How to Photograph Star Trails in 6 Easy Steps

What are Star Trails?

Star trails are a beautiful and unique way to capture the beauty of the night sky. They are unique because most night sky images you see tend to focus on capturing the Milky Way core or part of it, so star trails are a way to shoot something entirely different with stunning results. In this post, we'll go over what star trails are, how to capture them, and some tips for getting the best results.

star trails meiklejohns bay queenstown
Image info: Sony A7rIV + 16-35 f2.8 GM, 7 x 10 min exposures at f/4 ISO 800 (Queenstown)

Star trails are a phenomenon that occur when you take a long exposure of the night sky. As the earth rotates, the stars appear to move across the sky, leaving a trail of light behind them. Capturing star trails requires a long exposure, typically at least an hour's worth of shooting, to create the effect.

How to Capture Star Trails

Capturing star trails is easier than you might think. Here's a step-by-step guide to help you get started:

1. Go Somewhere Dark!

Find a dark location away from light pollution. The darker the location, the better the results will be. If you aren't sure how dark your location is, you can check out the online light pollution map for your area. We are lucky here in New Zealand to have a lot of places with very dark skies (Bortle Class 1) like the Central Plateau in the North Island or a good chunk of the South Island as soon as you get away from a town. That being said, you can still capture the night skies pretty well in Bortle Class 2 locations (and I'm often shooting in these areas). I just wouldn't bother trying once you get to a Class 3 location (in or near small towns). The other thing to consider is the direction you are facing, i.e. you may be shooting in a location that still has a little light pollution but the field of view you are shooting towards looks towards a darker area, this also helps.

The other thing to consider is what phase the moon will be in. The best time to shoot star trails is when the moon is still below the horizon as your stars will appear much brighter, a little moon is OK and can help brighten your foreground, but I generally wouldn't recommend shooting when the moon is more than 20%. To easily find this out, check out the info on PhotoPills below.

2. Bring The Right Gear

You'll need at a minimum:

  • A camera with a wide angle lens (the equivalent of a 16-35mm f2.8 full frame lens or a fixed lens that is between 14-24mm with a lower aperture like f1.4-1.8 is ideal though even a lens that only goes to f4 will work just fine)
  • A fully charged battery OR shoot with a battery pack attached if you are planning a really long sequence
  • A stable tripod - it is REALLY important that your camera doesn't move at all during the whole process
  • An intervalometer remote (unless your camera has an inbuilt function). I've known people to use a basic bulb timer remote and time the required exposure on their phone/watch and then stop/start again, but this means you do have to stay within range of your camera the whole time which may not be ideal in the depths of winter. You'll need to set up your intervalometer with the length of time you intend each image to be, the delay starting (should be zero), the interval between shots (keep as low as possible, i.e. 1), and the number of shots you want to take in total
  • Warm gear if you plan on staying out the whole time the star trails are shooting in the winter - think sleeping bag, camp chairs, warm drinks etc!

3. Get Your Settings Right

  1. Set up your camera on a tripod. Make sure it's stable and won't move during the exposure.
  2. Set your camera to manual focus mode and focus your lens by magnifying the stars on your viewfinder/screen, keep turning your focus ring until the stars are as sharp and small as possible. Some lenses will have their best focus at infinity but most WON'T so don't get caught in this trap. You need to get to know your own lens' sweet spot for star focusing.
  3. Set your ISO to a low value, around 800 or lower, to reduce noise. I shoot my star trails at between 400-800 ISO depending on the location and amount of light at the location. This is something you'll need to assess in each location you shoot.
  4. Choose a fairly wide aperture to let in as much light as possible - somewhere between f1.4 and f4 is ideal. At f4 you'll have more of the whole image in focus but this doesn't let as much light in so will require a longer exposure to compensate
  5. Set your shutter speed. The longer the exposure, the longer the star trails will be. I've covered this in more detail below.
  6. Use your intervalometer or remote timer to start the exposure sequence. It is best to take one test shot of the desired length before starting the whole sequence to ensure you have the right amount of light for each single exposure.
  7. Wait for the images to finish, then review your results.
  8. If you want a separate foreground exposure, you can also shoot this before or after your sequence.

4. How Long Should the Shutter Speed Be and How Long Should I Shoot For?

Experiment with different exposure times, the longer the exposure, the longer the star trails will be. There are different schools of thought with star trails. Some photographers will tell you to take shorter exposures of say 30 seconds and over 90 minutes this would equal 180 shots to process/edit, and if you have large full-frame camera files this is a lot of storage space. I prefer to shoot longer exposures of around 8-10 minutes long with around 10-14 shots in total.

The advantages of shooting longer exposures are letting more light in so you can use one single frame or the blended frames for a nicely exposed foreground AND the files don't take up as much space OR take as long to process. Shooting longer also allows you to use a lower ISO reducing the noise/grain gathered in the image. The downside is that if something happens to one of the exposures in the middle of your sequence you risk a big gap in your star trails. Longer exposures can also generate more thermal noise (which is different to the noise mentioned above) which may appear as hot pixels (tiny coloured spots) in your images, especially if you are shooting on warmer nights. Personally I have never found my Sony full frame cameras suffer too badly from this issue but it is something to be aware of, and it may require you adjusting your approach to a shorter length of time and shooting more frames.

lake tarawera star trails rotorua nz
Image info: Sony A7rIV + 16-35 f2.8GM at 17mm, 10 x 8 min exposures at f/4 ISO800
rotorua rock star trails nz
Image info: Sony A7rIV + 16-35 f2.8 GM, 25 x 4 min exposures at f/4 ISO800

The total length of time you shoot for is entirely up to you (and your stamina if you are outside the whole time!), but I usually find 90 minutes a good amount of time to obtain a decent effect. You can shoot for the entire night if you want to and you have enough battery power to do so, this may be the limiting factor if you are running off a single battery in the camera.

5. How to Find a Good Composition for Star Trails

A good foreground composition will make or break your shot. In the Southern Hemisphere, if you want a classic star trail image you'll need to be pointing directly south - by classic I mean a small circle in the middle with rotating circles getting larger and larger around the outside - these are called circumpolar star trails. And of course, it's the opposite in the Northern Hemisphere, you need to be pointing north. I like the circular effect in my images so I generally try to find south facing locations that also have good compositions.

However, you can actually shoot star trails in any compass direction, they will just look different - if you shoot west or east they will look more like a star path travelling across the frame without the full circular effect. The example below is a stunning star trail image taken by my friend and NZ photographer Andrew Francombe looking west at Cathedral Cove, Coromandel in NZ. This is a 3 hour long sequence of 10 minute exposures, and I was so thrilled for Andrew that this image was selected as a finalist in the Landscape Category of the NZ Geo Photography Competition in 2021.

cathedral cove star trails andrew francombe
Image info: Sony A7rIV + 16-35mm f2.8 lens at 22mm, 3 hours of 10 minute exposures at f/4 ISO 400

Using the PhotoPills App to Plan

I can't stress enough how important the PhotoPills app is in my landscape photography planning - not only for night photography but also for daytime planning as well. If I am trying to decide whether a location will work, I'll look at the location on the PhotoPills map for the day/time I intend to visit. These images below show me the location with the moon phase which is important for a dark sky and the angle of the Milky Way at 3am in the morning when I took my shots.

photopills moon phases

This not only enables me to establish the direction the location is facing but it also gives me an idea whether or not the Milky Way will be in the frame at the time I want to shoot. The cleanest results will be without the Milky Way as the volume of stars in the galaxy tend to create a blurred effect in part of the trails otherwise.

using photopills to plan star trails

When you are at the location, I recommend using the PhotoPills Night AR function during the day to double check the best time to shoot and whether the composition lines up as you had intended. This is how I discovered when I arrived to scout beforehand that the waterfall shot needed to be from 3am onwards to avoid the Milky Way in the scene, 10pm would have meant a whole corner of the Milky Way was visible in the results as you can see from this single astro image taken at exactly that time.

In the two jetty/rock images further above in this post which were shot on a single night, you can also see that the earlier jetty shot (captured 10pm-midnight) there is no Milky Way in the sky, but by the time I shot the rock image (1am-3am) the Milky Way angle was low enough that it appeared in the image.

You can also use the PhotoPills App to calculate what the effect will look like for how long you plan to shoot under the Star Trails section.

6. Processing Your Star Trail Images

There are a number of different software programmes that will help blend your sequence of shots together to create the star trails. I have used both StarStax in the past (it's free and works for both Windows and Mac) and PhotoShop.

While I'm not going to go into the editing process in depth (that's a whole other post on its own!), the basic premise is that these programmes will join up the individual images to create a longer trail. StarStax is free software, but I prefer to use Photoshop since it's integrated with Lightroom and the process is just as straightforward.

StarStax is simple to use with step by step instructions and offers a number of different blending options which can be handy for different effects (i.e. comet mode) but you need to use JPEGs with it and the end result is a full-size JPEG, whereas with Photoshop you can use your RAW files as layers and end up with a larger TIFF file which may be easier to do final edits on in Lightroom as the image is not as compressed.

star stax for star trail editing
Images processed in StarStax using gap filling mode (left) and comet mode (right)

To use Photoshop you just need to select all the layers in Lightroom, right-click to Open as Layers in Photoshop, make sure all Layers are selected and then choose the Lighten mode from the dropdown above the Layers. You can then save this file which will put it back into Lightroom automatically for final editing. My final image is below. You could argue that you would need to pixel peep to see the difference between StarStax and Photoshop, however I do think Photoshop's result ends up with more visible star trails which I prefer.

tawhai falls star trails ruapehu nz
Image info: Sony A7rIV + 24mm f1.4 GM, 10 x 10 min exposures at f/2 ISO640


A star trail image with a strong foreground composition that adds to the scene is a beautiful way to capture the stunning night sky. With a little bit of patience and practice, you can do it too. Just remember to find a dark location, use a wide-angle lens with a fairly wide aperture, and experiment with different exposure times to suit your personal equipment and processing preferences. And finally, happy shooting!

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