Home Photography Ideas: Photographing Star Trails

Watch video: Home photography ideas – Shoot star trails

Star trail photos, with moving stars forming streaks of light across the night sky, are always popular. And now is the perfect time to photograph them, as we spend a lot of time at home and the skies clear up at this time of year, especially with the reduction in pollution from the lack of traffic!

In this tutorial, we’ll show you how to take source images for a star trail photo, then blend them in Lightroom to create that perfect image.

If you’re in the northern hemisphere, you’ll need to aim for Polaris, the North Star, to get the classic “circular” star trail look. If you are in the southern hemisphere, you will need to find the south celestial pole.

Light pollution means the most successful shots are taken in places with dark skies, but with a little consideration you can still get great results in your backyard. The key is to keep an eye on the weather and prepare ahead of time when daylight is still on your side.

Here’s how to set it all up, capture the main images, then take them to the digital darkroom…

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Get ready to shoot starting trails

When working in the dark, advanced preparation is crucial

Home Photography Ideas: Photographing Star Trails


Your eyes have two types of light receptors: rods and cones. The rods are used in very low light conditions, but take some time to adapt to the dark – usually around 15 minutes. They are also extremely sensitive; all it takes is a brief burst of light and the clock is reset, and you have to wait another 15 minutes. The good news is that rods can’t detect red light, but cones can, so if you’re using a red light at night, you’ll be able to get your bearings without ruining your night vision.

1. Clear skies

Check the light pollution and weather before you go and choose a location that is free of clouds and unwanted lights.

2. Cover up well

Depending on where you live, it can get cold at night! Avoid fogging by using a towel or hand warmers to wrap the lens.

3. Night vision

Bring a flashlight and make sure it’s red or has a red filter. Using a red light will help you maintain your night vision (see above).

4 Twilight zone

Get ready to compose your scene. It will be difficult in the dark, so it is important to prepare your kit in advance.

Key Skill: Finding True North

Aim for this fixed point in the night sky to get circular star trails


No star sits as perfectly in the south as Polaris does in the north. To locate the South Celestial Pole, find the Southern Cross and draw an imaginary line up and down, then extend it about four times.

1. Navigate with a compass

Compose your photo with Polaris in the center (for circular shapes) or to one side for beautifully curved star trails, like in our photo. To find Polaris, take a compass to locate north, then point your camera in that direction and slightly up, and look for the brightest star.

2 Map the stars

You can find true north even if you don’t have a compass. You’ll need to know at least one constellation, though, and that’s Ursa Major (The Plow). Find the end of the ‘pan’ part of the shape (see above), then draw an imaginary line from the edge of the pan to the very next shining star.

And now… aim for the stars

The first step in creating a star trail is to take a sequence of long exposure images

1. Stand still

We used a bungee cord to tie our bag to the tripod to stabilize it; when shooting long exposures, you should keep the camera as still as possible. Anything you can do to stabilize the camera is a good thing – a bungee cord takes up little space and is always worth throwing in your bag.

2. Focus manually

The AF system will not have enough light to focus properly, so you have to focus manually. If there are distant lights, focus on those, then redial. If not, have a friend stand 40-50 feet in front of the camera and point a light at you, focus on the light, then recompose. Your best bet is to use an ultra-wide-angle lens to squeeze more of the sky into your photos – and don’t forget to include a foreground, to give your photos a sense of location.

• The best lenses for astrophotography

3. Warm the glass

Keep your lens warm to prevent it from fogging up when the night gets colder. We wrapped our lens with a heated hand warmer and a small towel, with a rubber band to hold it around the barrel. Be careful, however, not to hit the focus ring when wrapping your flannel around the lens barrel.

4. Get ready

Set your lens to its widest aperture. The stars are so far away that a shallow depth of field won’t change the focus of the shot. Set a shutter speed between 20 and 30 seconds at ISO200 and take a test shot. If your photos are too dark, increase the ISO.


Set your white balance to Tungsten. This will remove the orange cast made by any nearby light pollution

5. Expose Right

If your location suffers from light pollution, try the “expose in the right place” technique. Take a picture and check the histogram: you want the graph to stack on the right side, but without clipping. This should allow your sensor to capture more detail. You can correct the exposure in post-production.

6. Start your streak

Open the interval setting in your camera menu; if your camera does not have this feature, use an external intervalometer to set the number of shots. The number will depend on how long you want your trails to be – we set 200 shots at an exposure time of 30 seconds each.

Short, clean strokes

Instead of taking a sequence of hundreds of short exposures and blending them in Photoshop, it’s perfectly possible to take a single, very long exposure of an hour or more. However, the longer the exposure, the higher the noise will be in the resulting image. picture.

This is because image sensors generate heat from their own electrified circuitry and the sensor registers this heat and electrical interference as noise. As such, it’s best to keep exposures under a minute and then stack them in editing software.

Stack them in post

Do you have your shots? The real magic happens in the digital darkroom…


If you find that your images have a lot of noise, don’t worry because you can reduce it in Lightroom. Go to the Develop module and in the Details panel (bottom right of the screen – you may need to scroll down), under Reset Noise Reduction, move the Luminance slider up until noise is acceptable.

1. Import your snapshots

Go to File > New Catalog. Name your catalog Star Trails and click Save. The (empty) library window will open. Go to your images, select them all, press Cmd/Ctrl+A and drag them into the gray import area. Click the import button in the window that appears.

2. Edit as needed

Switch to the Develop module. On the right side, you will see the tool panel. Starting from the top, switch the white balance to Tungsten, to reduce light pollution. Add fill light to brighten midtones, then increase vibrance to enhance colors without clipping them.

3. Export to Photoshop

Select all the photos in the Camera Roll by going to Select > All and clicking the Sync button. Check Check All before clicking Sync, and these settings will be applied to all selected images. Click Edit, then choose Photo > Edit In > Open As Layers In Photoshop.

4. Merge Paths

Images open on separate layers. Drag the first image you took down and set the blending mode to normal. Select the top layer, change the Blend Mode to Lighten, then right-click and choose Copy Layer Style. Go to Select > All Layers, right click on any layer and choose Paste Layer Style.

5. Add Mask

If you have plane light trails or extraneous light seeping in, add a mask to the layer in question, grab your Brush Tool (press B) and paint with black to remove the distraction. Be careful not to brush the stars as well, as this will cause gaps in the star trails themselves.

6. Save it

You are almost done. All you have to do is save the image. Go to File > Save As and choose an appropriate file type – JPEGs are usually the most useful. Give the image a file name and click Save. Your image will be exported, giving you the final photo.

The beginner’s guide to photographing the night sky

Read more:

Best Star Tracking Camera Mounts for Astrophotography
The Best Camera for Astrophotography: Tools and Lenses for Photographing the Night Sky
Best lenses for astrophotography: Fast ultra-wide lenses for the night sky

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