10 Tips For Better Star Trail Photography

Ten Tips For Better Star Trail Photos

After my post earlier today I received some messages on how to make a star trail image. For each I tried to write out a quick look at how to do it, but at some point it is a little more complicated than a message. Here are ten tips for better star trail photos. I am in no way a master at this, but these are ten things that helped me make better images.

1.  Use StarStax – There are many ways to put your photos together to make star trail images, but one that works very well is StarStax. This is a free program that will combine your images and allow you to be a little creative once the images are stacked together. It is easy to use, and doesn’t clog up your computer speed like adding 200 or so photos to Photoshop would do.

2. Try And Make The Photos With As Little Influence Of The Moon As Possible – That was a really long way to say that you should make the images during a new moon if possible. If the moon is in your frame it will obviously create a big smear as it moves through the frame. It can also create another source of light pollution that could ruin your photo.

3. Lock Down Your Tripod And Accessories – Nothing is worse than waiting for an hour or two for a star trail image only to have the image not work because your tripod moved or the wind was moving your lens. Do everything that you can to make sure that your tripod and camera are stable. Something as simple as your cable release moving can move your camera enough to ruin the exposure.

4. Make Long Exposures – There are two schools of thought here. I like to make 30 second exposures so that I have less to go through and process later. That can limit you a bit though. If you make many short exposures and something really cool happens in the sky you can pull out that image with a set of crisp stars in it. I don’t do that very often so I go with what makes things easier in the editing phase.

5. Play With The Stars – One little trick that works well with a star trail image is to have the stars just slightly out of focus if you can. That makes them just a little bigger and the streaks show up much better. Just like in the tip above this will make it so that you can’t use any single frame, but the final star trail image will look much better.

6. Double Your Pleasure – When I go out to make a star trail image I usually have a specific photo in mind. After I set up that main camera and have it running I will find a second composition near me to try with a second camera. This is not something that everyone can do. You need two cameras and lenses which can be limiting. If you have both though it is worth a try for sure. I hate to say it but that second angle is usually the one that I like better.

7. Don’t Be Afraid To Get In Tight – This was the second camera view that I talked about above. I decided to go in tighter with this view. I ended up liking it much better than the main photo that I had in mind. One thing to keep in mind though is that with a longer lens you introduce more chances for camera shake. You really need a calm night to try this out.

8. Decide How You Want Your Stars To Move Through The Photo – Star trails can be fun because you can make different images depending on which direction you point your camera. The traditional circular star trail image is made by pointing your camera at Polaris if you are in the Northern Hemisphere. You can get a wider star “circle” by pointing directly south as well. The stars will move around those points so by photographing east and west you can create some interesting photos. If you want a preview of what your photo could look like I use an app called PhotoPils which has a live AR function that lets you see just that.

9. Photograph For As Long As You Can – When you are making a wide angle star trail image you want to stay out as long as you can. You want that star to travel as far as possible. You can make a nice image if you wait for 45 minutes. It looks even better at an hour and fifteen minutes, and so on. I try and stay out at least an hour, and I would love to stay out two hours for every photo. I can get impatient though pretty quick. I try and have a good playlist ready to keep me occupied while my camera is running. Setting up the second camera is a good way to stay busy early on as well. When I am really started to get impatient I end up playing Tom Petty’s The Waiting. This usually helps me relax and reset a bit.

10. Settings – This is the question that I get the most, and it is the one that I can’t really answer. I have already said that I want to have my camera running thirty second exposures. You can do some math and with a cable release and bulb mode make your star trail image in one frame. That will introduce heat and other variables that I don’t like to the image. I prefer the 30 second exposure method. It is more work at the end, but you are more in control of the image. If something flies through your frame you can find that frame and eliminate it there. A two hour exposure will have many things going through it and crossing each other making it harder to eliminate the distractions. Shutter speed is the easy part of this equation. The hard part is the ISO and aperture that you should be at. In a perfect world you would make every image at ISO 100. You would also have your camera at the aperture that makes sure that everything in the frame is in focus. These are the two components that I play with to get one frame that I think has everything properly balanced. You want to see the stars in the frame, and you want whatever is in your foreground exposed properly as well. In a dark scenario this can be easy. In a setting like campus here though things start to get a little harder to balance. It is that variable that makes it hard to say these are the settings that you need to use every time. It is also the thing that makes these outings fun.

Bonus Tip: Have Fun! – This summer I have been having a lot of fun on cool summer nights making these star trail images. It is amazing what you will see while you are staring at the sky. You will see shooting stars, some satellites, and even the International Space Station at times.

There are ten tips for making better star trail photos. This is not the end all list. It is a good starting point though to help make a good star trail image. One tip that I have already thought of that isn’t even photography related is to bring a chair with you. A comfortable chair can help make that two hour time that you are waiting go much faster.

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