How to Photograph Star Trails
On a recent trip to Yosemite, I had the opportunity to shoot star trails over the Yosemite Valley Chapel. Historically, to photograph star trails, you find a very dark area with minimal light pollution and create one single long exposure. In recent years, a number of programs have hit themarket that have revolutionized the way you photograph star trails. Instead of taking one single exposure to create this image, I took more than 140 and stitched them together using a program.
Startrails and StarStax are two programs that are perfect for this type of shooting.
Let’s talk about how to take the photographs needed to create star trails with these two software options.
How to Photograph Star Trails
- Be on location before sunset, if possible. For the Yosemite Chapel star trail photograph, I arrived at the Chapel about an hour before sunset. I used the daylight to set up my shot, choose my lens, focus the camera and (if necessary) claim my turf. I didn’t know if I’d chosen a popular spot and I didn’t want to have to compete with other photographers to get the composition I had planned. After I set my camera up, I made dinner, had a picnic and read a book until it was time to start shooting.
- For about an hour after sunset, the sky was still too light for photographing star trails, but the foreground was perfectly lit for the rest of the photograph. For my composition to work, I needed to start photographing the scene before it was dark. This was to get several nice exposures of the foreground, the chapel, the trees and the cliffs in the background (everything but the star trails, basically). Between sunset and dusk, I took several different exposures to make sure that I would have plenty of options in post production.
For the tent star trail photograph, it was well after dark before I arrived on location. I took a series of long exposures to capture light on the foreground, in this situation. I’m glad that I could avoid the extra long exposures at Yosemite Chapel because I wanted to maintain a low noise photograph. Long exposures at night will increase the noise in your photograph. I wanted the Yosemite Chapel star trails photograph to be as sharp as possible.
- When the sky still had just a touch of blue in it, I started shooting my star trails. My camera settings:
30 seconds at f/8 with ISO 100, Continuous ExposureI used a wired remote switch to trigger the continuous exposures for just over an hour. The longer you shoot, the longer your star trails. In this case, I wanted to create a nice balance between the star trails and the Yosemite Chapel. I didn’t want the stars to overwhelm the Chapel, so I cut myself off after one hour and shot at f/8. For the tent star trails photograph, I went about an hour and a half. If you want more stars, then open your aperture further: Shooting 30 sec at f/5.6, f/4, f/2.8 and f/1.4 at ISO 100 are generally all valid options. It depends on your composition and desired depth of field.
Equipment for Photographing Star Trails
- A camera with Continuous Shooting Mode (also called Burst Mode)
- A sturdy tripod and head
- A remote shutter – This is the remote shutter that I use.
- Computer with software: Startrails or StarStax are the two programs I’ve used.
Other Helpful Hints for Photographing Star Trails
- Shoot longer for longer trails. The longer you shoot, the longer your star trails.
- Use a wider aperture if you want more stars and brighter trails. f/1.4 will capture a lot more stars than f/8.
- Use a high ISO to capture more stars. If you have a slow lens but want more stars, then use your ISO.
- Take some dark images to blend in during post production if you want a dark sky.
- Take the strap off your camera while shooting the series to minimize camera shake.
- Lock your mirror to minimize shake.
- Paint your foreground with light.
- Experiment with different settings.