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How to Take Photos of Star Trails

Written by Kobus on January 24, 2013

Star trails

Streaking stars across the night sky are beautiful and capturing them on a photo gives you the time to enjoy the view while the camera does all the work. As usual with star photo excursions, check the weather forecast, pack your photo and camping gear and head out as far away from civilization as possible.


The Basic Equipment


Canon 40D and intervalometer Most SLR cameras and some high-end point-and-shoot cameras are capable of taking decent photos of the stars. Be sure your camera has a manual controls so you can change these settings:

  • The ability to lock the shutter open or to manually set the shutter speed in minutes. Very few cameras allow you to increase the shutter speed past 30 seconds. Look for a "bulb" setting. This allows you to keep the shutter open as long as the button is pressed.
  • A cable release. This is important because with the bulb setting you have to continuously hold down the shutter button. Not only is that dreadfully boring, but camera shake will occur while you're jittery finger is trying to hold that button down.
  • Optional - a tripod, to position and keep your camera in the same spot while the photo is being taken.

The Basic Setup

The setup is the same as when you are taking photos like NASA. You still want to find a quiet secluded spot that is free from light pollution and cars driving by.

Keep in mind that the longer your shutter is open the more light the camera sensor will absorb. If there is any light pollution in the area it will blow out the image. If the moon is full, it is likely to over expose your image. See our photos below. Because the shutter is open so long, you want to keep the ISO at a minimum, around 100. A low ISO decreases the amount of noise in the photo.

Using a tripod or a very sturdy surface is important. The longer the exposure the longer the star trails and the more risk you have of squiggly lines in the stars if the camera moves. Be aware of strong wind that can also move the camera.

camera shake

Once you have the camera positioned, check the settings. Your ISO should be low and your shutter set to bulb. Hook up your cable release and start taking test shots. A good cable release will allow you to lock the shutter open and walk away from the camera. When your patience has run out, release the shutter and check out the photo. Adjust settings and repeat!

Test Shots

Before you decide to take an hour long exposure, take a few 2 to 10 minute test shots. You should be able to see where the star pivot point is in the sky. If you can't see the trails starting to form, then turn up your ISO, but only for the test shot! The pivot point in the stars is approximately north and south, alternately, buy a star chart and find the North Star, it will also tell you roughly where the pivot point is.

2 minute iso 1600 test photo

Use the test shots to determine if you want to include an object for the stars to rotate around. Objects like mountains, tents and even trees make the photos visually interesting and adds scale and grandeur to the stars.

Length of the Star Trails

The longer the shutter speed the longer the trails of the stars will be. In general, the longer the shutter is open the more spectacular the photo. Here are a few examples of shutter speeds.

15 minute photo of Stars

The photo above had the shutter open for 15 minutes and the photo below is for 45 minutes. Notice the difference in the length of the star trails.

45 minute photo of Star trails

These photos were taken during a full moon. The light of the moon had an awesome effect on the appearance of the salt flats in the photo making it look almost as if the stars were visible during the day. But, as you can tell in the second photo, the salt flat is actually overexposed. The light of the moon on a 45 minute exposure with the bright white salt was too much light.

Lighting Objects in the Foreground

Adding objects in the foreground adds more interest to the images. In a pitch black environment, with no moon, you will need to shine at least some light on these objects in order to see them. You can use headlamps, flash, a campfire or even car headlights. The photo below is an example of how much a camp fire can light up the surroundings.

fire light to light foreground

Because these other light sources are so bright compared to the stars, you only need to turn them on for a short period of time. Usually 20 to 30 seconds is enough but be sure to take some test shots to get the lighting just right.

Our tent photo from the mountains in Peru was a 43 minute exposure. But we only lit the tent up for 30 seconds. Jessica sat in the tent with her headlamp lighting up the walls from the inside, then she turned the headlamp off and stumbled out of the tent. Since the rest of the exposure is very long and she was dressed in dark clothing, you don't see her movement. Note that we had to do at least 5 attempts to get the lighting in the tent right.

trails light polution and light in the tent

The light pollution in the lower left of the photo was unavoidable, created by a small town almost 20 miles away. But the effect here looks a bit like sunset, so we decided not to color correct the photo.

When we took the photo of our truck in the mountains, we needed to shine light on the vehicle so it would be visible in the photo. We took our headlamps and shone it on the truck for about 10 seconds, trying not to light too much of the grass and ground surrounding the truck. During this time we took a few test shots so we could be sure the truck was lit up the way we wanted it for the photo. This is what our winning test shot looked like:

light foreground with head lamps

We set the up the camera and made sure the ISO was low and took the first photo, a 35-minute exposure. The photo turned out nice but there was a red light in the windscreen of the truck from our battery meter that spoiled the photo.

short exposure ISO 250

I removed the red light in the window and we took a second photo. This time we took a 93 minutes exposure. There was just enough light pollution to make the mountains and grass visible, but we still used out headlamps for about 10 seconds to increase the brightness of our truck.

long exposure ISO 250

After Taking the Photo

Just like when you take Photos like NASA, some photos might require a little touchup work. Note that when the moon is out the sky is not always black, so touch up work might not be required. Use a photo editing program like Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Elements or iPhoto for Mac to crop and adjust the colors to look more natural.

Open the photo you want to correct or crop in your editing program, in my case Adobe Photoshop.

Open the levels panel by going to Windows > Layers.

before Photoshop

If the image appears to have a red glow select red from the channel drop down menu and move the left slider until the red starts to look more like the night sky.

Changing Levels in Photoshop

Alternatively you can select the black eyedropper tool and click on a part of the night sky was black. Zoom in as far as possible before clicking the eyedropper. NOTE: This does not always give you the best results, especially if you photo was taken during a full moon.

auto change in Photoshop Levels

In this instance I thought using the black eyedropper on the star trail photos make the trails look artificial. Don't be afraid to experiement with your camera setting and with Photoshop. The best results often come from unexpected circumstances.

Questions, feedback, great photos to share? Leave a comment below.


elizabeth seaver
#1 elizabeth seaver 2013-08-16 04:14
What is the setting for the remote to get the results like it says the length before the firat shot I put 0 and that doesnt work its my first time using the remote and the star trails..thanks

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