A good starting point for star trails photography is ISO 800-1600; f/2.8, or the widest aperture on your lens; a shutter speed between 30 seconds and 1 minute; and a total of between 100 and 500 shots, depending on how long you want your trails to be.
These are the absolute basics. However, to successfully photograph star trails, there are a few more things that you’ll need to consider. If you already know how to photograph the Milky Way, some of these steps will sound familiar, but others may be new. Keep reading to find out how to turn these streaks of light into beautiful star trail images!
In this guide, you’ll learn how to photograph star trail photos. We’ll also go over the best star trails stacking software, then we’ll cover how to plan your star trail images, and finally, I’ll share valuable tips that I’ve learned while shooting star trails over the years.
Are you ready? Let’s dive right in!
- What are star trails? Star trails explained
- How to photograph star trails – Best camera settings for shooting star trails
- How to do a star trail in Photoshop
- How to do a star trail in StarStaX (Windows and Mac)
- How to do a star trail in Sequator (Windows)
- How to plan star trail images
- Best camera gear to shoot star trail photos
- Best star trails photography tips
What are star trails? Star trails explained
To put it simply, star trails are the result of taking very long exposures of the stars in the night sky. Because of the earth’s rotation, from our perspective, the stars appear to be moving in the sky, offering us the possibility of capturing streaks of light. Unlike when we photograph pinpoint stars, where we limit our shutter speed, in star trail images, we ignore that limitation and shoot ultra-long exposures at night that range from a few minutes to a few hours. The longer you shoot, the longer the trails will be.
The best star trail photos will take around 2 to 4 hours to complete. The final result will depend on the number of images that you capture and the look that you are going for.
There are two main types of star trails: star paths and star circles. Photographing one or the other will depend on the direction in which you’re pointing your camera.
Depending on which hemisphere you are in, point your camera directly north or directly south at either of the celestial poles and you’ll see the stars moving in a circular motion. These are the so-called star circles, better known as circumpolar star trails, and they are the most typical star-trail photography subjects. In the next section, we’ll look at how to shoot this kind of star-trail photo.
I recommend saving these handy images to help you find the north and south celestial poles:
On the other hand, when you start shifting your perspective and looking towards the east, or west, you’ll start seeing straighter star paths instead of circles. Star paths can be easier to shoot because you don’t need to find Polaris or the south celestial pole. If you are located near the equator, star path photos are more common than taking star circles images.
How to shoot star trails – Best camera settings for shooting Star Trails
In a nutshell, these are the best steps to photograph star trail images:
- Choose your composition
- Set your camera to manual mode (M)
- Use an aperture of f/2.8 or the widest in your lens
- Select an ISO between 800 and 1600
- Adjust your shutter speed to between 30 seconds and 1 minute
- Use manual white balance
- Focus manually on a bright star
- Take a test shot and verify your exposure and focus
- Set your shooting interval to 1 second longer than your shutter speed
- Program your camera to shoot between 100 and 500 photos.
1. Choose your composition
In star trails photography, it’s crucial to plan your sky and foreground elements.
As I mentioned earlier, the direction in which you point your camera directly affects how the streaks will look in your image. We’ll get more into star-trails planning below, but for now, bear in mind that planning is key.
Also, the best star-trail images include interesting elements in the foreground, so choose a subject that will add depth to your composition.
2. Set your camera to manual mode
Setting your camera to manual mode will grant you greater control over your settings, which will give you the best results.
When shooting star trails, the exposure triangle, which is aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, needs to remain constant; that’s why the automatic or semi-automatic modes on your camera won’t be useful in this situation.
3. Use an aperture of f/2.8 or the widest in your lens
Generally, I suggest using the widest aperture in your lens. This will allow you to gather more light and lower your ISO. In the next step, I’ll explain how the ISO impacts your star trail photographs.
4. Select an ISO between 800 and 1600
This is one of the best star trail photography tips that I wish I knew sooner: lower your ISO.
In night photography, it’s common to use high ISO values of between ISO 3200 and 6400. This is a good practice if you are shooting the Milky Way; however, this setting clips your highlights, showing the smaller stars as pure white.
Stars have many different colors apart from white. By lowering your ISO, you will prevent your stars from being overexposed and preserve their natural color. ISO 800 to 1600 is a good starting point.
5. Adjust your shutter speed to between 30 seconds and 1 minute
For this kind of photography, the goal is to end up with a very long exposure image. Nonetheless, each of the individual shots shouldn’t be excessively long.
If anything goes wrong during the process and we have to delete an image because it was shaken, a 30-second gap will be less noticeable than a 5-minute one. Also, the stacking software will have an easier time filling in a shorter gap than a longer one.
6. Use manual white balance
Set your white balance to manual. I recommend using a cooler color temperature (4000K or lower) for the best results.
Although white balance can be easily adjusted in the editing process if you are shooting RAW, I don’t recommend using auto white balance. This could result in your images having several different white balance values, which makes it harder to achieve a consistent look.
7. Focus manually on a bright star
Turn on the focus magnifier and point your camera at a bright star in the center of the frame. Don’t worry if it’s located outside of your composition; you can recompose after you’ve focused.
Slowly turn the focus ring until the star appears small and sharp on the LCD screen or in the viewfinder. The more out of focus you are, the bigger the star will look. Remember that focusing in photography is key to getting a sharp image.
8. Take a test shot and verify your exposure and focus
Once you’ve completed all the steps above, take a test shot. Verify your exposure is right by checking your histogram. You should be able to see colors in the stars, but the image shouldn’t look too dark. Also, zoom in and make sure the stars look sharp.
If your exposure is either too dark or too bright, adjust your shutter speed, ISO, or aperture, in that order. Modifying your aperture will require refocusing your image.
9. Set your shooting interval to one second longer than your shutter speed
You will need an intervalometer to shoot star trails. If your camera doesn’t have an internal intervalometer, you can use an external intervalometer instead.
If your shutter speed is 30 seconds, your interval should be 31 seconds. This will ensure there is almost no time left between shots. Leaving a long interval between shots will create gaps in your image, which won’t look pleasing to the eye.
10. Program your camera to shoot between 100 and 500 photos
The more photographs you take, the longer your trails will be, but you’ll also need more space to store those photographs. I generally shoot around 200 to 300 photographs.
Now that the hardest part is done, all you have to do is press the shutter button and start shooting. Depending on your shutter speed and the number of photos you plan on taking, you might have to wait for a few hours.
Regarding your foreground, my recommendation is to capture a single shot with the best possible settings before you start taking images of the star trails and blend the foreground image with your sky later in post-processing.
NOTE: These star trail camera settings apply to both DSLR and mirrorless cameras. For DSLRs use mirror lockup to reduce vibration. For mirrorless cameras, I recommend using the electronic shutter.
Star trails post-processing tutorial – best star trails stacking software
Stacking star trails has become a simple task thanks to the variety of software that helps automate the process. Long gone are the days when photographers would take a single hour-long exposure to avoid stacking.
How to do a star trail in Photoshop
Using Photoshop to stack your star trail images is as easy as it gets.
1. Load your images
Open the File menu, then hover over Scripts, and finally select Load Files into Stack.
In the new window, click Browse. Then, locate and select all your star trail images.
Don’t check any of the checkboxes in the window.
Once you’ve loaded your files, click OK.
Your pictures will start importing into Photoshop as layers. The process might take a few minutes depending on the number of images you are importing and your computer’s processing power.
2. Select all your layers
Once Photoshop has finished importing, you’ll see all your images as layers.
Click on the first layer, then hold the Shift key and click on the last one.
3. Change blend mode to Lighten
This is where the magic happens. Change the blend mode of the layers to Lighten.
After selecting the Lighten blend mode, you’ll instantly see your star trail image.
Lighten blend mode preserves only the brightest parts of an image, in this case, the stars, and hides the rest.
4. Stack your images
To easily work with your image, stack all the layers into one by using the following keyboard command:
- On Windows: Ctrl + E (press Ctrl key and hold. Then press E while still holding Ctrl)
- On Mac: Command + E (press Command and hold. Then press E while still holding Command)
You should only see one layer:
From this point on, you can edit your image as you normally would. If you took a separate shot for your foreground, don’t miss our detailed step-by-step tutorial on how to blend foreground and sky images in our Milky Way course.
Capture the Milky Way
The Ultimate Milky Way Course
How to do a star trail in StarStaX (Windows and Mac)
StarStaX is an amazing star trail stacking software available for both Windows and Mac. If you are looking to achieve incredible results, StarStaX will get you there. I generally choose StarStaX over Photoshop because it works faster, offers more options out of the box, and can it easily stack your images even on a less powerful computer.
StarStaX is an open-source program and it’s free to use. You can download it here.
1. Load your images
You can either drag and drop your set of images or click on the Open Images… icon in the top left corner and select all your photos:
NOTE: StarStaX can only process JPEG, TIFF, BMP and PNG image file formats. If you shoot in RAW, export your RAWs as any of these formats using your software of choice. Exporting TIFF files will preserve the most information from your RAWs.
2. Quickly review your images
After importing your star trail photos you’ll see a list of all the photos on the left side, a preview of the selected photograph in the middle, and the preferences panel on your right.
3. Stack the star trail photos
Once you’ve imported and verified your images, you can start stacking.
The default settings will do the job. Click on the Star Processing… icon.
If you are looking for a more creative look, check the Comet Mode box and dial in how long you want your trails to be. This setting will make your stars look like comets with a trail.
This step will take a few minutes depending on the number of pictures and your computer’s processing power.
You’ll see a live preview of the process while StarStaX is working.
4. Save your image
The final step is to save your image. Click on the Save as… icon
If you intend on doing further edits to your star trails image, I recommend you save the image as a TIFF file.
How to do a star trail in Sequator (Windows)
Sequator is another awesome program when it comes to astrophotography. Unfortunately, it’s only available on Windows. If you are a Mac user, StarStaX is your best option.
Sequator supports RAW and 16bit TIFF files.
Download Sequator for free here.
1. Load your images
Open Sequator and double click on Star images. Then, select all your star trail photos.
Once you’ve loaded all of your photos, the icon will turn green and Sequator will automatically select a base image for you. There is no need to modify this.
2. Select an output
Double click on Output to tell Sequator where to save your image.
I recommend saving your final image as a TIFF file. This will give you more flexibility if you decide to keep editing your star trail photo.
3. Select your composition Method
Under Composition, choose Trails.
Check the Motion Effect box if you want your stars to look like comets.
4. Select the color space
Right click on the Color space icon and select AdobeRGB.
I recommend using AdobeRGB, since it provides a wider range of colors.
5. Create your star trail image
After completing the previous steps, click on Start. This step will take anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes depending on the number of photos you imported and your computer’s processing power.
How to plan your star trail photo
There are multiple factors to consider when planning your star trails image. Just like any other night photo, planning properly ahead of time is key. You must think about the weather, light pollution, the moon, your location and more. This sounds like a lot, but with the tips you’ll read below, you’ll have your star trails shots planned in no time.
1. Choose the best subject for your image
In star trails photography, most of the time, you’ll find a subject in the foreground. This fixed subject can be anything from a building to a distant mountain. It’s important to choose your subject carefully because this choice will impact the kinds of streaks you’ll get in your final image.
If your subject is oriented north or south, you’ll capture circumpolar star trails; otherwise, you’ll get star paths.
2. Stay away from light pollution
Light pollution is the greatest enemy when it comes to night photography and, knowing where the darkest skies are will make everything easier. There are several apps you can use to find dark skies. I recommend using Light Pollution Map, which, in my experience, is the most complete and intuitive site. It’s also updated every year.
3. Find a night with no moon
A full moon acts the same as a big source of light pollution in the sky: it will cause most of the stars to completely vanish and make it nearly impossible to capture your star trail image.
Here I recommend using any type of lunar calendar. A good example is our Milky Way Calendar, which is also perfect for planning star trails.
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4. Check the weather
Finding a clear night without clouds is a must. The slightest chance of clouds could ruin your entire star trails image. I suggest using a few different sources of information to cross-reference the data because weather predictions aren’t always accurate. I use several apps to check and compare the weather. My favorite ones are NOAA, Windy, and Clear Outside.
5. Arrive early at your location
I can’t emphasize enough the importance of arriving early when it comes to night photography. Walking in the dark, even with a headlamp, is challenging. Arriving early when there is still sunlight will help you scan the area and get familiar with it. It’ll also make it easier to find a composition.
6. Plan the length of your star trails
Yes, you can plan the length of your star trails, and yes, it’s very easy. Instead of going out to shoot and trying to guess how long your star trails will be, you can visualize and plan it beforehand. Once again, Photopills has a great tool to plan the length of star trails.
Best camera gear to shoot star trail photos
In star trail photography, there are a few items you need to bring with you to make your session a success. The gear you’ll need to capture your star trails image is relatively inexpensive, and you might have most of these articles already.
In short, this is the best camera gear for your next star trail session:
You’ll need a camera capable of shooting in manual mode. In terms of basic requirements, if your camera has a built-in intervalometer, that’s a plus, but don’t worry if it doesn’t because you can use an external one.
If you already own a camera to shoot the Milky Way or for night photography in general, that will work perfectly.
The most breathtaking star trail images are captured with wide-angle lenses. You’ll need a lens of around 24mm or wider to be able to capture more of the scene and sky. Your aperture also needs to be wide enough. F/2.8 or wider is the best option.
Any of the best lenses for Milky Way will work, since these also apply for star-trails photography.
A sturdy tripod is a must when it comes to night photography. Your camera will be taking very long exposures and it needs to be still for long periods of time. A stable tripod is key to achieving the best results.
An external intervalometer is fundamental if your camera doesn’t have a built-in one. This little item plugs into your camera and allows you to program your shutter speed, how many shots you want, and the interval between each one of those images.
You’ll be shooting hundreds of images for a few hours at least, and you need to make sure your camera doesn’t run out of juice.
Having extra batteries to switch in and out will provide your camera the power it needs to last the entire session. An external power bank is an even better option, because you can plug it in before you start shooting; it will extend the battery life of your camera by a few more hours without you even having to touch the camera.
Ensure you have enough space on your memory card. To get the best results, always make room for at least 200 images. Digital storage is very cheap nowadays, so don’t skimp on that.
A lens warmer is optional, but I highly recommend using one in humid cold weather to prevent your lens from fogging. If you don’t own a lens warmer, a little trick is to put your lens hood on. This will delay any fogging, but it won’t prevent it completely.
Best star trails photography tips
Now that you know all the basics of star trails photography, I wanted to share some of the best star trail photography tips that I’ve learned through trial and error over the years:
1. Take several shorter exposures vs. a super long single exposure
There are two main ways to shoot star trails: a very long single exposure, or many shorter exposures. I strongly recommend you use shorter exposures. There are no real advantages to shooting a single very long exposure.
- Your camera will overheat less.
- You will have many different photos to work with, this means, if one photo goes wrong, not everything is lost.
- You can turn your photos into a beautiful time-lapse.
- You get more flexibility in post-processing. You can decide how long your star trails are.
One single exposure:
- You will save space on your memory card because you are only taking one image.
- If anything goes wrong, you lose all the work you did.
- Your camera sensor will overheat faster.
- You get less flexibility for post-processing.
2. Use the electronic shutter or mirror lockup
The mechanical shutter can introduce vibrations into your image. To minimize this, I recommend using the electronic shutter (silent shutter) on your mirrorless camera or mirror lockup if you are a DSLR user. Not using the mechanical shutter will also extend its life because shooting that many continuous shots with the mechanical shutter can take a toll on its durability.
3. Avoid touching the camera during the process
It’s important not to touch the camera for the duration of the process. Touching can not only introduce unwanted shake to the image, but also move the tripod and change the composition. This will make it impossible to align your images in post-production.
4. Make sure your tripod is very stable
Star trail images take a long time to complete. During this time, it’s key to ensure your camera and tripod are as steady as possible. Set up your tripod correctly to minimize any vibrations. If it’s windy, use the hook at the bottom of your tripod to hang your backpack and add a little weight.
5. Capture your foreground shot before the star trails photos
Shoot your foreground image first. Generally, the best moment to do so is right after blue hour. At that point, you’ll get a natural transition between the foreground and the sky while still retaining enough detail without cranking up your ISO too much.
Another benefit is that your camera sensor will be cooler, which will give you cleaner images without too many hot pixels.
6. Lower your ISO to preserve the color in the stars
As I mentioned earlier, this is one of the best tips I’ve received for shooting star trails. Using lower ISO values to underexpose your image a little bit will help preserve the natural color of the stars and will give you colorful star trails that will captivate anyone who looks at them.
Star trails photography examples – Best photos of star trails
Star trails photography might seem a little challenging for a newcomer, yet it’s so rewarding when you start seeing the results. To help with inspiration, I’ve put together some of the best photos of star trails. This section is designed to show you some variety in style and techniques.
Circumpolar star trails
This is a staple when it comes to star trails photography. To shoot this kind of image, you need to find the celestial pole depending on which hemisphere you are located in. Earlier in this article, we explained how to find the celestial pole.
Don’t forget to save the image at the beginning of the article to help you find the north and south celestial poles.
Star trails are not only about getting star circles. Pointing your camera east or west will also provide beautiful images. Try experimenting with your compositions and seeing the different patterns you get in your trails.
You can also photograph a Milky Way panorama mixed with star trails like the example below. This will require more advanced techniques but it’ll allow you to capture both circumpolar and star paths.
Comet star trails
This is one of my favorite artistic techniques for star trails. Comet star trails will add movement and depth to your image. They are complicated to do by hand, but fortunately, both StarStaX and Sequator allow you to do them in just in one click. To do this in Photoshop, you’ll need an extension, such as OrionX or AstroPanel.
Vortex Star trails
Vortex star trails stand out from the rest and they are almost hypnotizing. There are two ways to do vortex star trails: either directly on location, by using a rig that zooms in a fixed amount after each photograph, or in post-processing. Doing vortex star trails in post-processing requires both LRTimelapse and Adobe Lightroom.
Star Trails FAQ
When it comes to star trails, there are a few questions that could arise. I’ve selected some of the most common questions in star trails photography in this F.A.Q section. If you have additional questions, make sure to leave them in the comment section below, and I’ll be more than happy to answer.
Shooting a complete star trails photograph takes between 2 and 4 hours. The more time you expose, the longer the trails will be.
Between 200 and 500 individual images are needed to create a single star trail photograph. The more images you take, the longer your streaks will be, and you’ll also have more flexibility in post-processing.
Each individual exposure for your star trail image should be between 30 and 60 seconds. This is the best way to shoot your star trails because if a single image is ruined, you can remove it and it won’t be noticeable in the overall result.
Star trails are circular due to the motion of Earth’s rotation. However, you’ll only see circular star trails when looking directly north or directly south depending on which hemisphere you are in. If you look towards the east or west, you’ll see more straight paths instead of circles.
To process your star trail images, you’ll need software like Photoshop, Sequator or StarStaX to blend all the images into one. Sequator and StarStaX are free and easy to use. Once you’ve stacked all your images together, you can edit them just like any other night photo.
Lower your ISO to values between 1600 and 3200. This will prevent the light in your stars from clipping and they will retain most of their natural color.
In the Northern Hemisphere you’ll see Polaris as the point everything seems to rotate around. In the Southern Hemisphere, it is the south celestial pole.
Star trails photography is fascinating, and I recommend you try it at some point. Unlike Milky Way photography, you can shoot star trails at any time of year. It’s a kind of photo that requires some patience because you’ll be shooting photographs for a few hours, but the results are worth it.
Hopefully, after reading this article, you’ve come to understand the differences between star circles (circumpolar) and star paths as well as, how to locate the north and south celestial poles.
When it comes to camera settings for star trail photography, these are the core concepts you need to remember:
- Shoot many individual images instead of one super-long exposure image.
- Use a 30-second to 1-minute shutter speed.
- Keep your ISO between 800 and 1600 to get the most natural colors out of the stars.
Additionally, remember that you’ll need a wide-angle lens, either an internal or external intervalometer, extra batteries or a power bank, a tripod, and enough space on your memory card.
Finally, when you are back home, use Photoshop, StarStaX, or Sequator to stack your star trail images. The process is quick and easier than you think.
This brings our star trail photography guide to an end. If you have any questions, feel free to post them in the comments below!