Tutorial: A guide to star trail photography

Star trail Turtorial

Star trail tutorial

So you have seen those pictures with stars trailing across the sky and you would like to have a go at them for yourself? Well you have come to right place because this a complete guide to capturing star trails the proper way so that you can get the exact look you want. Star trails is a Unique and addictive niche which is growing in popularity all of the time because if you get it right it can produce some amazingly eye catching results.  The stars moving in the sky is a trait of all star trail photographs but i guarantee that you will not find a photograph that is exactly alike even though they are capturing the same principal of the earth rotating – this presents and exciting opportunity for photographers to create photographs which are both awe inspiring and illusive all the same.

I personally love making star trail pictures despite the amount of effort it takes make a photo. Once you have the equipment and the technique down it is up to you to make the effort to capture decent “trails” which usually will be an hour or more out in the open air to produce one image. There are also several methods to process the images once you have loaded them onto you computer which i will explain in this guide too. So firstly i am going to talk a little bit about what equipment you will need and then i will move onto the technique

What Equipment you will need

There are some pieces of equipment that you will most certainly need to make a star trail picture and some which will help you get better results. Like any type of photography you will also be making choices on equipment that will allow you to make the picture artistically unique to you.

  • A good camera – When i say a “good” camera what i am really saying is one which has one of these two options available: Either “bulb mode” or a manual setting which will allow the shutter to be open for around 30 seconds. ( You will need this otherwise it will be impossible to make star trails).

Here are a couple of Camera’s which will make awesome low light images:

Canon 60D


This is a mid range camera that has a lot of the features which you will find on £2000+ bodies by canon, highly recommend. I use this camera myself which is why i like it so much.  When i say mid range it will still cost you around £700 without the capability to take a photo— you will need to choose a lens; my fish eye was was £500 . (professional images, professional standards and all that). A  £2000+ body will still need the same observations.

Nikon D3200


This is an awesome enter level Camera which has been voted the best on loads of websites. It will only cost around £250 with a lens which is very cheap of a new DSLR camera.

  •  A good Tripod – This is probably the second most important piece of equipment needed to make a star trail; you need to make the stars have movement in the photo and nothing else. Most people will tell you that a really expensive tripod is needed but in reality you only need one that has a head on it which allows you get the angle correct and for it to be reasonably stable.

A cheap tripod with at least some reviews:


A cheap tripod WILL do the job. The tripod above will only set you back around £25 and is made of aluminium which makes it easy to carry when trekking across fields etc. Just do a Google search for “cheap tripod” and you will find one like this.


Of course a more expensive tripod such as the Manfrotto 190 XPROB will work really nicely. Manfrotto make really durable tripods that will last for years and years so the money is worth it. You should expect to pay at least £150 for this model as you have to by the legs and head separately in most cases.

  • The right lens. having the right lens is paramount in getting that perfect star trail. This does however depend on what you are looking for. Just don’t turn up to a shoot with a 50mm prime lens as you are simply not going to get a god result.

Sigma 10mm F2.8 EX Fisheye

This is the lens that i use to take my star trail images. It is the first one i would recommend to anyone for a number of reasons. Firstly the images are very sharp which is ultimately going to be the difference between a truly professional look and a mediocre one. The wide angle will allow you to capture a fantastic amount of stars which for me is a very important part of making a good star trail.

You can use any type of lens to be honest but in reality it is not a good idea to go above 30mm. It is also worth noting that the wider the lens the longer you will have wait to get long star trails. So with a fish eye it will take the longest to make nice trails.

  • A remote shutter. This i not something that you 100% need but it make it so much easier to get nice, stable results.  

yongnuo rf-603c


This is what i use for my remove shutter release. Very cheap and effective. To make the camera take a constant stream of 30 second shots i attach elastic bands around the shutter botton which keeps it pushed down. This little tip will save a lot of money and hassle.

  • A nice light or flash. I like to use a nice bright light to illuminate foreground objects because a light, rather than flash can give you a much smoother finish.


Technique – Setting up the Shot

  1. The night sky will not be full of stars if there is too much light pollution; if you live the city it will be a bit of a struggle to see stars so you picture is not going to look as good. You need to get away from any major light pollution.
  2. Finding the north star, This is really important if you want to get that “vortex” effect. You need to learn how to find the north star or use technology to help you. If you have an iphone download and app called “Star chart”; this will use GPS to give you a real time map of the stars. Look for polaris as this is the north star.

Camera Settings.

You have two main choices for how to make the shot.  30 second exposures or one long shot. I prefer the first option because one long shot will create a lot more noise from a hot CCD in the picture.

for 30 second exposures use:

ISO: 800

Aperture 5.6

Focus. Most lenses will have an infinity symbol which is where you want to set it for a this type of shot. Except you will find this is not a truly sharp image. instead use the powerful light you have brought along with you to illuminate something in the foreground and focus your lens to this.

Now for the hard part: the wait to get all of the images. In most shoots i get at least 120 image which will take one hour to complete.

Processing the images

Now you have all of the images you need to make them into the final product. The easiest way to do this is with a program called star Stax.

You can download it here ( I will create a post to describe how to get the best results however it is very easy to use).

The harder way it to use Photoshop to stack the images manually. This is the method i use because i feel it give you a better result. What you have to do is load all of the pictures into one PSD and change each layer into “lighten” mode. It will take a while to do but is very much worth doing.

So there you have it. If you need to know anything else please drop me a comment below and if you have something to add to this tutorial please comment too.




Photographer and writer for jhphotographer.co.uk

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