Photograph Star Trails Like a Pro in 11 Easy Steps

Star trail photography is a single, long exposure photograph of the night sky. It makes the stars appear like streaks. Star trails illuminate the Earth’s rotation. Star trail landscape photography captures the intricate pattern of the stars. When captured correctly, the image reflects streaks of light in a circular pattern. This also depends on where you point the camera. If you’re taking the image in the Northern Hemisphere, then focus on Polaris to obtain the streaked effect. If you prefer stars in a straight line, then point your camera in the East or West direction.

What equipment do you need?

To prepare for the image capture, you need the following equipment:

  • Camera (DSLR, mirrorless camera, or advanced point-and-shoot)
  • Tripod
  • Remote shutter release
  • Adobe Bridge/Photoshop
  • Clear skies
  • Lots of time

How to photograph star trails?

To photograph any astral body, whether it’s the stars, moon, or Milky Way, you need lots of patience. With the right equipment, techniques, and sufficient time, you can grab an amazing snapshot of our intricate galaxy.

Here are eleven steps that will help you capture star trail images like a professional:

#1 Choose the best location

The best locations are dark and unobstructed by light pollution. Even though additional light sources can add ambiance to the images, it’s best to pick a location with minimal obstacles.

#2 Pay heed to the weather

Murky or cloudy skies will affect the camera’s visibility. Choose a night with the least amount of cloud cover as possible. Before heading out for the shoot, ensure the weather is calling for clear skies.

#3 Look at the moon phase

A full or waxing gibbous moon is too bright for a photography session. The images will have too much light and block the visibility of star trails. A quarter moon or new moon is the best phase for getting star trails images in the night sky.

#4 Get the right equipment

Star trail photographs have long exposure times. Sometimes it takes up to an hour. For this reason, ensure you have a stable tripod to place on a flat surface. Without a tripod, you will be holding the camera for a long time. The camera will shake and capture blurry images, so avoid shooting with your hand.

Don’t forget to keep extra memory cards and batteries on hand.

#5 Choose your spot in the sky

The star trail patterns you get will depend on where you point the camera. If you’re located in the Northern Hemisphere, look for Polaris or the North Star to pinpoint the middle of the trail. In the Southern Hemisphere, look for the South celestial pole. By aiming at these spots, you will create circular streaks of light with the images. If you point the camera in the East-West directions, the image produces horizontal star lines.

#6 Select the correct lens

Opt for a wide-angle lens to photograph as many images within a frame as possible. This lens has a shorter focal length than a regular lens which may be used to increase the horizontal scope of the camera shot.

#7 Pick the aperture

This is also called the f-stop number. A small aperture yields a larger depth of field. It means your images will look sharper. For star trail photography, an f/2.8 to f/5/6 is best. A narrower range will welcome less light, but the stars will not look clear. A wide aperture enables the camera to use the light available to focus and capture star trails.

#8 Set the sensor speed

Also called the ISO number, it is a setting on your camera that calculates the sensitivity to light. The ISO number affects image quality. For instance, a low ISO number will cause a darker image with less grain. An image with a high ISO number means it will be brighter with more grain. To capture the best star trails images, set the ISO between 400 and 800.

#9 Stay away from autofocus

Try to capture the night sky in manual mode. In autofocus, the camera cannot automatically capture sufficient light. In manual focus, you create adjustments to the amount of light necessary for the shot.

#10 Set the exposure time

Also called shutter speed-it is the amount of time the sensor gets exposed to light. In your case, the time should be sufficient to take star trail images. The time depends on variables such as lens length and light availability. Start with thirty-second exposures. To capture a long star trail, you might need up to an hour between exposures.

#11 Take test shots

To ensure your camera settings are suitable for photographing in the night sky environment, take a few images to see how they appear. This will help you fine-tune settings like aperture, white balance, direction, and angle of the photograph.

How to post-process and stack your star trail images?

With your images in hand, use Adobe Lightroom to make a few basic adjustments such as:

  • Dehaze where required
  • Black and white adjustments
  • Contrast and exposure adjustments
  • White balance adjustment
  • Noise reduction

Next, use StarStax to process and stack your images. Here are the steps to use StarStax:

  1. Open the app.
  2. Import all the photographs into the app (export out from Lightroom)
  3. To adjust the settings, go to ‘Preferences.’ In the dropdown menu, go to ‘Blending Mode.’ Test each filter to the final image, i.e., gap filling.
  4. Click ‘Start Processing’ to render the images. As the images are improved, you will see their progress to completion.

The entire post-processing step takes less than five minutes.

Conclusion

Photographing star trails may seem like an overwhelming experience. However, with some planning and the right equipment, you will be surprised and happy (we hope) with the final results.