When I returned from my last “Dark of the Moon” workshop, my co-author CJ asked me how many photographs of star trails I was able to get. “Two,” I somewhat proudly replied. I was proud of getting “only” two star trail images because you often get only one or two opportunities to shoot each night, and mastering the many camera and lens settings in the right conditions makes getting good images a fascinating challenge. Figure 1 is one of these photographs.
Figure 1. My Complete Star Trails
Arriving before dark. Tripod mounted with Polaris positioned on the apex of the rock. This photograph consists of 81 images of 4 minutes each providing a total exposure time of 5 hours 24 minutes, f2.8, ISO 400 at 17mm. The foreground was taken at the end of the shoot, at dawn, using the same settings. Images combined in Photoshop, processed in Photoshop and Lightroom.
I had scoped out this site and this image on a prior visit a year before and had planned on capturing it – conditions permitting on my next visit. Conditions did permit. I arrived at the site well before dark and set up my equipment using the guidelines in this article. I used an external power supply since I knew that the camera would be running for 9 hours unattended. I waited until after dark to confirm all of my settings and then since I was in a very remote location at 11,200 feet I returned to my cabin for a good night’s sleep.
Years ago as a novice star trails photographer attending my first star trails photography workshop, I was overwhelmed by the detail required to capture a good star trails image. Having now participated in many star trails expeditions, I have seen that even veteran photographers need help keeping track of the many camera and lens settings required for success in this form of photography. So, I have developed a checklist that includes the technical details of star trails photography, as well as other important safety and logistical considerations.
This article will share the star trails checklist. If you are a novice star trails photographer, this article will give you realistic expectations and leave you much better prepared for your first outing. If you are an old hand at night photography and want to expand your repertoire, you will have a systematic way to ensure that you capture the best possible images. In either case, before you attempt a star trails shoot you should have detailed knowledge of your equipment and of the best star trail photography tips.
A photograph of star trails is comprised of a sequence of long-exposures that capture the apparent motion of stars in the night sky. This effect is the result of the rotation of the Earth, not movement of the stars. A star trail photograph shows individual stars as curves, with longer exposures resulting in longer curves and the actual shape of the curve determined, in the Northern hemisphere at least, by the orientation of your camera towards Polaris.
As with any form of photography, there are many scenarios, each one offering its own opportunities and challenges. In addition, there are many combinations of equipment and variations of post processing software – too many to cover in one article. So, in this article we are going to:
Star trails photography has lots of technical terms, but the end result – a beautiful photograph of the apparent movement of the stars on a crystal clear night – is worth the effort. To provide you with a jump start, there is a glossary with definitions of a few frequently used technical terms at the end of the article.
Location and Timing
While the key element of a star trails photograph is the star trails themselves, the location you select to capture the star trails is important for many reasons – some artistic, others more practical.
As you look at star trail photographs, you will notice they are usually in the context of a foreground, which grounds the scene and makes it even more visually appealing. Foregrounds may include mountain ranges, cliffs, lakes, trees, or man-made structures. Your selection of location and foreground will determine where and how you set up your equipment, as well as how you compose your shot. As you consider locations and the timing of your shoot, you will want to take into account the following:
Star trails photography requires some special equipment, and you will want to review the following checklist to ensure you acquire any items you do not have. We also suggest you review the checklist as you pack for your shoot, so that the required equipment is with you on location and not still sitting on your kitchen table. For your star trails photo shoot, you will need the following:
Because star trails photography involves taking many exposures over extended periods of time, the internal batteries in your camera may not provide sufficient power for your entire shoot. Your choices are to limit the duration of your shoot to available battery power, carefully change batteries without moving your camera while shooting, or use of an external power source. If you choose to use an external power source, you will need the following:
To help you with your star trails shoot, there are many apps for your smartphone or tablet that you can download from either Google® Play or the Apple® App StoreSM, including:
Getting It Right in the Camera
In star trails photography as with any other type of photography, you want to “get it right in the camera,” not only so your shots are better, but also so that you will minimize the post-processing time required to assemble and refine your final image.
The first part of “getting it right in the camera” is to plan to arrive at your chosen location before dark. In this way, it will be light enough for you to become orientated, note any obstacles, pre-compose your shot, and ensure your camera and other equipment is set up correctly.
Figure 2. Star Trails Embrace a Bristlecone Pine
Arriving before dark. Tripod mounted pointing north at Polaris. Background star trails consist of 20 images of 4 minutes each providing a total exposure time of 1 hour 20 minutes, f/2.8, ISO 400 at 14mm. Foreground shot at the end of the sequence with the same settings, with a minimal amount of subtle light painting to outline the bristlecone pines.
In star trails photography, even when you arrive at your location before dark, “getting it right in the camera” means getting your arms around the many factors that affect your shot. From capture mode, ISO, shutter speed, and aperture to focus mode and long exposure noise reduction, there are many camera, lens, and intervalometer settings to master, and using a checklist is almost mandatory for you to capture a stunning image.
The following star trails checklist is divided into two sections, lens settings and camera settings with a version of each for selected Nikon (1) and Canon (2) cameras. We encourage you to adapt these to your particular equipment and create your own checklist, print it out, laminate it, and carry it with you.
We recommend that you run through this checklist to ensure that your camera and lens are correctly set up before arriving on site. In this way, you can review all your settings in an environment that offers protection from the elements, good lighting, and less dust that might affect your equipment.
Table 1 Nikon Settings
Table 2 Canon Settings
An intervalometer is a remote control device for activating the shutter without touching the camera. The built in programmable timer in an intervalometer allows you to take a number of exposures of a fixed length over a long period of time necessary to capture star trails – something that most cameras are unable to do on their own.
Intervalometers go by various names, including Nikon Multi-function Remote Cord and Canon Timer Remote Control. Each camera has a different connection and each intervalometer has a different user interface and menu system for setting it up and using it. Since we do not know exactly which intervalometer you may have, we suggest you consult the manufacturer’s instruction manual.
Regardless of which intervalometer you use, there are four settings you will need: the delay before the camera starts taking exposures, the length of each exposure, the interval between exposures, and the number of exposures. In the example below, we will use the Nikon MC-36 Multi-function Remote Cord to provide some examples of typical settings to program into your intervalometer such as those used to capture the images shown:
We strongly recommend that you set up your camera and intervalometer in the comfort of a dark room in your home and practice this sequence and become very familiar with your equipment before you go out on location.
Once you arrive on site, you will be anxious to break out your tripod and other equipment and set up right away. If you have followed the advice outlined above and arrived before nightfall, you have plenty of time to set up your gear, so there is no rush.
Since the majority of your star trails adventure will take place in the pitch darkness, you should take a moment to ensure that you will be safe during your shoot. Before unpacking your equipment, you will want to:
After taking precautions to ensure your safety, you will next want to select your exact shooting location. This will depend on the composition of your shot and the foreground objects (for example, lakes, trees, or rocks) that you might want to capture in your image. When composing your shot and selecting your exact shooting location, be aware of other photographers around you so that you are not in their shot and they are not in yours. Consider also any natural or manmade sources of light, whether flashlights/headlamps from other photographers, passing vehicle traffic, or other sources of artificial light.
Once you have selected your exact shooting location, you will set up your tripod on solid ground, so that it is wobble-free. Since there is less wind closer to the ground, keep your tripod’s height as low as possible. Ensure that the tripod leg locks are tightened, your camera is well secured to the tripod head, and the tripod head is tightened. Check all these items twice, as the slightest vibration or movement of your gear will result in less than optimal shots.
To add additional stability to your tripod and camera, you may want to find a rock or other heavy object such as your camera bag, place it under your tripod, and attach a bungee cord from your tripod to the object. In this way, you add an additional level of stability and shake protection. Some photographers errantly believe that hanging their gear bag from their tripod achieves the same effect. This is not the case. Think about it: if there is even the slightest bit of wind, a hanging gear bag will act like a sail, catch the breeze, and conduct that movement to your equipment, potentially ruining your night’s work. Also, be sure to remove or secure any shoulder straps from your camera, as these will swing in the wind and transmit their motion to your camera.
If you have followed the guidelines above, you will have come equipped with an intervalometer, a device that controls the number, length, and frequency of shots taken. If it is wired, connect it to your camera; if it is wireless, attach the receiver unit to your camera’s hot shoe and plug it in to your camera. In either case, consider attaching the intervalometer control unit to your tripod with a Velcro strap to avoid movement.
Now is the time to test your camera and intervalometer to ensure that everything is working correctly.
A red light will blink on the intervalometer when it is in run mode and you will hear the camera shutter click as usual as it cycles though the sequence of exposures. Allow your camera to go through a couple of cycles to ensure it is working properly. Once you are sure everything is working as planned, you can stop the test and set your intervalometer to the number of exposures you want to capture during the shoot.
Now that you have set up and tested your equipment, you will need to find Polaris, the North Star. The elevation (angle above the horizon) of Polaris is approximately equal to the latitude of your shooting location. For example, the latitude of the Bristlecone Pine Forest in the White Mountains of California is 37 degrees. So, if you were shooting in this location, Polaris would have an elevation of 37 degrees.
To direct your camera at Polaris, you can either:
Final Steps: Focus and Framing
Once you have set up and secured your tripod, camera, and intervalometer and pointed your camera at Polaris, you are ready for the final focusing and framing. First you will want to check your image composition:
Once you are happy with your composition, you are ready to capture your foreground image. To do so, gently switch your camera to aperture priority mode, ensure that the aperture is set to the widest setting, manually focus on your foreground object, and take several shots. You will use one of these shots in post-processing to provide a detailed, correctly exposed image of your foreground.
After you are happy with the quality of your foreground shot, set your camera back to bulb shooting mode and focus on infinity, being careful not to move your camera or tripod. At this point, it is a good idea to carefully re-check all camera and lens settings using the checklist.
You have now completed the preparation for your star trails shoot. All that is left is to wait until it becomes sufficiently dark and press the start timer button on your intervalometer. We suggest you now carefully monitor your equipment until it had cycled through the first few exposures to ensure that everything is working correctly. Once you are confident that things are going as planned, you may want to leave your shooting location and join your friends to discuss the night sky or even return to your car to pass the time or keep warm.
Once the time required to shoot all the planned exposures has passed, you will want to return to your equipment, and you will now be thankful for the chemical light stick you attached to your tripod during set up.
Figure 3. Sweeping Star Trails
Arriving after dark, in the dark of the moon. Tripod mounted pointing north, but offsetting Polaris to create a Van Gough like swirl to the star trails. Background star trails consist of 34 images of 4 minutes each providing a total exposure time of 2 hours 16 minutes, f/2.8, ISO 400 at 17mm. Foreground shot at the end of the sequence with the same settings. An orange filter was used on a flashlight to illuminate the bristlecone pine in the foreground. Images combined in Photoshop, processed in Photoshop and Lightroom.
The clouds and illumination on the horizon are the result of a heavy thunderstorm over Nevada, and distant flashes of lightning.
After completing many star trails expeditions, we want to pass along some lessons learned in the hopes you will be better prepared and can avoid our early mistakes:
While shooting star trails is fun, you should be aware of your safety. This is particularly true if you are in a remote location, at a higher elevation where it is very dark, on uneven and unfamiliar terrain, in cold temperatures, and often without a cellular signal.
To stay safe, we recommend:
Before dark, you took a photograph you will use for the foreground, as well as some number of images for the star trails. The question now is how to process them. As always, there are many choices. We will present a proven approach using Adobe® Lightroom 5 and Adobe Photoshop CC. You can adapt this approach to the post processing tools you use.
To post process the star trails images:
Process the image you have selected for your foreground as you normally would. However, even though this image was taken in daylight, at dusk, or in twilight, remember that the effect for the image you want to create is one of a night scene.
Bringing It All Together
Now that you have post processed all your star trails images and your foreground, you are ready to create your final combined image:
You can now make some adjustments to your final image such as increasing contract, increasing the vibrance, and making other adjustments to create the desired effect. Remember to Save-As after each major step.
Figure 4. Star Trails on a Stormy Night
Tripod mounted pointing west. Background star trails consist of 7 images of 4 minutes each providing a total exposure time of 25 minutes, f/2.8, ISO 400 at 18mm. Foreground shot after sunset using same composition; exposure 1/30 of a second, f2.8, and ISO 800. Light painting with a flashlight was used to illuminate the bristlecone pine in the foreground. Images combined in Photoshop, processed in Photoshop and Lightroom.
We arrived at the site after dark on a very stormy night not sure whether we would be able to shoot at all. The view to the north (Polaris) was blocked by a fast moving storm, but the late twilight to the west was beautiful and some stars were visible. We set up, but the storm approached faster than we had anticipated, and being very exposed at over 10,000 feet, we quickly retreated and reached the car just as it unleased its fury, but this photograph offers two lessons:
If you want to learn more about the many creative options available to you with star trails photography, see beautiful star trails images in different settings, and get detailed explanations of post processing techniques that apply to star trails photography we refer you to The Photoshop Darkroom which has a detailed stacking case study, Creative Night and The Way of the Digital Photographer by Harold Davis. For a community of like-minded people, look for a local Meetup group, or check out the Star Circle Academy.
(1) Nikon settings refer to a Nikon D700
(2) Canon settings refer to a Canon Mark 5D Mark III
Ephemeris – An ephemeris helps you determine the best dates and times for star trail photography by providing information about the phase of the moon, the moonrise and moonset times and sunrise and sunset times. Examples are The Photographers’ Ephemeris® (TPE) or Photopills.
Inclinometer – An inclinometer measures the angle of elevation (a positive number) or depression (a negative number) of an object with respect to the horizon in degrees or percentages. You can choose to purchase a separate inclinometer or purchase an app (for example, Clinometer for Apple devices, $1). For star trail photography, you should set your inclinometer to measure elevation (or depression) in degrees. Your inclinometer will allow you to determine if Polaris will be visible and where to position yourself relative to a foreground object to get the North Star in your shot.
Intervalometer – An intervalometer is a programmable timer that plugs into a camera to control the number, length, and frequency of shots taken. Some examples of intervalometers are the Nikon MC-36 Multi-Function Remote Cord, the Canon Timer Remote Controller TC-80N3, or the Vello Wireless ShutterBoss Timer Remote. Most, if not all, intervalometers have the following functionality:
In star trails photography, the intervalometer controls your camera through the entire evening of shooting.
Night Sky Map Application – A night sky map application is a software program for your smartphone or tablet that includes a searchable database of celestial objects, night mode for viewing celestial objects outside on location, constellation shapes and lines, and a digital compass, You use a night sky map application to locate the positions of the stars relative to your shooting location. Examples include SkyView or StarMap 3D for Apple devices or Sky Map for Android devices.
Photopills – Photopills is a map-centric natural light planning app for Apple devices that helps photographers determine the phase of the moon, the moonrise and moonset times and sunrise and sunset times for any dates and location. It includes location scouting information for more than 10,500 venues, a database of obstacles, position information for the sun, moon, Polaris, and other celestial objects, a sun rise/set and moon rise/set calculator, and a celestial 3D augmented reality viewer.
Polaris – Commonly known as the North Star, Polaris is the brightest star in the constellation Ursa Minor. Since Polaris lies nearly in a direct line with the axis of the Earth’s rotation “above” the North Pole, Polaris stands almost motionless in the sky, and all the stars of the Northern sky appear to rotate around it. The elevation of Polaris is approximately equal to the latitude of your location.
The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) – The Photographers’ Ephemeris (TPE) is a map-centric sun and moon calculator app that will help you determine how the light will fall on the land, day or night, for any location on earth. For a more in-depth tutorial on how to use TPE, see Planning your Landscape Photos with TPE
About Mike Watson: Mike Watson has an extensive and varied background in consulting, business, operations and technology. He is an active workshop Facilitator working with the Point Reyes Field Institute in California, and at popular workshops conducted by the acclaimed professional photographer and author Harold Davis. He’s most likely to be found these days behind a camera, or processing his photos in Lightroom and Photoshop and he shows his work on Flickr.
About CJ Glynn: A Silicon Valley veteran, CJ Glynn is currently Chief Marketing Officer at Fusion, the world’s first smartphone-controlled, LED-based smartband that responds to music and motion. When not hawking wearable technology, CJ is likely to be capturing natural light landscapes or travel and commercial photographs, which you can see on Flickr.