Star trails tutorial - how to take awe-inspiring night photos

November 24, 2012  •  6 Comments

After showcasing this image, I had a ton of people ask me, "How the heck did you take that!?"

The last night of summer

This particular shot was taken at Ohio Pass near Crested Butte, Colorado and is actually a set of over 500 photos stacked as a time-lapse. The large "beam" of light in the middle is actually the moon.

Photos of the night sky are some of the more popular photos that are captured. There's something about the night sky that draws viewers in and allows them to dream about other places. Taking those photos takes a great deal of practice and patience though; however, don't fret - this guide will walk you through all of the steps necessary to take awesome photos of the night sky. Specifically, the guide will show you how to take star trails photos, which is one of the most dynamic and interesting photography techniques around. Just a note - this tutorial is an official submission for the DIY Photography's "How I Took It 2012 Contest"

The necessities:

1. DSLR with an intervalometer. 

2. Relatively "fast" lens, with an aperture rating of at least f/3.5, but ideally f/2.8 or better.

3. Shutter release cable (only needed if you're doing one long exposure).

4. A sturdy tripod.

5. Adobe Lightroom or some other RAW editing software.

6. Star trails software, such as StarStax for Mac or Startrails.exe for PC.

7. Distance away from large cities. 

8. Time and patience

Little Bear Peak at nightLittle Bear Peak at nightThis is a long exposure over Little Bear Peak and Blanca Peak near Alamosa, Colorado during winter.


First, let's talk a little about some fundamental rules of the trade for shooting photos at night. 

1. There's two methods for shooting star trails - multiple long exposures stitched together (recommended), or one very long exposure.

2. The longer you leave the shutter open, the more sensor noise is introduced into the photo (hence the recommendation to do multiple long exposures).

3. The higher the ISO your camera is able to handle the better, ideally you want to shoot at ISO 400, 800, 1600 or 3200 for star trails. Remember the higher the number, the noisier the photo will be.

4. The wider your lens, the more stars you will get into the shot, but your time for shooting a long star trail increases. 

5. Darkness is your friend. Ideally, the moon will have set already; however, you can get some awesome moon trails shots if the moon is still in the scene; however, there will be less visible stars and the exposure will be much more at risk of being overexposed. 

6. Take a test shot first at a very high ISO (like 12,000) to get a good feel for your composition.

7. Manual focus only! Set your camera and lens to manual focus and set your focus to infinity. Some lenses have some creep at the infinity end, so make sure you've tested the focus of your lens at infinity before doing your night shot. 

8. Find the poles. If you're looking for the circular type star trails (with a center star that does not move), you'll need to find the North Star (if you live in the Northern Hemisphere) or the Southern Cross constellation  (if you live in the Southern Hemisphere). To find the North Star, locate the two end "pointer stars" in the cup of the Big Dipper constellation and draw an imaginary line out from those two stars. The next semi-bright star off of that line is the North Star.

Devil's Thumb Ranch

9. Make sure your battery is fully charged or have extras on hand - a good star trails photo can drain a camera's battery quite quickly, especially if you are shooting in cold conditions. 

Now that we've talked about the basic rules of shooting night photos, let's move on to the the fun part - the step-by-step guide to shooting star trails.

1. Find an interesting subject for shooting the star trails photo that is far enough away from a major city so that light pollution is not a concern. Generally speaking, if there's a scene that looks good during the day, it will probably look good for a star trails photo. Look for an interesting foreground such as a cool looking tree, a stream, an old building, or a mountain. 

2. Set-up your camera and tripod. Make sure that you find a very sturdy spot and that your tripod can withstand some wind if there is any. If there is wind, try keeping your tripod as short as possible so that it is not as susceptible to wind movement. Take a test shot at high ISO and make sure the scene is desirable for what you are trying to capture.

3. Set-up your intervalometer. This can be somewhat tricky for sure as many cameras do not have a built in intervalometer. There are many respectable intervalometers on the market such as ones made by Promote Control. Since we're going to be taking 30-second exposures, set-up the intervalometer to shoot 33-second intervals for as many shots as you want to take (more shots = longer trails). The three second delay gives the camera time to close and re-open the shutter and ensures you won't miss an interval. 

4. Make sure you are shooting in RAW format. This is incredibly important as it allows you to do some remarkable global adjustments to every shot in post-production, including white balance, exposure and noise reduction. If you choose to shoot in JPG format, keep in mind it will be much more difficult to see all of the stars in the scene, but you will have a much easier post-production process. 

5. Take one photo with the lens cap on before engaging the intervalometer - this will be used as the dark frame in the star trails creation process and will help eliminate noise.

6. Engage the shutter, go grab some coffee, take a nap, etc. On a very wide lens, to get a very sweeping long star trail will take up to 6 or 7 hours of shooting.

Stars over the Garden of the Gods

7 Once you have taken the number of shots you want, import your photos into your favorite RAW editor and edit to your taste of exposure, color, etc. Copy the development settings for that photo and apply them to every other photo in the sequence. 

8. Optional step - go in each photo individually and edit out any airplanes or satellites that you do not want to be part of the scene by using the clone stamp tool or content-aware fill tool in Adobe Photoshop or the spot removal tool in Adobe Lightroom  (this is very time-consuming).

9. Export all of your globally adjusted photos as JPG files into a folder you can remember.

9. Open up StarStax (Mac) or Startrails.exe (PC), open all of your JPG files for the star trails sequence, point the software to your dark frame photo (step 5) and then process the star trails. 

That's all there is too it! OK, so maybe it is not that easy, but with lots of practice and patience, you'll be taking star trails photos like a professional in no-time!

While you're here, take a look at some of these star trails photos:


Matt Payne Photography

The D800 intervalometer is identical to the one on the D7000... I do understand though that the MC-36 allows for some other things, like setting a timer, etc... I'm thinking it will add to the creative options you have with the D800.
Jess Hendelman(non-registered)
I would love to hear what you think about the MC-36. I too have the D800 and D7000. I just recently got the D800, so I haven't had a chance to try out the intervalometer on it. I'm sure it hasn't chanced much from the D7000 though.
Matt Payne Photography
Hi Ken, thank you for your kind words!

I actually have never used PS for stacking (LOL)... but I have used the PC Startrails.exe and the Mac StarStax... both are fine. I am not sure what the main differenecs are but I think they are all very similar. I find StarStax to be incredibly easy to use. The vivid colors in the stars are likely due to a combination of a few things:

1. There was significant haze in the sky from a forest fire
2. I adjusted my white balance quite a bit to get the right colors to pop
Matt Payne Photography
Thanks Jess!

I personally use the in-camera intervalometer on my D800 and D7000 but am getting a MC-36 soon so I can let you know if that works a bit better. The on-camera ones are clunky but effective.
Jess Hendelman(non-registered)
Thank you for writing this in-depth article on stair trails. You have included steps that I haven't found in other how-to articles. Do you recommend using the cameras intervalometer or buying an external one?

PS - Your photography is stunning!
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