How To Setup Your Camera To Capture Perfect Star Trails | Light Stalking

How To Setup Your Camera To Capture Perfect Star Trails

Have you been looking at amazing star trail images and wondering how these images were created or what the set up would have been to make these kinds of images? It is not so complicated or difficult as you think it might be. In this article, we will look at how to set up your camera to capture perfect star trails.

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If you are someone who is interested in photographing the night sky, then you may have at some point wanted to try shooting star trails as these can contribute to some brilliant and compelling images. Here are some basic requirements before you get into setting up your camera for star trails.

Look for a location that is free from light pollution, which means, going very far from the city lights. You need to also keep the moon away from the sky as it can wash out most of the stars in the sky, but if you are looking for little ambient light to illuminate the landscape, a quarter moon is fine, but out of the frame that you are composing. Keep an eye on the weather and make sure that you go out to shoot on a day when the skies are clear.

Image by InstaWalli

Here Is The Gear Required To Set Up The Camera For Shooting Star Trails:

  • A camera that can shoot in manual mode and bulb mode, even better if it has an inbuilt intervalometer
  • If the camera does not have an intervalometer, you can get an intervalometer that you can connect to your camera to take shots at a particular interval of time.
Image by CZactus22
  • A wide-angle lens with a wide aperture of at least f/2.8 for better images (but kit lenses are good for a start). Focal length preferably 14mm to 24mm – the wider the better so you get some foreground details to compose a compelling image
  • A remote release or cable release to release the shutter to avoid camera shake.
  • A sturdy tripod that can hold the camera-lens combination and withstand windy conditions. Even slight movements can ruin your images creating awkward breaks/unevenness in your star trails. Remember, this is long exposure photography.
Image by Sunyu Kim
  • Spare memory cards and batteries to get you through the whole shoot as you will be spending a few hours through the whole shoot
  • Protection for your gear when shooting under very cold conditions to prevent lens fogging up
  • Also, make sure to keep yourself warm and have warm drinks to get you through the shoot

Now that you know what gear is required for shooting star trails, here are the settings or how to set up the camera for perfect star trails.

Image by Lucas Ludwig

Camera Setup And Settings For Perfect Star Trails:

The settings below are for shooting multiple shots and then later combining the images while post-processing.

  1. Mount your camera and lens setup on a very sturdy tripod. Weigh it down with sand or pebbles if it is too windy.
  2. Now that your camera is on a tripod, turn off image stabilisation or vibration reduction if your lens or camera has this feature.
  3. Make sure you have a few fully charged batteries, a clean memory card, and spare memory cards well enough to last the whole shoot.
  4. Put the camera on bulb mode, but most cameras can shoot up to 30 seconds without having to set on bulb mode.
  5. Have your aperture set to the widest as you want as much light to enter through the lens on to the camera’s sensor
  6. Keep your iso around 320 to 640  depending on your camera’s low light performance and lens used.
  7. Some beginner-level cameras may require slightly higher iso values like 1600 up to 3200 sometimes.
  8. Keep the shutter speed to about 20 seconds (refer to the links in the note below for help with choosing shutter speed)
  9. Manually focus on a bright star in the sky (do this by zooming in on live view). For night sky photography, it is always best to use manual focus as you do not want the focus to change in between shots. This is especially important when shooting star trails as you will be taking a sequence of shots. Do not touch the focus ring or change zoom after setting the focus as doing either or both of these can change the focus.
  10. Make a test shot and depending on how the stars get recorded in the image, you may need to increase iso and/or shutter speed, but always have aperture wide open. Do not increase iso above 3200 as the image quality will start to highly degrade. If everything looks ok, use these settings to shoot star trails.
  11. Make sure you turn off in-camera noise reductions like long exposure noise reduction, high iso noise reduction, low light noise reduction (anything that you find in the shooting menu of your camera) as this can cause a huge delay in time between long exposure shots. You do not want that to happen while shooting star trails as this will cause huge and uneven breaks in your star trails.
Long exposure noise reduction -> Off Image by Light Stalking
  • When using a DSLR, make use of the mirror lockup feature as movement of the mirror can cause slight camera shake.
Enable mirror lockup

Note:

Here are some very useful links that will help you choose the correct shutter speed for the camera and lens that you use.

  1. What is the 500 Rule in Photography?
  2. So What Exactly Is The 600 Rule In Photography?
  3. What Is The NPF Rule And How To Use It For Brilliant Star Photography?

You now have the camera settings right for perfect star shots and so let us look into the other important setups for star trail photography because star trail photography can be done as a combination of multiple shots or as a single very long exposure shot.

How to Shoot For Combination Of  Multiple Images For Star Trails:

  1. Find a good location and composition. If you are looking for circular star trails, refer to the tips at the end of this article.
  2. Set up the intervalometer in your camera or if you do not have an inbuilt one, make use of an external intervalometer to take the number of shots that you are looking to take at a specified interval.
  3. Just set the number of pictures you want to take, the exposure duration for each picture and the time interval between two pictures. Once switched on, the camera continues to shoot the number of pictures you have set it to shoot, at the set interval and exposure time. This is very similar to the setting for time-lapse photography.
An example showing interval timer setup
  • The number of shots depends on how long trails you need in the final image. I’d suggest having a minimum of at least 50 exposures (good enough for short trails) and more if you are able to. You should shoot up to 200 or even 300 shots to get a decent star trail.
  • Make sure there is no delay between shots (keep it less than one second) because this can cause a break in the star trails rather than a smooth one.
  • Always shoot raw so you are able to change the white balance to your preference and tweak for all the possible details from your images.

Note: If your exposure time is 20 seconds and you need 100 shots, you will need to set the shutter speed to 20s and set the intervalometer to take 100 shots continuously at an interval of less than 1 second (maybe 30ms) to avoid breaks between trails.

Once you have done the set up above, just release the shutter and the camera should take the set number of shots for you. Once you are done with the shoot, you will need to get home and use a post-processing application to combine the images to get your star trail photograph.

Image by Meg Nielson

If you are looking to set up your camera for a single exposure star trail photograph, then follow the setup and settings below. Be warned that exposing the sensor for a longer period of time can heat up the sensor leaving hot pixels on your images and the image quality will deteriorate.

Camera Setup And Settings For Single Long Exposure Star Trails:

  1. If you are looking to make a star trail image in a single exposure, you need to make sure that the moon is nowhere in the sky
  2. Find a really good composition and manually focus on a bright star in the sky. If you are looking for circular star trails, refer to the tips at the end of this article.
  3. You will need to put your camera on bulb mode and use an external cable release because your exposures are going to be well above 30 seconds.
  4. The exposure time is something that you need to work out based on the test shots. If you have an f2.8 lens, shoot at iso 100 and if you are using a narrow aperture like f4 or f5.6, use ISO 200 or 320
  5. You need to have your iso really low so that very less noise is recorded during the long exposure. You can also start with a moderate aperture of f4 and make changes later.
  6. Do a test shot first of 20 or 30 seconds to see if stars get recorded in the frame. If the test shot does not go well, widen the aperture or increase the iso, whichever is possible or do both and take test shots till you get a good image.
  7. If the test shot goes well, from here increase the shutter speed to around 10 or 15 minutes. Take the shot and see how much trails you get and how bright the trails are. Do a few test shots by doubling the exposure time to get the settings right.
  8. Do not turn on noise reduction as that process can consume a huge amount of time after the exposure.
  9. Now depending on what you observe from the test shots, calculate how much exposure you will need to get decent star trails in your image. You will definitely need a minimum of 60 minutes exposure, but a 90 minutes exposure can get you some brilliant trails in your images.
  10. Release the shutter and lock it for the very long exposure. You can set up an alarm to go back and release the lock after the required exposure time.
  11. Bear in mind, total darkness is your friend for this very long exposure photography and make sure you have your battery fully charged to last through the entire exposure.
Image by trunun

Post Processing Star Trail Images:

Once you have your images done, do some basic adjustments to your images and use your favourite application to stack/combine the images. I normally use Adobe Lightroom for basic adjustments and use Adobe Photoshop to combine/stack the images to get the star trails. If you think it is very time consuming do it in photoshop or if you do not have photoshop, you can make use of other free applications like StarStax and they are available for Windows and Mac.

GIF by Light Stalking

For Circular Star Trails (Locate The Polaris or Southern Cross):

  1. If you are looking for circular star trails, you will need to locate the North and South Celestial poles (depending on where you live), that is the pole along which the earth rotates.
  2. If you live in the Northern Hemisphere, look for the Polaris (The North Star)
  3. If you live in the Southern Hemisphere, Sigma Octantis is the star you should be looking for to locate the South Celestial Pole

If you are a beginner and find it difficult to locate these stars in the night sky, use an app to locate The Polaris for the North Celestial Pole and the Sigma Octantis for the South Celestial Pole. It is very handy and easy. These apps can accurately show you the location of the stars at any time or tell you at what time the stars rise and set.

Some Really Good Apps Are:

  1. The Sky Guide app for iOS 
  2. Another free app for the iOS, the Sky View Lite 
  3. The Sky View  for Android
  4. Star Walk 2  for Android
Image by Adrian Pelletier

Further Resources:

  1. Quick Tips To Get You Started With Night Photography
  2. How To Photograph Star Trails: The Ultimate Guide
  3. 4 Ways To Use Image Stacking To Create Better Images
  4. Star Trails Photography Tutorial
  5. Photographing The Night Sky: Star Trails
  6. Star Trail Photography

Further Learning:

If you would like to achieve results like these without spending a fortune on gear, then you might like to check out Milky Way Mastery by the folks over at Expert Photography. Well worth a look

In it you'll learn…

  • The exact camera settings we use 98% of the time – make good shots foolproof!
  • Why most panoramas fall flat… and how to make yours great
  • The lazy person's way to know if your photos are over or under exposed
  • How to capture more moments by triggering shots automatically
  • Where and how to focus for maximum results
  • The do’s and don’ts of white balance and colour temperature
  • How to use “the 500 rule” to know ideal shutter speed for avoiding motion blur in the stars
  • The only processing software you’ll ever need and how to make it easy to use
  • And much, much more…

Get Milky Way Mastery Here

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About the author

Dahlia Ambrose

Dahlia is a stock photographer and full time educator at Light Stalking. You can find her on Gurushots and see some of her more popular articles at The American Society of Media Photographers. Get to know her better here.

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