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10May/1085

Star Trails Tutorial

Star Trails

These are a great challenge, and the best part is, you don't know exactly what the photograph will look like until after you've taken it. In order to take star trail shots you need three essential things: A DSLR with a BULB mode, a tripod, and a rubber band and eraser. There are other methods to taking star trails too which require more tools, but if you have those three things than you can get away with taking a fine photo.

Star Trails with space observatory

Blue Star Trails with Tree

360, 30 sec exposures combined. (3 hours exposure in total). Nikon d70s was used with power cord.

Star trails are really fun. Find a good foreground and then make sure the sky is clear with minimal light pollution. It is going to be harder to do fantastic star trail shots if you live in the city because the light from the city bounces off the atmosphere and causes the entire sky to glow. Ideally, we only want the stars to glow. Moonless nights are best. Also, it is best if there are no clouds around when doing this.

You will need a tripod and a device that can take exposures one after the other. You can take one huge long exposure, but the noise in the image adds up with long exposure times, especially if it is a hot summer night. In order to get around this noise issue, we can take a bunch of 30 second exposures one after the other and then combine them into one image on the computer. Either method is up to you.

There are different tools we can use when taking star trails:

1) Use an Intervalometer (ultimately this is the best way, especially if your camera has one already built in). There are some phone/tablet apps that make use of the headphone/usb port to transform the phone you already have into an intervalometer.

2) Use a remote

3) Use a cable release (best way if you are using film)

4) Use a rubber band and eraser (cheapest, quickest way)

5) Use Camera controlling software on your laptop. (This won't be discussed in this article)

Lets look at each method below to see which one is right for you.

Using an Interval Timer Shooting mode (or an Intervalometer)

Intervalometers are on the Nikon D700, D300, and D300sIf you are using a higher-end DSLR, your camera should have an interval timer shooting mode (or sometimes called Intervalometer) already in the camera. The intervalometer will allow you to take 30 second exposures one after the other, automatically.  We can then take all these exposures and combine them together on the computer. Check your cameras manual or go inside the camera menu to see if it has an interval timer shooting mode. If it does, set everything on manual (manual focus, manual white balance) Take 30 second exposures with the minimal amount of interval time in between each exposure. Some cameras take longer to write the image to the card and it takes longer than one second, so you may have to set the interval times for 2 seconds. Go by trial and error until you get it right. Once you find it, you can start taking the actual shots. I'd take anywhere from 50-300 frames.

Using a Remote to take Star Trails

Nikon ML-L3 Wireless RemoteUsing a remote is better for lower end DSLRs that don't have an interval timer shooting mode. You’ll need to set your camera to manual mode, and then scroll your exposure time to the longest time possible, this is called the BULB mode. Push the button on your remote and and your shutter should lock up and start taking the photograph. Not all remotes and cameras are created equal, so you might want to check with a local camera dealer to see if this will work with your camera. It works with the Nikon d50 for sure, and probably the D70.

Using a Cable Release

Cable releases lock your shutter when in BULB mode so you can record the exposure for as long as you want in one continuous exposure. If you are using a Nikon film camera, then this is the best option for you. I’d recommend the ACR Cable. Digital also works totally fine with this method and is actually what I usually use myself. When using a DSLR, I simply set the shutter speed to 30 seconds, plug the cable release into the port, push the button in and lock it in, and it will take a bunch of 30 second exposures one after the other with the shortest amount of transition time possible.

Using a Rubber Band

This method is best when you just want to practice and get the hang of things without paying for a bunch of stuff extra stuff. Get an eraser and place it on your shutter button, then just wrap it up using a rubber band. I learned this trick from QQQQcon on YouTube, a great wildlife and landscape photographer.

Because all cameras are different, you still might not know what method is best for you. If that is the case, use the rubber band method or  ask forums or your local camera dealer on what you should get for your camera. A good resource online would be to search Flickr Groups for your camera model, join the group, look around to see if your question already has been answered, and if it hasn’t, ask. Expect to get an answer within the first 10-120 minutes.

Camera Settings for Star Trails Photos

Now that we have all the options out of the way, let’s just simply look at what settings we need to do when we are actually outside with our camera and tripod. Depending on the weather, your lens could possibly fog up completely. In order to prevent this, wrap some hand warmers around your lens with a rubber band, or get a miniature fan to constantly blow wind onto your lens. These things might not be necessary, it all depends on how cold and humid it is.

Focusing:

Set your camera to manual focus and focus out into infinity. Your camera won’t be able to use Autofocus in these dark conditions. Take a test shot to make sure your stars are sharp.

Exposure Time and ISO:

Now let’s calculate the exposure. If you are using one big long exposure and you’re not combining a bunch of 30 second exposures, take one 30 second exposure at ISO 1600. If it looks well exposed, just take that 30 seconds and multiply it by 16. If you are using ISO 3200, multiply the shutter speed you used by 32 instead. The number you get after multiplying the shutter speed you used for the test shot by the ISO you used for the test shot will tell you the shutter speed (in seconds) you will need to use when shooting at ISO 100, which is probably what you want to use when taking the actual shot. Using ISO 200 should be fine when using that same exposure time too, it will be a little brighter.

If you are taking a bunch of 30 second exposures and then combining them on the computer, you don’t need to do this because all of your frames are going to be 30 seconds.

 

Aperture:

What should the aperture be when shooting star trails?

It doesn’t matter. I usually use F3.5 on my 18-55mm lens.

 

White Balance:

Using anything other than AUTO WB will ensure a constant WB in each frame. You’ll need to do this if you are combining frames. If you are doing one huge long exposure, then it is okay to use Auto WB. Using a Tungsten White Balance will make the sky a beautiful purple color!

 

Combining Multiple Star Trail Exposures Together

If you ended up taking a bunch of exposures, download the Startrails.de program and run it, it is pretty self explanatory, so I won't go into detail here. When you load your photos into that, the Startrails.de program will combine all of them nicely.

If you want to do this in Photoshop instead, there is a special Photoshop Action available.

You can also do this in Photoshop by going to File -> Script -> Load Files Into Stack and then click OK. Wait for all the images to load, and then select all the layers and change the blending mode to Lighten. Try experimenting with different blending modes. Keep in mind that doing this in Photoshop might not come out as well if there is a ton of light pollution in the atmosphere. You might need to adjust the curves and make all the images darker in order for it to work.

Secret Star Trail Tricks

Fading Star Trails

Over a long time, you can rotate your focus ring out of focus so that each star gradually gets more and more out of focus. This will create a cone like shape to every star.

Dotted Star Trails

If you are taking a single long exposure, put a dark object -- such as a hat or piece of cardboard -- in front of the lens to block the light from coming in. Do this every minute or so. Say about 5 seconds to exposure the light like normal, and then 25 seconds with the object hanging over the lens to block all the light out. Keep repeating this and you should get dotted star trails.

If you are using an interval meter, then obviously you would just set the exposure time to 5 seconds and the interval to 25 seconds. Try experimenting with different variations. You could even make each star a different color in Photoshop in post-processing.

Star Trails with Illuminated Foregrounds

You can also use a flashlight, portable speedlights, car lights, or a fire to illuminate a foreground object. You can even illuminate entire landscapes at a distance if you have a powerful enough flashlight - the LED Lenser X21 monster flashlight is my light of choice for doing this.  The first example below was illuminated by city lights just to the side of the hill, and the second example was probably illuminated by a flashlight.

Star Trails with lit tree and landscape from city lights just behind the grass hill

Taif Star Trails by ~almumen on DeviantART

Star Trails with the North Star in the Center of the Frame

Okair Star Trails with light painted tent

In order to get the donut hole effect, simply locate the North Star, or just point your camera North. Remember that stars rotate slower near the North Star, so you will need to have your camera out a long time to get a good shot. You can place your foreground objects right in front of the North Star. This will have the stars circulate around your chosen object, which is great for composition.

Parabola Star Trails

It is the complete opposite if you point your camera away from the North Star. The stars will go by very fast, so you will get longer strokes in a shorter amount of time. This was 130 30 second exposures combined using Startrails.de.

Parabola Star Trails

If you have any other tricks, send me a comment and an example so I can feature it in this article! Happy shooting!

In order to prevent your lens from fogging up, you can try wrapping up some hand warmers around your lens with a rubber band, or get a miniature fan to constantly blow wind onto your lens.

This is tutorial blog post is just an excerpt from my Trick Photography and Special Effects E-Book. If you enjoyed this post, consider getting the e-book. All the content you see here has been revised, plus new content has been added.

Comments (85) Trackbacks (7)
  1. Great post and fabulous pictures. This looks like great fun as well as producing some stunning images.

  2. When you refer to tungsten white balance, what setting would this be on a panasonic lumix FZ45? I’ve had a look and cant find the tungsten setting people talk of.

  3. It might be called “incandescent” too. The symbol should be a little light bulb. Setting it to tungsten will cool down the color tones in the image.
    Here is a chart of the white balances in order from cool to warm:

    Incandescent/Tungsten (2500-3000K)
    Fluorescent (~4000-5000K)
    Daylight (~5200)
    Flash (~5400K)
    Cloudy (~6500-8000K)
    Shade (~8000-10000K)

    There’s also one here:
    http://cameracorral.blogspot.com/2008/01/friday-tip-of-week.html

    Hope this helps.
    Evan

  4. In my own experience with shooting star trails I’ve found that the lower ISOs (no more than 600) tends to turn out better, especially when using the lower end DSLR’s. Too high and there’s too much noise – its really bad with older cameras too. I think I’d like to stress the importance of what you said about finding an interesting foreground – really! Sure, star trails are cool but don’t lose sight of the importance of a good image composition.

  5. Hi Evan,
    I’d like to try to take some photos of startrails. Your pictures are very excellent. You have described the procedure perfect, but I have a little problem to take 30 second exposures one after the other. My camera Nikon D5000 take the first 30 sec exposure and then next 30 sec write it in memory. I tried to set the camera for 60 exposures and than I have found only 14 pictures on card. How can I speed up the saving of exposures?
    If I set the camera to take the 30 sec exposure every 60 sec, it runs well, but on the final image are the startrails dotted.

  6. Awsome Works, i would try them all 🙂

  7. i’m not good at all in fotografi and all it’s term. but i do know this is a very valuable information that you share. hope someday i’ll might have a chance to learn a little bit of fotografi

  8. Really good tutorial!it is something i was looking for a while. For canon users i recomend Magic Lantern firmware,it hase build in intervalimeter so its best cheapest way to take longexposure photography 😉
    Thanks again

  9. Can you tell me if the Canon 7D and/or Canon 5D mk2 has an interval timer? I do not own one but am thinking of buying one.

  10. would you know how he made his trails move like meteors and has a bigger trail heads than the tails?

    it would be awesome to know.

    Thanks.

  11. Sorry i didn’t include the link on my previous post. So here it is: http://www.liquidinplastic.com/2009/12/more-starsand-a-new-video/

  12. @ joko

    Hey Joko, I have got the same Camera, the way you solve that issue is by deactivating the Noise-reduction on long exposure, go to you camera settings and you’ll find out fast. Just turn off all NR (Noise Reduction).

    Hope this helped you, cheers.

  13. joko-
    I have the same camera (D5000). What you are seeing is the Noise Reduction function. This function helps take out noise when long exposures are taken. It takes the same time as the exposure. 15 sec for a 15 sec exposure, 30 for 30, etc. Simply, turn this off to get instant long exposure pics. I’ve found it does reduce noise, but not at a incredibly noticeable scale. Post-production noise reduction (like in photoshop) works great. Also, I recommend buying the Nikon remote. When the remote is used, you can take as long as exposures as you want, not limited to 30 sec. You also don’t bump the camera this way. Hope that helps!

  14. I guess I’m going to have to do some more research, but this is a really good place to start.

  15. Thank you for the hints and tips. I attempted my first star trail photo two nights ago. It turn out OK. I have some improvement to make though. Thank you,

  16. hello ,, i live in lebanon ,, how can i buy your e-books ????
    I really want to buy all your e-book

    thanks evan

  17. Hello…i have a D5000, does somebody knows why i can’t shoot no more than 30, 35 30”second shots with 25”between each other? i set it to shoot 100, but it never reaches that number.
    Hope i made myself clear, thanks!!

  18. There’s also a plugin for GIMP that I’ve used and highly recommend.

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