Dave Morrow Photography: Dave's Free Star Trails Photography Tutorial

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Dave's Free Star Trails Photography Tutorial

You are currently on Page 2 of my Free Star Photography Tutorial which contains the Star Trails Photography Tutorial, Free Star Trails Post Processing Video Tutorial & the Star Photography Resources and Tools Section. If you're interested in the Milky Way Photography Tutorial contained on Page 1, CLICK HERE and head back over at any time! There is also a free 40 page star photography eBook over there as well:)

I've also just released a Free Scouting and Planning for Night Photography Video Series which you may enjoy! These skills are crucial for getting great shots of the night sky.

Star Trails Photography Tutorial

When it comes to taking star trail pictures you don't need the near "perfect" conditions that are required for Milky Way shots as described above. You do on the other hand need a few tips & tricks, as well as a good understanding of the 500 Rule which is described in the Milky Way Photography Tutorial at the beginning of this tutorial. If you're not already well versed in that skill set I would suggest starting back on Page 1 and work your back over here, you will be glad you did:)
from www.DaveMorrowPhotography.comSo I figured it was time to give the D800 a run at high ISO and long exposure at the same time. This shot was taken as ISO640 with an exposure time of 628 seconds. I usually don't turn on Long Exposure NR, but for this it's a must. Still a lot of noise in the RAW file, but not enough to destroy the picture. Hope you like it:)
Of Time & Space - McWay Falls, California || Nikon D800 @ 18mm, ISO640, f/2.8, 628 Seconds

Please note, some of the sections below have redundancies that are provided in the Milky Way Photography Tutorial, I have included them twice since they are needed for both types of photography to keep everything very clear and concise!

What You Need

  • Any night with a clear sky will work. I actually prefer nights when the moon is out for star trails as you can capture bright stars without increasing your ISO above 1000, thus reducing noise. Check the Apps I list below for moon phase!
  • Tripod, the sturdier & taller the better. I have a 72” tripod by Really Right Stuff which is great for shooting stars due to the fact that I can look up at my camera while shooting.
  • A Camera with Manual Mode functionality. ( If you're interested in all the equipment I use head on over to the What's in My Camera Bag section of the website. )
  • A remote, timer or intervalometer. especially if you do not have a 35mm sensor. This is key for taking exposures longer than 30 seconds or multiple shots over an extended period of time as we will be doing below. This is a must for star trail photography!
  • PhotoPills - You really don't have to have this app. But it will help you calculate how long you need to shoot for to capture a certain amount ( rotation ) of star trails. It's also great for letting you know the moon phase as denoted above. For a full list of apps reference the Milky Way Photography Tutorial at the top of this page. 
  • Star Trail photography is much more forgiving than Milky Way photography, but it still helps to have a "fast" lens that allows the most light to hit your camera's sensor in the least amount of time without increasing your ISO and inducing noise. I would recommend an aperture no slower than f/4 for this style of night photography. I usually shoot my star trails between f/1.4 - f/2.8.
  • Fully Charged battery!!!! You will be shooting over a time ranging from 30 minutes to 3 hours. So change that bad boy up! You can afford to switch batteries during your star trail shoot if you are very fast. I always carry at least two batteries.

The 500 Rule for Star Trail Photography

See my Milky Way Photography Tutorial for the Free 500 Rule Chart. You also need to thoroughly understand and read the 500 Rule concepts provided in that tutorial. Upon doing so you can apply the inverse thought process to capture nice star trails in your shots. You can even print out the chart and keep it in your camera bag!

Camera Equipment

Provided below are the camera settings and equipment that I shoot with to capture star trails, this doesn't mean there is a correct or incorrect way to shoot, these just work best for me. Different cameras work better/worse in different situations, so experimentation is key. In the middle of my Free Milky Way Photography Tutorial I have also provided some other great night photography camera and lens options for both Canon and Nikon users of any skill level.

Keep in mind for star trails you don't need to have a wide angle lens, nearly any lens will work. I have used each one of my lenses for star trails and they all work well, but produce slightly different crops and results. That being said in lieu of listing all my gear, feel free to head over to the What's in My Camera Bag section of this website to see what I shoot with, or scroll up to the Milky Way Photography for more equipment recommendations.

Camera Settings

My preferred method for capturing star trail photos involves using multiple exposures each capturing a small star trail over an elapsed period of time. The camera settings for each of these exposures is exactly the same. The only thing that changes is the position of the stars relative to the earth.

Next I overlay each of these images one on top of the other in Photoshop to achieve the look of one single star trail. The best part about this method is you can keep your exposure time low, between 15 and 45 seconds, while keeping your ISO fairly low thus reducing the over all high ISO and long exposure noise in your photos. Complete details on this method below!
from www.DaveMorrowPhotography.comRead the full blog post & sign up for my 2015 & 2016 Star Photography Workshop Mailing list -->http://www.davemorrowphotography.com/2014/06/2015-2016-star-photography-workshop.htmlIn my opinion this is one of Mount Hood's most under rated vantage points, especially in the winter months. We arrived just after midnight as the rising moon was sitting low in the sky casting shadows and amazing light over most of the landscape.With a tall snow embankment on my left, the moon's light didn't touch the foreground but blazed it's light across the remainder of the landscape. Slight cloud cover gives a nice glow to the stars with Mount Hood looming in the background. When printed full size you can see the snow flakes sparkle in the light, but standing there it almost felt like there were small blinking lights covering the ground.This photo is composed of two shots ( same composition ), 1 at a short exposure time / high ISO to capture the stars without creating star trails. Another shot was taken at lower ISO and longer exposure time to capture the rest of the scene without generating as much noise. These two shots were taken seconds apart to capture what I saw that night. Fresh snow + night skies = Good times!
TIP: You don't always have to shoot under perfectly dark skies. This shot was taken as the moon was starting to rise over the snow bank to my left. || Mount Hood, Oregon

Note: You can also capture star trails using one long single exposure. I find that this method really degrades image quality, although in the right conditions it does work well. Once you have mastered the techniques below, you will easily be able to calculate and master single exposure star trails on your own:) They after all only require one click of a button.

Unless otherwise stated below all camera settings are the same as denoted in my Milky Way Photography Tutorial.

Focal Length: For star trails any focal length will work. Keep in mind the further zoomed in you are the longer your stair trails will appear over a shorter amount of time ( REF: 500 Rule Chart ). If you don't want to wait around all night to capture a star trail scene a zoom lens may be your best choice. If you're interested in capturing a full wide angle star trail scene showing a long star trail transition across the sky this may require a few hours for the stars to exhibit trails through the full range view for your wide angle lens. The best way to see this in physical form is to go out and try some test shots in the field and see how different lenses or focal lengths exhibit different trial lengths over a given peroid of time. Another good reference is the 500 Rule chart which I provide, this will show the direct correlation between star trails and focal length in a mathematical manner.

Focus: I usually focus at infinity, take a practice shot to see how it looks then adjust focus from there. Usually infinity works just fine. If you really like something in the foreground then take two shots. One to get the stars then a second for the foreground. Make sure you nail this down with a single exposure before starting your actual star trail sequence of photos.

Aperture: f/2.8, or whatever your lowest aperture value is will best capture Star Trails. I prefer to play in the range of f/2.8 through f/4 for star photography. 

Exposure Time: 30 seconds is my standard. Sometimes I will shoot anywhere up to 45 seconds in order to catch more of the “Far away” light in my shots. Just remember a longer exposure picks up more light, which in turn means you will see stars that are farther and farther away from our planet. On the other hand light sources closer to our planet will appear brighter at longer exposure times. Experimentation is key! Just remember the exposure time all depends on the focal length of your lens for star trails & Milky Way shots. Note: Using a longer exposure will allow you to keep your ISO low, in turn reducing noise!

TIP: I usually pick an exposure time that is just a few seconds longer than my minimum star trails exposure time @ a given focal length as denoted on the 500 Rule Chart. This seems to give a nice "flow" to the stars once I import them into Photoshop. Depending on the "look" you are going for experimentation is key. 

ISO: ISO for star trails all depends on how much ambient light is present in the scene you are shooting. I usually shoot my star trails when the moon is out, but facing the opposite way. The moon light allows you to capture well exposed star shots while keeping your ISO fairly low. I would suggest starting out at an ISO of 300 and increasing it as necessary until you have a well exposed star shot. Keep in mind you don't need to see very long trails in your shot as well will blend them together in Photoshop over an extended period of time.

TIP: Just remember, if your shot isn't bright enough, and you can still increase your exposure time, ALWAYS do this instead of increasing your ISO. ISO is the worst case method of increasing the brightness of your star trail shots.

Elapsed Shooting Time / Number of Exposures:
PhotoPills provides a nice tool within their application that will allow you to calculate exactly how long you need to take pictures for to cover the full range of star trails in your shot. The other choice is practice and/or stopping to review your picture every once in a while to see how far your stars have moved across the composition. Just remember the more of the sky you have showing your composition, the longer you will need to take exposures for if you want your star trails to cross the entire image. If you have very little amount of sky in your composition it will take a very short time for the stars to move across that distance. If you have an hour or two, it never hurts to set your timer up for 2 hours, grab a beer, coffee or some other good stuff and wait around. This will ensure that you get enough exposures to replicate really long star trails.

Note: Depending on your latitude, this number can vary, due to this fact I have not created a reference chart for this section. 

Camera Timer Settings:
I highly suggest using a camera timer / intervalometer, otherwise you will be pushing the shutter button again and again for hours. Some cameras have an interval timer mode built into them, this works as well.

Once you decide how long of a shooting time is necessary per the step above, it will be necessary to setup your timer up to mimic this time. I suggest shooting with 1 second intervals between each of your shots, or less if your camera timer allows it. This is necessary to keep your final image from displaying gaps between star trails upon overlaying all of the images in Photoshop. 

Star Trails Post Processing Video Tutorial

Now that you've captured some star trail images, head on over to my Free Star Trails Post Processing Video Tutorial and I'll show my favorite tips & tricks for editing star trail images in Lightroom & Photoshop.

Click the link below & access the free video tutorial.

Final Words of Advice for Star Trail Photos

Come Join Us - Second Beach, WAfrom www.DaveMorrowPhotography.comCheck out my FREE Star Photography Tutorial  and  Star Photography Post Processing Video Tutorial  Ready to learn star photography? My summer star photography workshop schedule for 2014 is now up and running.Under the Stars Night Photography Workshops
TIP: You can take one shot right after sunset & leave your camera in the same place until the stars come out. Next capture your star trails. Using Photoshop you can blend both images together to create a unique look of your own.

I believe the hardest part of star trail photography is nailing down the correct length of shooting time. If you don't take enough shots over a long enough period of time, then the star trails don't appear long enough in your final image.

That being said, it's always best to take more shots and then discard them once you get home. Keep that in mind when out shooting:) It's also necessary to nail down the correct balance between ISO and exposure time. You will improve greatly at both of these skills after one night of shooting!

Star Photography Resources & Tools

Once you have captured and processed some nights shots feel free to click the link directly below and upload them to my website. I will share my favorite shots every once in a while on Facebook, Google+ & my website with credit to you. Once the picture has uploaded wait 60 seconds or so to allow it to show up on the page. Once this has been done, comment on the picture with your name and website or Facebook profile address.

 Please note that all photos are protected so they can not be downloaded, but the "share" button is enabled for easy promotion!

You can see everyone's uploads to the link above at my Student Uploads Gallery.


If you're over on Google Plus feel free to join my star photography community. There are lots of good pictures, discussion and tutorials from star photographers all over the world.

Under the Stars Photo Community

Also feel free to check out the Star Photography Tutorial that I wrote for the Editors at 500PX & PetaPixel

Dave's 500PX Star Photography Tutorial

Dave's PetaPixel Star Photography Tutorial

Here are a few of my favorite star photos. You can view all of them in my Under the Stars Photo Gallery
from www.DaveMorrowPhotography.comCheck out my FREE Star Photography Tutorial  and  Star Photography Post Processing Video Tutorial  Ready to learn star photography? My summer star photography workshop schedule for 2014 is now up and running.Under the Stars Night Photography Workshops
from www.DaveMorrowPhotography.comRead the full blog post -->http://www.davemorrowphotography.com/2014/05/the-wild-coast-olympic-national-park.htmlThis shot came as the 96% moon rose from the east just out of the top lefthand side of this picture's frame. The moon illuminated the entire landscape and made the pacific ocean shine and glitter in the darkness of the night. Such an awesome sight to see, and easily one of my favorite shoots of the season thus far. Over the past month I've spent most of my time exploring Olympic National Park. A few weeks ago I camped out down by those sea stacks by the little outcrop of logs and beach( seen in the photo ) on my return from 3 day camping trip up the parks from www.DaveMorrowPhotography.com read more at www.DaveMorrowPhotography.comfrom www.DaveMorrowPhotography.comCheck out my FREE Star Photography Tutorial  and  Star Photography Post Processing Video Tutorial  Ready to learn star photography? My summer star photography workshop schedule for 2014 is now up and running.Under the Stars Night Photography Workshops A Passing Glimpse - Mount St. Helens, Washingtonread more at www.DaveMorrowPhotography.comCheck out my FREE Star Photography Tutorial  and  Star Photography Post Processing Video Tutorial  Ready to learn star photography? My summer star photography workshop schedule for 2014 is now up and running.Under the Stars Night Photography Workshops