How to photograph star trails

If you’ve seen photos taken of stars trails over beautifully lit landscapes and wondered how they did it, then this post is for you.

The good news is you don’t have to be a professional photographer with expensive equipment, a celestial education and nerdy software to produce stunning results. This simple guide allows you to head outdoors to capture the wonders of our universe.

What equipment do I need?

  • A DSLR camera with a wide lens.
  • Tripod, beanbag or other stable location i.e. rock, wall or fence post as long as it doesn’t move.
  • Cable shutter release, a wired intervalometer or the camera’s own built-in version.
  • Computer for editing once you’ve finished.

First things first

  • Choose a cloudless night, ideally one with a new moon and without significant light pollution from civilisation.
  • Use the widest lens you have (the one with the smallest number, ideally 10-20mm). The wider it is the more stars it will capture.
  • Set up your tripod up on a solid surface, not a moving jetty, pontoon or boat.

Set up the framing of your shot

The rules of shooting at night are the same as during the daylight hours. Start by finding a visually interesting location for the foreground or on the horizon. It could be a pier, a rock formation, a building or a distant mountain range.

Then, take your photography pro by knowing how to find the celestial pole in your hemisphere, north or south.

(If that’s too technical then start with a test photo. Set your camera to bulb mode and take a photo with a 3-4 minute exposure. You’ll see roughly where the centre point is and can then adjust your camera to face toward it.)

In a perfect world the shot would include both an interesting foreground AND the centre of the celestial pole.

Ditch AUTO everything

Switch your camera to its manual setting. Make sure your lens is set to manual too, and change its focus to infinity or ∞ as your subject will be way off in the distance. It’s a good idea to turn off any image stabiliser the lens may have also or it’ll chew up your battery very quickly.

Take a test shot

Set the camera to these settings to start with:

  • ISO 3200
  • Aperture f/3.5
  • Shutter speed 30 seconds
  • Shoot in RAW. Some blending programs only allow JPEGS – do check

Have a look at the image and check your exposure levels. If it’s too bright, decrease the ISO, too dark and you’ll need to increase it.

When you’re happy with the results it’s time to get snap happy!

Set the camera to take photos automatically

If you’re using a cable release, press the button and lock it in place. As soon as the first photo has finished it will continue automatically until you stop it, by releasing the lock.

If you’re using an intervalometer, set the number of images you require and off you go.

I always use a 30-second exposure so it’s easy to calculate how long you’ll need. For a one-hour shoot, you’ll be taking 120 images (120 x 30 seconds = 60 minutes).

Work some computer magic

If you don’t usually edit your photos then don’t worry about it here either. Simply import the series of photos into your chosen software program and it’ll blend them all together delivering your finished masterpiece.

I prefer to use Adobe Lightroom to tune my images after I’ve taken them, usually working the shadows, whites and noise reduction until I’m happy. You can do the same with virtually every photo-editing program on the market, paid or free.

These settings are then copied and pasted onto ALL of your star-trail images:

  • Right click on the edited image. Settings > Copy Settings
  • Select all of your photos
  • Right click on any of the selected images. Develop Settings > Paste Settings

Blend baby, blend!

Now it’s time to combine all of the images you’ve edited, and it needn’t seem daunting.

I’ve used this simple, free software that’s available on both PC and Mac and takes care of everything for you.

The process is self-explanatory and the end result should be a perfect star trail image.

Have you ever tried star trail photography? Share links to your shots below!

*Photography: Lincoln Harrison (feature image on homepage); Top to bottom in post: Andrew Tallon, James Barker, Andrew Tallon x 2, Tim Edmunds