Peter Zelinka | Star Trails Tutorial

Star Trails Tutorial


Temple of the Moon - Star TrailsTemple of the Moon - Star TrailsA colorful Star Trails image over the Temple of the Moon

 

 

Planning


A clear sky is one of the most important things to watch for when planning a Star Trails photo.  In order to get a spectacular Star Trails image, you should try to have a completely clear sky for the duration of your shoot.  I would highly recommend using Clear Dark Sky charts to help you pick a good night.  These charts can be a bit difficult to understand at first.  Basically, the more rows of dark blue squares, the better. 

The great thing about star trails is that you do not need a dark sky to get a beautiful image.  Even in light polluted areas, you can still capture a great star trails photo.  You can also do star trails image during a full moon.


Gear

Capturing star trails doesn't require expensive gear.  All you need is a camera with an intervalometer and a wide angle lens.  Any wide angle lens will do, even ones that have bad coma.  Since all of your exposures will be blended, the star distortion is not an issue.  Personally, I would recommend using a Full-Frame camera with a 14mm lens.  This allows you to capture a large portion of the sky and a foreground.  Alternatively, you can set your camera to capture 90% sky for the star trails.  For the foreground, take 1 photo at the beginning or end of the shoot.  You can merge the two exposures in Photoshop.

If your camera does not have a built in intervalometer, you will need to purchase a remote that has this capability.  I use a Vello Shutterboss II for some of my astro, it works great.

Of course, you'll also need a sturdy tripod and ballhead to make sure the camera does not move over the hours.  I use a Feisol CT-3441T tripod and an Acratech GP Ballhead.  Both are quite expensive, but they do a great job for all kinds of photography.

 

SD Card Considerations

A large, fast SD card is recommended.  You will be shooting potentially hundreds of Long Exposure photographs one-after-the-other for up to 6 hours straight!  You cannot afford to have your SD Card get bogged down, as it will completely mess up the interval.  

The SD Association has created a graph that clearly explains what all the numbers on the card actually mean.  You will need a Class 10 or UHS Class 3 card to be able to successfully capture Star Trails.  You can always test your camera out before leaving the house, to see if your current SD card is fast enough.

I use these 32 GB SanDisk cards in my D750.  The 32 GB card holds roughly 1,000 uncompressed 14 bit RAW images at 24 megapixels.  If you do not use a fast enough SD Card, your camera may need extra time to process each RAW file, potentially causing gaps in your star trails. If you have a very high-resolution camera, like the Nikon D850, you'll likely want a 128GB card to hold enough images.

 

Camera Settings

Before you take your Star Trails photo, you need to decide how you want the final image to look.  If you shoot at a high ISO (1600+) you will have tons of stars in your image and your Star Trails will be very dense and bright.  If you shoot at a lower ISO (100-800) you will have far fewer stars, more star colors, and your Star Trails will have some space between them.  Click here to see the difference between ISO 100 - 6400, it should give you a good idea of how many stars you can capture.  Therefore, there are no "default camera settings" when photographing Star Trails, it's entirely up to you!  With that being said, here's some settings to get you started:

  • Manual Mode
  • Manual Focus (Camera Body and Lens)
  • f/2.8 or f/4 
  • ISO 800
  • 20 -30 second Shutter Speed
  • 3000 - 5200 K White Balance (Don't leave on Auto)
  • Long Exposure Noise Reduction - OFF

 

Determine Your Interval

The trickiest part of doing a Star Trails photoshoot is setting up the Intervalometer properly.  I shoot with a Nikon D750, so I have this function built into the camera menu.  Look for the "Interval Timer Shooting" in the "Photo Shooting Menu."  Nikon should have guides on their website for different camera models.  Keep in mind, many of the cheaper camera models, like the D3300, do not have a built in Intervalometer.  You will need to purchase an external remote that plugs into the camera.  I recently purchased this Vello intervalometer for doing tracked astrophotography.

Lonely Speck has compiled a list of cameras that have built-in intervalometers, head over to their website to see if your camera has this function.

Using a Nikon D750, my built-in intervalometer has a couple different parameters:

  • Start Options
  • Interval
  • Number of Intervals
  • Exposure Smoothing

The Interval we choose is entirely dependent on the Shutter Speed.  You can set the interval to any combination of hours / minutes / seconds.  For this example, I am using my Rokinon 14mm with a 20 Second Shutter Speed.  If I set the Shutter Speed to 20 seconds and the Interval to 20 seconds I will have problems.  The camera needs time to save each exposure to your SD card and close the shutter.  Therefore, the Interval needs to be longer than the Shutter Speed.  I have found that setting the Interval 1 second longer than the shutter speed is usually fine.  

Remember, if you have too big of a delay between exposures there will be gaps in your Star Trails.  There are ways to fix this in Post - Production, but it's better to have this done correctly in-camera.  Basically, just set your Interval to 1 second longer than your Shutter Speed.

I've noticed something strange when using a 30 second shutter speed.  When I would set the Interval to 31 seconds, the camera would keep skipping a frame.  Confused, I pulled out my smartphone timer and timed the 30 second exposure.  It turns out, a 30 second exposure is actually 32 seconds long!  I don't know why they are programmed this way, but it will definitely mess up your star trails.  Therefore, when taking a 30 second photo, set the Interval to at least 33 seconds.  Also, a 15 second photo is actually 16 seconds long!  Therefore, if using a 15 second shutter, make your interval 17 seconds.  Let's take a look at what's going on behind the scenes.

If we were looking at a stop chart, each stop would be twice as long.  For example, 1 second / 2 seconds / 4 seconds / 8 seconds / 16 seconds / 32 seconds.  This would explain why the camera is not taking the actual length specified.  My guess is that this is the cause of the problem.

If your Interval is too short, the camera will still be processing when it should take another photo.  This will cause the camera to lose sync between the Shutter Speed and Interval.  You will notice the camera waits the duration of your interval before taking another photo, leaving you with a big gap!  I recommend testing out your interval before you leave the house.  Make sure Long Exposure NR is turned Off!  Otherwise the camera will be unable to do Star Trails properly.

Sit with your camera and listen, you will be able to hear if things are working properly.  The camera shutter should open, take in light for 20 seconds (or whatever your shutter speed is), then close the shutter.  Almost immediately after the shutter closes it should open again and repeat the process.  If there is a long delay between photos, your Interval is not long enough.  The camera ends up waiting for another interval before taking the next photo.  If this happens, increase the Interval / Shutter Speed Gap.  (20 second Shutter Speed with a 21 Second Interval  -> Increase to 22 Second Interval)  I highly recommend you test this out before starting your final star trails photo shoot.  Or at least stand next to your camera for the first few frames and listen for the "Click..Click" which indicates the first exposure ended and the second exposure began.

You also need to determine the Number of Intervals, or photos, you want.  If you have all night and a fully charged battery, you can set this for a couple hundred exposures.  300 photos (with a shutter speed of 30 seconds and Interval of 33 seconds) will take about 2.5 hours.  The amount of exposures will also change the look of the Star Trails.  The more exposures you take, the longer the star trails will look.  I normally set my camera to take 100 - 200 Intervals.  If I am camping next to my camera though, I will set the number of exposures to 500 or 600, which should take it through the night.

Mosquito Lake Star TrailsStar Trails over Mosquito Lake, Ohio

 

Choosing your Style

Star Trails give you a lot of freedom to create a unique image.  Depending on your Shutter Speed and ISO you can create a lot of different effects.  For example, if you shoot at a lower ISO (400-800) or a shorter shutter speed (10-20 seconds) you will pick up less stars.  If the Full Moon is out, many stars will be washed out from the bright light.  You may need to adjust your settings to account for the extreme amount of light, compared to a dark moonless night.  The image below was taken during a Full Moon, which exposed the foreground nicely.

Shiprock Star TrailsStar Trails under a Full Moon
Finally, the direction you face will completely change the look of the photo.  Facing North gives you the cool circular effect, while facing South produces a wall of Stars.  Depending on your Latitude, the North Star (and resulting circle) will be higher or lower in the sky. 

North:

North Star TrailsStar Trails over the Great Sand Dunes, Colorado.

South:

South Star TrailsStar Trails facing South

East:

Crater Lake Star TrailsStar Trails facing East

West:

Grand Teton Star TrailsStar Trails facing West

 

Telephoto Trails

If you don't feel like spending all night out doing star trails, there's a much faster and easier way!  A telephoto lens will allow you to capture a star trails image much faster.  As you zoom in on the stars, their apparent movement speeds up.  The photo below was only 4 minutes!  Use this trick to capture unique compositions with your next star trails photo.

 

Tips

  • Set Camera AND Lens to Manual Focus before starting the Interval
  • Bring 2 fully charged batteries, verify they are charged before you leave!
  • Format SD card before shooting, need a full SD card
  • Make sure Long Exposure Noise Reduction and High ISO Noise Reduction are turned off 
  • Shoot in RAW (for more control in Post Processing)
  • Set your Interval to 2-4 seconds longer than your Shutter Speed
  • Manual White Balance (3750 K is good starting Point)  Don't use Auto White Balance!
  • Remember, a 30 second photo is usually 32 seconds!
  • A 15 second photo is actually 16 seconds!

Boulder Star TrailsFacing South-West in Boulder

 

Post Production


 

StarStaX

StarStaX is a free program that allows you to easily create a Star Trails photo.  This application will take all of your photos and blend them together.  You can choose from a variety of methods including Gap-Filling and Comet Trails.  StarStaX will also allow you to use a Dark Frame, if you remembered to take one after shooting all of exposures.  This Dark Frame will help to eliminate noise and hot pixels.  

StarStaX also has one of my favorite functions, Cumulative Blend.  If you toggle this mode, StarStaX will process each photo and save the composite image.  This will allow you to create a Star Trails video.  See the video below for an example.


 

I recently created a YouTube tutorial that explains how to create a timelapse like the video above.  You will need StarStaX and Photoshop for this workflow.  You can watch the tutorial below:  

 

Photoshop

I find that Photoshop creates the highest quality Star Trails.  However, this is by far the hardest and most time-consuming option.  I would recommend most people stick with StarStaX.  You will need a powerful computer (SSD, 16 GBs of RAM) to handle this method, as you will be layering dozens of photos together.  Watch my Star Trail tutorial for a complete guide to post-processing your images.

 

 

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