sources as possible. You will also want to make sure that you are away from any light coming from a town or city.
Once you have chosen your star trail location, find the North Star and then walk yourself to face that direction – this will be important for lining up star trails later on in post-processing. If there is no visible star near where the North star should be, you can still shoot star trails. The star trails will not look as circular and may have more of a curved appearance, but they should still be noticeable in the final image.
Make sure you are shooting with your camera on manual focus so it does not try to refocus while taking long exposures (unless you want this effect for artistic purposes). Set up your tripod and point your camera towards the North Star, then compose your shot.
Looking For Star Trails Along The Southern Cross Or The Polaris
When looking for star trails, you can choose to include either the Southern Cross or Polaris in your shot. The stars that make up these constellations move at different speeds so it is an effect when they are all combined together.
The Southern Cross is a constellation that can only be seen in the southern hemisphere, while Polaris is located near the North star and can be seen from anywhere on Earth.
Including star trails along either of these constellations will give your photo more of a sense of place and help to orient the viewer. If you are including star trails in a photo that does not have a specific location, using one of these constellations can help to give the viewer a sense of where the photo was taken.
Apps For Locating Stars In The Sky
There are star map apps that can assist you in finding either the Southern Cross or Polaris (or any star for that matter) if they do not appear to be where they should be. Google Sky Map is a star mapping app available for Android devices and iPhones/iPads, while Star Walk has an Apple Watch version as well as versions on both Android and iOS devices.
You can also try the following apps:
How You Can Photograph Star Trails
To shoot star trails, you will need a camera that can do long exposures. The longer the exposure of your photo, the more pronounced the star trail effect will be.
There are two ways to capture star trails:
- Using one long exposure with a single focal length and being stationary during this time (this is what we recommend for beginners)
- Shooting multiple photos in succession while changing lenses throughout each shot so there is movement in between shots (harder to edit later on)
If you have an intervalometer or remote shutter release for your camera, use it! It helps dramatically when trying to keep from shaking/moving your camera while taking such long exposures by allowing you to press down once. This way you don’t have to worry about keeping your hands still for the entire time.
If you do not have an intervalometer, you can use the camera’s timer feature as a workaround but this is not ideal because it introduces more shake into the photo.
There are also a few different apps to determine how long you’ll need to set the exposure, such as the PhotoPills App.
Photographing Star Trails: Step-By-Step Guide
Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s walk through other considerations you’ll need to shoot star trails.
Weather will play a big role in star trail photography since it can affect the quality of your photo. You should avoid taking photos when there is too much light pollution (e.g., cities, street lights) or clouds that block out star trails completely.
Otherwise, any other conditions are fine to shoot star trails! The more you practice photographing star trails, the better able you’ll be at utilizing weather to your advantage (for example using fog/mist for dramatic effect).
Make sure the moon isn’t too bright. If you want a little ambient light to brighten up the environment, a quarter moon is acceptable; however, make sure it’s out of the frame you’re composing. Keep an eye on the weather and go shooting when the skies are clear. Obviously, photographing star trails during a overcast day is not recommended, but other atmospheric filtration can cause problems – air pollution and humidity being among them.
The clearest skies are generally found high up and outside of any inhabited areas, when the humidity is very low.
Where You Need To Be Shooting
When scouting for a star trail photo shoot location, try to find an open area without too many trees or buildings that will obstruct the view of the night sky. You’ll also want to make sure there is no light pollution in the area (e.g., cities, streetlights).
If you’re shooting star trails in North America, look for a spot where you can see Polaris, aka the camera on a tripod and use a cable release or intervalometer to keep it as still as possible throughout the exposure. If photographing star trails in Australia or New Zealand, find an area where you can see the Southern Cross constellation.
For star trails in Europe, try to find a location where you can see the Big Dipper.
In Asia, look for an area with the Milky Way visible in the sky.
Once you’ve found a good spot, set up your tripod and camera and take some test shots to determine what focal length works best for your composition.
If you’re looking for the best dark places near you, check out the following apps and websites:
Gear For Capturing Star Trails
Now that we’ve covered star trail photography preparation, let’s look at the gear you’ll need to capture star trails.
While planning a star trail shoot, try to pack as light as possible and think about weight distribution on your person or backpack for hiking in.
As far as tripods go, using a heavy one is better because it will allow you faster shutter speeds without any shake from wind gusts. We do not recommend trying this with plastic tripods – they’re pretty flimsy and can break easier! A wider leg base helps keep more of your tripod steady when shooting star trails over long exposures (e.g., 30 seconds). Also note: avoid setting up your tripod near bushes/trees where there might be wind blowing against your equipment. We want to avoid your camera shaking, which will ruin the shot.
You’ll also want an intervalometer (if your camera doesn’t have one built in); a camera with manual mode, bulb mode, and other lens combinations; a wide angle lens with an aperture of at least F2.8; protection for your gear under cold conditions; and other spare equipment like batteries or memory cards.
Aperture Setting For Star Trails
When composing star trail shots, your aperture setting will be one of the most important things to consider. You’ll want to use a wide-open aperture (small F number) so that more light hits the sensor over the long exposure time. This will also help create star trails that are smooth and have minimal trailing.
It also lets in the most light possible and you want to ensure your camera’s sensor is registering the stars as before they move, or your star trails will be dim or won’t pick up at your chosen f/stop.
If you’re using a zoom lens, try zooming in all the way for maximum effect. However, if you’re using a prime lens, keep in mind that at its widest focal length it might not cover as much of the sky as you’d like; this is where cropping comes into play during post-processing.
Other Camera Settings To Consider For Star Trail Photography
Here are some other considerations when adjusting your camera settings to shoot star trails:
Using Long Exposure And Settings
Choose a shutter speed depending on the aperture value and iso you’ve chosen. Depending on the lens you’re using, try starting with f/2.8, f/4, or f/5.6 for example. Set the iso to between 640 and 3200 for your camera (keep it below iso 1600 to keep the stars’ colors). Begin with a 20-30 second exposure time and see what gets recorded; if nothing special happens, increase or decrease both the ISO and exposure times as desired.
- Check to make sure there is no moon in the sky. Use your test shots to determine how long you need to expose for. If you’re using an f2.8 lens, ISO 100 should be sufficient, but if you’re using a narrow aperture like f4 or f5.6, ISO 200 or 320 is preferable. To minimize noise, keep your ISO as low as possible. Begin with a reasonable aperture of f4 and work your way up later if necessary.
- To see if stars are recorded in the frame, do a test shot for 20 or 30 seconds. If the test shot fails, increase the aperture or ISO, whichever is possible, and take additional tests until you get a good image. Increase the shutter speed to around 10 or 15 minutes after you’re happy with your test shot. To figure out what settings to use, double the exposure time to do a few test shots.
- Don’t use noise reduction, since it can take a long time to complete after each shot. Now, depending on the results of the test shots, determine how much time you’ll need to capture acceptable star trails in your photo. You will certainly require at least 60 minutes of exposure time, but a 90-minute exposure may produce stunning trails in your photographs.
- It’s also important to bear in mind that total darkness is your friend for this long-exposure photography, therefore make sure there isn’t a moon in the sky. Look for new moon nights or shoot before or after moon rise or moonset to capture the effect.
Image Stacking Exposures And Settings
Exposure stacking is another star trail photography technique that lets you capture star trails in minutes, instead of hours. First set your aperture to f/22 (or whatever the widest aperture on your lens) and iso at 800-1600 depending on how bright or dark it’s looking. Set exposure time to around 30 seconds, then take a bunch of photos for about 20-30 minutes until you have enough images.
Put all those shots into an exposure stacking software like StarStax, which will automatically align them so star movement isn’t visible between frames. Then save the file as jpg with maximum quality setting and open it up in Photoshop or Adobe Lightroom to edit!
- Turn off in-camera noise reduction, such as long exposure noise reduction, high iso noise reduction, and low light noise reduction. This can lead to a significant delay between long exposure photographs (anything listed in the shooting menu of your camera’s control panel).
- Make a test shot, then check the ISO and/or shutter speed to see if you need to increase them. Do not use an ISO higher than 3200 since image quality will deteriorate. Set up the intervalometer in your camera or, if possible, make use of an external one to take the number of shots at the designated interval (if your camera doesn’t have an inbuilt intervalometer, look for a remote shutters release with an intervalometer built-in).
- The number of exposures required is determined by the length of trails in the finished photograph. I propose having a minimum of 50 exposures (short star trails) and more if you have the time. To get a decent star trails, shoot up to 200 or even 300 photos. nMake sure there isn’t a gap between shots (less than one second) because this will result in a break in the star trails rather than a continuous flow.
- Experiment with the white balance until you obtain an acceptable result. The correct white balance should be somewhere around 3000K to 4000K, depending on the degree of light pollution. Set the white balance to Auto and make changes afterward if necessary. As a result, shoot raw every time.
It’s important to remember that star trail shots can suffer from thermal noise. The longer your camera is open and exposed, the more this will show up in images (especially if it gets cold).
While long exposure noise reduction features help reduce or remove these imperfections, you might not always want to use them because they may lead star trails out of alignment. So keep an eye on your photos after shooting for signs of star trail distortion caused by thermal noise!
Make sure you’re monitoring your histogram while shooting star trails. If the data is pushed to the right or left, it will result in image noise and loss of detail in your photos. Try adjusting your aperture, iso, or shutter speed until the histogram is centered for each photo.
Once you’ve captured star trails, it’s time to edit them! Star trail images can utilize many different editing techniques and processes (like stacking or layering) that allow for better color correction, more depth in the sky, and overall clarity.
But perhaps one of the most important parts is how star trails interact with other objects like foregrounds; this could be a tree line or mountain range as seen from Earth’s perspective over night skies. Paying attention to these elements while shooting will make post-processing much easier when creating star trail composites later on!
If you’re leveraging Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop to stack or combine images to get star trails, you’ll want to also take the following adjustments into consideration for post-processing:
- White Balance Adjustments
- Exposure and Contrast Adjustments
- Highlights and Shadows Adjustments
- White and Blacks Adjustments
- Clarity and Dehaze (if needed)
- Sharpness and Noise Reduction Adjustments (if needed)
Other Star Trail Photography Tips
- Turn off image stabilization on the lens and camera body. Remove any filters from the lens. If you want to include foreground elements in the shot, focus at the hyperfocal distance or one-third into the scene.
- You may also zoom in on the liveview feed to focus on the brightest star in the sky. This may result in your foreground elements becoming slightly out of focus from time to time.
- Look for dark sky locations with the least amount of light pollution to help capture more stars and their hues. All stars are not white, and some have distinct tints such as blue, red, orange, or yellow.
- When framing for strong photos, look for interesting things during the day and seek for compositions at night. Make use of compositional rules to create engaging star trails photographs by looking for remarkable subjects including abandoned buildings, architectural structures, lighthouses, bridges, lonely trees, windmills, and roads.
- When it’s cold outside, the lens hood might sometimes stymie any condensation processes. Look for inspiration from other photographers on the internet. Learn from their expertise by looking at works of great photographers.
Star Trail Examples To Try
If you’re looking for inspiration, here are a few star trail ideas that you can try out:
Circumpolar Star Trails
Circumpolar star trails (or the North star) are captured around Polaris or other visible stars that never seem to move. These patterns can be found near the northern hemisphere and appear as concentric circles in photographs.
Long Star Trails Over Landscapes
These star trail images include foreground elements like trees, mountains, rocks, clouds, landscapes, lakeshores, riverside paths leading into waterfalls or lush forests with strong contrasting colors to bring out depth in your star trail shots. You can even try these images during full moons for added effect!
Star Trails With Strong Compositions at Night
You’re looking for compositions including busy city skylines with skyscrapers creating vibrant color blocks against a dark sky backdrop. Another example would be star trail images taken around lighthouses with the stars reflecting off of water.
Celestial Equatorial Star Trails
Celestial star trails are typically captured off the ecliptic plane and include star movement around Polaris or other stars. These patterns can be found near the southern hemisphere, appearing as a large arc with concentric circles creating colorful swaths of light in just one single exposure.
Combining Star Trails With Traffic Lights
Capturing star trails with an interesting foreground can also include photographing cityscapes with colorful traffic lights and busy streets. Experiment with different shutter speeds to produce star trails of different lengths, as well as varying the aperture to control the depth of field.
Photograph Star Trail Reflections
Another star trail idea is photographing star trails over a body of water in the foreground, such as rivers and lakes. These images create interesting reflections by juxtaposing the star trails with reflective surfaces to bring out depth in your shots.
As you can see, star trail photography is a lot of fun and very simple to create. All it requires are the right gear, location conditions, camera settings/techniques along with some compositional ideas that will come together in just one single shot!