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How to use star trails for magical nightscapes

With “astro-tourism” on the rise, we asked a group of talented stargazers to share the secrets behind their best shots. Read on for their top tips for photographing star trails.

Victor Lima listens to the thundering rumble of Brazil’s Iguaçu Falls, surrounded by the nearby flora and fauna of the subtropical rainforest. In the French Pyrenees, Daniel Viñé leaves footprints in the snow, gazing up at the mountain torrents. Christoph Schaarschmidt takes in the view at Uluru, the massive sandstone monolith, as it glows red beneath the Australian sky. In Iraq, Mahmood Alsawaf stands at the Fortress of Al-Ukhaidir, a nearly 1,300-year-old structure in the vast and ancient desert.

Thousands of miles apart, these four photographers have all arrived at their destinations for the same purpose: capturing star trails. With the “astro-tourism” trend on the rise, we asked this group of talented stargazers to share the secrets behind their best shots. Here are their top tips for capturing the magic and wonder of star trails.

Image © Victor Lima (@victorlimaphoto on Instagram)

The basics

Star trails are long exposures of the night sky; as our planet rotates, the (apparent) movement of the stars transforms them from pinpoints of light into longer streaks. These images can be made over the course of a couple of hours or an entire night. “To be able to record the trail of the stars in an interesting way, it is necessary to capture images with a minimum duration of one hour,” Victor explains. “At every hour of capture, we have tracks that correspond to about 15 degrees of rotation.”

There are, generally speaking, two ways to capture star trails. The old-fashioned way is to create one super long exposure, while the newer method involves shooting many shorter exposures—perhaps around 20 seconds to a minute—and then stacking them during post-production (Affinity Photo can do this for you). The longer you want your star trails, the more shots you’ll need (usually, hundreds).

The photographers we interviewed use the second technique for a few reasons. First, it’s harder to mess up; even if you get a single exposure wrong, you have the rest to fall back on. But another reason is noise. “Back when people created a single long exposure, these long exposure times resulted in extreme image noise, which had to be laboriously resolved using software and reference images,” Christoph explains.

Image © Mahmood Alsawaf (@mahmood.alsawaf on Instagram)

Stacking solves this problem. For this technique, you’ll need an intervalometer so that your camera shoots hundreds of photos at regular intervals at longer shutter speeds (30 seconds and up). While it works, you can sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.

Finally, the direction you face will also influence the shape and formation of your star trails. “Depending on which direction you are looking and in which region of the world you are, your star trails will look different,” Christoph says. “The typical circle, contrasting traces, or arcs are all possible.”

For circles, you want to orient yourself so that you’re facing the North Star (in the Northern Hemisphere) or Sigma Octantis (in the Southern Hemisphere). If you want star paths, on the other hand, where the light streaks across the sky in more of an arc, position yourself facing the West or East.

Image © Christoph Schaarschmidt (@hasmonaut on Instagram)

Tips for shooting star trails

Bring your wide-angle lens

“Regarding lenses, the most used are wide-angles, since a wide field of view is necessary to be able to include the landscape together with a good portion of the sky in just one image,” Victor tells us. “Wide-angle lenses with a maximum aperture equal to or greater than f/4 (2.8, 1.8, 1.4, and so on) will allow the use of lower ISOs due to the greater light input through the lens.”

Another tip from Victor: carry a lens heater! “This piece of equipment prevents lens condensation in very humid places, which can harm long-lasting shots,” he says.

Invest in a great tripod

“One of the biggest mistakes I see, especially with people who are trying out landscape night photography for the first time, is underestimating the importance of having a good tripod,” Victor admits. “In most of my workshop groups, most participants arrive with very light and poorly constructed tripods, which do not give their photographic equipment the slightest stability.

“In most cases, we will be in nature, exposed to the wind. In places where the wind is strong, if the tripod is not stable, the force of the wind will make the tripod vibrate, and the images will be blurred. I usually say that, in long exposure photography, the tripod is as important as a good camera and good lenses. It is essential that the tripod is well built and stable, with a load capacity compatible with the photographic equipment used.

“In addition, the ideal tripod will have individual leg adjustment, without those bars that connect the tripod legs to the tripod’s central column. In nature, it is very difficult to find flat support surfaces, so having the individual adjustment of the legs allows for the tripod to be level even on irregular or inclined surfaces.”

Choose a camera that performs well in low light

“Star trails are images captured at night, so it is essential that the photographic equipment performs well in low light situations, with good noise control at high ISO,” Victor explains. “It is known that full-frame cameras are the most suitable for night photography, precisely because they meet the aforementioned needs well. But it is also possible to make this type of image with Aps-c cameras, so it is important to evaluate the performance of each model in low light situations.”

© Mahmood Alsawaf (@mahmood.alsawaf on Instagram)

Chase clear skies

Clouds can easily ruin an otherwise beautiful star trail. “You must choose the right time to get the best result,” Mahmood urges. “Avoid shooting on cloudy nights and full moon nights. There are several apps and websites that you can use to check the weather and moon phases, including Moon Phases and Windy.”

Beware of light pollution

“It is also essential to find sites that do not have light pollution,” Daniel stresses. “There are many light pollution tools on the internet; I really like Light Pollution Map. If you can be at an altitude, that’s also better because you avoid clouds or haze that may interfere. I really like to photograph the stars in the mountains, where there are usually perfect conditions if the sky is clear.”

Victor also recommends checking out nature reserves and national or state parks in your area. “During the planning phase, I use smartphone apps that allow me to assess the amount of light pollution anywhere on the planet and provide accurate information about the location of the stars over time,” he says.

© Daniel Viñé (@danielvgphoto Instagram)

Visualise your shot

“I use the PhotoPills mobile app to find nights where there will be no moon and determine the perfect time for seeing the stars,” Daniel says. “But I also use another feature within the app, and that’s the augmented reality tool. It’ll give you an idea of how the stars are going to move at your location, date, and time.”

Scout (and shoot) your foreground before dark

“One mistake I notice in star trail photos is a foreground that’s completely dark,” Christoph says. “That’s why I start taking images at dusk and later use these individual images for editing.” That extra light will help you capture that perfect exposure across the landscape/foreground, and you’ll also have time to explore the area and find the best composition.

© Christoph Schaarschmidt (@hasmonaut on Instagram)

Focus on the brightest star

“One of the most common questions I get asked is, ‘How do you focus?’” Christoph continues. His answer is simple: “I usually just use Live View and zoom in on the brightest star and then focus manually.”

Use manual exposure settings

“For star trails, I usually use a shutter speed of around 20, 25, or 30 seconds,” Mahmood says. “While some photographers recommend using the widest possible aperture, I get the best results at f/4, as I find that helps capture the true colours of the stars. To minimise noise, I like to stay at ISO 800 to 1000, though you can go higher, depending on your camera.” Your shutter speed, aperture, and ISO settings might vary, but you want to be able to adjust them in real time for that perfect exposure, so be sure to shoot in manual mode.

About the contributor

Feature Shoot showcases the work of international emerging and established photographers who are transforming the medium through compelling, cutting-edge projects, with contributing writers from all over the world.