We bring you a complete guide on
star trail photography
covering every aspect in detail. You can scroll down to read the topics in series or simply click on your topic of relevance from the list below.
What are star trails?
Star trails are one of the most fascinating and creative parts of photography. No wonder star trail photography is on the bucket list of every photographer. Star trails as the name suggest is the motion of the stars captured in an image as the earth rotates around its own axis. The stars do not move to form a trail. As we all know stars are stationary celestial objects. What causes the trails is the movement of the earth.
The camera which is fixed on a tripod on earth rotates along with the earth and the seeming rotation of the sky is captured in the camera for long hours through long exposure photography techniques. Theses captured images are then stacked together in post processing software’s to create an impression of a star trail.
Thus numerous images are taken simultaneously (around 100 to 300) with a specified time between them. These images are stacked together in a post-processing software to create a single image out of all the images. The resultant image will display start trails in it.
Watch this video to see star trails formation with respect to the earth’s rotation.
Longer exposure times result in long streaks of stars and lower exposures will produce smaller streaks. As star trail photography is possible only because of the rotation of the earth about its axis, in the northern hemisphere you will have to point the camera towards the North Pole to produce concentric circles in the composition. In the southern hemisphere, the camera needs to be pointed towards the South Pole for achieving concentric circles in the photograph.
If you shoot pointing your camera to the east or the west, straight line streaks will be produced in the image giving it an impression of ‘raining stars’.
Planning for star trail photography
There are 3 important things to consider while planning a star trail shoot.
1. Get your timing right
It is very important to choose the time of the night to shoot star trails. Generally, dark and clear skies are preferred to get the most stars visible. Moonless nights are the first thing to look for while planning to shoot star trails. A few days before and after moonless nights also work well.
The moon rise and the moon set time also have to be considered. You can shoot the best star trails before the moon rise and after the moon set. If you are shooting with the moon in the sky, make sure you are shooting in the opposite direction of the moon.
You can check the moon phase at Time & Date .com
stardate.org is another application which can be used to checkout moon phases.
Time & Date website will tell you the sun phase, moon phase, moonset and moonrise timings as well as the weather.
The weather needs to be checked before you plan to go out to shoot star trails. There are a plenty of mobile applications that you can use to check the weather. AccuWeather is one of the better apps to check out weather before you plan to step out. IOS has an inbuilt weather app which works pretty fine.
2. Get your location right
While finding a location, the most important thing to consider is the Light pollution. You should avoid Light pollution as much as possible to get good results. Driving far away from the city to shoot star trails will be a good idea. Generally 2 -3 miles out of the city will give you a location with less light pollution. Light Pollution Map – Dark Sky is a mobile application you can use to find light pollution maps.
This is another very good website you can use to find less light polluted areas and choose darker skies. Blue marble Light Pollution map
You can use the above resources to finalise a night time to shoot star trails, also to ensure the weather on that night and to choose your location for shooting star trails. Once you are on location and all set to shoot, it’s time to decide which direction to point your camera.
3. Get your directions right
On location setup of the camera for star trails take about 15 minutes at the max. Once you are ready with your gear, it’s time to decide where to point your camera.
To get concentric circles, you should locate the North Star in the sky. The North Star is the axis around which the earth rotates. There are mobile apps to help you locate the North Star in the sky, but let’s just assume you don’t have the app to locate the North Star or sometimes you are out of luck and mobile connectivity is playing foul. In such cases, you should still be able to find the North Star. It is a very easy process and takes a few minutes to locate a north star without the help of a mobile app. Here’s how to find the North Star without a mobile app.
Once the North Star is located, you have to point your camera in the direction of the North Star to get concentric circles in your star trail image. Pointing the camera to any other direction like the east of the west will produce a raining stars effect in your final image. Once you decide the direction and have chosen your composition. You can always check the rotational direction of the stars with a 5 min or a 10 min exposure on bulb mode. That way you will be sure of the composition and can make changes before you start shooting for your final images.
Another important thing to consider is to get a good foreground in your image. We will see in a short while how to move forward on location with safety.
4. Safety First
You will be shooting during the night with your expensive gear at a remote place which is supposedly far away from the city. To ensure safety of yourself and your gear read this.
Camera equipment for star trail
|Sr.No||Equipment||Why you need it||Equipment suggestions|
|1||A sturdy camera Tripod||To avoid any kind of shake during the long hours of shooting a star trail.||High end options: Manfrotto MKBFRC4-BH
Mid-range options : Manfrotto MKBFRA4-BH
For beginner photographers : Benro A150FBRO
|2||Digital Camera with Manual settings||To have a manual control over ISO, shutter speed and aperture. Also for the manual focus and infinity focus. (new blog link)||High end options: Canon 5D mark III, Nikon D810
Mid-range options : Canon EOS 70D, Nikon D7200
For beginner photographers : Canon 700D, Nikon D5300
|3||Wide angle lens||To cover most of the sky with foreground for better compositions.||High end options: Nikon AF-S FX NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G, Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II
Mid-range options : Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8, Rokinon 14mm f/2.8
For beginner photographers : Nikon 18-55mm F/3.5-5.6 G, Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6
|4||Interval meter||To lead your camera to take hundreds of pictures on its own at specific intervals.||Nikon options: Nikon MC-36A
Canon options: Canon TC-80N3
Sony Options: Fomito TS-1
|5||Wired shutter remote ( Optional to intervalometer )||An alternative for an intervalometer, wired shutter remotes are the cheapest option that work very well for shooting star trails.||Nikon options: Nikon MC-DC2
Canon options: Canon RS60 E3
Sony Options: SHOOT Wired Remote
|6||Compass or a Sky map mobile application||To find the north star in the sky for concentric star trails in your composition.||Android sky map app: Sky Map, Stellarium
IOS sky map app: Sky Map, Stellarium
|7||Torch light||To find your way in the dark and to set up your camera in the dark. You can use a torch light or a head light.||Torch Light
|8||Sufficient and fast memory cards||Not to run out of memory during shooting. Often overlooked.||32 GB cards
64 GB cards
|9||Extra Batteries||Not to run out of power. Alternatively you can use the AC power supply for your cameras.||AC Power Adapter for Nikon
AC Power Adapter for Canon
|10||Other accessories||Some essential accessories to consider while long hour shooting during the night.||Tent: Quechua T2, Hyu Four Peoples Tent
Tent Light : Kawachi 2 in 1 Portable Led Tent Camping fan Light
Sleeping bag : Quechua
Power bank : Maxx Power Bank
|11||Micro fiber cloth / Cleaning Cloth||To clean up the moisture or dew on the lens during the night time.||Micro fiber cloth|
|12||A good pair of shoes and some warm clothes||A good pair of outdoor shoes is a must.||User specific|
|13||A good Backpack||To keep your expensive camera gear safe and also to accommodate all your other stuff.||Lowepro Flipside 300 ,
Lowepro Photo Hatchback 16L AW II
|14||Lastly, A friend to tag along||To keep you company and also ensure your safety (new article.)||Message me 🙂|
Best camera settings for star trails
Related: Learn how to focus to infinity
Step by step guide to shooting star trails
A Step by step guide for star trail photography with camera settings.
Steps 1 : Attach your camera to a firm tripod – A steady camera setup is of utmost importance as you are going to shoot around 200 to 300 images over a span of 1 or 2 hours or more.
Step 2 : Turn off the LCD display of the camera to save battery power – very important otherwise the battery will drain faster prompting you to change it in between series of shots, thereby disturbing your tripod.
Step 3 : Turn off noise reduction (NR) of your camera – This will reduce the writing time on the card. Make sure you use fast, class 10 cards with a good storage capacity. You don’t have to change cards in between you shots thereby disturbing your camera and tripod setup.
Step 4 : Turn your camera to manual shooting mode – It gives us control over Aperture, Shutter speed and ISO, This is very important for shooting at night.
Step 5 : Turn your lens to manual focus and set focus to infinity – one more very important setup. Every lens has its infinity setting. Check the infinity focus setting of your lens before you leave for the shoot. Make sure you use wide angle lenses for star trails. Anything between 18mm to 24mm would be sufficient. You can also go for wider angles like 11mm and 14mm or so. Also lenses with smaller aperture values like f1.8, f2.8 will suit best.
For crop sensor cameras these lenses are recommended: Tokina 11-16 mm f/2.8, Rokinon 14mm f/2.8
read steps 6 to 14 here.
Post processing star trail images
You have probably shot hundreds of images for your star trail picture. The challenge is to seamlessly merge all these images to produce a stunning star trail image. It is not as hard as you think it is to merge these images. Luckily we have got software applications to automate the job for you.
These software applications are mostly available for free use and have a simple flow which can easily be understood. Nevertheless, you still need a little introduction before your get started with.
Using Adobe Lightroom for basic editing of star trail images.
Adobe Lightroom is the best software to do basic editing of raw star trail images and to export the edited images to jpeg.
Watch the below video to see how to use Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop for stacking star trail images.
The jpeg images can be then stacked using multiple Software’s like Adobe Photoshop or free software’s like startrail.de or starstax.
The automated software’s available for stacking star trails do a pretty good job most of the times, however, I prefer Adobe Photoshop over the other software applications to do a manual stacking or merging of my images. It is a comparatively longer process while using Adobe Photoshop but the results are flawless.
Let us see now see how to use Adobe Bridge + Photoshop to stack star trail images.
Adobe Bridge is a very useful tool which works in sync with Adobe Photoshop and comes free with every licence of Adobe Photoshop. Let us go step by step to know how to stack images in Adobe Photoshop starting with Adobe Bridge.
Before we start with the steps, make sure you have all your images in one folder
STEP 1 : Open all your edited jpeg images in Adobe Bridge.
STEP 2 : Select all the images and then load them in Adobe Photoshop. (Select All > Tools > Photoshop > Load Files in Photoshop layers).
STEP 3 : Now all the images will be loaded as different layers in Photoshop.
STEP 4 : Select all the images in the layer panel and change the blending mode to lighten.
STEP 5 : Flatten your photo by first selecting the top most picture and then by choosing to flatten option from the top menu ( Layer -> Flatten image ) Now you will have the final star trail stacked image ready to work upon for further post processing to your liking. You can save the file as.TIFF or PSD before starting your further editing process.
STEP 6 : You can remove the aeroplane trail from the final star trail image, watch the video below to learn the trick.
Watch this video for Adobe Bridge + Photoshop for star trail photography
That is how you stack star trail images. Let’s see some more methods commonly used.
Using Starstax or startrails.de software’s
Starstax and startrails.de are automated software applications which can simplify your job of stacking star trail pictures. These applications are free to use and the only care to be taken while using these applications is to feed them with JPEG images. They do not accept RAW files as of now, let us hope they get this feature. Another important thing is to include dark frames with your files before your start the stacking process.