Star Trails: Photographing them, and how they're made

posted on 8th of december, 2009

A few years ago, as an aspiring photographer, I read an article on how to photograph star trails. The images of star trails in that article intrigued me. Fairly recently, I purchased a digital SLR camera. Remembering the star trails pictures I had seen years before, I decided to give it a try. It was a clear, moonless night. I started the exposure around 10:30 PM. Finally, when I decided to end it, the results were amazing! Even though I stayed up past midnight experimenting, my excitement kept me from even thinking about sleeping. Since then, a clear night can rarely go by that you will not see me outside doing astrophotography.
Star trails are caused by the earth’s movement. As the earth rotates on its axis, it appears that the stars (and the sun and moon) are revolving around us. To illustrate this, if you stood up and turned in a circle, it would appear that the room in which you were standing was circling around you. In reality, however, it is just your movement that caused this.

Another important concept to understand about stars is that if you stood on the North Pole and looked straight up, the area directly overhead in the sky is called the North Celestial Pole (NCP). The star at the NCP is Polaris, also known as the North Star. Because it is almost directly above the North Pole, the North Star’s position barely changes over the year, and the circular motion caused by earth’s rotation is almost imperceptible, which is why Polaris is so useful for navigation. A South Celestial Pole (SCP) also exists, but the brightest star located there is barely visible to the human eye, so it is not useful for navigation.

How is this knowledge useful in star trail photography? For one, if you point your camera at Polaris, you will get arcs around it. Secondly, the arcs will get longer as you move away from the North Star, until you hit the Celestial Equator, the area of the universe directly over the Equator. After that, the star’s trails begin to shorten again. It is quite simple to find Polaris if you live in the Northern Hemisphere. It is as many degrees above the horizon as the latitude at which you live. For example, if you live at 45o North, Polaris will be 45o above the northern horizon. Your fist at arm’s length is approximately 10o.
The equipment needed to photograph star trails is a bulky setup:

1. A sturdy tripod: A tripod is almost as essential to taking star trails as is the camera. Without a tripod, long exposures are impossible.

2. SLR camera with “BULB” mode: BULB is a setting that lets you keep the shutter open for as long as you hold the shutter button down. This is useful because you can start and stop the picture taking process whenever you want. Otherwise, you could only do a maximum exposure of 15 or 30 seconds, which will not capture major star trails. Only SLR cameras offer this setting. No point-and-shoot cameras that I know of offer BULB.

3. Wide Angle Lens: A wide focal length of 35mm or wider is recommended for capturing as much of the sky as possible. Use the widest aperture you can.

4. Lens Hood: This will make the picture more saturated, especially when photographing near major light sources, such as floodlights at night.

5. Remote Control: Although it would be possible to hold down the shutter button for 15+ minutes, the pictures will be sharper, and it will be much easier to use a remote. Remotes vary from simple models that just have a locking button, to complex remotes that not only have the locking shutter button, but also other controls such as a self timer, exposure length (requires camera being set to BULB) and some other features.

6. Fresh Battery: Each night, start with a fresh battery. Using a battery grip is an excellent alternative. This accessory mounts onto the base of the camera and can power the camera using multiple batteries. Also, be aware that the duration of Long Exposure noise reduction’s processing is the same as the length of the actual exposure. If, for example, the actual exposure is 75 minutes, then the Long Exposure NR (noise reduction) will also take 75 minutes on top of the actual exposure. The total duration of the exposure and NR will be 150 minutes in this case. Experiment until you find out how long your battery can hold out. Mine can take about 113 minutes exposure/113 minutes NR. This is important so that I do not set the exposure for too long and the battery dies in the middle of it causing me to lose the picture.

7. Microfiber Cloth: A soft microfiber cloth is necessary for keeping the lens free from condensation, especially if you live in a humid area. Use a cloth meant for wiping glasses’ lenses. The lens is sensitive and may scratch easily.

Star trails may take lots of experimenting.
1.Know how long it takes to create star trails in each area of the sky

2.Know how long the camera battery lasts, both with and without noise reduction “ON”

Setting up:
1. Choose a location far from light pollution.

2. It should be a clear, moonless night.

3. If there are any bright lights in the vicinity, aim away from them, or use a lens hood.

4. Use trees sparingly to compose the scene. Too many trees may detract from the photo.

5. Set up tripod and ensure that it is stable.

6. Mount camera on the tripod.

7. Plug the remote’s cord into the camera.

8. Verify that the battery is fresh and the memory card is empty.

9. Check settings.

10. Begin exposure.

I usually use ISO 100-200. Note that as it gets colder, the camera will not produce as much noise in the photos. If it is -10 or -20 outside, I could maybe use ISO 400 and a 10 minute exposure with no NR at all! Manual focus your lens to infinity (the farthest away it can focus) because AF will not work at night. You may need to periodically check between exposures that the lens is free of moisture. DO NOT use protective filters. They will produce concentric circular patterns near the center of the image. I have used LED headlamps to light foreground elements such as trees. Experiment until you get it right and have fun!
Another method of star trails photography is taking multiple exposures of, say, 5 minutes (don’t use any NR). After you take a bunch of these short photos, download them to the computer and stack them into one photo. The software I use can be downloaded for here. It is very simple to use. It can also be used to create time-lapse videos, which is also lots of fun.

Since I began star trails photography, I have become more and more amazed at how incredible the universe is. The uncountable mass of stars is quadrillions of miles away at the closest, besides the Sun which is 93 million miles away. This shows the incredibility of our Creator, the need for an Intelligent Designer and how it would be impossible for all of it to have come into being by chance, from nothing, by itself.

Comments (28)

Posted by Adammeadows12 on July 25, 2015
Great tips!
Posted by Elimitchell on May 12, 2010
Thanks for the comment Joe!
Posted by Joezachs on May 12, 2010
Eventhough this was written 5 months ago, its really informative and yes passionate to persue.
Agree with you on that Intelligent Designer
Posted by Elimitchell on May 11, 2010
Thanks for the download and comment, Harold! This image is also one of my favorites.
Posted by Secmaster on May 11, 2010
I just recently throwing myself into night photography although I've tried it in the past with some moderate success, I'm really starting to study the art of night photography. With that thought in mind I was researching the blogs on DT and I came across your blog on star trails and I was so amazed by some of your images I downloaded a large size image of the one you used with the blog and I'm now using it as a guide for my own attempts at making star trail images. If possible could you email the specific's from a technical point of view as far as the particular camera settings are concerned. I think you should know this and that this is only the second image I've ever downloaded of DT and it's not because I don't want to download more it's just because I haven't built up my finances enough but your image was so good I just had to have it. Keep up the great work and hopefully I'll have one to match your soon.
Posted by Elimitchell on December 11, 2009
Artificial sattelites would probably make one bright streak across the sky, instead of fading on either end. I never thought of using a hair dryer, though I think that if it heats up the equipment, it will probably just re-condense. It's worth a try, though. In Alaska where I live, it ranges from -50 degrees to 90 degrees (the records are -80 to +100 or -62 to 38 degrees celsius). But for how much precipitation we get, it is technically a wet desert. (you could probably get in a month what we get in a year) No sand though. :) Actually lots of huge forests, which doesn't help sky night photography. Have you for sure seen NASA's ISS? I have seen many satellites, but I couldn't really tell whether they were the ISS. Another major problem for night sky photography in some areas is air traffic. Also on Tuesday night, an airplane flew across the sky just inches out of the frame. I was holding my breath. I am working on taking more star trails. The past few nights have been cold and clear,...(More)
Posted by Rhiannon on December 11, 2009
It looks like a meteor trail to me. Well captured. :) There are always incidental meteors. If you are regularly out shooting the night sky you would be unlucky not to see one most of those nights. They are far more difficult to capture of course as you have discovered.

Some trails caught on long exposures are satellites, the brightest of which is NASA's International Space Station. If you capture one of these you'll see they are quite different to meteor trails.

I've never had a problem with desert dew because I live in chilly (and very cloudy!!!) northern England. Anyone living in a similar latitude can avoid the type of condensation I mentioned by acclimatising their equipment to the outside temperature before use. Obviously the humidity of more southern latitudes is a different matter and I bow to your local knowledge. Perhaps a judicial application of warm air from one of those battery operated hair dryers would be appropriate? A lens hood might make that...(More)
Posted by Elimitchell on December 10, 2009
[imgl][/imgl] The condensation I was talking about is what happens in humid areas, esp costal. Maybe a more appropriate word would be "dew". I live in a desert, basically, for how much precipitation we recieve. I rarely have trouble with my lens getting fogged up and wet, unless it is around freezing. But when I went to another area of the state, my equipment got drenched by the dew. I like very cold (around 0 or colder) nights the best. The noise is minimal, and you don't have problems with the lens fogging or icing up.

In the image at the top of the page, I think I got a meteor at the top. That actually was my 4th star trails image I ever took, I think. I haven't caught a meteor since. Tuesday night, I was setting up my equipment, and it the opposite direction I was pointing my camera, a huge bright meteor streaked across the sky. I actually saw a couple that night (in the SE), but didn't catch any of...(More)
Posted by Rhiannon on December 10, 2009
Speaking as an avid amateur astronomer of many years standing I've found the best way to avoid condensation is to allow your equipment, be it telescope mirrors or camera lenses, to cool down to the ambient outside temperature before use. If your glass has an equal temperature to the air condensation shouldn't be a major problem.

Clear skies on cold frosty nights tend to provide the best viewing. The sky is always darkest overhead. Don't go just for star trails. During meteor showers you can be lucky enough to pick up those trails too if you point your lens in the right direction.
Posted by Elimitchell on December 09, 2009
I just was answering a statement that Icefields made. The universe is so incredible I was just commenting on how it points towards evidence for an Intelligent Designer, or more specifically, God. At least I hope you enjoyed the technical side of the article. :)
Posted by Rocketmann7 on December 09, 2009
I'm totally not "in sync" with your religious views (last sentence of your blog), but in a way I'm thankful "your designer" doesn't force you to go to bed early.
Outstanding night pictures and great technique, thanks for sharing.

Ditto, I think we should keep the content relevant to the site.
Posted by Elimitchell on December 09, 2009
Thanks for your comment, Icefields. I wanted to make this information available to anyone who hasn't done this. It is not only a way to get cool shots, but a way to learn more astronomy. Prior to me getting into this genre, I did not know anything about NCP, SCP and all that stuff. It was a fun way to learn, and I still am learning.

Adressing your comment about my religous views: I can't see how it could be possible to believe in evolution. There are a oodles of questions that arise if looking at evolution logically: Where did the "big bang" come from? A tiny speck of matter? Where did that come from? How could the entire universe randomly explode from that speck of matter into a so well organized creation?

Here is a real life example. The "simplest" protein in life is the Ribonuclease. It consists of different kinds of amino acids lined up in an arrangement that is 124 amino acids long. If just one of those amino acids where misplaced or not present, the Ribonuclease would...(More)
Posted by Icefields on December 09, 2009
I'm totally not "in sync" with your religious views (last sentence of your blog), but in a way I'm thankful "your designer" doesn't force you to go to bed early.
Outstanding night pictures and great technique, thanks for sharing.
Posted by Elimitchell on December 09, 2009
Thank your for your comments Antoinettew and Dragos. This is one of my favorite subjects, too.
Posted by Antoinettew on December 09, 2009
Great tips! There will be one night I am going to try this too. Your images are wonderful.
Posted by smartview27 on December 09, 2009
stars and universe, one of my favorites subjects! beautiful article and images!
Posted by Elimitchell on December 09, 2009
Go for it, and have fun! Remember to chose the location strategically- pointing away from city light pollution, and other artificial lights, and at the natural lights. :)
Posted by Sylvaindeutsch on December 09, 2009
i have everything that requires this kind of pics, so i will try!
Posted by Elimitchell on December 09, 2009
Thank you very much Frantab01. It is a new moon right now, and the skies are bright with stars. Actually, my camera is working as I type. :)
Posted by Frantab01 on December 09, 2009
wow, fantastic blog and great pics, thanks for the tips - would love to try it out some day
Posted by Elimitchell on December 09, 2009
Thanks, Fultonsphoto. There's nothing like getting out and doing it. Good luck!
Posted by Fultonsphoto on December 09, 2009
Always wanted to try this. Your images came out very nice, thanks for the tips and tricks, hopefully with a little time and experimenting I can one day get similar results.
Posted by Elimitchell on December 08, 2009
Thanks for the comment Carolyn. Sorry I didn't clarify that in the "tutorial". I would not recommend using the stack method in areas where condensation is a problem. Wiping the lens would not only cause the camera to move a little, but it would cause a gap in the exposures- causing a gap in the star trails of the final stacked image. Actually, an interval of 1 sec between exposures at 35mm APS-C (56mm) is slightly noticeable in the stacked image. 6 sec intervals make the star trails look like dashed lines, instead of long continuous arcs. Clearly, this would not give you enough time to clean off a lens.
Posted by Cmarshall717 on December 08, 2009
Great information. This may sound like a stupid question, but here goes. You say to check periodically to make sure lens is free from moisture. If it has moisture, how would you remove it as anything touching the camera or tripod would cause vibration? Do you turn it off then, clean it, then turn it back on for another exposure and then stack them like you described?
Posted by Elimitchell on December 08, 2009
Thanks Marilyn. I enjoyed writing this, believe it or not! There is so much that could be said on this topic- these are just the basics.
Posted by Marilyngould on December 08, 2009
Amazing images - thank you for sharing this information!
Posted by Elimitchell on December 08, 2009
Thanks for the compliments, Irisangel. I have enjoyed photographing star trails a lot. It's one thing that you can photograph that you can't see. :)
Posted by Irisangel on December 08, 2009
Wonderfu blog, great information, amazing images, good luck with them!

Comments (28)

This article has been read 2694 times. 10 readers have found this article useful.
Photo credits: Elimitchell.

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Whether the subject is a soaring eagle, snowy Mount McKinley or a blooming Dahlia, ever since I began photography a few years ago I have discovered details through the viewfinder that I would not have seen otherwise. Through my photography, I hope share these incredible facets of Creation with others.

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