How to Photograph Star Trails
The stars have long sparked our imagination, guided our vessels and determined our fates. (At least, that’s what Romeo and Juliet said.) Fortunately, you don’t have to wish upon the stars to capture their magic. By using a tripod, a long exposure time and these easy steps from travel photographer Elia Locardi, you can create “star trails,” showing the stars in all their celestial glory.
Step 1: Equip yourself.
Sense of wonder? Check. Appropriate camera equipment? Check out this list:
- A sturdy tripod (remember to lock it down tightly!)
- A remote shutter with locking function or intervalometer
- A fast wide-angle lens (e.g. 14mm with f/2.8)
Step 2: Set the scene.
The night sky is a moving sight. Showing its apparent movement (due to the rotation of the earth) requires a unique composition with foreground interest and plenty of sky. (Of course!)
Make sure the sky is as dark as possible by avoiding light pollution from cities or towns and by shooting when the moon is new or in a small crescent phase. Clear skies will also offer the best shot of the stars, so check the weather forecast and aim for few or no clouds.
Step 3: Ready, set, shoot!
Because camera settings vary with the scene and your camera/lens combo, I can’t give you the exact settings. But here are some basic guidelines to get you started:
- Camera Mode: Manual mode
- Aperture: f/2.8 to f/4 is usually the sweet spot, but use the lowest range available for your lens.
- Exposure Time: 25-30 seconds is pretty standard. Longer times will make longer trails and capture more light from the scene, making close stars appear brighter and picking up more light from faraway stars.
- ISO: This should be between 1,600 - 6,400, depending on your camera. The higher the ISO, the more noise it will add to your image, so use the lowest ISO possible to capture the scene. Do some test shots with your camera to see your max ISO without losing image quality.
- Focus: You can usually focus your lens at infinity, but take some test shots and review them on your screen to confirm your focus.
- Number of Frames: For long star trails, I suggest shooting at least 1-2 hours, which at 30 sec. exposures would give you around 120-240 frames. You can always trash the ones that you don’t need.
- Bring a Friend: After all, you don’t want to get eaten by bears your first time shooting star trails. Or the second time, for that matter!
Star-struck by the possibilities? Hit the trail to capture your own star trails!