A starry night sky already makes for a majestic photograph. But with star trail photography, you can put long exposure techniques to use to create an even more wondrous image.

The process for star trail photography is similar to that of general long exposure photography, with a few important caveats. Here’s what you need to know to get started with it, including a quick look at must-have equipment and how to optimize your camera settings.

Star trails behind the Sydney Harbour Bridge. (Photography by Skillshare student Peter Podlaha.)

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What Is Star Trail Photography?

This type of long exposure photography showcases diurnal circles—the spiral-like shapes made by stars as the earth rotates on its axis.

To shoot star trails, you need to follow the basic principles of night photography with some extra best practices in place for capturing the stars in their apparent motion. Done well, you can create truly ethereal shots that provide a whole new perspective on what’s really going on in the night sky.

Equipment You Need for Star Trail Photography

The first thing to do is gather all of your essential gear. Star trail photography doesn’t require too much by means of equipment; but a smartphone won’t cut it, so make sure you’ve got everything you need before you head out.

A Good Manual Camera

A manual camera is a must, since you’ll need to have control over your ISO, aperture, and shutter speed in order to get your shots. Even better if it has a built-in intervalometer.

Quality is key here, as is true any time you are photographing the night sky. You’ll want a camera that offers superior low light performance and that is capable of shooting in RAW mode. You should also do your research and get a camera that can hold up to outdoor conditions—or purchase a casing for it.  

External Intervalometer

If your camera doesn’t have a built-in intervalometer, you’ll need to buy one that you can attach.

Intervalometers allow you to extend the exposure times on your shots and to take bursts of high-quality images. It won’t do all of the hard work for you (you’ll still need to nail your shutter speed and general timing), but it will ensure that if you get your settings right, your camera can execute.

Wide Angle Lens

The sky is a wide open space, and photographing it requires a wide angle lens. For best results, go with a lens size between 14mm and 24mm and an aperture value between f/2.8 and f/5.6. A fisheye lens can work in a pinch, though the overall effect will be different.

Tripod

A sturdy tripod will be your best friend when photographing star trails. Because long exposures require that you hold the camera steady for minutes (and sometimes hours) at a time, a tripod ensures that your camera doesn’t shake and mess up your shot. This is another area where investing in quality is worth it, especially if you know you’ll be setting up on uneven ground.

Having the right equipment is crucial if you want to capture star trails on camera.

Brighten Your Night Shots

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Star Trail Photography Settings

There are three primary camera settings to pay attention to when arranging your star trail shot: your shutter speed, your aperture, and your ISO.

Shutter speeds between 20 and 90 seconds are ideal for taking pictures of star trails and should be combined with an aperture value between f/2.8 and f/5.6. Your optimal ISO will depend on your camera and the existing light conditions where you’re shooting. Somewhere between 400 and 3,200 is best for ISO, starting on the low end and working your way up based on your results.

Tips for Taking Epic Star Trail Photos

Star trail photos are amazing in their own right. However, there are some extra things that you can do to take them to the next level.

Consider Your Composition

The star trails are obviously the key elements of your photograph, but it’s important to anchor them in the shot with some other points of interest. Trees, mountains, or buildings all make for stunning compositional elements in a star trail photograph and will help you achieve an even more compelling result.

Focus On the Brightest Star

Not sure where to aim your camera? Beyond setting up your general composition, a good rule of thumb is to zoom in slightly on the brightest star in the frame, using the rule of thirds to position it in the shot.

Shoot with the Largest Aperture Your Lens Allows

The larger the aperture, the more light will be able to enter the frame and the higher quality image you’ll get. It will also lead to you getting more stars in your shot.

Show the Rotation in Action

Use time lapse photography to capture the precise motion of the trails. Not only will it produce a mesmerizing effect, but you’ll also be able to scan it for stills and pull out that perfect frame when you find it.

Go Panoramic

Star trails are well suited for a panorama shot. This is a great place to try out stitching versus one single long exposure. Just be sure to level your camera so that you know your general frame is remaining the same as you move.

star trails over mountain
Source: Unsplash
As a photographer, you have the ability to capture awe-inspiring things that we could never see with the naked eye.

Planning Your Star Trail Shoot

You can’t shoot star trails if there are no stars to be seen. Some clouds are okay (and can actually lend some additional interest to your image) so long as you can still see stars, but you need enough of a clear sky that the star trails aren’t all or mostly obscured. Head to your phone’s app store and download a stargazing app like Star Tracker or SkyView Lite to get information on what the sky will look like on any given night, and pay attention to general weather patterns too.

Similar to other forms of nature photography, you’ll also want to set up your composition first before dealing with settings and starting your shoot. Different frames will require different inputs, and it’s also crucial that you get the basics of your image figured out before you get to work on capturing the trails themselves.

Practice is key here. To master night photography, and particularly star trails, you’ll need to get out and actually shoot as often as possible. Along the way, you’ll learn exactly how you need to tailor your camera settings to your purpose, as well as the best locations for bringing magic into the lens. 

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