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    Star Trail Photography: A Guide from Preparation to Execution

    By May 15, 2020 June 29th, 2020 Photography

    Star Trails Over Cathedral Lake, Yosemite

    Star trails are a popular effect in nighttime photography. The stars’ movement created by the rotation of the Earth is striking in an image, given that it’s not visible to the naked eye. 

    Star trail photography, when done well, create compelling compositions. But, a high-quality star trail image is difficult if you don’t take the time to prepare and execute properly. 

    Here, I’ve created a guide to help you to capture star trails from start to finish. We’ll cover everything from the gear, research, camera settings,  and composition. 

    1. Bring a Tripod

    To shoot star trails, you’ll need to use long shutter speeds. And any-time you are using long shutter speeds, its essential that you have a durable and robust tripod. 

    When buying a tripod, always invest in quality.

    A quality tripod is especially important when you’re shooting outdoors.

    While they cost more money,  those additional bucks often mean a great deal of difference in performance. 

    In high winds, for example, quality tripods will remain stable, while an inexpensive tripod will likely be unsteady.

    Quality tripods are also more durable and will work for a long time. This is true even with the wear and tear that outdoor shooting conditions cause.

    In contrast, low-quality tripods are quick to break and will often need replacement.  

    So, although better quality will cost more initially, you’ll be able to save money in the long run by not having to replace it frequently.

    If you are looking for a high-quality tripod that won’t break the bank, I recommend the Manfrotto Befree Live Tripod. You get the amazing build of a trusted brand such as Manfrotto, but at a fraction of the price.

    Resource: Best Budget Travel Tripods (under $200)

    2. Use a Full-Frame Camera

    There are two things you should consider when choosing your camera if you are shooting star trails.

    First, you must select a camera with manual mode. You must have control over all your exposure settings to photograph star trails successfully. 

    Second, if possible, use a camera with a full-frame sensor. Full-frame sensors will allow you to capture more light, which is crucial when shooting at night. 

    Resource: Best Digital Camera For Beginners In 2020

    3.  Use a Shutter Release / Intervalometer

    When shooting star trails, having a shutter release button with an intervalometer is extremely useful.

    An intervalometer allows you to set the time interval between shots, the number of shots, and a timer before the first shot. Star trail photos can take a long time, and if you are planning on stacking multiple images, an intervalometer makes it easy. 

    Most, but not all, intervalometers can also double as a shutter release button. These are the most useful because it will allow you to use long exposures with successive time intervals. 

    I recommend the PIXEL Wireless Shutter Remote which acts as both a shutter release button and an intervalometer. This intervalometer is great because it functions both wirelessly as well as wired.

    This is a well-built quality shutter release that won’t break the bank. 

    4. Bring Extra Batteries

    Star trail shoots can last from half an hour to over three hours. So, make sure that you have enough batteries to last your entire shoot. 

    Often you will need more batteries than usual because the longer shutter speeds over consecutive shots drain camera batteries much faster. I suggest you have anywhere between three and five spare batteries for your shoot. 

    Many off-brand batteries are much cheaper but are identical in performance to the manufacturers’ batteries.

    If you do go with an off-brand battery I recommend RAV Power, they produce high quality and durable chargers and batteries. Plus, they produce batteries for nearly every type of DSLR so you shouldn’t have an issue finding a battery for your camera. 

    I’d also recommend you carry at least one portable charger. I prefer to bring two different portable chargers with me, but just having one is typically enough for most photographers.

    The TININ portable charger is perfect if you’re looking for a small and fast, portable charger. It has a whopping 10,000 mAh, yet it can fit in the palm of your hand.

    Although it is small, it can give five full charges of a camera battery or 3-4 full charges on a smartphone.  This portable charger also has two fast-charging ports and an LED display, so you know exactly what percent you have left on your charger.

    5. Bring Extra Memory Cards 

    Having extra memory cards are also an important addition to your camera bag. Memory cards with at least 64GB of storage are ideal. 

    When purchasing your memory cards, it’s important that you choose a high read and write speed. High read and write speeds will help you avoid pauses between shots as files are saved. 

    I recommend getting a memory card with a write speed between 200 and 300 mb/s. Keep in mind that higher write speeds will significantly increase the price of your memory cards. 

    For example, a San Disk 64GB SD card with a write speed of 170 MB/s will cost around $20, while an SD card with 300 MB/s will cost about $90. 

    6. Use a Wide-Angle Lens

    In most cases, you will want a wide-angle lens when photographing star trails.

    This will allow you to capture foreground elements with the vast sky in the background. 

    I recommend using a fast wide-angle lens with a maximum aperture of at least f/4. This will allow you to use fast shutter speeds if necessary. 

    If possible, opt for a lens with a faster maximum aperture, such as f/2.8 to allow more light to enter your sensor. The Nikon 14-24mm is my favorite for night time photography.

    If you are using a crop sensor, opt for a lens with a smaller focal length to account for the crop factor, such as 10mm and 20mm. 

    Light Sources

    When shooting at night, it’s always good to have an external light source. External light sources such as headlamps, flashlights, and external flashes are a great source of light. 

    Use external light sources to light up your foreground or your subject. This is a great way to increase the exposure of your scene or highlight objects in your foreground. 

    If you are using external light sources and other photographers are around, be mindful that you don’t ruin their photographs. 

    7. Determine the Moon Phase

    The moon can have a huge impact on how your stair trails will look,  so be sure you know the moon phase on the day of your shoot. 

    The best moon phases occur between the quarter moon and full moon. During these moon phases, there would be enough moonlight to illuminate the scene and provide enough detail in your foreground elements. 

    When shooting, make sure that you point your lens away from the moon. This way, the stars won’t have to compete in brightness with the moon.

    There are many resources you can use to track the moon phases and the path of the moon. 

    One of my favorite tools is The Photographers Ephemeris, which lets you track the direction and phase of the moon. They offer a paid app as well as a free web version. 

    Another app that is great for tracking the moon phases and path is Photopills.

    The great thing is that their apps have several other useful tools for photographers, such as exposure, sun tracking, depth of field calculator, and time-lapse calculator. 

    8. Find Dark Skies

    To make your images stand out, you want your star trails to be as vivid as possible. To achieve this, you’ll need to find a dark sky with little light pollution. 

    While it’s possible to photograph star trails with light pollution, it’s not ideal. This is because light pollution overwhelms the star’s brightness, making them difficult to see in images.

    If you are shooting in a city, try to choose the darkest part of the sky or a region where lights are least reflective. There are several online tools you can use to find a dark sky. 

    I recommend you use Dark Sky Finder. This tool will highlight different regions based on their brightness levels. Use this tool to determine where you should be shooting. 

    9. Track the Weather and Find Clear Skies 

    It may sound obvious, but don’t forget to check the weather before you set out on your star trail photography shoot. 

    Ideally, you should only plan a shoot when cloud coverage is between 0% and 30%.

    With cloud coverage above 30%, there is a chance that you won’t be able to see enough stars to capture a good shot.  

    The easiest way to keep track of the weather before your shoot is to use weather apps on your smartphone.

    A few weather apps are made explicitly for photographers such as YR Weather Forecast and Weather Pro. 

    These apps typically provide more details on the weather than the traditional weather app that comes with your smartphone. 

    10. Determine the Star Trails Pattern 

    Once you have an idea where you are shooting, it is important that you learn the pattern of the star trails.

    Understanding their pattern will help you select where to shoot and how to compose your images.

    Star trail patterns will depend on what hemisphere of the world you are shooting in: northern, southern, or near the equator.

    Once you have established the hemisphere you are in, you can use the celestial pole to guide you. 

    The easiest way to find the northern and southern celestial poles is to use a star finder or constellation app.

    Most of these apps will tell you exactly where the poles are. 

    I recommend getting an app with an augmented reality feature that allows you to use your camera to track the stars in the sky.  

    I like using the Star Tails Light app. It’s free and it will guide you to the exact constellation you are looking for.

    Also, if you tap on a star it will show you its orbit so you’ll have an idea of which direction your star trails will be moving. 

    Northern Hemisphere

    In the northern hemisphere, use the northern celestial pole to orient yourself. You can locate the northern celestial pole by locating the northern start or Polaris. 

    In the northern hemisphere, stars appear to orbit counterclockwise. But keep in mind the direction and pattern of the star trails will depend on the direction you are shooting. 

    Below is a guideline for the star patterns in the Northern Hemisphere, depending on the shooting direction.star trail patterns in Northern Hemisphere

    Southern Hemisphere 

    If you are in the southern hemisphere stars rotate around the southern celestial pole or due south. Finding the south celestial pole is not as easy as finding the north star. 

    To find the Southern celestial pole, you will need to find two constellations the southern cross and the pointers. 

    Line these two consolations up and draw a line directly downwards and you have located the southern celestial pole.  

    As mentioned, if you are the easiest and most effective way of finding due south is using an app. 

    In the southern hemisphere, the stars counterclockwise. Similar to the northern hemisphere, the direction you are facing.

    If you are familiar with the patterns in the northern hemisphere, the pattern is the same in the southern hemisphere; Only the stars move in the opposite direction. 

    Below is a guide to help you plan for the different patterns you might encounter in the southern hemisphere. Southern Hemisphere star trail patterns

    Equator

    If you are shooting from a location near the equator the celestial poles appear on opposite ends of the horizon. As a result, you won’t be able to get full circle star trails. 

    Below is a guide of the different patterns you will encounter while shooting from the equator. Star Trail Pattern at Equator

    11. Shoot in Manual Mode

    Manual mode is the best choice for star trail photography. This will give you the ability to adjust all your exposure settings: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. 

    Getting the right exposure when shooting star trails requires lots of testing and adjustments.

    Shooting in manual mode will give you the greatest flexibility so that you can achieve the ideal effect for your photo. 

    Resource: How to Use Your Camera: Understanding Camera Modes

    12. Use Manual Focus

    Even the best autofocus systems today do not work well at night.

    So it’s best to set your camera to manual focus when shooting star trails.

    To make focusing easier, use your live view mode.

    In live view mode, you can zoom in at 100% to check your focus. 

    To keep most of your frame in focus, use the hyperfocal distance. 

    The hyperfocal distance is the focusing distance that produces the best depth-of-field. 

    It places your far limit at infinity, which brings everything beyond your point of focus into an “acceptable” sharpness. 

    An easy way to determine what the hyperfocal distance is to use a calculator.

    Once you’ve found your hyperfocal distance, set your focus point farther rather than closer. 

    For example, if your hyperfocal distance is 4 feet, it’s better to focus at 4.5 feet rather than focus as 3.5 feet. 

    If you focus closer than your hyperfocal distance, you will reduce your depth of field.

    13. Shoot In RAW

    Shooting in RAW is the smartest choice in low-light photography.

    RAW images retain more digital information and, as a result, produce higher quality images. 

    This is beneficial to star trail photography in two ways. 

    The first is that RAW images are capable of capturing a wider dynamic range.

    The wider dynamic range allows RAW images to capture light more accurately, and as a result, during night photography, you can capture greater in dark areas. 

    The second is that RAW images retain more digital information enhancing the amount of detail in your images. Also, the additional information gives you greater editing flexibility when editing your images. 

    This means that you can enhance your image features such as exposure or saturation with much greater precision when shooting with RAW compared to JPEGs. 

    14. White Balance: Auto or Kelvin

    If you are shooting in RAW, your choice of white balance is not as important since you’ll be able to adjust it with great precision in post-processing.

    That said, if you prefer to apply quick white balance adjustments on location, I recommend using the Kelvin white balance mode.

    During night photography, you will often experience a cool color cast caused by moonlight or starlight

    To help eliminate this color, set your Kelvin white balance to a value between 4,000 and 5,500K.

    You may need to increase your Kelvin value during a full moon or during the moon phases where the illumination is particularly high. 

    You can also use white balance to eliminate any color cast caused by external light. To do this, use a Kelvin white balance value around 6,000K. 

    You can also use white balance to enhance the color of your star trails. Using a higher Kelvin value can enhance the blues in the sky, while a low Kelvin value will make the reds and oranges more prominent. 

    Resource: Understanding White Balance: The Ultimate Guide

     

    15. Shoot Multiple Exposures

    Shooting multiple exposures is the most common strategy for star trail photography.

    Multiple exposures involve taking many shots of short star trails over a longer period then combining all the images in post-processing.

    When using this method, you must keep your settings and composition the same for every shot. The only thing that will be different is you will be capturing the stars at a different position in the sky each time. 

    There are three key advantages to this method. 

    First is that it gives you greater control over the length of your stair trails. In post-processing, it is easier to determine the exact look and appearance of your star trails than if you were only using one exposure. 

    Second, multiple exposures will help reduce noise caused by sensor heat. Often, when taking very long exposures, the sensor on your camera will heat up and result in the appearance of noise. You can minimize this noise by using shorter shutter speeds.

    The third is that you can control the exposure of the sky and foreground easily. You can capture one image with a properly exposed foreground and capture multiple images to create the stair trail.  Once you have these images, you can blend them in post-processing to create a well-exposed image. 

    To shoot with multiple exposures with ease, it’s essential to use an Intervalometer. It will allow you to take multiple images one after another making the entire process smooth. 

    Here are some of the things you need to input into Intervalometer:

    1.  Number of Exposures 

    The number of exposures will determine how many consecutive photos you’ll capture. 

    When determining the number of exposures pay attention to the proportion of the night sky in your composition in relation to your foreground.

    The greater the foreground in proportion to the sky, the fewer exposures you’ll need. This is because the stars need less distance to travel in your frame.

    For example, for a composition that has 50% night sky and 50% foreground, star trails won’t be visible until the stars have traveled halfway across the image.

    In contrast, a composition that has 25% sky and 75% foreground would require the stars to travel one-quarter of the way across the image.

    So the composition that’s 75% foreground will require less exposure in this case.

    2. Time Between Each Exposure

    The longer the time between each exposure, the farther apart the star trails will be. 

    If you want to create one long star trail leaving between one and two seconds between each exposure generally works well.

    With this setting, your camera will take a photo, pause for one second, then take a second photo, and so on until the elapsed shooting time has been reached. 

    Leaving one or two seconds between each shot results in overlapping star trails, making it easy to combine them in post-processing. 

    If you are looking to create multiple star trails that have breaks, wait between 5-10 seconds between each shot. Keep in mind that the longer you wait, the farther apart the star trails will be. 

    3. Total Shooting Time/Total Number of Exposures

    Your total shooting time will determine the total number of shots your camera takes before it stops. 

    Since these two are dependent on one another, only one needs to be input into your intervalometer.

    To determine the total exposure you’ll need is to take a test shot and see how long your star trail is.

    Based on the length of your star trail, estimate how many exposures it will take to reach your desired star trail length. 

    When setting this number, add 2 or 3 additional exposures just to be safe. It is always better to have too many shots than not enough.

    If you don’t capture enough exposures, you may have to start over to get the shot you want. 

    4. Shutter Speed

    Your choice of shutter speed will determine the length of your star trails. Longer shutter speeds will result in longer star trails. 

    A good rule of thumb when setting your shutter speed is to use the 500 rule.

    The 500 rule states that setting your shutter speed to 500 divided by your focal length is the slowest shutter speed you can have before you see motion in the stars. 

    For example, if you are shooting with a 50mm lens, then the slowest shutter speed you can use is 10 seconds. Any shutter speeds slower than 10 seconds will be generating star trails. 

    Once you have found the shutter speed using the 500 rule, you’ll need to adjust to stop down to about 2-3 stops.  

    Continue adjusting and reviewing your images until you reach the desired star trail length. 

    Shutter speeds can range from 60 seconds to several minutes, depending on how long you want your star trails to be. 

    Resource: Camera Basics: Shutter Speed Explained (With Video)

    5. Aperture

    When shooting star trails, using the widest aperture is typically the best idea to let in as much light as possible. This will depend on the maximum aperture of your lens. 

    Typically, an aperture between f/2 and f/4 will work best.

    Using apertures above f/5.6 will require you to increase your ISO or shutter speed to reach your desired exposure. 

    Remember, since you are taking multiple shots, you don’t need to worry about placing your entire frame in focus.

    You can capture your sky in focus during your first set of exposures and then place your foreground in focus during a different set. 

    Resource: Camera Basics: Aperture Explained (With Video)

    6. ISO

    Star trail photography is generally effective when the moon is shining in the sky. 

    With the light from the moon, you can keep your ISO relatively low while achieving properly-exposed star trail images.

    With multiple exposures, you will typically need to increase your ISO higher than a single exposure since you will be using shorter shutter speeds. 

    I typically use an ISO between 600 and 1600 when shooting multiple exposures. Your maximum ISO setting should be around ISO 3200. 

    If you are still not getting the ideal exposure to consider using a wider aperture or longer shutter speed. 

    16. Shoot Single Exposure

    Taking one long exposure that spans a couple of minutes is another method you can use when shooting star trails.

    Generally, when you use this method, your star trails won’t stretch across your entire frame. Instead they will appear as light streaks across the night sky. 

    Shooting single exposures require a bit more of testing and adjustment before capturing the image you want. 

    Here are my recommended exposure setting when using a single exposure.

    1. Shutter Speed

    When shooting single exposure, you will need to use longer shutter speed to get the star trails you want. 

    Similar to shooting multiple exposures, start off by using the 500 rule as a baseline.

    Once you have your baseline increase it by one to two stops and take a test shot. 

    When taking a single exposure, you will need to test and adjust much more often, then if you were using multiple exposures. 

    I typically end up using shutter speeds between 45 seconds and several minutes.

    If you are trying to create full-circle star trails, this will take more than between 5 and 10 minutes to capture. 

    Resource: Camera Basics: Shutter Speed Explained (With Video)

    2. Aperture

    When shooting a single exposure an aperture between f/2.8 and f/5.6 often works. 

    You can get away with using an aperture of f/5.6 or f/6 but it will typically require you to increase the ISO. 

    Resource: Camera Basics: Shutter Speed Explained (With Video)

    3. ISO

    Since you will be using longer shutter speeds, you can lower your ISO.  

    A good starting point for your ISO is 400. Test your exposure and then adjust. 

    I typically use an ISO between 600 and 800 when I am shooting star trails with a single exposure. 

    Disadvantages of Single Exposure:

    Shooting with single exposure is riskier than taking several exposures because it makes it much harder to edit out mistakes. As a result, small accidents such as light hitting your foreground can easily ruin your shot.

    Also, taking one single exposure often results in an image with more noise because it requires leaving your shutter open for longer. This results in sensor heat which increases the amount of noise in your image. 

    In addition, taking one exposure means that you will have to decide which element you want to properly expose the sky or your foreground. 

    Often the light in each element of your photo is different and difficult to properly expose both with a single exposure. 

    17. Edit Your Images

    If you have seen an amazing star trail image, chances are they are the result of good post-processing work and not just skillful shooting.

    Editing software like Photoshop and Lightroom are invaluable investments for star trail photography.  

    It is what will take your images from being good to remarkable.

    Typical editing tasks for star trails photography include:

    • Exposure and contrast changes
    • White balance changes
    • Shadow and highlight changes
    • Black and white changes  
    • Enhance clarity
    • Dehaze, as needed
    • Noise reduction
    • Boost sharpness

    If you shot with multiple exposures you’ll have to use post-processing software to combine the images.

    I primarily use Photoshop and Lightroom for this task, but you may want to try out other editing platforms to see which one works best for you. 

    Some software I’d recommend is ImageTacker, DeepSkyStacker, Starstax, and Star trails for Mac and Windows.

    These applications will do the work for you and combine your images for a gorgeous star trails shot. 

    Wrap-Up

    When photographing star trails, keep your mind open to experimentation.

    While planning is essential, the conditions at your location can change anytime, so be open to on-the-spot adjustments.

    Take plenty of test photos and evaluate your results.

    So, have you ever struggled or succeeded in taking photos of star trails?

    Share your story. Leave a comment below.

    About The Author

    Photographer. Explorer. Story Teller. For the past 5 years, I’ve voyaged across the world seeking the next great photograph. If you’re anything like me, you love to travel, capture beautiful moments, and live life to the fullest.

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