Star Trails: How To

Star Trail captured in Big Bend National Park in July 2022.

Star trails, like the image above, are fairly easy to do.  You’ll need some equipment to capture the images and Photoshop to blend the images.  You’ll also need a dark sky with an unobstructed view.  Ideally, the view should be to the north with Polaris in the middle of the frame.

You’ll need:  Camera with a bulb setting, wide angle lens, sturdy tripod, programmable shutter release like the Vello Shutterboss II, fully charged battery, storage card with lots of room.

Set the programmable shutter release to take an unlimited number of photos at a 4 minute exposure with a 1 second break in-between exposures.  (Suggestion: Do this inside in the light because it’s darn hard to read the instruction book in the dark when you’re trying to shoot.) Here’s my YouTube video tutorial.

Outside under a dark sky, put the camera on the tripod and point it at the northern sky.  Hook up the programmable shutter release.  Compose the photo to include some foreground or an interesting subject in the foreground.  Point the camera at the north star for a star spiral. 

Set the camera to Bulb, f/2.8 or lowest possible, ISO 800 if half moon or ISO 1600 if no moon. Note: f/1.8 might only need ISO 400.

Take a couple of test shots to get the stars in focus.  Then turn off your auto focus and image stabilizer.  (Suggestion: take these images are a really high ISO so the exposure is quicker.  Enlarge these photos on the LCD panel to check focus. Delete them when ready to start shooting.) Here’s a blog posting about focusing on stars at night.

Reset the ISO to 800 or 1600.  Make sure the camera is locked down on the tripod.  Press the “Start” button on the programmable cable release.  Monitor the first couple of shots to make sure the shutter stays open for 4 minutes, closes, and then reopens.  Let the camera keep shooting for at least 30 minutes but hours are better.

I cover the camera with a towel and leave it outside all night. 

To process the images, follow these instructions precisely to create a layer blend in Photoshop. 

(1) Download the images into a folder.

(2) Open Photoshop Bridge and then open the folder.

(3) Highlight all the images. In Lightroom, highlight all the images after importing.

(4) In Bridge, click Tools>Photoshop>Load Files into Photoshop Layers. Photoshop should open with the images in a layer pallet.  In Lightroom, click Photo>Edit In>Open As Layers in Photoshop. (Note: Lightroom, Bridge, and Photoshop should all be the same version. This doesn’t work if one of these is a different version.)

(5) All the images open in Photoshop as a series of Layers. If you don’t see the layers, click on Window>Layers to see the layer pallet. Select all the images in the layer pallet and change the blend mode to Lighten. 

(6) You can apply Layer Masks and other things at this point to the individual layers. Most of the time, though, this is not necessary.

(7)  Flatten the image to see your photo of the star trails. Open the photo in Filter>Camera Raw Filter or import back into Lightroom to do final processing with Textures, Vibrance, Saturation, Exposure, and Contrast.

Here’s a link to an older blog post about Direction Does Matter when making a star trail

Enjoy!! Let me know if there are any questions or comments. Thanks for reading.

Author: kathyadamsclark

Professional photographer leading workshops and tours.

4 thoughts on “Star Trails: How To”

  1. Thanks for posting this! I haven’t done a star trail in over 3 years! It’s time to find a nice dark place and shoot one. Maybe with an old tractor in the foreground.

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  2. Stumbled across your blog. Some excellent Canon content. When you must crop your R5 images, do you feel they will are as sharp and detailed or even sharper than your R7, uncropped. all things being equal? Thank you

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    1. Sorry to take so long to reply. Thanks for asking the question. I’ve found that the R5 files can be cropped a lot and still hold their quality. This applies to the web, of course, and not printing. My cropped R5 files have run in newspapers and magazines and I haven’t noticed a problem. The R7 files are smaller from the beginning. I might not crop them as aggressively as I would the R5 files. The R7 has pretty nice files. I hope that helps.

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