Just starting out in night sky photography? Our beginners guide to astrophotography covers everything from kit to shooting modes to locations and more.
The subject of astrophotography – taking photographs of the night sky – is such a broad one that it’s hard to know where to begin. We can help. Here, we’ve concentrated our knowledge into a beginner’s guide to astrophotography that will supply you with both basic techniques and creative ways to capture the night sky.
While deep-sky astrophotography can become very complex (just check out some of the setups in our deep-sky astrophotography guide), photographing the Milky Way can be a great way to get started with this niche. The Milky Way, the galaxy that our solar system is located in, is a classic astrophotography subject and appears as a bright band of stars and interstellar dust.
The first thing to keep in mind when trying to photograph the Milky Way is that it’s not a static object in the sky. Depending on your location and time of year, it can look drastically different in the sky, transitioning between an arch low on the horizon, through a vertical column.
As a hobby, astrophotography requires investment of two types. The first is financial: you’ll need a camera, at least one lens, and a few accessories, as well as a warm coat for winter nights spent under the stars. To get you started, we have a guide to the best cameras for astrophotography, and a look at the best lenses for astro too.
The second investment is time and patience. This is something that’s hard to get right the first time, and will take many attempts, iterating on the same ideas, to finally provide an image that’s got some real ‘wow’ factor.
We’ll cover equipment in this guide, as well as planning your astro shoot and the camera settings you’ll need to effectively image the night sky, as well as tips on getting the most out of the images you capture including editing them in some of the best photo editing apps available.
The first bit of advice, though, is a simple one: have a go. Even if you don’t own a flashy camera, use what you have. Use a cellphone if necessary, you’ll be surprised what they’re capable of, particularly using the night modes on more recent models. You never know until you try.
CAMERA BODIES AND LENSES
For the camera body, better low-light performance is always welcome, but most modern bodies can shoot clean enough results at ISO 3200 to make them viable. Whatever your choice of body, be prepared to manual focus. For focusing in such low light, I like to use a magnified Live View of a distant point of light, with a target like a particularly bright star, the moon, or city lights on the horizon. Once you’ve set that manual focus point, be careful not to bump it, and don’t forget to check for variation as the night goes on. Tack-sharp stars can make or break most Milky Way photos.
Milky Way camera settings are pretty simple, but they may require a little tinkering depending on your camera and location. With a wide angle lens, a good starting point is to open your aperture as wide as possible, set your ISO to 3200, and set your shutter speed to 20 seconds. From here, you may need to adjust the settings to match your environment, but probably not by too much in any direction.
As you’re iterating shots, you can try turning on your camera’s Long Exposure Noise Reduction. This setting works by taking a second exposure after your first, and using that info to remove hot pixels (pixels in your image that appear as bright dots, often from heat). This process is helpful, but not necessary when just working on your settings and composition, and it comes with the downside of effectively doubling every exposure’s time. After you get your shot set up, you can turn this setting off to shoot more quickly or on to get slightly higher image quality.
If you’re using a DSLR or mirrorless camera, put it in Manual mode – that applies to both exposure and focus. We always recommend manual focusing when shooting astro, as most sensors – even in low light AF – simply won’t be able to focus on the night sky. Use the screen on the back of the camera (having one that flips out makes this easier) to focus carefully so that the stars appear as points and not circles. Stopping the lens at infinity isn’t enough, so zoom in if you can using the screen’s controls.
Full frame cameras generally perform the best in low light situations as they have a larger sensor and can have larger individual photosites that capture more light. However, as megapixel counts increase (and photosites therefore become smaller) this advantage is becoming slimmer, and modern crop-sensor cameras are very capable for astrophotography.; They are also a more affordable option than full frame cameras.
As a rough guide, it will set you back between $2000-3000 for a good full-frame mirrorless or DSLR with the ability to take sharp images at higher ISO settings. More on that later. Crop-sensor or APS-C cameras are usually $400 and up, and are more than capable of capturing the night sky.
A wide or super-wide angle ‘fast’ lens in the 12-35mm range is best suited to landscape photography and astrophotography. Wide-angle focal lengths allow you to capture a good portion of the night sky as well as some of the landscape for foreground interest. A ‘fast’ lens is one that has a large maximum aperture – in other words, a small f-stop number. A lens with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 or lower is considered to be a fast lens, and is excellent for astrophotography.
A lens like the Rokinon (Samyang) 14mm f/2.8 is a great lens to get started with, and is very affordable. If you’re ready to spend a little more, the Sigma f/1.4 14mm ART lens is superb. If you don’t have a fast lens just yet, you can still use the kit lens that came with your camera. Just make sure you operate at the maximum available aperture size (typically around f/4 on stock kit lenses).
A tripod is an essential accessory, as you won’t be able to hold the camera still enough by yourself for the long exposures involved in astrophotography, and resting it on a wall isn’t always possible. The tripod’s smoothly tilting head also allows you to position your camera perfectly to capture the bit of the sky you want. We have a guide to the best tripods for night sky photos, if you need it.
ADDITIONAL EQUIPMENT FOR ASTRO
Remote Shutter Release (recommended)
A button on a cable that will allow you to trigger your shutter while minimizing the risk of introducing vibrations. If you don’t have a remote shutter release, use the timer delay on your camera to ensure there is no movement of the camera during an exposure. Some DSLRs have a mirror lockup function that prevents the movement of the mirror inside the camera body from inducing vibrations, but this isn’t necessary for mirrorless cameras.
If you’re shooting star trails, and need to take sequences of shots, then an intervalometer is an essential accessory. However, this is quite an advanced form of astrophotography, so we wouldn’t necessarily suggest you head out to get one right away. When you feel you’re ready for star trails, we have a guide to the best intervalometers on site. Many modern cameras have them built in, so spend some time with your camera’s manual figuring out how it works.
Keep your hands free to operate your camera by using a headlamp at night and, if possible, use the red light mode (if it has one) to preserve your night vision. A headlamp is also helpful for ‘light painting’ objects in the foreground of your images. Alternatively, a flashlight with a bit of red plastic over the end can achieve the same thing.
Finally, if you’re going to be shooting in cold temperatures, it might be worth investing in some kind of lens heater. These can prevent condensation from creeping into your lens and ruining your shot.
PLANNING YOUR ASTRO SHOOT
Beyond planning for the appearance of the Milky Way itself, you’ll want to consider the significant impact of the moon. A full moon can drown out the appearance of the galaxy for sure, but even a quarter moon may present difficulty, as the galaxy will appear less prominent in the brighter sky.
As a beginner, the wider and faster your lens is, the better your results will be. Unfortunately, these lenses can be pretty expensive to buy, but might make a great option for a rental. If you’ve identified a composition you’re excited about, renting a Sigma 14mm f/1.8 will virtually guarantee good lens performance. The Rokinon 14mm is a much more budget-friendly option, although it’ll require manual focus and may have more image quality issues.
Whatever your choice of lens, make sure you’re shooting as wide as you can in both focal length and aperture for Milky Way photography. This’ll increase the amount of time you can leave your shutter open before getting visible star trails, and it’s the best way to capture the faint galaxy against the night sky.
Shooting at night also presents the opportunity to create your own subjects. One of my favorite ways to do this is with light painting. The core concept is simple: in a dark area, while your camera’s shutter is open, you add light into the scene for an artistic effect. While there are dedicated tools for this, I got started with light painting with just a flashlight and some colored gels. These gels let me create a variety of colors from a white flashlight, but now there’s even a range of very affordable RGB LED lights available.
When light painting, you’re only limited by your creativity. You can combine light painting with cityscapes, portraits, product photos, or even make the light painting the subject itself. Just remember that you’ll have to write backwards if you’re aiming towards the camera – good luck channeling your inner Da Vinci!
Light pollution is a serious problem facing astrophotographers. You’ll need to be in a dark sky area to be able to capture detailed images of the night sky, so head away from urban areas and street lights. Useful websites such as Dark Site Finder and Light Pollution Map will help you to find a suitable location to shoot, but if you want to get weather reports, and guidance on where to point your camera when you shoot, the best stargazing apps only cost a few dollars/pounds, and they’re extremely helpful when it comes to selecting your location and letting you know when the best time to shoot is.
The night sky changes constantly throughout the year, and knowing what you are likely to see and be able to photograph is a key component of astrophotography. There are excellent apps like Stellarium and Starwalk 2 which allow you to visualize how the night sky will look at any time and date for a specific location, but remember things like meteor showers are unpredictable, and the weather can easily close in and spoil everything.
ASTROPHOTOGRAPHY SETTINGS FOR YOUR CAMERA
There are no catch-all settings that will give you a perfect exposure for every situation. Unfortunately, photography just doesn’t work like that. However, there are a handful of basic rules you can follow to maximize your chances of nailing that astro shot.
Camera Shooting Mode
Put it in M, or Manual. You will need to set the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO manually.
You want your aperture as wide as possible, in almost all situations, so set it to an f-number of f/4 or lower. We recommend f/2.8 or lower, but use the maximum your lens is capable of. Many DSLRs and mirrorless cameras use a wheel on the camera body to set the aperture, but manual lenses and some made for Sony mirrorless have an aperture ring on the lens itself. Lower F numbers always mean wider apertures and greater light-gathering ability.
Image File Type
Set your camera to record raw image files. Astrophotography can be broadly split into two separate areas – photography and post-processing. In order to process your newly acquired astro images back at home, you will need to shoot in raw so that you capture and retain as much data as possible. A raw file is a dump of the information from the camera’s sensor with no processing applied. Capturing JPEG images will give you smaller files, but the compression process throws away data you could use. If necessary, buy a larger memory card rather than shoot JPEG.
Unless you’re deliberately trying to create star trails, the aim of astrophotography is to capture as much light as possible while at the same time avoiding noticeable star movement in the image. The longer the focal length of your lens, the shorter the shutter speed will need to be in order to avoid star trails.
There’s a simple formula to calculate the correct shutter speed for any given lens, called the ‘500-rule’. In its simplest form, this is 500 divided by the focal length of your lens. For example, if you are using a 20mm lens, this would be 500 / 20mm = 25 seconds. This, however, only applies to full frame cameras. For a crop sensor camera, the crop factor needs to be taken into account, so in this instance I would recommend using a base value of 300 for APS-C type cameras, and 250 for Micro Four Thirds.
Start with an exposure of 20 seconds, which is about the longest you can leave the shutter open before stars begin to trail, and see how that looks. You can adjust as needed.
The higher the ISO, the more the light signal captured by your camera’s sensor is amplified. You will need to shoot at a high ISO for astrophotography, but there’s a trade-off. The higher the ISO, the more noise (a type of digital degradation) you will begin to see in the image, and every camera increases noise in a different way. Some slowly ramp it up, others make a big jump after a particular setting. ISO 3200 is a good starting point, though you may need to adjust down to ISO 1600 if there is a lot of ambient light or light pollution or you start to see more noise than stars. Very dark skies may require you to boost the ISO to 6400, but I wouldn’t recommend going higher than this.
Focusing in the dark
First, set your camera to manual focus – autofocus will not work in the dark. Then use the ‘Live View’ feature of your camera to display an image preview on the camera’s LCD screen. Identify a bright star or really distant light source like a streetlight on the LCD display and digitally zoom in to that point of light. Once you have done this, adjust the focus ring until the star or distant light source becomes as small as possible. Your focus is set!
Now all you have to do is to compose the frame, take the shot and wait for the image to pop up on the LCD display – there may be some time between the shutter closing and the image appearing, as the camera writes the file to the memory card. If your foreground is looking dark, try light ‘painting’ your subject with a flashlight or your smartphone light during the exposure to help brighten the scene. You may need to adjust the ISO or aperture slightly to find what works best for your location, but you are now firmly on your way to capturing your own images of the beautiful night sky.
TIPS AND ADVICE
If you’re trying to balance light between the foreground and the night sky, we suggest you take multiple exposures and merge the images when you edit, as they will require different settings to get the best of each. You may even find that getting your foreground shots an hour or so earlier, during blue hour, will help as there is more light to work with for your foreground objects. This isn’t always possible, though.
If you’re shooting the night sky near a lake, and the weather is still, there’s a great opportunity to reflect the stars in the water. There are several ways to do this, depending on the conditions. We prefer to do the hard work in the shoot, so would suggest changing your focal point to the water and taking an exposure, then setting your focus back to the night sky and taking the exact same shot. You can merge them later in edit. You may find you need to balance your shutter speed a little here, depending on the conditions – a 20 second exposure will capture the reflection of the stars, but you may pick up movement on the water that reduces the clarity. You could try shorter exposures for your reflection shot, but may have to work harder to bring out the stars in edit. Something like Lightroom’s linear gradient edits are perfect for bringing out the clarity and sharpness of reflections, so give that a go.
While we’d usually recommend setting your white balance to a slightly cooler temperature for astro shots, you can experiment with either the manual WB settings, or the presets, to create interesting tints and variations to your shots. If you’re getting a little light pollution, adjusting the white balance can actually make it look like a feature of the photo (we recommend cooling it right down and seeing the effect that has), although you’d need a gradient filter to reduce noise if you’re closer to an urban area.
Beginner Astrophotography: How to Get Started
If you’re interested in capturing photos of the night sky, these beginner astrophotography tips will guide you on your way. I’ll explain how to take your very first photo of the stars, the Milky Way, and even deep-sky galaxies, nebulae, and star clusters.
There are many different types of astrophotography, from wide-angle Milky Way photography to deep-sky photography through an astronomical telescope. The basic elements of this hobby include the understanding of long exposure images, focus, and image processing.
The Andromeda Galaxy captured using a DSLR Camera and Small Telescope.
Space.com, Astrophotography for Beginners–How to Shhot thr kight Sky.” BY Stuart Cornell; astrobackyard.com, “Beginner Astrophotography: How to Get Started.,”; iso.500px.com, “Everything A Beginner Needs to Know About Astrophotography. ” BY Dan Ophaug;
The following basic astrophotography tips and camera settings can put into action the next time you find yourself under a clear night sky with your camera. I’ll also show you a beginner astrophotography setup for capturing deep-sky images using a camera and telescope. If I can do it, you can do it too.
Perhaps the intense colors of the Orion Nebula or the glimmering Pleiades star cluster have sparked your interest in astrophotography. Or maybe a haunting landscape photograph dominated by a full moon is more your style. However you got here, I understand your passion.
Night sky photography requires a basic understanding of your camera’s ISO setting and the process of taking long-exposure images. If you are a beginner, I’ve got good news. With an entry-level DSLR camera and a tripod, starry landscapes like the one below are within your reach.
A starry night landscape astrophoto captured using a DSLR camera and lens on a tripod.
The photo above did not use a telescope to capture the scene. Instead, a wide-angle camera lens was used to properly expose the picture and showcase the colorful stars in the night sky. If you’re interested in capturing “starscape” style images like this, have a look at my top 7 astrophotography tips for beginners.
Astrophotography can come in many different forms. It is wise to choose your subject matter based on the camera equipment you currently own. Setting your expectations to what’s possible with your personal gear will help you stay motivated and learn what’s needed to take the next step.
My astrophotography equipment has evolved and expanded over the past 8 years, and the learning process never ends. The small milestones and gradual progress along the way are what motivates me to continue pushing forward.
There are simple ways to get started in astrophotography that don’t require a large investment of time or money.
For instance, with a basic DSLR camera and a tripod, landscape images of the Milky Way and the Planets are well within your reach. Whether you’re shooting a lunar eclipse, meteor shower, or a familiar constellation of stars, the sensitivity, and control of modern camera sensors are well suited for astronomical imaging.
Astrophotography images captured using camera lenses of varying focal lengths.
When you are ready to take your passion further, I’ll explain how to use a camera and telescope to take deep-sky images of galaxies and nebulae. This includes sharing my knowledge on camera control software, autoguiding, image processing, and much more.
The backyard setup shown below may seem a little complex at first, but it did not happen overnight. If you are passionate about astronomy and photographing objects in space, your progression and enjoyment in the hobby of astrophotography will last a lifetime.
Beginner Astrophotography Tips
We all have to start somewhere. If your passion is strong enough, it will carry you through the steep learning curve involved in astrophotography. Early on, I did not have a lot of money to invest in this hobby, and my basic equipment reflected that.
One look at a typical deep-sky imaging setup may have you scratching your head. The good news is that you can slowly build your astrophotography kit to accomplish your goals over time.
Choosing a camera, telescope, and an equatorial mount will deliver the results you’re looking for takes time. Avoid the temptation of purchasing the best equipment money can buy from the start. First, you need to first learn the night sky – and the basic principles of night sky photography.
A beginner telescope
I started with little more than a digital camera and a small (non-tracking) beginner telescope. A Dobsonian reflector is a fantastic way to learn the night sky from your location, and begin to appreciate the scale and vastness of space. It requires that you manually move the telescope by hand, and observe the deep-sky objects you find in the eyepiece.
Over time, my equipment evolved into a deep-sky astrophotography kit that allows me to photograph galaxies, nebulae are star clusters. A tracking telescope mount and astrophotography telescope are required, but I advise that you take small steps towards your goal of deep-sky imaging.
A visual astronomy telescope is what sparked my passion to photograph deep-sky objects, and helped me to better understand what it’s like to spend a lot of time under the night sky. I highly suggest taking this route before jumping into astrophotography too fast.
The last thing you want to do is rush into making a purchase that you regret. Below, I will describe the gear that has provided me with actual results for a reasonable price. For a look at my most recent equipment in action, subscribe to AstroBackyard on YouTube.
Using a DSLR and telescope allows you to take high magnification images of jaw-dropping subjects such as the Eagle Nebula. Beginners often ask me how I got started in deep-sky astrophotography with a telescope, and what equipment I use to take photos of the night sky.
In the video below, I walk you through the process of capturing deep-sky astrophotography images using a DSLR and telescope. It’s a high-level overview of the processes involved but should answer many of the questions beginners have about astrophotography.
Choose an Area of Interest
I try to cover all aspects of astrophotography on this blog, but subscribers of my YouTube channel know that I spend more time imaging through a telescope than anything else. Some people prefer different areas of astronomy including Solar imaging or Milky Way landscapes.
It’s no secret, deep-sky astrophotography is the realm of this hobby where I spend most of my time. There is just something incredible about the thought of photographing another galaxy, filled with its own solar systems and planets.
What type of astrophotography are you most interested in?
The constellation Perseus rising over the lake with the Andromeda Galaxy visible.
If you’re like me, you love all types of images that involve the night sky. However, a quest for a particular type of image may lead you down a new path that involves a new set of equipment and techniques. For instance, the photography equipment required to capture a photo of a lunar eclipse is very different than what’s needed for a long exposure image of an emission nebula.
The image below features a deep-sky astrophotography setup, including a dedicated astronomy camera and a complete autoguiding system. The three keys to a successful deep-sky imaging run is accurate polar alignment, tracking accuracy, and balance.
A basic deep-sky astrophotography setup using a dedicated astronomy camera.
The following is a list of the different categories you can dive into:
Types of Astrophotography
Let’s cover the different types of astrophotography that await you. The night sky is diverse, it’s full of billions of stars and some incredible treasures in between. The type of astronomy subject you are interested in will eventually decide which equipment you purchase, and the camera settings you will use.
Types of astrophotography include landscape, planetary, and deep-sky.
Some methods have a lower cost of entry and can be done with little more than a beginner DSLR camera on a tripod, while others will require some additional hardware to achieve results. The photo above features images I have taken from both a tripod and through a telescope.
DSLR Camera and lens on Stationary Tripod:
Nighttime landscape photography is incredibly popular these days. Most images tagged #astrophotography on Instagram are exactly this. Whether it’s a shot of the Milky Way rising over a desert landscape, or simply a portrait of the Winter constellations, few images capture the mood that a night landscape can.
- Night Sky Time Lapse
- Meteor Shower Composite
- Milky Way Photography
- Constellation Composite
- Moon Phase Landscape
DSLR Camera and Lens on Tracking Mount:
This is landscape astrophotography on another level. A wide-angle lens such as the Rokinon 14mm F/2.8 can collect light over an ultra-wide area of the night sky. With a tracking mount, exposures of 1 minute or more are possible, which means collecting a much deeper view of the sky.
- Deep Milky Way Photo
- Wide Field Deep-Sky Image
- Solar Transit (Solar Filter)
- Solar Eclipse (Solar Filter)
- Total Lunar Eclipse
Beginners often start with a small star tracker for wide-angle astrophotography images. Entry-level camera mounts such as the iOptron SkyTracker Pro, or Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer are a great place to start. This opens the doors to long exposure photos that include deep-sky objects such as galaxies and nebulae.
A portable camera tracker is quick to set up, and easy to polar align and balance. The setup below features a Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Pro mount, with a small telescope attached. This is a very capable little rig that can produce stunning astrophotos using a DSLR camera and lens.
A beginner-level astrophotography mount with a DSLR camera and lens attached.
A mid-range telephoto lens like the Rokinon 135mm F/2 is an excellent choice for a setup like this. In the photo above, you can see this lens mounted to a Star Adventurer Pro using the ball head adapter. This way, you can point the camera in whichever direction you want for long exposure imaging.
Point and Shoot Camera through Telescope Eyepiece:
Eyepiece projection astrophotography involves aligning the camera lens with a telescope eyepiece, to utilize the magnification of the eyepiece and or/Barlow lens. This method is useful for planetary astrophotography, but not deep-sky imaging.
- Solar Transit (Solar Filter)
- Planetary Imaging
- Solar Imaging (Solar Filter)
- Moon Surface Imaging
DSLR Camera attached to Telescope on Tracking Mount:
This is known as prime-focus astrophotography. The camera is attached directly to the telescope focus draw-tube. The focal length is determined by the type and size of the telescope optical design.
- Deep Sky Imaging (Galaxies, Nebulae, Star Clusters)
- Planetary Imaging
- Solar Imaging
- Detailed Moon Surface Imaging
A DSLR camera attached to a telescope for prime focus astrophotography.
Astrophotography covers a wide variety of styles and photography subjects. The type of image you’re after is up to you. We all have our own goals and unique taste. Personally, deep-sky astrophotography through a telescope is my biggest passion.
As time passes, I find myself becoming more and more interested in other types of astrophotography as well. For example, starry sky landscape images (nightscape photography) are becoming increasingly popular on social media, and I love the idea of traveling to dark skies for an unforgettable night sky photo.
How I got started
My very first steps towards deep-sky imaging were taking 15-second exposures with a Canon point-and-shoot camera through a Dobsonian Telescope. I believe a manual telescope like this is the best way to learn the night sky, and get a better understanding of the hobby.
I consider an 8″ Dobsonian telescope like the Apertura AD8 to be the best telescope for beginners. It’s how I got started, and why I still love astronomy today.
The Apertura AD8 Dobsonian Telescope for visual observing.
I did not yet know the necessity of an equatorial mount for deep-sky imaging. However, I was thrilled with the modest images I was capturing of the Andromeda Galaxy at the time.
I would aim my Canon Powershot point-and-shoot digital camera into the 25mm Plossl eyepiece that was included with my telescope. I had to stay completely still as the tiny sensor collected light on my object.
They may have been fuzzy, blurry blobs of light, but I knew that I was photographing another galaxy, and that concept absolutely blew my mind.
A Dobsonian telescope like this is fantastic for visual observing but not suitable for deep-sky astrophotography.
Early Results using a DSLR
My first few shots of the night sky were out-of-focus landscape shots of the summer constellations in my parent’s backyard. I didn’t own a tripod, so I would use a towel angle the camera just right for a lousy shot of the stars above.
These were taken using a Canon Rebel XS I bought on sale. I used the only lens in my bag, an 18-55mm Canon Kit Lens. I figured that 18mm was as wide a shot you could take with a camera, so I thought that was a good start.
As amateur as those first few shots were, I could already see how the camera could capture more stars in the image than I could see with the naked eye. I think beginners are often shocked the first time they see the amount of stars in the sky captured through astrophotography.
Taking your first shot
If you’ve purchased a DSLR camera and a tripod, you’re are ready to get started. To start, have a look at the weather forecast for this week.
If the weather is clear, or mostly clear, you’re in luck.
Next, have a look at the current moon phase using moongiant.com. Nights surrounding the New Moon phase are best, where the effects of the bright moonlight are minimal. The moon washes out the fainter stars and deep-sky objects in the night sky.
For many types of astrophotography, the night of the full moon is the worst night to shoot on.
Whether you choose to travel to an interesting location or shoot from your backyard is up to you. It might be best to practice these techniques at home before venturing out to a new location in the dark.
Making sure your tripod is locked securely, aim your camera towards the brightest star in the night sky. The stars you see will, of course, depend on the time of year you are shooting. If you do not see any bright stars, angle the camera towards a distant streetlight or another distinguishable light source.
You will use a bright star to focus the camera lens.
Make sure your camera is set to Manual mode, and that your lens to manual focus. This will give you full control of the light you let into the camera.
Turn on the live-view function of your DSLR, and have a look at the screen. Depending on your current settings and brightness of your location, you may see several stars and your surroundings, or nothing at all. There are a few things you can do to see more light on the screen, including lowering the F-stop (Aperture) or bumping up the ISO (sensitivity to light).
These general settings work well at night:
Astrophotography Camera Settings
Focal Length: 18mm
White Balance: Auto
Exposure Length: 25 Seconds
You can adjust these settings according to the DSLR camera and lens you are using. For instance, some lenses can let light in much faster with a wider aperture of F/2.8 or below. The Sigma 24mm F/1.4 is one example, and I have taken some incredible nightscape photos with it.
Focusing on a star
With the bright star(s) in view, magnify the image by 5X, and then 10X. Adjust the focus ring on your camera lens in and out until the star is as small as possible. This will ensure your focus is is very close to where it needs to be for an astro image. Making some small focus adjustments and taking test shots will get you even sharper.
Compose your shot
Use the stars in your field of view to compose the shot you want. For example, if your goal is to capture the Milky Way stretching across the sky, make sure that the core of our galaxy is well placed within the scene.
Add some foreground interest to the scene by including the environment around you. For example, natural landscapes that include mountains, rivers, and tall trees can make your photo of the night sky very dramatic and add context to the location.
Choosing the right exposure
When shooting on a stationary tripod, images of the night sky will show star trailing after about 15-20 seconds. Knowing this, you’ll want to shoot exposures as long as possible before the stars begin to trail.
Some people find it useful to use the 500 Rule as a point of reference. You simply divide the focal length of the camera lens (X the crop-factor of your camera) by 500.
Even if the exposure looks bright on the screen, you’ll be able to bring it back to a natural level in post-processing. In general, it’s best to shoot the longest possible exposure you can before star trailing occurs. If you are using a small camera tracker, you can compensate for the rotation of the Earth and capture sharp stars in exposures that are 2-minutes or longer.
A setting of about ISO 800 – 1600 should work well. Any higher than this will make the image brighter but come at a cost (more noise). Modern DSLR’s are much better at handling noise than they used to be but expect to see lots of grain shooting at ISO 3200 or above.
Noise can be reduced by capturing dark frames, and stacking the images together using software. For example, the image of the Carina Nebula below was shot using an ISO of 6400, yet the noise did not ruin the image thanks to an improved signal-to-noise ratio.
The stunning Carina Nebula captured during our honeymoon in Costa Rica.
It’s all in the histogram
Have a look at the data in the histogram below. This was a deep-sky image through a telescope, but the histogram is typical of any long exposure astrophoto. As you can see, the photographic data in the image sits in the right-hand third of the histogram, without clipping any highlights off the edge.
A typical histogram of a deep sky astrophotography image taken with a DSLR camera.
Images captured at night
Just like in regular daytime photography, the image histogram tells a story about the data captured in the image. Amateur astrophotographers tend to expose to the right, maximizing the light photons collected without clipping the data by overexposing.
Perhaps the strangest and most understood part of the deep-sky astrophotography process is the stretching of the data. A typical unfiltered “light frame” from my light-polluted backyard (Bortle Class 8) shows little more than a washed-out, pink screen with perhaps a small smudge and the brightest stars.
The single image frame on the left is from Cherry Springs State Park, the image on the right is from my light-polluted backyard in Southern Ontario.
From a dark sky location such as Cherry Springs State Park in Pennsylvania – the sky will appear dark blue, but the galaxy or nebula in the frame will be extremely faint. Depending on the surface brightness of the image, little color or fine details will be distinguishable.
A large part of the image processing workflow involves pulling the data from the deep-sky object forward while leaving the background of space behind it alone. This increases contrast and can show the outer and faintest regions of the nebula or galaxy.
Globular and open star clusters do not need nearly as much of a stretch. Enhancing the saturation and color of the varying stars is more important here.
Entering Deep-Sky Astrophotography
If you visited my image gallery, you’ll know that my passion lies in deep-sky astrophotography using a DSLR camera and a telescope. This type of photography is known as prime focus astrophotography, and it’s how astrophotographers capture incredibly detailed portraits of deep-sky objects such as a nebula.
My first astrophotography camera was a Canon Rebel XSi (450D)
The type of camera used for deep-sky imaging is usually a DSLR, a dedicated CMOS sensor astronomy camera or CCD (Charged coupled device). DSLR cameras are one of the best ways to get started in deep-sky astrophotography, as they are affordable and user-friendly.
A dedicated astronomy camera such as the ZWO ASI294MC Pro (pictured below) has features that can help you produce incredible long exposure images. These cameras have TEC (thermoelectric cooling) to virtually eliminate noise from the equation.
A mono camera such as the ASI 1600MM-Cool has an incredibly sensitive CMOS sensor that can produce even better images than an OSC (one-shot-color) camera can.
Filters are used in a sequence of LRGB (Luminance, Red, Green, Blue) to create a color composite image of the subject. Narrowband filters that capture specific wavelengths of light can also be incorporated for an unforgettable deep-sky portrait.
Dedicated astronomy cameras, whether they are CCD or CMOS, are often much more expensive than a DSLR. They require specialized software to run them, as opposed to operating the camera on the body like you can with a DSLR.
Using a DSLR Camera
DSLR cameras record starlight onto the sensor just as the light from a regular daytime photo would. The difference is, much longer exposures are shot and combined to improve the signal-to-noise ratio.
A higher ISO sensitivity is used to maximize the light collected by the DSLR camera. ISO 800 – ISO 1600 are typical camera settings for a DSLR astrophotography image.
The images are combined by “stacking” the exposures together. This reduces the amount of noise in the image and can reveal much more of the color and detail in the deep-sky subject.
Along with the individual photos you capture (light frames), you can benefit from taking calibration files such as flat frames. Calibration frames such as dark, bias, and flat frames help correct the issues that come with long exposure photography using a DSLR camera.
The image you see below is the Andromeda Galaxy. I took this photo in July 2012 from a dark-sky site on the North Shore of Lake Erie. This photo includes over 3 hours worth of total exposure time.
The Andromeda Galaxy photographed with a DSLR camera.
Professional deep-sky imagers tend to use sensitive CCD cameras with a set of narrowband filters, but a regular DSLR camera is the perfect entry point into the hobby. There is some incredible work being done with DSLR cameras that rival much more expensive dedicated astronomy cameras.
Attaching a DSLR to a Telescope
To capture these deep-sky objects we need to use a telescope to bring these objects in for a closer view. The telescope acts as a super-telephoto lens, with typical focal lengths ranging from 400mm to well over 2000mm. The term “Deep-Sky” means distant objects in space, often millions of light-years away from Earth. This includes:
These photos also capture a lot of interstellar dust, reflected by the stars around it.
The focal length you are using will depend on the size and design of the telescope. I use a small refractor telescope with a focal length of about 700mm. Multiplying this with the crop factor in DLSR camera I use, this brings my focal length to about the 1000mm range.
Choosing a Telescope
An 80-100mm refractor telescope is considered a wide-field instrument in terms of deep-sky astrophotography. Using a compact apochromatic refractor telescope, I can capture most of the largest deep-sky objects within a single frame. Certain nebulae, such as the North America Nebula are massive in apparent size, and take up the entire frame (and more).
The Explore Scientific ED80 is an excellent choice for beginners
A wide-field telescope has many advantages, and it’s what I recommend for beginners. A wide-field telescope with a modest focal length is much more forgiving when it comes to star tracking. This is especially important during beginner astrophotography outings, as the satisfying results are more likely to inspire you to push forward.
Wide Field Views
The downside of a wide-field telescope is that small objects such as most galaxies will appear quite small within the image frame. For example, The Whirlpool Galaxy is a gorgeous face-on spiral galaxy, but it appears quite small in a compact refractor telescope.
If small galaxies and/or high magnification views of deep-sky objects and planets are your primary interest, it will require a different equipment setup (here’s an example equipment setup for photographing galaxies).
I don’t advise beginners to attempt this type of imaging from the start. As the focal length of the optical instrument increases, so do the demand of the tracking platform and additional measures such as autoguiding.
A huge benefit of a wide field-instrument is that the largest galaxies such as the Andromeda Galaxy and the Triangulum galaxy will fill the frame nicely.
The Triangulum Galaxy using a 100mm refractor (550mm focal length)
In general, when it comes to deep-sky, it’s better to shoot wide and short in the beginning. Meaning shorter exposures through a small refractor telescope. This will increase your chances of success, and hopefully, inspire you to keep moving forward.
The longer your exposure is, the higher the chance that you will see an inconsistency in your telescope tracking. Your telescope mount may be capable of reliable 3-minute subs, but capturing an image for longer than may expose the limits of your mount.
An example of elongated stars due to poor tracking.
The same goes for the focal length of your telescope. In a wide-field refractor, stars may appear small and round in a 3-minute exposure using your current setup. An image of the same length may show elongated stars through a high magnification SCT telescope.
To improve tracking, there are a number of things you can try:
- Balance your telescope and astrophotography accessories
- Ensure that no cables are being pulled or snagging
- Improve the accuracy of your polar alignment
- Use autoguiding to makes tiny adjustments to your mounts tracking pattern
A telescope with a long focal length will magnify any issues in tracking accuracy.
For this reason, I think that the best beginner astrophotography telescope is a wide-field refractor such as the Sky-Watcher Esprit 100 or similar is best for beginner to intermediate imagers. This apochromatic refractor produces images with a flat field, with excellent color correction.
At 550mm focal length, this telescope is much more forgiving in terms of tracking accuracy for astrophotography than one in the 1500mm+ range.
Images captured using the Sky-Watcher Esprit 100 APO telescope.
Unfortunately, many amateur astrophotographers will start with a large telescope that provides deep views, only to find that this method has a steep learning curve that only the most dedicated imagers will overcome!
The Capturing Process
Astrophotography involves some really long exposures. In daytime photography, a 5-second exposure using a filter, low ISO, and f/22 can create some incredible landscape images. This can capture movement such as flowing water and passing clouds.
In astrophotography, we use ultra-long exposures to capture dim objects in space. I’m talking exposures of 3-4 minutes each or longer.
The photo below features the California Nebula captured with the Radian Raptor 61. Several 5-minute exposures were stacked together to produce it.
This photo of the California Nebula includes multiple exposures of 5 minutes each.
As the sensor records the light entering the camera, it collects much more detail than our naked eye could ever see. As well as faint details of galaxy spiral arms and nebulosity, we are also able to record the intense color of the gasses, dust, and stars in space.
To produce detailed images of these DSO’s (deep-sky objects), we need to increase the signal to noise ratio of the image. The signal is the light collected by the camera, and noise is – well you all know what camera noise is.
If you’ve ever spoiled an image in a low light situation because of noise – you should see what happens in a single astro image frame! To maximize the data we collect under the stars, high ISO settings of 800, 1600 or more are often used. This, of course, creates a lot of noise.
To combat this, we can improve the signal to noise ratio by stacking several images together.
In the example below, I compared stacked sets of 2-minute light frames with a dedicated astronomy camera. Even though dithering or dark frame subtraction was not used, you can clearly see that the noise is reduced as more exposure time is added to the final integration.
The signal (the light in our DSO) continues to layer on top of each other, yet the noise falls in random patterns and eventually cancels itself out. I use a software application called DeepSkyStacker to combine multiple image exposures together for final processing.
The feeling of seeing your precious image get smoother and smoother as you stack more and more data together is euphoric. Yes, I get a little geeky when it comes to improving the signal to noise ratio of my astrophotography images.
I hope you have enjoyed this how-to guide on astrophotography for beginners. With the right tools and a little patience, you too will be taking amazing images of our night sky.
Everything A Beginner Needs To Know About Astrophotography [Guide & Tips]
Want to master astrophotography? Want to learn the art of capturing an awesome meteor shower, or the next supermoon, or the Milky Way galaxy across the night sky? This monster guide with just about everything you’ll want to know about the wonderful world of astrophotography should help! We’ve gathered tips from the pros, optimal camera settings, and some breathtaking examples to educate and inspire you to look up at the sky and get shooting.
First things first, budding astrophotographers need to know that planning, patience, and persistence are the name of the game. Obstacles, from bad weather and bad timing to landslides and equipment failures, can all make it a very frustrating pursuit. But in the end, despite all the obstacles, when you finally do nail the shot, astrophotography becomes one of the most rewarding forms of photography there is.
Types of astrophotography
Astrophotography is a bit of a catch-all term. In reality, there are various types of astrophotography that you can pursue, each with different techniques, gear, and planning required.
Deep space astrophotography
Deep space astrophotography refers to mages that are taken with the use of a telescope, of objects beyond our own solar system. These are those stunning images you see of distant galaxies and nebulae, and this is the most technical and difficult form of astrophotography.
Solar system astrophotography
These are images of the planets, moons, and the sun of our own solar system. Again, the images are mostly photographed through telescopes, but a super-telephoto lens on a DSLR camera can also give you a good result.
Wide field astrophotography
This is astrophotography that is taken with a DSLR camera and lens with a wide field of view, like the wide-angle lens. These are the images you see that include a starry sky or star trails above a landscape—certainly one of the more accessible forms of astrophotography for beginners.
This is just an extension of wide field astrophotography. The only difference is that you take lots of exposures over time, and then combine the frames to make a time-lapse video. The same technique can be used to make a star trail image.
Often taken in the desert or other low-light pollution environments, milky way astrophotography can be a little elusive for city dwellers. When it comes to gear, most decent DSLRs with a manual mode will do the trick—location is infinitely more important than gear when it comes to capturing the galaxy.
Gear guide for astrophotography
In the modern age of digital photography, wide field astrophotography is now within almost anyone’s reach. Equipment-wise, all you need is a modern DSLR camera with good low light capabilities, a fast lens, and a good sturdy tripod. This will get you out there, taking good quality night sky images.
Beyond that, you can also add additional accessories to your kit that will allow you to do a little more, like an intervalometer, which will allow you to do time-lapses and star trails. Of course, you can go out and accumulate a whole lot of other specialized equipment, like equatorial mounts, which follow the rotation of the night sky, and robotic camera mounts for capturing large panoramic images, but for now, we’ll concentrate on the basics.
What camera is best for astrophotography?
A DSLR with great low light capabilities is perfect for astrophotography. Ideally, you want a full framed sensor camera like the Canon 5d MkII and MkIII or the Canon 6D, as you want to have the maximum sensor area to capture as much light information as possible. You can also get reasonable results with crop sensor cameras like the Canon 7D, which may suit your budget a little more than the full-framed counterparts.
What are the best lenses for astrophotography?
When shooting the stars, you want a lens with a large aperture to allow as much light as possible through the lens. Ideally, a maximum aperture of at least f/2.8 is best, but you could still get good results with an f/4.0 lens. Unfortunately, the larger the aperture, the more expensive the lens.
The good thing about astrophotography is that you only ever use manual focus, so a lens like a Rokinon 14mm Ultra Wide-Angle f/2.8 is a great piece of glass for the right price. As far as focal length is concerned, stay in the ultra-wide range.
Do I need a tripod for astrophotography?
Believe it or not, a tripod is one of the most important pieces of equipment you can have for astrophotography. You need your camera platform to be rock solid as you will mostly be dealing with exposure times of 10-30 seconds, so it’s important to have a sturdy tripod that will keep your camera in place.
What is the best telescope for astrophotography?
There are a couple of factors you’ll want to keep in mind when choosing your telescope. Most importantly, you’ll want to choose a telescope with a motorized mount, which will let you use longer exposures to capture the more elusive wonders of the night sky. Focal length, aperture, and more advanced features like WIFI connectivity and automatic alignment are all things to consider when looking for a telescope.
Star Tracker and Wedge
ASTROPHOTOGRAPHY WITH A STAR TRACKER – HOW TO GET STARTED
Using a star tracker for astrophotography is the best way to shoot the night sky in all its glory.
I’ve been doing Milky Way photography for many years, but it wasn’t until I started doing tracked astrophotography that I could finally capture the clean, colorful, and detailed images that I had been looking for a long time.
WHAT IS A STAR TRACKER IN ASTROPHOTOGRAPHY?
An astrophotography star tracker (or just star tracker or astrophotography mount) is a device with a small motor that compensates earth’s rotation. By doing this, it will follow the star’s movement in the night sky, allowing you to extend your shutter speed while capturing sharp stars. Unlike when you photograph the Milky Way without a star tracker, there are no limitations like the 500 rule or the NPF rule.
To be able to track the stars correctly, you need to polar align your star tracker. This step, which I’ll explain in detail later in the article, is crucial to capturing pinpoint stars.
A star tracker can also be used to track the sun and the moon; however, in this guide, I’m going to talk mainly about tracked Milky Way photography and nebulae.
WHY DO YOU NEED A STAR TRACKER FOR ASTROPHOTOGRAPHY?
Using a star tracker for astrophotography has many benefits as opposed to photographing the milky way without a star tracker. These are the main benefits:
INCREASE THE EXPOSURE TIME
This is the key factor when using a star tracker for astrophotography. You can decrease the shutter speed and get exposures of several minutes depending on the focal length you use. This will also reduce the digital noise in your images. Finally, thanks to increasing the shutter speed, you’ll have more flexibility to adjust the rest of the settings.
This is the difference between using a star tracker or shooting from a fixed tripod – 3 minute exposures
REDUCE THE ISO
As a direct result of increasing your shutter speed, you can reduce the ISO. Instead of using the typical night photography ISO 3200-6400, in tracked astrophotography, you can drastically reduce the ISO to values below 1600. This will reduce the noise and provide more dynamic range in your images.
CLOSE THE APERTURE
Closing the aperture will result in getting sharper images. Also, you’ll see a big improvement with less vignetting and lens aberrations like coma or chromatic aberrations.
All these three factors together will give you a higher quality image, with a ton of detail, less noise, and more colors. As mentioned earlier, acquiring a star tracker for astrophotography will increase the quality of your astrophotography exponentially.
SET UP YOUR STAR TRACKER IN 7 STEPS
Knowing how to set up your star tracker is a crucial part of the process, and there are multiple ways to set up a star tracker depending on your tracking gear and your goals (simple tracked images, tracked Milky Way panoramas, etc.)
In this section, I’ll explain how to set up your star tracker for astrophotography using a simple setup with a tripod, tracker, and two ball heads.
1. LEVEL YOUR TRIPOD
This is the first step because, without a leveled tripod or leveled base, you won’t be able to track the stars properly. The start tracker needs to sit on a leveled base, either using your tripod legs directly or a leveling base.
Here, I recommend using a bubble level if your tripod has one or an electronic level app on your smartphone. A leveling base can speed up the process but, personally, I don’t use it for tracking since it can add instability to your tracking setup.
2. MOUNT THE BALL HEAD OR EQUATORIAL WEDGE
Remember, you’ll need a ball head or equatorial wedge (EQ base) to hold your star tracker. This accessory needs to be robust because it’ll hold the weight of the whole star tracker setup (tracker, camera, accessories, etc.)
Using an equatorial wedge (also known as Altitude/Azimuth base) is my recommendation here to help you with the polar alignment process that we’ll see later.
3. SLIDE THE TRACKER ON THE BALL HEAD OR EQUATORIAL WEDGE
Mount your tracker on top of your ball head or EQ base and make sure that it’s fixed with no shakiness.
When you mount the star tracker on the ball head or EQ wedge, don’t mess up the level. It’s very common to move the tripod legs when doing this. Re-check your level after this step.
4. MOUNT THE SECOND BALL HEAD OR EQ WEDGE ON THE STAR TRACKER
The basic star tracker photography setup uses two ball heads: one to hold the star tracker and the second one to hold the camera. However, there are multiple accessories you can use instead of a ball head, such as a 2-way head, a Z/V bracket, a panoramic ball head, etc. Your photography goals will determine the right accessory for you.
5. ATTACH YOUR CAMERA
Attach the camera and all the accessories you’ll use for your tracked astrophotography session, such as an intervalometer or an external power supply. Make sure everything is correctly mounted.
It’s important that you attach all your camera accessories now before you do your Polar Alignment to reduce the risk of throwing off your alignment later.
6. ALIGN YOU STAR TRACKER WITH THE NORTH/SOUTH CELESTIAL POLE
Polar alignment is the next crucial step in the process. Getting sharp stars in your tracked images directly relies on a correct polar alignment.
There are two main ways to polar align a star tracker. You can either use a polar scope or a laser (or both together). Both have one thing in common: you need to precisely locate the North or South celestial pole depending on your geographic location.
In the Northern Hemisphere, you’ll need to point your laser or polar scope to Polaris. In the Southern Hemisphere, you need to locate the south celestial pole.
To help you locate the celestial poles, we’ve prepared these two handy images which we encourage you to save to help you in the field.
If you are using a scope instead of a laser, you’ll need to check the position of Polaris/Sigma Octantis in a star-tracking app like PS Align Pro and place the stars in the same position in the reticle of your star-tracker.
As commented before, having an EQ wedge with an altitude knob and Azimut screws is the fastest and easiest way to fine-tune your polar alignment.
7. TAKE A TEST SHOT AND CHECK THE SHARPNESS IN YOUR STARS
Finally, it’s time to take a test shot and verify if everything is correct. Turn on the star tracker and take a 1-minute test shot. Zoom in your image and check If you see the stars sharp like perfect dots, then you’ve done the whole star tracker photography setup process correctly
If you see trails in the stars and it’s not caused by the wind, repeat the previous steps.
After the test shot and once you know that the process is correct, increase your shutter speed until you see trailing in the stars or until you exceed 3-4 minutes. (which usually means overexposing areas of the Milky Way).
If you can shoot a 2 to 4-minute exposure with no star trails, congrats! you can start taking your Milky Way photos with a star tracker!
Don’t forget that planning is key in Milky Way photography, so I highly recommend downloading our Milky Way Calendar to find the best days of year to shoot the Milky Way at a glance.
BEST CAMERA SETTINGS FOR TRACKED ASTROPHOTOGRAPHY
If you are already familiar with how to photograph the Milky Way, then this section will ring a bell. However, with tracked Milky Way photography, there are a few key differences I’ll cover in the next few paragraphs.
A good starting point is:
Start with two-minute exposures and adjust depending on your focal length, the wind, and the kind of tracker you are using.
For wider focal lengths, you’ll be able to extend the exposure time further than 2 minutes even if your polar alignment is not perfect. But also consider the wind; if it’s too windy, the longer you expose, the chances of getting star trails will be higher. Finally, some trackers can hold a higher payload than others and will allow you to extend your shutter speed with no trailing.
This will depend on the max aperture of your lens. I recommend you close your aperture from half to a full stop. For instance, if you use a lens with an f/1.4 max aperture, you’ll get significantly better sharpness and detail if you close down to f/2 or f/2.8.
As explained before, this will reduce the vignetting, lens aberrations, and improve the sharpness.
Start by using ISO 800, then adjust depending on the exposure after the first test shot. I generally keep my ISO between 640 and 1600. Use the lowest ISO possible to capture less noise and better dynamic range in your image file.
If you can’t track long exposures because of the wind or any other reason, you can raise your ISO to get the right exposure. You might see a little bit of noise, but you can easily eliminate it using a good piece of noise reduction software.
BEST TIPS FOR TRACKED ASTROPHOTOGRAPHY
Over the years, I’ve learned some useful tricks when doing tracked astrophotography. I apply these tips myself every time I’m out doing tracked Milky Way photography, and I guarantee that you’ll get high-quality images if you follow them too.
These are the tips I’ve gathered for this star tracker photography tutorial:
1. START TRACKING EASILY
The number 1 mistake that I see in my astrophotography workshops is beginners trying to track images at longer focal lengths or to shoot complex tracked panoramas.
To avoid frustration, start using wider focal lengths between 14 and 20 mm, and don’t add more difficulty until you are comfortable with the bases of tracking.
2. POLAR ALIGN BEFORE MOUNTING YOUR CAMERA
Polar alignment needs to be as precise as possible, and if you try to do it with your camera mounted onto the star tracker, it will be a lot more difficult or even impossible with some tracker models. Always polar align before mounting your camera on the star tracker.
Once you mount your camera, recheck and fine-tune your polar alignment If necessary since it’s very likely that you’ll slightly move it in the process of attaching your camera.
3. USE A LASER TO POLAR ALIGN
If lasers are allowed in your country, one of the best star tracking tips is to use a laser in the polar alignment process.
Most times, when you look through the scope, there will be either no stars at all or too many stars. Using a laser will help you immensely to get the closest alignment with the celestial pole.
4. RUN APERTURE TESTS
If you are looking to obtain the best possible images, take test shots at different apertures to find the best balance between image quality and lens aberrations.
Some of the best lenses for Milky Way offer very high quality even when shooting wide open, but most lenses will benefit from being stopped down. There is no way to know the sweet spot in your lens until you test it.
5. CHECK THE ISO-DYNAMIC RANGE RATIO OF YOUR CAMERA
The best cameras for Milky Way, like Full-Frame models, are designed to capture images in low-light conditions, but you always need to know your camera to know which ISO gives you the best performance.
Here, the best way to check this is to take a look at the read noise and dynamic range performance data offered by Photons to photos and, as always, to run your own tests.
6. ALWAYS CHECK YOUR HISTOGRAM
A properly exposed tracked Milky Way photo should have the information in the mid-tones. Also, another good rule of thumb is to zoom into the Lagoon nebula. If you see detail in the nebula and it’s not blown out, then your shot is correctly exposed.
7. SHOOT YOUR FOREGROUND AND SKY SEPARATELY
When you use a star tracker, you’ll notice that the foreground becomes blurry because of the movement of the star tracker. There are tricks like using the tracker at half speed, but I don’t recommend this if you want the best results and image quality.
Photograph the sky with the star tracker and then turn it off to photograph the ground with the best settings possible. Then, blend both images together in post-processing.
8. USE A COUNTERWEIGHT
If your star tracker model offers the option, use a counterweight to balance your star tracker setup. This will help reduce the strain on the motor, and you’ll also be able to add a little more weight to the astrophotography mount. It’s also convenient to add stability in windy conditions.
You can perfectly use your tracker without a counterweight, but always consider your goals and the limitations of your gear.
9. USE A LENS WARMER
This little accessory will help keep your lens from fogging up when you are in cold and humid locations. Fog could appear right at the beginning of the session or after some hours. If you don’t own a lens warmer, a little trick is to use the lens hood, it will delay the fog, but it won’t prevent it completely.
POST-PROCESSING OF TRACKED ASTROPHOTOGRAPHY IMAGES
When doing tracked astrophotography, you’ll need to process your images. When you track the sky, the foreground will appear blurry, which is why, as I explained in the previous section, you’ll need to photograph the sky and ground separately and then blend them together in Photoshop.
Editing your tracked Milky Way photos will extract all the detail and colors.
At this point, the most difficult part is the blending, since the foreground in your tracked image will be larger than the foreground in your non-tracked shot.
Once you blend both images, you can apply all the adjustments related to exposure, color, detail, etc. and enjoy the magic of star tracking when you see your images with an impressive quality.
In my Milky Way photography course, I teach over 12 hours of editing content where you’ll learn everything from blending tracked astrophotography with foreground to extracting maximum detail out of your tracked Milky Way images. I explain all my workflow step by step with plenty of advanced techniques and tips so you can make the most of your tracked astrophotography!
STAR TRACKER PHOTOGRAPHY GEAR
There are basic items like a camera, a good milky way photography lens and a tripod that you’ll need for tracked astrophotography. Check out our specific articles on those items for more information. In this section, I’ll cover the dedicated gear you need for star tracker photography:
1. STAR TRACKER
Choose the best star tracker according to your skills and needs. If you do long hikes, I recommend using a light star tracker such as the MSM Rotator or the iOptron Skytracker Pro. If you are going to track mostly from an accessible location, you can carry a standard tracker such as the iOptron Skyguider Pro or the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Pro 2i.
2. EQUATORIAL WEDGE
An equatorial wedge is the most precise base for a star tracker. With this item, you can fine-tune the position of the tracker to get a more accurate polar alignment. They are usually sturdier and more stable than a regular ball head.
3. BALL HEAD
To mount the camera on the star tracker, use a good quality ball head with enough payload capacity to withstand the weight of the camera and all the accessories that you want to attach.
You can also use a Z and V bracket to mount the camera on the star tracker. These accessories are handy when doing tracked Milky Way panoramas.
4. DECLINATION BRACKET
Additionally, you could use a declination bracket mounted to your star tracker to aid with the balance and sturdiness of the whole setup. If you are using counterweights, a declination bracket will be a must.
5. POLAR SCOPE OR LASER
A polar scope is an item you need to polar align your star tracker. I strongly recommend you get one that has the light integrated, which will make it both easier and more convenient to polar align.
If you use wider focal lengths and your country’s laws allow it, you can also use a laser to polar align. This method is less precise, so I don’t recommend using it for longer focal lengths or deep-sky tracked astrophotography. A laser will also be useful to help you locate Polaris in your reticle.
An intervalometer will allow you to shoot in bulb mode without touching the camera during the process and introduce unwanted shakes that could ruin your image.
7. OTHER ACCESSORIES
If you are planning more difficult images like tracked panoramas, you can use other accessories like nodal slides or L-brackets.
You can take a look at my current tracked panoramas setup in the video below in case you are interested in seeing the pieces I use.https://www.youtube.com/embed/Xzy6v85nd-0
TRACKED ASTROPHOTOGRAPHY EXAMPLES
As always, to give you some ideas and inspiration, I’ve gathered some tracked astrophotography examples in this section. I’ve captured these images by applying the same techniques I’ve explained in this article. I hope you enjoy them!
TRACKED MILKY WAY
This is the most common subject to track with an astrophotography star tracker. The millions of stars, nebulae, constellations, and colors, all come together to make an eye-catching subject that will be perfect for your first tracked night images.
TRACKED DEEP-SKY ASTROPHOTOGRAPHY
The difference when doing deep-sky astrophotography with a star-tracker is huge. Even using longer focal lengths or small telescopes, a tracker will allow you to capture all the detail of those distant targets in the night sky.
TRACKED MILKY WAY PANORAMAS
This is a more advanced technique where you combine the steps I explained in my Milky Way panoramas article and combine them with the steps presented here. The final result is worth the effort because you’ll get a high detail panorama.
TRACKED WINTER MILKY WAY
Astrophotographers often overlook this part of our galaxy, but I encourage you to go out and photograph it! It’s full of hydrogen-alpha nebulae and beautiful constellations such as Orion, Taurus, and Gemini.
Using a star tracker for astrophotography will set a before and after in your night photos. It’s the item that will set the biggest difference in your images once you are familiar with the basics.
If you are wondering if you need a star tracker for astrophotography, look at your recent night images. If you miss detail, color, and texture, then the answer is a big yes!
Astrophotography tips for photographing in low light
Locking it down
With any form of astrophotography, you will be dealing with long exposures. This means that for best results, you need to eliminate any camera movement or vibration. The obvious way to do this is to mount your camera on a sturdy tripod. But there are other issues which cause movement and vibration when using your camera.
Simply pressing the shutter button can cause the camera to move slightly. You probably won’t notice this movement in your wide field astrophotography images, but if you are trying to photograph the moon with a telephoto lens, even the smallest of movements will be amplified. The best way to resolve this is to either use a shutter release cable, or set the self-timer on the camera to, say, two seconds.
Another cause of vibration that is present in DSLR cameras is the vibration that the mirror causes as it is rotated up out of the way of the sensor when the shutter button is pressed. Thankfully, most cameras these days have a mirror lock function, so the first press of the shutter button locks the mirror up, and then a second press fires the shutter while the mirror is locked up in place.
Finding your frame
It seems obvious to say, but when you go out to shoot the night sky, you’ll be in darkness. That means framing your shot won’t be as easy as just looking through the viewfinder and lining something up like you do in daylight. The best way to go about this is to use your own eyes to find an area of sky and landscape that you think will make a good composition, and line the camera up in that general direction.
You’ll then have to do test shots to see exactly what you are actually capturing. It will probably take a few goes of moving the camera around on the tripod to find something interesting that will work for you—make sure to allow for some composition time when you’re planning.
How to focus for razor-sharp photos
Focusing can be a challenge for many new astrophotographers. Switch your camera into manual and find the brightest star in your field (you can even use the moon). Use your camera’s Live View, increase your ISO, and lower the aperture to give yourself the best chance of getting it just right. Take your time—if your shot isn’t in focus, you won’t be able to save it in post.
How to plan for astrophotography shoots
You’ve got the gear, but even the best camera, lens, and telescope aren’t going to get the results you’re looking for without meticulous planning.
Astrophotography in urban environments can be almost impossible due to light pollution. In order to get truly stunning shots, you might want to head out of the city and find a more secluded spot. There are a number of apps and services that can help you track down a great location, or simply grab your gear and set off on an adventure.
Part of planning for astrophotography is knowing where the part of the sky is that you want to shoot, and how it lines up with your planned composition. Our own planet is rotating at 1,000 miles per hour and is also hurtling through space at 67,000 miles per hour! So, as you can imagine, the night sky is constantly moving, with the position of the stars and the Milky Way constantly changing throughout the year. So, it’s important that you know where it’s going to be when you are heading out to photograph it. There are a few apps for your smartphone to help with this planning, such as Starwalk.
Account for the weather
Is it really a plan if you don’t account for the weather? The last thing you want is unexpected rain or cloud cover blocking your shot, so make sure you prepare. There are a multitude of apps that can give you a detailed forecast, such as Dark Skies, Accuweather, Photophills, and more.
What are the best camera settings for astrophotography?
How to determine exposure time
There are two main factors that control your exposure in photography. One of them is the time your shutter is open—shutter speed—and the other is aperture. The combination of these two determines how much light hits your sensor for giving you the final image. In astrophotography, you will be dealing with long exposures as you are photographing objects in the dark.
Shutter speed is the amount of time your camera shutter is open to allow light onto the sensor. In astrophotography, we need a long shutter speed. We also have to consider that the longer you leave the shutter open, the more star trails or streaking of stars you are going to get due to the earth’s rotation. Generally, you want to avoid them in your wide field astro photos, so it’s important to know how long you can expose for before you get star trails.
This will vary depending on what focal length lens you use. The longer the focal length, the shorter the exposure time will have to be before getting star trails. Thankfully there is a formula for this called the 600 rule. This rule is simply 600 divided by the true focal length of the lens you are using. And by true focal length, it’s the focal length of the actual lens only if you are using a full-frame camera. If you are using a camera that has a smaller sensor, you need to factor the crop factor into the focal length. For example, if you were using the Canon 7d, which has a crop factor of 1.6 with a 10mm lens, then your true focal length would be 10 x 1.6, which is equivalent to a 16mm field of view on a full-frame camera.
Now, since you’ve grasped the crop factor concept, let’s go back to our 600 rule. So on a full framed camera, the maximum shutter speed you could use before seeing star trails when using, say, a 24mm lens is: 600 divided by 24mm = 25-second exposure. If you were using that same lens on a smaller sensor with a crop factor of 1.6, your maximum shutter speed would be: 6 00 divided by (24mm x 1.6) = 15.625 seconds.
Aperture is the diaphragm mechanism of your lens, which controls how much light gets through to the sensor in the camera by opening and closing. You can think of it as the same way the pupil of your eye works—the pupil gets wider in the dark, allowing more light through your eye, but narrower when there is a lot of light, to allow in less.
We define aperture as stops, and the setting you will change to control your aperture on your camera are f-numbers. In astrophotography, we need as much light to pass through the lens and hit the sensor as possible, so we generally shoot wide open, or at your lens maximum aperture. Shooting something brighter, like the moon, would call for something like f/9 in order to really develop surface details.
Modern DSLR cameras are capable of high ISOs, which is great for astrophotography, as by setting a high ISO, your camera is able to pick up more detail than the naked eye can see. An ISO in digital photography measures the sensitivity of your image sensor in your camera. The higher the ISO value, the more sensitive or amplified your image sensor is to light. The only downfall is that the higher the ISO, the more noise you get in your image, but this can be rectified to a certain degree with noise reduction in post. And since we are shooting in darkness, we want to be able to shoot at the highest ISO possible without getting too much noise in the image that we will not be able to control with noise reduction. For example, on a Canon 5D MkIII, this is between an ISO of 3200 and 6400. For other cameras, this may vary, and you might not be able to push your ISO so far, but it’s worth experimenting to see just how far you can push your ISO without too much image degradation.
White balance is the process of removing unwanted color casts and instead giving you an image with neutral whites. This value will vary under different lighting sources, so that’s why it is important to manually set this value for astrophotography. Some people set the white balance to one of the presets on their camera and then neutralize their white balance in post.
This is totally ok when shooting RAW. If you are shooting JPEGs, then you need to get your white balance as correct as possible—this will need to be set manually. For astrophotography, this can vary between 3200k to 4800k, depending on the lighting conditions.
What settings do I use?
There are numerous factors for determining your settings, but it will mostly depend on the type of camera and lens you use, and how dark your shooting environment is.
For example, award-winning photographer and 500px community member Mark Gee shoots with a Canon 5d MkIII and a 14mm f/2.8 lens. In a dark sky environment, his typical settings are a 30-second exposure, aperture f/2.8, and ISO 3200. These settings may vary for you when taking into account the environment and the equipment you are using, and are something you will need to experiment with until you get a result you’re happy with.
Composition when shooting astrophotography
With wide field astrophotography, no matter how spectacular the night sky is, marrying the landscape with the sky in an aesthetic way is a must if you want to end up with an image that stands out from others. With the correct settings, anyone can point a camera and take an ok picture of the night sky. But the difference between an ok picture and a great picture is usually composition.
There are simple rules to help you with composition, and if you are aware of and plan your shots around these rules, then composition may start to come more naturally to you.
This is a rule based on breaking an image down into thirds, both vertically and horizontally. The idea is that you place your point of interest on one of the intersections of these thirds to give you a pleasing composition.
Points of interest
An image without a point of interest will not hold the viewer’s attention for long. It could be something as simple as a tree in the foreground silhouetted by the night sky, or the Milky Way hanging low over the horizon of a mountainous landscape.
Make sure your horizon is straight
Unless you are deliberately going for a Dutch tilt, it’s very important in any landscape photo to make sure your horizon is straight. This same rule applies to wide field astrophotography if there is a horizon in your shot.
Software like Photoshop, Lightroom, and Aperture give you a lot of freedom with your processing techniques, especially when you are shooting RAW.
This is great for astrophotography, as it can give you a lot of control over your image, but it can also be a double-edged sword. To the untrained eye, an over-processed shot might go unnoticed, but it is important when producing good quality astro photos that you keep your processing in check. Don’t crush those blacks!
Processing is very personal, and the style of your processed image will vary from one person to another. A great way to discover your own personal style is to see how the pros do it, and use that as a jumping-off point for your own experimentation.
Exploring astrophotography with Tanner Wendell Stewart
Tanner Wendell Stewart is an Emmy-award-winning photographer who loves telling stories with his photography.
A day in the life of astrophotographer Aaron Groen
As we touched on earlier, there are many different kinds of astrophotography. To get the best shot, you need to know ahead of time, and plan accordingly, for the type of shot you’re looking to achieve.
Using astrophotography in sports photography
Combining astro- and sports photography is a great way to add drama and complexity to your shots. But be warned—this is going to take lots of preparation and planning. On top of all of the prep work we’ve already discussed, you’ll need to brush up on your sports photography skills too. Taking a look at the results, however, you can see how your efforts could really pay dividends.
How to photograph the sun
No matter what kind of astrophotography you are into, the reality is you’ll always be working with the sun as your light source. There are many different kinds of solar photography, and the type you choose will depend on the equipment and process you use.
Timing is everything when capturing dramatic sunset images. We recommend arriving on location at least 45 minutes before the forecast sunset time to get setup. A tripod is also a must when taking longer exposures, so don’t get caught without one. Keep your shutter speed nice and slow, and don’t be afraid to try out different filters in order to maximize your exposure.
Examples of Astrophotography
A solar eclipse is definitely an event worth capturing, and as you can see, it can produce show-stopping images. Safety is always the first concern when a solar eclipse is involved, You should never look directly into a solar eclipse, and that goes for using a viewfinder too—a solar filter will protect your eyes and your gear. Again, a tripod is a must, and you may want to consider a super-telephoto lens to get that dynamic close up of the eclipse.
Photographing a meteor shower takes a lot of preparation and quite a bit of gear. You’ll need to be taking lots of photographs over an extended period of time, because you never truly know when you’ll actually see a shower. Read the gear guide put together by pro photographer Tom O’Brien (linked above), and then get inspired by these gorgeous images from the 500px community.
20 meteor show photos that will inspire you to shoot the Leonids
There are few more stunning sights than the Northern Lights. What photographer fortunate enough to see them could resist the urge to try to get a shot of this celestial phenomenon? Much like other forms of astrophotography, a solid plan is essential. Take a look at our beginner’s guide, and start planning your trek up north.
If you’re thinking about trying to photograph the Milky Way, check out our range of tutorials, tips, and tricks.
Milky Way double exposure tutorial
Husband and wife duo Dylan and Sara Byrne created a beautiful Milky Way couples double exposure photograph, and we talked to the 500px community members to find out just how they got their inspiring shot.
Can you photograph the Milky Way with a smartphone?
You’re probably noticing that a lot of astrophotography can be gear-intensive. But is it possible to capture the Milky Way with just a smartphone? Read our interview with Ian Norman, a photographer, engineer, and entrepreneur based out of Los Angeles, California, to find out whether or not your phone is up to the task.
Milky Way self-portrait tutorial
Another community favorite, take a quick lesson with Qatar-based photographer Hammad Iqbal, and discover the secret to the Milky Way self-portrait. These stunning shots are definitely not your standard selfie.
Milky Way photography post-processing
Your Milky Way photos are really going to come to life in post, so we’ve pulled some of the top talents in the 500px world to develop extensive tutorials for processing your Milky Way photography in Lightroom.
Star Trails Photography
Have you noticed it?
Every time you shoot a Star Trails image and share it on Instagram or Facebook, you get more interactions, more likes, more surprising comments such as:
“Mind-blowing!”, “Impressive!”, “Epic!”
And it happens every single time!
You shouldn’t be.
Because Star Trails are those type of images people love. Images that people can’t simply stop staring at.
It’s as if the spirals made of bright stars were trapping people’s eyes, in the same way a deep black hole would engulf the Millennium Falcon itself.
[Sorry Han (Solo), this is how it is… And you know it’s true!]
Such is the magnetic power of Star Trails.
Because you’re showing something remarkable to the world. Something that’s happening out there, in the universe, but no one can see with the naked eye:
“The movement of the static stars, the traces of time, together with a breathtaking foreground.”
And this, my friend, is incredibly hypnotic!
The good news is that with a little help everybody can create striking Star Trails images.
Even if these are the first words you’re reading about Star Trails photography. This guide will help you imagine, plan and shoot Star Trails images nobody has taken before. Images that people can’t stop sharing and talking about.
I’ll give you everything you need. From start to finish. All in one place. So you don’t have to spend hours and hours searching for answers in the chaos of Internet.
From hundreds of Star Trails photography tips, inspiring examples, inspiring photographers, key compositional ingredients and fast planning tools like the PhotoPills Night Augmented Reality view to equipment, camera settings, focusing and advanced editing workflows.
So by the time you get to the end of this article, you’ll have gained the power to create truly hypnotic Star Trails images, including circumpolar, celestial equator, vortex, accumulated Star Trails timelapse videos and many many more stunning images.
Oh, and no matter whether you live in the Northern or in the Southern Hemisphere. We’ve got you covered! 😉
You’ll understand everything as you read through this guide.
Are you ready?
3, 2, 1…
“For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream.” – Vincent van Gogh
1. The 21 Star Trails images you must shoot before you die
Do you want to learn how to create beautiful Star Trails images?
You can make it happen, but you need to go step by step.
Rome wasn’t built in a day.
It’s not a secret that even the best writers, the best painters, the best photographers reached the glory scaling from the bottom. Working hard, learning and practicing… Practicing by copying the masters or, to say it in a softer way, by “getting inspired” by the masters.
Every teacher knows it:
“Because before you can fly free and create your personal style, you need to get it right first.”
Before you can write a book, you need to learn how to write good copy first.
And the fastest way to reach an acceptable level of expertise, no matter what you’re trying to learn, is by copying the ones that lead, the ones that master the topic.
Think about it for a second. Do you remember how you learnt how to write?
Yes, you do.
By practicing. By copying words perfectly written, right?
Well, it’s exactly the same in photography. By shooting great photos (even if they’re not your ideas), you learn how to take great photos (your ideas).
Obviously, ethics goes first!
Don’t publish the photos you’re copying: you don’t want to be accused of theft. Keep them for you. These are just exercises.
At this stage, when learning, it’s all about getting the feeling, getting more comfortable when composing, shooting and editing your images.
So, read this guide, learn the theory, look for Star Trails images you love on Internet and take action, replicate them and before you realize it, you’ll be taking you own original and striking photos.
“That’s great Toni, but I don’t have time to look up for images on the Internet now.”
You can start with the following Star Trails ideas 😉
I shot most of them in the beautiful island of Menorca (Spain), my home.
“You have to learn the rules of the game. And then you have to play better than anyone else.” – Albert Einstein
Probably the easiest, but also the most powerful Star Trails image. Choose your subject, frame at the Polaris (North Star) or the south celestial pole (Southern Hemisphere) and you can’t get it wrong!
Don’t you know how to find the Polaris or the south celestial pole?
Just use the PhotoPills Night Augmented Reality view 😉
The celestial equator magic (2)
Aim your camera to the east or west and the story changes. There, you’ll find the celestial equator and you’ll see how stars follow three different paths.
On the celestial equator, stars follow a straight line. But they tend to curve away on both sides of the equator. This is a very spectacular pattern.
Mixed with artificial light trails (3)
Why not introducing artificial light trails in the foreground?
Playing with both Star Trails and the lights of fast moving vehicles can give you great results too.
Arching above your subject (4)
In the Northern Hemisphere, framing south gives you the power to lock your subject under the beautiful Star Trails. It’s a totally different story!
In the Southern Hemisphere, just frame north 🙂
Water reflections (5)
I love capturing the Star Trails reflex on the water.
Where there is water, there is life!
Capturing the color of the stars (6)
Stars are not white!
Yes, at first glance, they seem to be white. But, the truth is that stars cover a range of colors: gold, blue, white and even red. This is caused by their different surface temperatures.
Capturing the natural color is easier when you’re shooting in a light pollution free location. In section 3 you’ll learn how to capture the real color of the stars.
Connecting with the past (7)
The goal here is to build a connection between the stars and one of those rare buildings that our ancestors left for us to enjoy.
The photo shows the celestial equator and the Milky Way together with a true treasure: the Naveta d’es Tudons – a remarkable megalithic chamber tomb located in Menorca. It’s a building that served as a collective ossuary between 1200 and 750 BC!
Moon trails (8)
Sometimes, including the Moon in the frame can give the right spicy touch to the image. What do you think?
A big Meteor Shower (9)
Spending the whole night shooting a Meteor Shower pays off. Do it, and you’ll not only take stunning still images, you’ll also be able to create amazing Star Trails images and timelapse videos.
Take a look at our guide to the best Meteor Showers. You’ll learn everything you need to make the most of these natural late night shows: when they happen and how to shoot them, step by step.
Inside out (10)
Imagine that after a long day hiking, you’re comfortably resting inside a cave, enjoying the stars and the night sky…
Suddenly, the stars begin to trail.
Your heart would jump out of your chest!
What do you see in this image?
I see two enemies fighting to reach the sensor of my camera: the stars and the light pollution creators – the city lights.
Apart from this, the image gives me a clue of how beautiful the stars would have looked in this place before all these human interferences.
I used a 2-stop soft graduated neutral density filter (GND) placing using its darker area to dim the city lights. So I got a longer exposure without overexposing the artificial lights on the foreground.
The drama of the abandoned (12)
Star Trails are great for creating a ghost like atmosphere around an abandoned building.
In the image above you can see the ruins of an ancient military base. It’s located in the fortress of La Mola, in Menorca.
From time to time, I like to go there with my students and spend the night capturing stars.
Lonely subjects (13)
Including a vertical and isolated subject in the foreground makes the image more intriguing, more hypnotic.
Look for a tree, a rock, a lighthouse… Look for amazing subjects, include them in your foregrounds and you’ll create dazzling Star Trails images.
Playing with fire (14)
Have you ever light painted with steel wool? It truly ignites the frame!
All you have to do is to attach some steel wool to a paint roller, light it and make it roll.
But be careful, because it can be extremely dangerous!
Panoramas, the whole story (15)
It’s a little bit more challenging, but it pays off the effort. Create one, and you’ll become addicted…
And so will do anyone who sees your image 😉
Human figures (16)
Human figures allow you to create very appealing images by playing with many different compositions.
Here, you have the power to decide where you want the model to be and tell the story you want.
Black and white (17)
Why not trying something different for a change?
What about a white and black shot? 😉
Hypnotic vortex (18)
It’s the queen of all the hypnotic images!
You can produce the vortex Star Trails at home, editing a single shot, or in the field, using a motorized system to smoothly change the focal length while the shutter is open. You can learn how to do it reading section 10.
You can also do it manually, but there’s a high chance that you’ll ruin the photo.
Defocused Star Trails (19)
By progressively defocusing the stars during a single long exposure or after each exposure (image stacking), you’ll create what’s called the “comet effect” or “badmington shuttlecock effect”.
How can you defocus the stars?
All you have to do is to rotate the focus ring of your lens a few degrees to pull the depth of field far limit away from infinity.
Do it after each exposure if you’re using the stacking technique. Or at a 1-minute interval if you’re shooting a single long exposure.
I explain you exactly how to do it in section 12.
Timelapse or Star Trails in motion (20)
If you believe that creating a Star Trails image is fun, you’re going to love creating your own Star Trails timelapses.
Instead of staking all the photos to produce one single image, just turn them into a video. And show the world the stars in motion.
Do you want to learn how to do it? Then, go to section 11.
Your turn (21)
“But, Toni… I’ve only seen 20 inspiring images, and you said you would give me 21!”
You caught me! 😀
The thing is, I changed my mind.
I think it’s funnnier if you suggest the 21st inspiring image in the comments section, right at the end of this guide 🙂
Come on! Don’t be shy!
Read this article, take action and share your photos with the tribe!
And if you’d like to improve your Star Trails photography face to face with the whole PhotoPills team and a bunch of PhotoPills Masters, you should definitely attend the PhotoPills Camp! 😉
What’s all this fuss about?
PhotoPillers from all over the world join us, the creators of PhotoPills app, along with a squad of easy going Photography Masters (like Mark Gee, Elia Locardi and more) in a 7-day exclusive photo immersion in the beautiful island of Menorca, a nature sanctuary!
The Camp takes place only once a year!
Are you interested?
Then, you should read more about the PhotoPills Camp.
2. The principles behind your idea generation (or diverge before you converge)
“You can’t wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club.” – Jack London
I love this quote by Jack London.
I took it from a surprising book. A book that produced a huge impact in my creative workflow: ‘The Torch Principle: Light Up Your Mind’, by Javier Ideami.
I’m always looking for all sort of inspiration sources, anything that can help me see the world from a different perspective, from a different point of view. Anything that can get me out of my comfort zone.
I usually find inspiration in photos, films, music, books… All sort of books, not only in photography books.
From time to time, I come across a book that’s a game changer for me. And ‘The Torch Principle, Light Up Your Mind’ is one of these unique and rare books that surprised me.
Long story short…
Creativity is something you can and should train.
Yes, it’s possible!
Like Javier explains:
“You cannot run a marathon without first training your body muscles regularly. Similarly, you cannot become a master at innovating original solutions without first learning to exercise your creative muscles as well.”
So, to be more creative is a matter of choice. To train or not to train, that’s the question.
If you do train, if you do face this challenge, you’ll find the key to making your photography more innovative, fresh, original and joyful.
How to train your creative mind?
Getting used to diverge before you converge!
In other words, get used to think big first, believe in the impossible, don’t put a limit to your imagination.
Find a powerful location and simply let your imagination fly.
Take advantage of the power to foresee the future that PhotoPills provides. Take advantage of the power to compose with natural light, the Sun, the Moon, the Milky Way, the stars…
Come up with a remarkable story to tell.
Then, visualize the crazy photo that’s telling that story.
It might seem like an impossible scene to capture. But don’t give up, use your knowledge, plan it with PhotoPills, figure out when it happens, and use your equipment and your photography skills to make it real.
Learn what it takes, buy new gear if necessary (or rent it), and take action.
If you’re starting, the photo may not be exactly the one you dreamed due to equipment limitations, lack of skills, weather conditions, or even the Laws of Physics. But it’ll be innovative and original.
And if you’re not happy with the result, repeat the process. Iterate, try it again until you get what you want.
I know, I know… It’s not easy.
You need to empty your brain, give space to your imagination, and erase your limiting beliefs before you can come up with original ideas.
But let me tell you a secret: all you have to do is to train yourself to think as a child again.
Get rid of all your adult rational thinking and start dreaming.
Become an artist again!
“Every child is an artist, the problem is staying an artist when you grow up.” – Pablo Picasso
3. The 6 key Star Trails tips you should know before start brainstorming
Before you can go to a powerful location and start brainstorming like crazy, there are 6 key facts you should know about Star Trails.
What you’re about to learn now will help you put your imagination to work in the right direction. So you can come up with original ideas for your Star Trails shots much faster.
Let’s start with the very beginning: the origin of Star Trails…
Earth rotation or the origin of Star Trails (1)
Star Trails photography is all about capturing the apparent motion of the stars caused by the rotation of the Earth. The longer the exposure time (15min, 1h, 2h, 5h…), the longer the Star Trails will be.
Stars don’t turn around planet Earth.
It’s the Earth rotation around its axis what causes the Star Trails.
What’s the rotation speed?
The Earth rotates once every 23 hours, 56 minutes and 4 seconds around the imaginary line (or axis) that connects the North Pole with the South Pole.
Thus, the North and South poles are the points (in the Northern and Southern Hemisphere) where the Earth’s axis of rotation meets the Earth’s surface.
Celestial sphere, celestial poles, celestial equator and circumpolar stars (2)
As you’ll learn in the next section, being able to locate the north celestial pole (Northern Hemisphere), the south celestial pole (Southern Hemisphere) and the celestial equator is key in Star Trails photography.
Because it gives you the power to decide where to aim your camera to get the Star Trails pattern you want in your photos.
Therefore, it’s essential you understand what they are, how to find them in the sky and how you can take advantage of them as a compositional tool in your Star Trails images.
Of course, if you’re not an astronomy master, you can always use the PhotoPills Night Augmented Reality view to easily locate all these astronomical elements in the sky (watch the video in section 5). This simplifies all the planning work a lot.
In astronomy, the celestial sphere is defined as an imaginary sphere concentric with the Earth. It’s what astronomers use to plot or project stars, planets and other objects in the sky.
It helps you understand and visualize the celestial poles and the celestial equator.
North celestial pole
As seen from the Northern Hemisphere, it’s the imaginary point in the sky where the Earth’s axis of rotation intersects the celestial sphere.
The north celestial pole is so close to the Polaris (north star) that, in practice, you can locate it by finding the Polaris.
Trace a line from Merak to Dubhe (the two pointers in the Big Dipper), and continue it towards the Little Dipper. The Polaris is the last star of Ursa Minor (the Little Bear o Little Dipper).
It remains static while the Earth rotates.
So include it in your frame and you’ll capture a circumpolar Star Trails pattern (stars turning around it).
South celestial pole
As seen from the Southern Hemisphere, it’s the imaginary point in the sky where the Earth’s axis of rotation intersects the celestial sphere.
In the Southern Hemisphere, there is no Polaris to help you locate the position of the south celestial pole.
So if you don’t want to use PhotoPills to find it, another way to do it is by using the Gacrux and Acrux stars (located in the Southern Cross or Crux constellation) and the two Southern Pointers (Alpha Centauri and Beta Centauri).
Trace an imaginary line from Gacrux to Acrux. Then, a second line constructed perpendicularly between Alpha Centauri and Beta Centauri. Their crossing point marks the south celestial pole.
The south celestial pole also remains static while the Earth rotates.
Therefore, if you live in the Southern Hemisphere, you can include it in your frame to capture a circumpolar Star Trails pattern.
It’s the circumference that results from the intersection between the celestial sphere and the plane that contains the Earth’s Equator. It forms 90º with both the north and south celestial poles.
Simply aim your camera towards the east or the west to capture it. You’ll see that stars “move” in three different directions.
Along the celestial equator, Stars Trails form a very straight line. While, on both sides of it, stars appear to curve away towards the north and south celestial poles.
A circumpolar star is a star that never sets or never disappears below the horizon.
When you capture these stars in a Star Trails image, they seem to draw a circle around the Polaris (Northern Hemisphere) and the south celestial pole (Southern Hemisphere).
Like the circumpolar stars, there are constellations that never set. Here are a few examples:
Now you have all the astronomical knowledge required in Star Trails photography. It’s time to take advantage of it.
Let’s put it into practice 🙂
Tell me where you’re aiming and I’ll tell you the Star Trails pattern you’ll get (3)
This is the key compositional tool in Star Trails photography:
“Depending on the direction you aim your camera, you’ll get a different Star Trails pattern.”
In other words, given a location and a subject, you can choose the shooting spot and shooting direction based on the Star Trails shape you need to tell the story you want.
In the Northern Hemisphere stars appear to move counter-clockwise.
Depending on the direction you’re aiming your camera, you’ll get all these different Star Trails patterns.
Include the Polaris to create a circumpolar Star Trails.
Aim east or west to include the celestial equator and capture stars moving in three different directions.
Aim south and the Star Trails will arch above your subject.
On the contrary, in the Southern Hemisphere stars appear to move clockwise.
So you’ll have the following patterns.
Include the south celestial pole to create a circumpolar Star Trails.
Aim east or west to include the celestial equator and capture stars moving in three different directions.
Aim north and the Star Trails will arch above your subject.
From Equatorial latitudes, the north and south celestial poles seem to be very close to the horizon.
So, if you live on the Earth’s equator, you can create stunning images capturing half of the circles described by the stars.
Also, the celestial equator appears as a vertical line, creating a striking effect.
The PhotoPills shortcut
The Night Augmented Reality view is one of my favorite tools of PhotoPills.
You’re probably wondering why…
Well, for a given shooting spot and shooting direction, it allows me to perfectly visualize the Star Trails pattern I’ll get relative to my subject.
This way, you can easily choose the shooting spot and shooting direction for the composition you like the most. All you have to do is go where your subject is, take your smartphone, point it at the sky and use PhotoPills to plan the shot.
And if you’re at home, comfortably sitting on your couch, you can set a different location (let’s say Hawaii) and see the Star Trails options you’ll have. So, as you reach a more advanced level, you can plan your shots before actually being in the location.
In section 5 you’ll learn how you can use PhotoPills to easily plan your Star Trails ideas, no matter where you are on Earth!
The Star Trails length (4)
What’s the right Star Trails length?
My suggestion is to go for long Star Trails.
When I shoot the stars, I follow two different approaches:
When shooting the Milky Way, I like to capture stars as big bright spots, no trails at all. So, I calculate the longest shutter speed (or maximum exposure time) that allows me to prevent the stars from trailing in my images. In this case, I always shoot one single exposure. You’ll find how to calculate this shutter speed in our Milky Way guide.
When shooting Star Trails, I like to capture long Star Trails by shooting multiple exposures and stacking them in post-processing. Total exposure times from 2 to 5 hours are great. The longer the better because you’ll have the ability to decide the Star Trails length you need in the final image by stacking more or less photos.
This is just my personal approach. I don’t really like Star Trails images with short trails (a total exposure of just a few minutes) unless it’s the only option I have.
“In this case… When am I forced to capture short Star Trails?”
It happens when you’re shooting one single long exposure (one single shot of several minutes or hours) while the Moon is present or when you’re under light pollution conditions.
In this case, if you want to get an image correctly exposed (in one single shot), you won’t be able to use a very slow shutter speed (or long exposure time). If you do so, you’ll get an overexposed image.
This exposure time limitation is the reason you’ll only be able to capture short Star Trails.
The good news is that you can easily overcome this limitation by shooting multiple shorter exposures and stacking them in post-processing.
“But Toni, how can I control the length of Star Trails?”
Well, it’s all about controlling two variables:
The stars’ distance to the celestial equator, and
The total exposure time, which the most important one.
The stars distance from the celestial equator
Since the Earth rotates around its axis, for a given exposure time, stars that are closer to the celestial poles will produce shorter trails. For example, the Polaris, which is very close to the north celestial pole, seems not moving at all.
On the contrary, stars that are closer to the celestial equator will produce longer trails. The longest ones are the trails produced by the stars on the celestial equator.
Therefore, depending on the area of the sky you’re capturing in your frame, the trails will be longer or shorter.
This explains why, when shooting the Milky Way (i.e. you don’t want trails), you can go for longer exposure times if you include in the frame the stars that are closer to the celestial poles. Because these stars require more time to leave a trail.
On the contrary, including stars that are on the celestial equator will force you to use shorter exposure times to capture stars as big bright spots (i.e. no trails). Because the stars on the celestial equator are the fastest ones.
In practice, I use a rule that’s called the NPF rule to calculate the right exposure time in my Milky Way shots.
Total exposure time
Elementary, my dear Watson!
As you see in the animated image above, the longer the total exposure time, the longer the trails.
I’m using the concept of total exposure time because, as you’ll see in next section, you can create Star Trails images by shooting a single long exposure or by stacking several short exposures in post-processing (image stacking).
In this second case, the total exposure time results from the addition of the exposure time of each photo.
There is no much more to say here. If you want long Star Trails, go for longer total exposure times.
Simulate the look of Star Trails
If you want to know, for a given exposure time, how a circumpolar image will look like, you can take advantage of the PhotoPills Star Trails calculator.
Let’s have a look at an example.
What’s the difference between a 1-hour exposure time circumpolar image compared to a 2-hour one?
Have a look at the two screenshots. The first one is showing you a Star Trails simulation for a 1-hour exposure time. And the second one for a 2-hour exposure time.
This way you can easily visualize the result you’ll get.
You can compare the screenshots with the following two Star Trails images.
Find out the total exposure time of an existing Star Trails image
The PhotoPills Star Trails calculator is also very useful when you wish to estimate the total exposure time of an existing circumpolar image.
Let’s imagine you find a really nice circumpolar image on our Instagram account (follow us!) and you would like to figure out the total exposure time used.
Well, all you have to do is to use Photoshop to measure the rotation angle of one star around the Polaris or the south celestial pole.
Then, type this angle in the Star Trails calculator to get the total exposure time.
To sum up, and as I said, the longer the trails the better!
In my opinion, longer trails produce more hypnotic images. So get ready to spend the whole night under the stars.
“So Toni, when should I shoot shorter Star Trails?”
The only situation is if you’re shooting one long exposure under light pollution or Moonlight conditions. In this case, you’re forced to use a shorter exposure time to get a photo well exposed.
When shooting multiple exposures to stack them afterwards, you don’t have this limitation.
And all this finally leads us to one of the greatest dilemmas in Star Trails photography:
“What should I shoot, a single long exposure or multiple short exposures (image stacking)?”
Single long exposure vs multiples exposures (5)
My goal with this guide is to help you learn how to shoot both single and multiple exposures Star Trails, no matter the equipment you have.
But, I must admit that I prefer shooting multiple exposures and stacking them using a special software.
These are, in my opinion, the pros of shooting multiple exposures (image stacking).
Almost any camera will do the job
Since you’re shooting multiple short exposures, you have a better control of the sensor heat. So, your images end up with less noise. This allows you to shoot longer Star Trails with almost any camera.
On the contrary, your image surely has a lot of noise when shooting one very long exposure with a low-end or mid-range camera.
Both the smaller sensor and the lower quality produce much more noise in the final image.
The workaround here is to limit the total exposure time. But, if you do so, you get shorter Star Trails too.
It’s far less risky
When shooting a single exposure Star Trails, the big challenge is actually getting the shot.
So many things can go wrong that when you nail it, you should definitely celebrate!
On one hand, these are just a few things that can ruin the photo:
Unexpected things happen! Clouds in the sky, something entering your frame like a bird or a plane… Somebody may accidentally lit the foreground (overexposing it) or an artificial light source may end up in the frame (torch, car lights, etc.).
There is no easy way to clone out the trails created by planes or satellites.
Running out of battery before the exposure ends is a major concern. No battery means no image.
Image noise problems due to sensor heat.
Very long exposures may produce images that look like as if they were taken during daylight. And if you’re doing night photography, you want to show people the beauty of the night, don’t you?
You don’t have that much control over how the foreground is lit.
Light pollution can easily ruin your photo or force you to shoot a shorter exposure.
On the other hand, when shooting multiple exposures, you have more control over all these problems.
Unexpected things don’t ruin the image because you can easily remove the ruined frames (planes, satellites, artificial light sources, tripod vibrations, etc.).
You can very easily clone out the trails created by planes or satellites. Actually, you can just remove the frames that contain these undesired trails.
If you run out of battery, at least you go home with all the captured images. No empty hands!
Shorter exposures mean less sensor heat and, thus, less noise in the image.
You can create great Star Trails images with almost any camera. Using a basic camera is not a limitation.
It allows you to give the shot the adequate night flavor.
You have total control of how the foreground is lit. As a rule of thumb, use the first image you take and the last one to make sure the foreground is properly lit.
You can control light pollution to a higher extent.
It’s far much productive
If you’re shooting a single long exposure, at the end of the shooting, you’ll only have one image. Period.
Shooting multiple exposures allows you to capture multiple images that can be used separately or together to create other stunning effects like timelapse videos.
Furthermore, as you’ll be stacking the number of photos you want, you can decide in post-processing the length of the Star Trails you want.
A great example of a high productive night is when you’re shooting Meteor Showers.
After spending the whole night in the cold, don’t you want to have more than one image?
You want as many great images as possible.
For example, shooting multiple exposures during the Geminids Meteor Shower allowed me to produce a great number of images and videos.
First, I got a great number of photos that could be used alone. Imagine that you capture a nice Meteor Shower and you want to share the image separately. You wouldn’t be able to do it if you shoot a single exposure.
By stacking all the photos in one, I managed to create a beautiful Star Trails image.
And why not creating a timelapse video to show the world the beauty of the whole Meteor Shower?
But that’s not it.
We were so lucky that night, that we could even reproduce a brutal meteor explosion!
And we’re not done yet!
There are two additional and amazing outputs that you can get in post-processing.
The first one has a lot to do with the radiant of the Meteor Shower.
Let me explain it.
During a Meteor Shower, all meteors radiate from one single spot in the sky. This spot is called the radiant.
Knowing that, you can use a special post-processing technique to put together the following image. Notice that all the meteors appear to converge from one single spot (the radiant).
You can learn how to create this stunning effect by using the technique described in the Perseids Meteor Shower Photography Masterclass with Ian Norman.
Finally, you can also produce a timelapse showing how Star Trails grow as Earth rotates. I show you how to do it in section 11 😉
The Moon is not a problem
The presence of the Moon is a problem when shooting a single exposure Star Trails. The Moonlight will probably over lit the foreground, getting an overexposed image.
This puts a limit to the exposure time producing shorter Star Trails in the image. And, thus, what I believe will be a less powerful image.
With multiple exposures the Moon is not a problem. All you have to do is to take into account the Moonlight when exposing.
If you want to have Moonlight in the scene to lit the foreground, plan it well.
Check the PhotoPills Moon pill and pick a night when the Moon phase is between 30-50%. Or even Full Moon if you dare!
Moonlight will be great when the Moon has an elevation between 5º to 20º. The lower the Moon, the better because you’ll get longer and more dramatic shadows on the foreground.
Moreover, it’s important to plan for a Moon that is perpendicular to the shooting direction. In other words, you should look for some kind of side lighting. This way, the foreground will have more texture and volume.
And, if you’re up for a challenge, you could even include the Moon in the frame to create a stunning Moon trail.
The color of the stars (6)
I’ll be thrilled if, after reading this guide, you’re capable of capturing the real color of the stars in your Star Trails. It would mean that you’ve reached the next level.
Your Star Trails images will look much more dramatic and hypnotic. And this, my friend, is one of my main goals with this guide.
Yes, stars are not only white!
Although, stars seem to be white at first glance, the truth is that they cover a large range of colors: white, red, gold, blue…
The color depends on the surface temperature of each star.
Let’s see a few well known examples:
Blue: Bellatrix, Sirius, Vega, Rigel, Achernar, Hadar, Altair, Acrux, Spica, Deneb, Regulus, Castor, Shaula, Miaplacidus, Alnilam.
Yellow: Canopus, Alpha Centauri, Capella, Procyon.
Red: Antares, Betelgeuse, Gamma Crucis.
Orange: Arcturus, Aldebaran.
How to capture the color of the stars in your Star Trails
Capturing the color of the stars is not that difficult. Everybody can do it.
All you have to do is to follow these simple recommendations:
Use the image stacking technique. It’s much easier, and allows you to capture longer Star Trails. You get more control over the final result. If you want to capture the color of the stars using one single long exposure, you’ll need to use a shorter exposure time. Otherwise, stars will be absolutely white in the photo. This will force you to capture only short trails, which is not cool at all!
The darker the sky the better. Avoid shooting under Moonlight and light pollution. Any extra light that bounces in the atmosphere will be captured by the camera sensor. This faints the stars and overexposes them so it’s more difficult to capture their original color. They will tend to appear white in your final image. Any extra light washes out the color of the stars.
ISO is the key variable here. Try to keep your ISO under 1600. Using higher ISOs will tend to overexpose the stars, washing out their color. And you’ll end up with white stars only. According to my experience, depending on the ISO values you can get the following results:
200-400 ISO: You’ll capture the beautiful color of the stars, but your camera sensor will capture less stars.
800-1600 ISO: You’ll still capture some color in the stars and also more stars.
Above 1600 ISO: It allows you to capture many stars but no color at all.
Light pollution: You should keep the ISO as low as possible (200-400). Otherwise, the extra light will wash out the color of the stars.
Dark skies: It’s a balance between capturing the color of the stars and the number of stars. You can use ISO values between 800-1600, and adjust at your will.Stop down the maximum aperture of your lens by one full stop if you have a fast lens (like a f/2.8). This improves the image quality. For example: f/2.8 -> f/4.The shutter speed (or exposure time) is the result of the combination of ISO and aperture thanks to the exposure triangle. Finding the right value is a matter of testing. Typical shutter speeds go from 30s to several minutes.Saturate a little bit the colors in post-production to enhance the color of the stars.Since you are shooting in RAW, you can always adjust the white balance in post-processing. But when I’m shooting, I usually use these values and adjust from there accordingly:
Dark skies: 3900K
Light pollution: 3400K
The color of the stars help you with your post-processing
If your want is to keep the true color of the scene (foreground, stars, etc.), knowing the color of the stars is a huge advantage when post-processing your images.
For example, when you’re editing a Milky Way picture, if Antares is white instead of its red natural color, you’re doing something wrong. You’re not getting the natural look of the Milky Way.
Tweak your post-processing settings to give Antares its red hue. This will result into a more realistic image 🙂
However, when you’re shooting the Milky Way and there is light pollution in the scene, it will be almost impossible to give Antares its red color. In this case, try at least to give it a touch of its red hue.
I use this trick everytime I edit the Milky Way and I recommend you to do the same. But, photography is a form of art, so there is nothing wrong in showing your creativity and adjust the white balance at your will.
In this section, you’ve learnt the key astronomy elements (celestial poles and celestial equator), how to find them and all the possible Star Trail patterns you can capture.
Now you have the power to choose the right shooting spot and shooting direction that give you the Star Trails pattern you need to tell the story you want.
But Star Trails provide only half of the action captured in the image. The other half is happening in the foreground.
In conclusion, you need to combine a fantastic Star Trails pattern with a powerful location… An award-winning one!
4. The foreground makes the difference, go to an award-winning location
Sure, you can always aim your camera at the sky and capture the stars trailing.
But, images that only show the trails of the stars look all the same. They are pretty boring images. And you want the opposite.
You want to create stunning images!
It’s the foreground that makes the difference. Include a powerful foreground and you’ll go from boring people to win hearts and minds. It’s that simple!
And how do you find a great foreground?
First, you must find an award-winning location.
Let me give you the key ingredients you need.
No light pollution
Even though you can take Star Trails images under light pollution, it’s not ideal to capture a great number of stars and their natural color.
Light pollution works against your interests. The extra artificial light from the cities washes out the color of the stars and also reduce their number. And you don’t want that.
You want to capture the natural color of the stars and a great number of them!
So, take your car (or a plane) and escape from the city. Go to a location where it’s pitch black.
The darker the sky the better.
Do you want to know where the dark skies are?
There are many online sources to help you find a nearby light pollution free location. These are just a few I like:
NASA’s Blue Marble: The site uses a Google Maps interface with NASA’s most recent Night Lights image. You can browse the maximum resolution of 4 pixels per km², as well as a slightly coarser night-lights map, enhanced by town names and national borders.
The World At Night (TWAN): It has one of the largest collections of global categorized astronomic landscape images sorted by regions.
International Dark Sky locations: I love these guys’ movement. The International Dark Sky Association promotes the preservation and protection of night skies across the globe for future generations. You’ll find 5 types of designations in their database: communities, parks, reserves, sanctuaries, and urban places. These areas are home to some of the darkest and most pristine skies in the world.
Wikipedia Observatories list: Observatories are located in completely dark skies. It’s a good idea to check where they are to find black crystal skies.
Look for Local Astronomy Clubs: There are amateur astronomers everywhere. Make sure you ask them for suggestions. Most of them enjoy sharing their love for astronomy and would be happy to point you in the right direction.
Dark Sky Finder (iOS) and Light Pollution Map (Android): Both apps help you locate nearby dark skies to take a telescope, watch Meteor Showers, or simply relax under the stars. See light pollution maps of the entire world, along with dots that indicate good observing locations.
If you’re surrounded by light pollution or can’t go far enough, point your camera away from the city lights as much as possible. Do not include light sources in the frame.
Put your creativity at work! Sometimes you can take advantage of light pollution as a compositional tool. If you have it, use it at your convenience!
Shooting multiple exposures will help you get under control the negative effects of light pollution.
Work during the day to succeed at the night
After a few minutes studying the NASA’s Blue Marble light pollution map… Hooray! You find your dark sky.
And yeah, it is a good one!
So you don’t think it twice. You get in the car and drive for a couple of hours while the Sun is setting.
Finally, you’re there, in the field, under a pitch black sky. And you’re about to shoot a great Star Trails.
You realize it’s very dark! Too dark, actually!!
How are you going to find a powerful foreground now? No clue!
I learnt this lesson a few years ago:
“If you want to succeed at the night, you must work during the day.”
And I’m not talking about flirting.
Well, maybe I do… 😛
No, just kidding!
What I mean is that you should visit the location during daytime.
When the Sun is up and the light is harsh, do your scouting work. Find your foregrounds and your main subjects. Come up with ideas and plan every detail.
Use the PhotoPills Night Augmented Reality view to locate the Polaris (Northern Hemisphere), the south celestial pole (Southern Hemisphere) and the celestial equator. Find the shooting spot and shooting direction that gives you the Star Trails pattern you want.
I even recommend you to take your camera out and try different framings until you get what you want.
Then, come back at night. Set the tripod at the planned spot, aim the camera to the planned direction, and start shooting a truly hypnotic Star Trails.
You don’t have to create a gazillion Star Trails images. You only need to make one: the good one.
Therefore, spend as much time as necessary imagining and planning. You need to make it really unique.
Believe me, it pays off.
A powerful subject
I’ll repeat it a million times:
“The foreground makes the difference.”
Jokes aside, finding a beautiful foreground that includes a powerful subject will surely rise the interest of the viewer.
So, when scouting a location looking for foregrounds, I’m always looking for interesting subjects. Subjects that inspire me.
Look for lonely subjects that can stand powerful in the foreground.
Great subjects are lighthouses, trees, rocks, natural arches, buildings, abandoned vehicles and windmills… The options are endless!
Including a human figure in the frame has many advantages.
From giving a sense of scale, conveying a sense of movement and showing context, to building a more interesting story…
Sometimes, when your foreground is not great, including a person can save the image. It’s the simplest way to add interest to a boring scene.
Leading lines and triangles
Helping the viewer find his way through the image is a plus!
Use converging lines, curved lines or a simple straight line to lead the viewer to the most important point of the image (the focal point), whether it is your subject, the Polaris (or south celestial pole) or the celestial equator.
Where can you find lines?
Use a road, a fence, a wall or even the alignment of several rocks.
Using triangles is another great way to improve your images. When you’re in the field, pay attention to rocks, trees, and other structures that alone or combined have a form of a triangle.
If you include a triangle that points up, you’ll convey a sense of stability to the viewer. And when the triangle points down, you’ll convey the opposite: a lack of balance.
As always, it’s a matter of choice. It all depends on the message you want to get across.
Use all the elements you find to your advantage.
There are places that have a magic atmosphere. You feel it as soon as you step out of the car. The air feels simply different…
You don’t know why, but something is pushing your imagination to fly!
I’m talking about places like cemeteries, battlefields, ghost towns, volcanos, craters, deserts, and old buildings.
All of them will surely challenge your creative mind.
Check different sources of information
When doing your research, don’t forget to
Find inspiration looking at photos: Instagram, Flickr, 500px, Unsplash, Getty Images, 1x.com , Viewbug, Pexels, Youpic, Shutterstock, Adobe Stock and Google Images.
Learn from what other photographers have found and shared on Locationscout and on ShotHotspot.
Have a look at travel magazines (National Geographic, Condé Nast Traveler and Travel + Leisure), travel curated content (Exposure, Maptia and Landscape Stories), travel guides (Lonely Planet) and the photography section of newspapers such as The Atlantic, The Guardian and The New York Times.
Explore the websites of other photographers (such as the PhotoPills Masters participating in the PhotoPills Camp).
Look into Wikipedia and the lists of interesting places. For example, if you’re looking for lighthouses, you can type on Google “lighthouse list Wikipedia”.
Ask the elder people in town.
Look into books on local history and natural biodiversity.
Visit your town’s City Hall, particularly the Culture and Tourism areas. People working in these areas will know where to find unique points of interest.
Check the Points of interest (POIs) included in PhotoPills.
What are you waiting for?
Go and find an unexplored location!
Time to plan
You’re one step closer to your goal.
Now that you’ve found a great location with a very nice foreground, ideas start to flow in your head.
It’s time to plan!
5. How to plan your Star Trails photo ideas for success
“If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail!” – Benjamin Franklin
You probably know that our battle cry is:
It perfectly describes the PhotoPillers philosophy and workflow.
No matter whether you’re planning some Star Trails, the Milky Way, the Moon, Meteor Showers, the Sun, lunar eclipses or simply the natural light:
“Imagination comes first, shooting goes last and planning is what makes everything possible.”
The plan is the bridge between the kingdom of dreams (the land of Oz) and planet Earth, your reality.
Luckily, planning a Star Trails shot is very easy. I’ll prove it to you in a second.
Where, when and at what time
I’ll go straight to the point:
Where: As I mentioned in section 4, find a powerful location with dark skies. And if you have light pollution, take advantage of it when composing the shot.
When: Pick a nice clear sky preferably with no Moon. Check the weather forecast to avoid clouds. Cold nights are best since you get crispy stars and it takes more time to the thermal noise (caused by sensor heat) to appear in the photos. Finally, you could choose a night when a natural phenomenon is happening, like Meteor Showers.
Time of the day: Wait until the astronomical twilight ends. It’s when there is no residual light from the Sun and the sky is completely dark.
If you’re a beginner, I’d still recommend to start planning your Star Trail shots with no Moon. And once you nail your shots, go one step further and try to include Moonlight in the foreground, or even the Moon in the frame (Moon trail).
As I mentioned in section 3, if there is Moon, it’s much easier to get great results by using the image stacking technique. Shooting multiple shorter exposures gives you the absolute control over light and, thus, exposure.
The best way to plan the Moon is by using the PhotoPills Moon pill or the Planner.
I prefer using the Planner because it shows me all the information I need in one single screen: Moon phase, Moon elevation and Moon direction (on a map).
Plan for a Moon which:
Phase is between 30-50% (if you plan to stack your pictures) and up to 30% (if you plan to take one shot).
Elevation is between 5º to 20º.
Direction is perpendicular to the shooting direction, so you get some side lighting.
Drafting before planning
Imagine you’ve already decided the location you want to go and a few good ideas start coming to your mind…
Why not drawing a draft to see things crystal clear?
This is my personal choice, along with the rest of the PhotoPills team. We love putting all our ideas on paper in the first place, before start planning.
Let’s take the example of the Star Trails we shot during the Geminids Meteor Shower. In this case, our powerful location was the beautiful beach of Cala Pregonda, in Menorca (Spain). A truly unique place.
How did we plan the shot?
It all began with Germán (the Developer) drawing a beautiful draft of the idea.
Drawing a draft will help you ask the right questions, so you can use PhotoPills to figure out the right answers.
When is the next Meteor Shower? Check the Meteor Showers guide.
Where will the Polaris be? Use the Night Augmented Reality view.
Where will the celestial equator be? Use the Night Augmented Reality view.
Will I have Moonlight in the scene? Use the Night Augmented Reality view or the Planner.
What’s the best shooting spot? Use the Night Augmented Reality view or the Planner.
Will I have light pollution? Can I take advantage of it? Check NASA’s Blue Marble light pollution map.
At what time should I start shooting? Wait until the astronomical twilight ends. Use the Planner or the Moon pill.
Plan smarter, not harder!
In the following video you’ll learn how to use PhotoPills to quickly plan any Star Trails photo you imagine, no matter where you are in the world.
Do you want more videos?
Check our YouTube channel for more cool planning examples and videos on how to master PhotoPills!
You’ll find everything you need in the video above.
But, if you need further explanations, here is a brief description of the exact workflow I followed to plan the Geminids Star Trails image.
Go to the location
If you’re getting started in Star Trails photography, I strongly recommend you to plan your shots in the field, in situ.
Simply go to the location, choose your shooting spot and use PhotoPills. Both the Planner and the Night Augmented Reality view help you to easily visualize all the possible compositions and Star Trails patterns you have.
If you don’t like what you see, change the shooting spot and repeat the process. Simply iterate until you find what you want.
Slowly, as you shoot more and more Star Trails, you’ll gain the skills to plan your images from home. But for now, the best thing you can do is to plan your shots out there, in the field.
Let’s start the planning!
Place the Red Pin on the shooting spot
Once you are at the location, place yourself on the initial shooting spot.
Open PhotoPills and tap on Planner (Pills menu).
Then, place the Red Pin right where you are.
The easiest way to do it is to tap on the (+) button you see on the map. And then, tap on the GPS button (the first button on the left-hand side). The Red Pin will automatically relocate to where you are.
Great, the first step is completed.
Now, let’s have a look at the second step. Let’s set the date!
Set the date and time and check the Moon
Once you’ve placed the Red Pin right where you are (i.e. in the shooting spot), you need to set the date when you will shoot the Star Trails.
When is the best time to shoot Star Trails?
You can shoot Star Trails everyday at night if you want. It all depends on your goal:
Check the PhotoPills Moon calendar (phase, rise and set times) to pick the right night. Sometimes you’ll want a New Moon (or when the Moon has already set), and other times you’ll want a certain Moonphase.
Weekends work better (at least for us!) because Star Trails require spending the whole night out shooting.
Cold nights are great because the air tends to be a little bit drier and clearer. This causes less diffraction of the incoming light. Basically you’ll be able to see the stars much sharper. Also, at lower temperatures, it takes more time for the thermal noise (caaused by sensor heat) to show up in the photos.
When a Meteor Shower is peaking.
Wait until the astronomical twilight ends. It’s when the sky is completely dark.
Going back to the example, let’s plan a Star Trails shot during the Geminids Meteor Shower.
Check our Meteor Showers guide to find when the Geminids’ peak is happening. This is the night of maximum intensity, when it is possible to capture lots of meteors.
In 2015, the peak of the Geminids happened during the night between December 13 and 14th. So, set the date to December 14 and the time at 12:00 am. We spent 5 hours capturing Meteors and Star Trails.
Have a look at the first screenshot below.
Panel 4 is telling you that the Moon rose at 10:07 am, so there was no Moon to worry about during the night. Besides, the picture of the Moon you see on the same panel indicates that the Moon was very thin.
In addition to this, and as a curiosity, Panel 3 is giving you the exact Moon phase percentage: 7.1%.
You’re on the shooting spot and the date have been set on the Planner. Now set the time to the end of the astronomical twilight.
Do you want no Moon (perfect dark skies)? Shoot around New Moon or wait until the Moon has set. If there is no Moonlight, get ready to lit the foreground using artificial light sources (a torch, LED panels…).
If you want to use the Moonlight to naturally lit the foreground, shoot around the first and last quarters when shooting multiple short exposures (Moon phase between 30% and 50%). And use a Moon phase up to 30% when shooting a single long exposure Star Trails.
A Full Moon will probably wash out many stars and lit too much the foreground.
There are many possibilities. You only have to make sure you take into account the Moon when planning the shot and when choosing the camera settings.
Use the Night AR view to find the Polaris, the celestial equator and the possible Star Trails pattern
The power of the PhotoPills Night Augmented Reality (AR) view dwells in the capacity of visualizing exactly what Star Trails pattern you’ll get depending on the shooting spot and shooting direction… So you know where to frame!
Drag your finger from right to left on the Night AR view to move time forwards. This allows you to see where the Moon and the Milky Way will be during the shooting.
Drag your finger from left to right and you’ll move time backwards.
By using the Night AR view you’ll be able to readjust the shooting spot according to your needs. It’s as simple as checking whether the Star Trails pattern you get is the one you want. If it’s not the case, simply change the shooting spot 😉
Again, if you need help with the Night AR view, please watch the video at the beginning of this section. You’ll learn how to properly take advantage of the Night Augmented Reality view to plan your Star Trails shots.
Below are two screenshots of PhotoPills Night AR view I took in Cala Pregonda.
The first one shows where the Polaris is. And the second one, where the celestial equator is (thick blue diagonal). The thin blue curves you see show the Star Trails pattern I’ll get in each direction.
To sum up, put the Polaris (or the south celestial pole) in the frame and you’ll get stars describing beautiful circumferences.
Put the celestial equator and you’ll get stars moving in three different directions.
Put both of them in the frame and you’ll get a hypnotic image.
This is exactly how we planned the shot.
We used the PhotoPills Night AR view to find a shooting spot from where both the Polaris and the celestial equator would be in the frame.
Creating this image, the scene we imagined, was a priceless experience for us.
6. The best equipment for Star Trails photography (beginner, advanced and pro)
Believe it or not, you can create beautiful Star Trails images with “almost” any camera and lens.
I said “almost” because there are a few ideal requirements like the camera bulb mode and an acceptable noise performance (thermal and ISO) or that the lens includes short focal lengths (wide angle lens).
“Really? Any camera?”
Well, this is particularly true when you’re shooting short multiple exposures for one hour or two (image stacking).
Due to sensor heat, basic cameras tend to produce noise much earlier than professional cameras.
“Yes, that’s great info Toni. But what equipment should I buy to create nice Star Trails images?”
In my opinion, you should get the best equipment for night photography you can afford, even if it’s used (second hand). Because, at the end of the day, it’s a way to save money.
Buy a basic equipment and sooner or later you’ll find yourself spending more money on a better one. I know it because I’ve been there too. And I’ve seen this in every workshop I run.
A basic equipment will surely limit your creative potential, and this is pretty annoying.
Why night photography and not only Star Trails?
Because when we’re talking about Star Trails, we’re talking about night photography. And I bet you also want to photograph the Milky Way, right?
The truth is that you need a better camera and a better lens to shoot the Milky Way than to shoot Star Trails. Therefore, the Milky Way should rule your equipment choice.
In our guide to Milky Way photography, I extensively discuss the pros and cons of the basic, advanced and professional equipment to capture the Milky Way. I recommend you to have a look at section 8 of that guide. There, you’ll find what to buy and not to buy depending on your goals and your budget 😉
Let’s see what you need.
These are the key features I believe a good camera (either DSLR or mirrorless) for night photography should have:
Full manual exposure controls of aperture, shutter speed, ISO and focus.
A Full Frame sensor is better, because its noise performance is much better than in APS-C cameras. This allows you to use higher ISO values, collect more light and, thus, capture more stars. For a given number of megapixels, Full Frame cameras generally produce less noise in the image than APS-C cameras.
Good noise performance when cranking up the ISO to 3200 or higher.
Full manual control of the white balance.
Most of the settings (ISO, white balance, etc.) are directly accessible through external buttons, without having to dig into the camera menu.
Shoots in RAW.
A perfectly sealed camera body with optimal construction to withstand the effects of wind, water, rain, humidity, sand, dust, etc.
Good heat dissipation system to prevent the sensor to heat up and, thus, avoid thermal noise in the picture. Besides the noise, if the sensor temperature is too high, the sensor might start vignetting with a magenta color.
A built-in intervalometer. It comes very handy when you forget to bring the external intervalometer or when it runs out of battery.
The option to use non-CPU lenses.
Not all the cameras on the market fulfill all these requirements. Obviously, the more expensive are the best ones. But you can still get a great camera to achieve acceptable Star Trails and Milky Way images at an affordable price.
These are my recommendations depending on your budget.
Cameras with an APS-C sensor: Nikon D3500 and D5600; Canon 2000D, 4000D and M50; Fuji XT-20; Pentax K-70 and Sony a6400.
Cameras with a Micro 4/3 sensor: Olympus E-PL10; Panasonic G95.
Compact camera (1″ sensor): Sony RX100 VII.
These cameras allow full manual exposure and manual white balance (or, at least, choosing a white balance preset).
All of them will allow you to shoot multiple short exposures for one hour or two, even at ISO 1600. If you go beyond two hours, the sensor heat will produce noise in your images.
Unfortunately, basic DSLR and mirrorless cameras don’t allow you to use ISOs of 3200 and higher without producing noise.
Since they are basic cameras with relatively small sensors, keep an eye to noise when shooting a single long exposure. Even if you use the noise reduction function in your camera, you’ll probably capture to much noise. This will limit the exposure time and, thus, your Star Trails length.
These cameras give acceptable quality at a reasonable price when shooting both the Milky Way and the Star Trails. Their noise performance at ISOs of 3200 and above is great.
Cameras with an APS-C sensor: Nikon Z50, Zfc and D7500; Canon M6 Mark II, 850D and 90D ; Fuji X-S10 and X-T30 II; Pentax KP and Sony a6600.
Cameras with a Micro 4/3 sensor: Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark III and OM-D E-M1 Mark III; Panasonic GX9.
Full Frame cameras: Nikon Z5 and D750; Canon RP; Sony a7C, a7 II, a7S II and a7R II.
Olympus cameras include a cool feature that makes your life easier when shooting Star Trails: the Live Composite feature. With this feature, you can create your Star Trails images directly in camera, without having to use any other sofware.
So, all you have to do is to Imagine, Plan and Shoot… nothing else!
On the higher price range (and higher quality), I recommend you these cameras.
Cameras with an APS-C sensor: Nikon D500; Fuji XH-1, XT-4 and X-Pro3.
Cameras with a Micro 4/3 sensor: Olympus OM-D E-M1X.
Full Frame cameras: Nikon Z6, Z7, Z6 II, Z7 II, Z9, D780, D850, D5 and D6; Canon R, R6, 6D Mark II, 5D Mark IV and 1D X Mark III; Panasonic S5, S1R and S1H; Pentax K-1 Mark II; Sony a7 III, a7 IV, a7S III, a7R III, a7R IV, a9, a9 II and a1.
All are great cameras for night photographers. Their performance at ISO 6400 and higher is just stunning.
Camera vs single exposure
The rule here is very simple, the better the camera the longer the single exposures can be. And thus, the longer the Star Trails you’ll capture.
Low-end cameras (with smaller sensors) suffer a lot from noise due to sensor heat.
On the contrary, Full Frame cameras have larger sensors and thus larger photosites (pixels). Larger photosites can collect more light per unit of time, so the camera doesn’t have to amplify the signal that much. This reduces noise, achieving a greater dynamic range and minimizing heat in the sensor at the same time.
So, if your camera suffers a lot when shooting a single long exposure Star Trails, start shooting shorter exposures and stack them afterwards in post-processing.
Get a wide angle lens. Or even a fisheye lens!
The typical focal lengths go from 10mm to 35mm depending on how much landscape and sky you want to include in the frame. The shorter the focal length the more sky and landscape you’ll capture and the more spectacular the image will be.
If you want to use longer focal lengths (70-200mm) to tell a different story, there is nothing wrong with it. Star Trails can be shot with any focal length you wish. It’s all about composition.
You can get awesome images using longer focal lengths too.
Also, you need the lens to have a range of wide apertures (f/2.8 to f/5.6). This is essential to bring as much light as possible into the system and capture the maximum number of stars, and the brightest as possible.
If you only have a basic 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 lens, my advice is to invest in a better one.
The lens makes the image, the camera records it. Your lens is a crucial part of your equipment, and you should definitely invest in quality lenses.
These basic lenses work pretty well for daylight shots at an aperture of f/8. But you’ll get poor results at night or in low light conditions. And this is particularly true when photographing the Milky Way.
However, capturing beautiful Star Trails with this type of lens is still possible. Just, set the aperture to f/3.5, use the nominal ISO of your camera (ISO 100 or 200) and shoot longer exposures. Use the exposure time that gives you an image correctly exposed.
If you’re looking for an affordable wide angle lens, I’d recommend the Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 with AE chip and the Irix 15mm f/2.4 Firefly.
For Micro 4/3 cameras all the following lenses are great for night photography:
Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 7-14 mm f/2.8
Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-40mm f/2.8 PRO
Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 12mm f/2.0
For APS-C cameras, I’d like to highlight the following lenses:
Rokinon 12mm f/2 or Samyang 12mm f/2
Rokinon 16mm f/2.0 or Samyang 16mm f/2.0
For Full Frame cameras, these prime lenses are great:
Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 or Samyang 14mm f/2.8
Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 or Samyang 24mm f/1.4
Keep in mind that these lenses also work on APS-C cameras, but you need to take into account the crop factor. For example, for a camera with a crop factor of 1.5x, the Rokinon 14mm would be equivalent to 21mm for a Full Frame camera.
Yes, I know I told you that you can shoot Star Trails with both short and long focal lengths.
But if you’re seriously getting into night photography, you should look for a sharp, fast, wide angle lens with no coma distortion at the edge nor other chromatic aberrations.
One of my favorite lenses due to its quality is the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8. It’s an incredibly sharp lens with very little coma and vignetting.
It’s not only used by Nikon photographers, but also by photographers using other camera brands like Canon. In this case, you need to use a top quality adapter ring like the Novoflex EOS NIK NT.
You also have the iconic Nikon 17-35mm f/2.8, although it suffers from coma, at f/4 it’s a great option for Star Trails.
At a much higher price, you have the Zeiss 15mm f/2.8, which is also very sharp and without coma. But it has an over contrasting glass, and this is a problem at night. The Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 will show details in the blacks where the Zeiss only shows pitch black.
If you’re looking for a very sharp lens, try the Tokina 16-28mm f/2.8.
Similarly, the Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 and the Samyang 14mm f/2.8 give exceptional results. Both lenses have little coma.
On the Canon side, you have the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L III.
Other awesome lenses are:
Tripod and head
You need a sturdy tripod, a tripod that weighs!
Since you’ll be shooting long exposures, you need to keep your camera steady and still to prevent vibrations from blurring your photos.
Do you have a basic tripod?
Basic tripods usually don’t weigh too much, which makes them pretty unstable. So, you’ll probably have problems with blur when shooting long exposures.
However, if you want to prevent vibrations:
Load the tripod with extra weight by hanging a bag filled with stones or even your camera bag from it. But don’t do it when it’s windy, you’ll get the opposite effect!
Don’t raise the center column of the tripod if it has one, it will make it more unstable.
Do you want a great tripod at a reasonable price?
Get the Manfrotto 055XPRO3. It’s probably the best seller tripod among advanced amateur photographers.
Another suggestion that I usually make to the students of my workshops is the Travel line by Benro.
At a higher price scale, you have the carbon fiber tripods.
These tripods are robust and weigh less than the aluminium ones. They allow loads from 5 kg to over 25 kg (11-56 lb) depending on the model.
Brands like Gitzo, Manfrotto, Benro, Induro or Really Right Stuff offer tripods of great quality in both materials, carbon and aluminum.
What about the heads?
The most commonly used heads in night photography are the ball head and the pan/tilt head.
The type of head depends on your taste, but make sure that it can bear at least 5-7 kg (11-16 lb) of weight and that includes a removable plate.
In my opinion, the tripod’s best friend is a good ballhead. The Really Right Stuff BH-55 is the one that I use. Supporting up to 23 kg (50 lb), it bears the weight of my gear with no problem. It allows me to work comfortably and with great precision.
Other ballheads that I like are the Gitzo GH1382QD, the Kirk Enterprises BH-1 and the Arca Swiss Monoball Z1 SP, all robust and with very high endurance (minimum 13.5 kg or 30 lb).
When shooting night photography a LED headlamp is compulsory.
In absence of Moon or with a very thin Moon, you’ll have to use LED flashlights, LED panels or flashes to lit the foreground. Otherwise, you’ll miss most of it and your image will look pretty poor (dark foreground with no detail).
It helps you see what you’re doing in the dark, and also make focus at the hyperfocal distance.
Oh, and make sure you’re not annoying the photographers around you with your headlamp!
Since our eyes take 20 minutes to get used to being in the dark, I recommend you to use a headlamp with included RED Night Vision Light. It’s the best choice to avoid white flash lights that ruin your night vision. A few good ones are: Petzl Tikka XP, the Pelican 2750 and the Pelican 2760.
Other powerful LED headlamps are the Led Lenser SEO5, the H14R or the H7R.2.
LED flashlights are commonly used to add texture and volume to a certain area of the foreground or to a determined subject. It allows you to apply light with precision.
A good idea is to take two flashlights with you (one more powerful than the other):
A powerful flashlight to illuminate subjects over long distances, such as Coast HP7 or Led Lenser M7.
A second less powerful flashlight, such as the Coast TX-10, the Led Lenser L7 or the Maglite Mini to illuminate foreground subjects.
The continuous light provided by LED panels is great to lit a large area of the foreground. I recommend you to have at least two of them.
The great power of the flash allows you to freeze your subject, for example a model, when shooting a long exposure.
I also suggest you to use stands or tripods for flashes and softboxes or octoboxes.
Both LEDs and Flashes will give you a daylight color temperature of about 5500K (white light). But you can change their temperature using colored gels.
A gel is a colored plastic sheet that you can place in front of the light source to color its light.
CTB gels (Color Temperature Blue) are used to cool the scene, because they turn tungsten light of 3200K into daylight color (5500K).
While CTO gels (Color Temperature Orange) turn daylight color (5500K) into tungsten (3200K), allowing you to warm the scene.
You can find gels of many intensities or strengths (1/4, 1/2, 3/4, etc.). The lower the intensity the less the color temperature is corrected.
Ideally, you should always have in your bag at least a couple of color correction gels. They are very cheap and useful.
In addition to color correction gels, there are the so called color gels. These are used to allow color lighting accents and unnatural effects. There is a huge number of colors available from several manufacturers: red, yellow, green, dark blue, etc.
When you’re shooting multiple long exposures, you want to prevent vibration as much as possible. Therefore, you need a way to trigger your camera without having to touch it.
Shutter releases and intervalometers will do the job. But, in my opinion, you should avoid remote shutter release and get a good intervalometer instead. Even a cheap intervalometer is fine.
Nowadays, you can even find cameras that include it.
Why is an intervalometer a better option?
Because remote releases are not programmable. You cannot shoot at regular intervals automatically.
An intervalometer is a programmable remote shutter that you can use to set the exposure time, the time interval between each shot, the total number of photos you want to take and even the time delay of the first picture.
Furthermore, when using the Bulb exposure mode, an intervalometer allows you to shoot exposures of more than 30 seconds, which is great for timelapse and Star Trails photography.
These are all great intervalometers:
Pro intervalometer: SMDV.
For cheap intervalometers check the brands Neewer, Phottix and Vello.
A great alternative is a device called CamRanger. Right now it’s available for Nikon, Canon, Fuji and Sony cameras.
It’s a stand-alone device that you connect to your DSLR or mirrorless camera with a USB cable. It creates an ad hoc WiFi network to which you can connect your smartphone or tablet (iOS, Android and Windows). Thanks to the CamRanger application you can control your camera without a computer or an Internet connection.
Best of all, this device is independent. Therefore, if your mobile device loses its connection, the CamRanger has an internal memory to keep shooting. Imagine that you are making a timelapse, your sequence would be cut if the camera stops taking pictures in the time frame you’ve set…
So the CamRanger is great for many types of photos: timelapses (of the Milky Way, of Star Trails, of solar eclipses or lunar eclipses…), bracketing, focus stacking for macro and landscapes… and many more!
When you’re shooting multiple long exposures to create a Star Trails image, your memory card should have:
A high transfer rate, because it allows each picture to be saved into the memory card quicker, providing a shorter delay between two consecutive shots.
A large capacity of storage, 64GB or higher, to make sure you have enough space to store all the photos.
Before leaving home, always make sure you bring with you several memory cards with enough capacity. You don’t want to run out of memory space in the middle of the shooting session.
I recommend you to test how many MB one of your photos weighs. Once you know the weight of one photo (24MB for example), the shooting interval (2s), the exposure time (20s) and the shooting duration (3h), you can use PhotoPills Timelapse calculator to find out the total memory usage 😉
What memory cards should you buy?
There are many different types of SD Cards (Secure Digital) depending on their capacity and data transfer speed.
Both SDHC and SDXC Class 10 cards are ideal for advanced amateur photographers. Their writing performance is good enough to have an acceptably short time interval between two consecutive exposures.
It might seem this is not that important, but it’s vital when shooting timelapses at night or low light conditions, as you want to take the maximum number of photos possible.
If you can, get the best SD Cards (like SanDisk or ProGrade) to minimize the risk of losing your photos and to get the maximum transfer speed.
The SDXC UHS-II Class U3 cards are ideal for professional photographers. Their writing performance is excellent and they have an incredibly short time interval between two consecutive exposures.
The cards can have a capacity of 16GB, 32GB, 64GB or even more. If you plan to shoot timelapses, I recommend you to get a 64GB card or with a higher capacity (128GB or even 256GB), to make sure you have enough space to store all the photos.
While there are still cameras that can work with CompactFlash (CF) cards, this system is slowly disappearing.
And to replace it, SanDisk, Nikon and Sony launched a new card format called XQD currently available for several Full Frame (Nikon D4, D4s, D5 and D850; Panasonic S1 and S1R), APS-C (Nikon D500) and mirrorless (Nikon Z6, Z6 II, Z7 and Z7 II) models. These cards
Have a very high storage capacity (from 32GB to 256GB).
Have a super fast reading and recording speed (400MB/s compared to 160MB/s for a CF card or 250MB/s for an SD card).
Are very secure, resistant and with an incredible durability.
Their only problem: a high price (for now).
After all the brainstorming and planning, you don’t want to run out of battery before the shooting is completed, right?
Before leaving home, check and fully charge all the batteries of your different cameras and bring some spare ones with you just in case. Depending on the type of camera and of photography, the number of batteries will vary from 2-3 (DSLR) to 6 or more (mirrorless).
I use a Nikon D4s or a Nikon Z6. Both allow me to shoot long timelapse sessions and Meteor Showers without any battery problem.
Since you’ll be shooting at night, the cold will surely shorten the battery power performance. In this case, all the extra power available is more than welcome. So a grip with extra batteries comes in very handy when you’re shooting Star Trails.
If you don’t have a grip, but you still want to spend several hours shooting a timelapse, you’ll have to replace the battery as quickly as possible.
But, when you do so, make sure you don’t move the camera!
If you plan to use them, don’t forget to check that the batteries of flashlights, LED panels, flashes and headlamp are also fully charged.
Finally, it’s a good idea to take a portable power bank for your smartphone or tablet.
Equipment against moisture
Ah! Dew, moisture… What a nightmare for night photographers!
Because I live in a very small island, I have to constantly deal with moisture condensation on the cold surface of my lens.
How do I fight dew?
I combine these three anti-dew methods.
Use the hood and moisture will take longer to condense on the surface of your lens.
Simply connect a portable battery to a PC fan and the steady stream of air will keep the lens dry.
I particularly use a small portable rechargeable Li-ion 12V 3800mAh battery with a 5.5mm barrel jack and USB connectors. Here, I had to adapt a 5.5mm barrel jack connector to the wire of the fan. Finally, I put the fan onto a flexible loc-line hose adhered to a clamp so it can be attached to the tripod.
Use it to heat the lens to a temperature above the dew point and you’ll avoid moisture condensation. All you need is a heater strip, a battery and a cable to connect the heater to the battery.
Heater strip. Perhaps, the two most popular heater strip brands are Dew-Not and Kendrick. I use a Dew-Not 3″ DN004, which perfectly fits my Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8. This model has a length of 33cm (13″), long enough to cover the diameter of the lens. Make sure you buy a strip that can go around the entire circumference of the lens.
Battery. As for the power supply for the heater strip, I use a 12V 3800mAh battery. The same battery I use to power the PC fan described in the previous section serves well. Bringing a spare battery is always a good idea.
Cable connector. Most heater strips have a male RCA connector, while portable batteries have a 5.5mm barrel jack connector. Therefore, you need to purchase a RCA/Jack 5.5mm adapter. I built mine from a RCA cable and a 5.5mm barrel jack.
Another great heater is the multi-bodywarmer by TheHeatCompany.
These heaters are used by photographers, film crews and athletes all over the world. Their advantage is that you never run out of battery. Just tape one on the bottom of your lens and you’re done!
Double-check that the fan doesn’t appear in the frame!
7. How to shoot single long exposure Star Trails
Shooting a single very long exposure Star Trails image is a real challenge for any photographer and any camera sensor (depending on its noise performance). But it’s also a very rewarding and exciting experience which I recommend living!
It’s incredibly challenging because you’ll have to deal with two big issues: uncertainty and noise.
Setting the camera to Bulb mode and leaving the shutter open for one, two or three hours is definitely very risky.
There are so many things that can go wrong and ruin the final image… Just to mention a few: the wrong exposure, changing weather (clouds), intrusive artificial lights, tripod vibration, planes and satellites, battery problems. And even something (a plane) or someone (a fellow photographer) could just walk in front of the camera!
Besides, not many cameras offer a good noise performance with very long exposures, even at the nominal ISO (100, 200).
So run a few tests and get to know the limits of your camera. It’s the only way to figure out the maximum exposure time your camera sensor can handle an acceptable noise performance (minimum thermal noise produced).
“Toni, stop scaring me. Please, tell me how it works!”
Ah, that’s the spirit!
Firsts thing first…
Before leaving home
Imagine that the shooting day has finally arrived. You have the shot perfectly clear in your mind. Every detail has been thoughtfully planned.
You’re ready for action!
Now, before leaving home, make sure to check the weather forecast. And, above all, the clouds forecast. You’ll be shooting a very long exposure, so the last thing you want is the sky covered with clouds.
Also check that you take all you need with you (the gear I described in section 6). And don’t forget to bring enough memory cards and a few spare fully charged batteries.
Get to your shooting spot in advance
You can use the PhotoPills Night Augmented Reality view to double-check you’re at the right spot and that you’ll have the Star Trails where you want and creating the pattern that you planned.
Place the tripod, ballhead, camera, and lens
Once you’re sure, place the tripod on the planned shooting spot and make sure it’s stable.
In this case, since you’re going to be leveling the camera, it’s not necessary to level the tripod. Unless, of course, you’re shooting a Star Trails panorama.
In this case, leveling the tripod is also compulsory. You want to make sure that all the photos have the same level and inclination, which is crucial to stitch them together. To do so, use the bubble level of your tripod or an external bubble level.
Remove the UV filter
If you usually use an ultraviolet (UV) filter to protect your lens, remove it as soon as you start preparing the equipment.
It’s completely useless.
In night photography, an ultraviolet (UV) filter can even ruin your photos. This type of filter slightly reduces the sharpness and contrast of your images. But it can also cause reflections, halos and flares.
Use a light pollution filter (optional)
If there is light pollution in your scene from sodium vapor light sources, you should use a light pollution filter to remove in camera the yellowish glow they usually produce.
Turn off the lens stabilization system
Some lenses include a function to stabilize vibrations. Canon, for example, calls it Image Stabilization (IS), while Nikon calls it Vibration Reduction (VR), and Sigma, Optical Stabilizer (OS). Other brands, such as Sony, Olympus and Pentax have been pushing for in-camera stabilization.
The lens stabilization system allows you to shoot handheld in low light conditions at shutter speeds slower than usual without getting a blurred image. This is possible because the lens compensates the vibrations you produce.
Since you’re using a tripod, turn off this function. Even without camera vibrations or movement, the image stabilization system might try to correct nonexistent movements. And this will cause vibrations that may negatively affect the sharpness of the image.
Turn it off! 😉
Long exposure noise reduction: on or off?
Since noise is one of the greatest enemies of long exposure shots, almost all cameras include an option to automatically reduce noise in the final image: the long exposure noise reduction function.
When this function is enabled, right after taking the photo, the camera takes a second exposure with the same parameters (shutter speed, ISO and aperture) but without letting any light into the system. This second photo has almost the same noise as the first one.
Finally, the camera detects the noise of this second picture and removes it from the first one.
When should you use it?
Only when you’re shooting long single exposures with a shutter speed (exposure time) under 10-20 minutes, and you’re willing to wait to see the photo.
Remember that it takes another exposure after the first photo. So, you’ll have to wait for another 10-20 minutes to see it.
In my opinion, this function is not useful in Star Trails photography because:
I prefer shooting much longer single exposures and I don’t want to wait so long to see the photo.
It consumes battery. You could even run out of battery in the middle of the process and end up without your photo.
When shooting multiple short exposures (image stacking), I don’t want to have such a big gap between two consecutive photos. It halves the number of photos I can take and it produces horrible gaps in my Star Trails. In this case, you can take a dark frame at the end of the shooting. Put the cap on the lens and shoot to capture noise only. Then, use this frame to reduce noise in post-processing.
Shoot in RAW
In the shooting menu, select the RAW option as the resulting file.
It allows you to produce better pictures because a RAW file contains all the image data recorded by the camera sensor.
This information can be used to improve the image and correct problems that wouldn’t be recoverable in JPEG format.
Use the shortest focal length you can
Short focal lengths are commonly used in Star Trails photography (14-35mm) because they provide a wider angle of view. And this is great for two reasons:
You’ll capture a larger area of the sky, also capturing more Star Trails.
You can easily incorporate interesting elements of the foreground into the composition.
Despite the composition is more difficult, you can also use longer focal lengths such as 50mm, 70mm, 200mm or more.
In this case, you capture less sky and less landscape, but you are able to focus the attention on the main subject or part of it (a rock, a tree, etc.).
The good thing is that, since you’re zooming in, Star Trails will look longer in the frame, so you’ll need a shoter exposure time (faster shutter speed) to capture the shot.
So what focal length should you use?
It depends on the lens you have and the image you have in mind. Choose the available focal length on your lens that gives you the result you’re looking for.
My advice: try to shoot all sort of images and compositions (short and long focal lengths).
Select the Manual shooting mode (M)
If you use your camera’s auto mode you won’t be able to capture any Star Trails.
You need to have the total control over exposure by freely setting aperture, exposure time and ISO. Therefore, set your camera shooting mode to Manual shooting mode (M).
Set the shutter speed (exposure time)
It’s a trade off between Star Trails length and noise level.
Taking into account your camera limitations (how much noise it produces), choose the exposure time that gives you the desired Star Trails length to tell the story you want.
Test your camera and figure out the maximum exposure time that still provides an acceptable level of noise.
Further down this section, I explain you in detail how to use the reciprocity law to work out the exposure time that gives you a photo correctly exposed. But let me give you the highlights:You need to take a test shot at a shorter exposure time to check exposure.
Set the test shot settings (for example: f/2.8 or the widest possible, 30s, ISO 3200 or the highest possible depending on your camera), focus at the hyperfocal distance and take the test shot.
Check the histogram and adjust the exposure time until you get a photo correctly exposed.
Then, use the PhotoPills Exposure calculator to find out the equivalent exposure time you need using the reciprocity law. Lower the ISO as much as you can to avoid noise. You may need to close aperture to increase the exposure time even to get the Star Trails length you want.
In the calculator, set the ISO value as low as possible (100, 200) and check the equivalent exposure time you get. If you want a longer exposure time, just close the aperture (f/4, f/5.6, etc.) until you get the value you need (30min, 1h, 2h, etc.). The longer the exposure time, the longer the Star Trails will be.
Don’t you know how long the Star Trails will be for a given exposure time?
Here you have a quick workaround 🙂
As I mentioned in section 3, you can use the PhotoPills Star Trails calculator to make simulations, so you can estimate the exposure time that gives you the Star Trails length you want.
Set the ISO
Given certain light conditions, the exposure is determined by the shutter speed (exposure time), aperture and ISO settings.
Since you’re going to shoot a single long exposure that gives you a desired Star Trails length, the exposure time and the noise performance will determine the aperture and ISO combination.
Here, the biggest issue is noise. So keep the ISO value as low as possible (100, 200). Then, choose the aperture accordingly.
Set the aperture
Again, for a desired exposure time and a low ISO value, choose the aperture that gives you a photo correctly exposed. To do so, use the equivalent exposure method described further down this section.
If you set the widest aperture of your lens (for example, f/2.8), you’ll capture many stars, but the exposure time might be not as long as you wish.
Therefore, close a bit the aperture (by one or two stops). You won’t capture that many stars but you’ll get these two benefits instead:
Longer Star Trails because you’ll need a longer exposure time.
Since you’ll be using apertures that are closer to the sweet spot of your lens (the sharpest aperture), Star Trails will look sharper and crispier.
Yes, lenses are not equally sharp at every aperture. There are apertures that are sharper than others.
So, what is the sharpest one?
The rule of the thumb says that the sharpest aperture is the one that results from stopping the lens aperture down 2.5 to 3 stops from its maximum aperture. For example, if the maximum aperture is f/2.8, then use apertures between f/5.6 and f/8.
Notice that this approach is totally different from how you choose the aperture in when photographing the Milky Way. In that case, since you limit the exposure time to prevent stars from trailing (usually under 30s), you have to use the widest aperture to collect as much light as possible. This way, you’ll capture stars as big bright spots.
Focus at the hyperfocal distance
The easiest way to have both the foreground and the Star Trails perfectly in focus is to focus at the hyperfocal distance.
If you do so, your image is focused from half of this distance to infinity.
So, forget about “turning the focus ring to infinity” or “using the Live View” of your camera to focus at the stars. Your depth of field in the foreground will be shallower!
How to calculate the hyperfocal distance
Once you’ve decided the focal length and aperture, use the PhotoPills Depth of Field (DoF) table or Depth of Field (DoF) calculator to figure out the hyperfocal distance.
As an example, using my Nikon D4s together with an aperture of f/4 and a focal length of 14mm, the hyperfocal distance is 1.65 m.
Once you’ve calculated the hyperfocal distance, you just need to focus at it.
How to focus at the hyperfocal distance
You don’t need to focus exactly at the hyperfocal distance. The secret here is to make sure you’re focusing at a slightly longer distance.
If the hyperfocal distance is 1.65 m for example, there is nothing wrong about focusing at 2 m. But don’t focus at 1.5 m. Never fall short!
Always, always, always, make sure you don’t focus at a shorter distance than the hyperfocal one. If you do so, you’ll get the Star Trails out of focus.
You can learn everything you need about the hyperfocal distance in our detailed depth of field (DoF) guide.
Lock the focus
After using the automatic focus mode to make focus at the hyperfocal distance, set it back to manual focus. This way you make sure that your focus doesn’t change.
Always check whether the stars are in focus before starting the shooting
Finally, make sure to take a test shot.
Use the Live View function on the LCD of your camera to focus accurately. And if your camera has the Focus Peaking and/or Focus Magnifier functions, turn them on too because they will help you to be even more precise.
Once the camera is attached to the tripod, take as many test shots as you need to see if you’re getting the framing you want and adjust accordingly.
The last thing you want is to spend the whole night in the cold and find out at the end that your stars are out of focus.
Set the white balance manually
Since you’re shooting in RAW, you can always adjust the white balance in post processing.
But, if you want to capture the real colors of the stars and the scene right in your camera, I recommend you to give a try to the following values and adjust from there:
Dark skies: 3900K
Light pollution: 3400K
Frame and level the camera
It’s time to put your camera on the tripod and frame the scene.
Everything is much easier when you have already visited the location during the day and have the photo pictured in your mind. Take advantage of the hard light hours of the day to compose your shots, so at night, you know exactly where to frame.
When framing, use a powerful torch to lit the landscape and foreground elements. Then, when you think you have the right composition, take a short exposure at a high ISO and short exposure time to see if everything is at the right place.
Obviously, avoid to include any direct light source. It would ruin your photo.
Don’t forget to use the built-in level of your camera to have everything perfectly leveled. If your camera doesn’t have a level, use an external bubble level.
Now, let’s see how to expose.
Take a test shot, check the histogram, check focus and adjust exposure
You need to set 3 variables: exposure time, aperture and ISO.
Your goal is to capture the longest Star Trails possible (or the length you wish).
How to expose a Star Trails shot
Use the reciprocity law (equivalent exposure method):
Start finding a good exposure (test exposure). Set the exposure time to 30s, a high ISO (1600, 3200, 6400, depending on your camera and light conditions) and a wide aperture (f/2.8, f/4, depending on your lens).
Start, for example, taking a test exposure at 30s, ISO 3200 and f/2.8 (or the values that your lens and camera allow). If the photo is too bright, try an exposure time of 20s. If it’s too dark, try an exposure time of 40s. Iterate until you get the exposure time that gives you the right exposure.
Use the camera histogram (or the live histogram option) to check the exposure. Usually, you want an histogram that gives you a neutral exposure, with both edges of the histogram just touching the edges of the histogram window.
Use the PhotoPills Exposure calculator to calculate the equivalent exposure time for a lower ISO (100, 200, etc.) and/or a narrow aperture (f/4, f/5.6) to get longer trails (see section 8).
Then, set the shutter speed to Bulb and shoot the long exposure you’ve calculated (30min, 1h, 2h, 3h, etc.).
Finally, check the how much thermal noise your camera produces. If there is too much noise due to the camera sensor heat, you’ll have to go for shorter exposures.
How to calculate the exposure time (equivalent exposure)
Imagine that you’ve taken a test shot at f/2.8, 30s and ISO 3200 and you get a correctly exposed picture. Open the PhotoPills Exposure calculator and follow these steps:
First, set the Shutter Speed as the variable you wish to calculate.
Enter the settings of the exposure test: f/2.8, 30s and ISO 3200.
Now, it’s time to enter the equivalent settings you want to use for the shot and that will allow you to capture longer star trails, keeping the same exposure. In this case, the ISO and the aperture.
Lower the ISO and use your camera nominal ISO to minimize noise: 100 or 200.
Finally, close the aperture to f/5.6, f/8, etc., until you get the desired exposure time for the Star Trails length you wish to capture. Remember, the narrower the aperture, the less Stars Trails will be visible.
In the equivalent settings, make sure the last parameter is blank (– stops), as you’re not using any neutral density filter (ND). This field can be used to calculate the equivalent exposure time when using a neutral density filter (ND).
Light painting the landscape
When you’re not using any Moonlight, using a soft artificial light source (like a LED) to side lighting the foreground will surely increase the sense of place, adding depth and volume to the scene.
Moreover, using a flashlight to apply light with precision to highlight a determined spot can add interest to the final image.
Light painting the scene when shooting multiple short exposures (image stacking) is much easier, because you can run as many tests as you wish before you start the shooting. Once you get the foreground with the light you want, just keep taking the rest of the photos.
But when you’re shooting a very long exposure, the story is completely different. Every test simply takes too much time. The slightest mistake and you’re forced to start from scratch.
So, for long exposures, here’s my advice:
Before starting the shooting, take a test shot with the equivalent settings set in camera (1-2 minutes or the time you need) to see if you’re getting the foreground with the light your want.
Keep the light source moving the whole time. Don’t stop moving the LED or flashlight. This way you’ll avoid overexposing one portion of the scene.
Once you get the amount of light you want, start the shooting and follow the same steps to light the foreground again. If there is no other external light source (light pollution or moonlight), at the end of the shooting, your foreground will have kept the aspect you gave it (no extra light added).
With light pollution or Moonlight, remember to add less light to the foreground. You need to take into account the extra light that will be added during the exposure by the external light sources.
Single long exposure Star Trails with human figures
The only requirement is that the model must stand still during the whole exposure time 😛
Dealing with sensor heating problems
The simplest way to fight sensor overheating, mitigating its negative effect (it produces noise), is to shoot during cold nights.
8. How to shoot multiple long exposure Star Trails (image stacking)
In section 3, I gave you a long list of reasons to justify why I prefer shooting multiple short exposures (for 2 to 5 hours) and stacking them in post-processing.
Very quickly, the key points are:
No matter the camera and lens you have, even with a point and shoot camera and a basic lens, you can create great Star Trails images.
You have the total control over the Star Trails length (number of photos stacked) and the foreground lighting.
It’s far less risky than shooting a single long exposure. You can easily overcome any unexpected issue (like plane trails or intrusive light sources) by removing the ruined frames.
It’s much easier to shoot Star Trails even when you have Moon or light pollution.
The night is far much productive: Star Trails images of different Star Trails lengths, timelapse videos, Star Trails timelapse, a single short exposure photo that includes a Meteor…
It’s much easier to capture the real color of the stars.
Now that you’re excited, let’s start with the workflow. 🙂
Before leaving home
Check the weather and the clouds forecast. You don’t want to shoot in a cloudy night.
Also make sure you take all the equipment with you (section 6), together with enough memory cards and a few spare fully charged batteries.
Get to your shooting spot in advance
Use the PhotoPills Night Augmented Reality view to double-check you’re at the right spot and that you’ll get the Star Trails pattern and composition you want.
Place the tripod, ballhead, camera, and lens
Place the tripod on the planned shooting spot and make it stable.
Remove the UV filter
If you usually use a ultraviolet (UV) filter to protect your lens, remove it as soon as you setting up your gear.
It’s completely useless.
In night photography, an ultraviolet (UV) filter can even ruin your photos. This type of filter slightly reduces the sharpness and contrast of your images. But it can also cause reflections, halos and flares.
Use a light pollution filter (optional)
If there is light pollution in your scene from sodium vapor light sources, you should use a light pollution filter to remove in camera the yellowish glow they usually produce.
Turn off the lens stabilization system
Some lenses include a function to stabilize vibrations. Canon, for example, calls it Image Stabilization (IS), while Nikon calls it Vibration Reduction (VR), and Sigma, Optical Stabilizer (OS). Other brands, like Sony, Olympus and Pentax prefer in-camera stabilization.
The lens stabilization system allows you to shoot handheld in low light conditions at shutter speeds slower than usual without getting a blurred image. This is possible because the lens compensates the vibrations you produce.
You’re using a tripod, so it’s always better to turn off this function. Even without camera vibrations or movement, the image stabilization system might try to correct nonexistent movements. And this will cause vibrations that may negatively affect the sharpness of the image.
Long exposure noise reduction: on or off?
When this long exposure noise reduction function is turned on, the camera takes a second exposure just after the first one. For this second exposure, the camera uses the same settings (exposure time, ISO and aperture) but without letting any light into the system.
Since this second photo presents almost the same noise as the first one, the camera uses it to reduce noise.
The problem is that it takes twice the exposure time to take one photo!
Then, for a given shooting time, having this function turned on will automatically halve the number of photos you can take.
And this is the opposite of what you need: to take as many photos as possible.
In addition to this, you don’t want a long time frame between each photo. I would say that 2 seconds is enough to cool down a bit the sensor and to avoid having those ugly gaps in your Star Trails.
So… Turn it off!
Shoot in RAW
Always shoot in RAW!
The RAW file allows you to make the most of the data recorded by the sensor. Take advantage of it, use it in post processing and produce better images.
Use the shortest focal length you can
Actually, you can use both short and long focal lengths.
But, if you’re getting started in Star Trails photography, I recommend you to go for the short ones first (14mm, 18mm, 24mm).
You can capture a larger number of stars, and it’s much easier to include the interesting elements of the foreground.
Long focal lengths like 70mm or 200mm allow you to fill the frame with the main subject to tell a totally different story. But composition is a bit more difficult.
Select the Manual shooting mode (M)
By using the Manual shooting mode (M) you get full control over exposure.
You can set the exposure time, ISO and aperture to capture the exposure that you want.
Set the shutter speed to calculate the total exposure time
I like spending around 2 to 5 hours shooting exposures of between 20 to 30 seconds. These short multiple exposures ensure that I’m not getting Star Trails in my individual images.
You don’t need trails in the photos. You’re going to create them when stacking all the individual images in a single one.
I recommend you to follow the same approach. But, as always, it’s a matter of taste, a personal choice. You could also shoot longer exposures and get great results.
In my opinion, shooting short exposures gives you more flexibility and control over the final Star Trails image:
Finding the right exposure using the trial and fail method is much faster and easier.
You can easily remove the frames that you don’t like (or the ruined ones) without affecting the final image.
It’s way more productive (timelapses, Star Trails and many other results like a Star Trails timelapse, etc.).
Light painting the foreground is also much easier.
How to calculate the exposure time
Like I do in my Milky Way photos, I use the NPF rule to figure out the maximum exposure time that allows the camera to capture the stars as big bright spots (i.e. without creating any trails).
The good news is that you can use the PhotoPills Spot Stars calculator to do all the math 😉
Obviously, if there’s any Moonlight or light pollution you need to take the extra light into account when exposing.
Total exposure time vs Star Trails length
The total exposure time results from the addition of all the short exposure times. It determines the length of the Star Trails.
Again, as I mentioned in section 3, you can use the PhotoPills Star Trails calculator to estimate the total exposure time you need to get a determined Star Trails length.
Obviously, the longer the total exposure time is, the longer the Star Trails will be. But, as the sensor heats up, there will be a moment when the camera will start producing a ton of thermal noise. And you don’t want that in your images…
Total exposure time vs thermal noise
Using the short exposure strategy (image staking), noise produced by sensor heat will become an important issue only when you push your camera sensor to the limit. Depending on your camera, this can happen after one, two or more hours shooting.
It also depends on the temperature. In warm nights, noise appears earlier.
How many hours can your camera shoot continuously without producing excessive thermal noise?
Every camera is different. You need to test it!
The good news is that until you reach that limit, you can use all the photos you’ve taken to create Star Trails. Maybe not the one you wanted, but I’m sure you will get a final image with long trails.
Set the ISO
Set the ISO as if you were going to shoot the Milky Way.
Since you want to capture stars as bit bright spots (short exposure time), you have to set a high ISO to avoid an underexposed image.
The ISO choice depends on the noise performance of your camera. Start with a high ISO (6400, 3200, 1600, 1250, 800) and adjust accordingly.
If you want to capture the color of the stars, don’t go beyond ISO 1600. Use the lower value possible that gives you an image correctly exposed. Remember that, in this case, you have to increase the exposure time, not getting stars as spots in the photos.
Now, one word about shooting Star Trails during Meteor Showers.
The higher the ISO, the more Meteors you’ll capture. So set a high ISO (while keeping an reasonable noise performance) and reduce the exposure time and/or close the aperture to keep the photo correctly exposed.
Set the aperture
If you want to capture the stars as big bright spots in every single shot, you need to collect as much light as possible during the exposure time. So use the widest aperture possible (f/2.8, f/4, depending on your lens).
The more light the sensor collects, the more stars and the brighter.
Moreover, it helps you keep the ISO within the limits so you can control noise.
Notice that this is exactly the same workflow you should follow in Milky Way photography.
This approach might wash out a bit the color of the stars. If you want to maintain the color, close the aperture by one stop (f/2.8 -> f/4) and increase a bit the exposure time applying the reciprocity law.
You won’t get stars as spots in each single frame, but it will help you capture their natural color.
When it comes to focusing you have two options:
Focusing at the hyperfocal distance.
Focusing at one star.
Depending on your taste, choose one or the other.
Focusing at the hyperfocal distance
If you’ve read section 7, you know that:
By focusing at the hyperfocal distance your image is focused from half of this distance to infinity. Therefore, both the foreground and the Star Trails are in focus.
You can calculate the hyperfocal distance using the PhotoPills Hyperfocal Table or the Depth of Field (DoF) calculator.
Once calculated, make sure not to fall short when focusing at it. This means that you must make sure to focus at a slightly longer distance than the hyperfocal one. Watch this 1-minute video to learn how to do it.
Lock the focus! After using the automatic focus mode to focus, set it back to manual focus.
Always take a test image and use the Live View option to make sure the stars are in focus before you start shooting.
If you’re interested in learning more about the hyperfocal distance, take a look at our depth of field (DoF) guide.
Focusing at one star
If you want the stars to be tack sharp, but you don’t mind losing a bit of sharpness in your subject, then focus at one star.
Set the camera and lens to manual focus.
Now, find a star and zoom in on it to magnify it (or use the Focus Magnifier option). Then, turn the focus ring to make focus on it. Turn it until you see the star as a tiny little dot (actually, the smallest possible dot).
Set the white balance manually
If you’re shooting in RAW, white balance is something you can adjust in post-processing.
But, since I’m sure you would like to capture the real colors of the stars right in camera, use the following values as starting points and then adjust it from there:Dark skies: 3900K
Light pollution: 3400K
Frame and level the camera
Put the camera on the tripod and frame the scene.
You’ll have 99% of the job done if you’ve scouted the location during the day. I always do it.
Go there, and walk around looking for potential compositions and framings. Once you find the scene you like, plan it with PhotoPills (section 5). And when the shooting date arrives, come back at night at the right time for the planned shot.
When framing at night, use a flashlight to lit the foreground and its elements. Then, take a short exposure at a high ISO to see if everything is at the right place.
And don’t forget to level your camera!
Light painting the foreground
Always add light in the first and in the last shots of the session!
At the beginning of the session, test your exposure and the light painting of the foreground. When you’re happy with the image, make sure to quickly start the shooting using the intervalometer.
At the end of the session, just before you stop the camera, light paint the foreground again. This way, you have at least two great photos from where to choose the foreground for the final image.
So, use your skills with the LED and flashlight to turn a boring foreground into an appealing one. Make sure the extra light is subtle. It makes the image look more natural.
Use the LED to add a soft continuous side light to the foreground. And use the torch to highlight a certain area.
When applying light, make sure to keep moving the light source. That way you’ll avoid overexposing a specific area or spot.
In addition to this, count the seconds you’re lighting the scene while taking the test shot. It will help you to make further adjustments afterwards.
If you have Moon, take advantage of it when it’s low in the sky and its light comes from the side (not the front or the back).
Take a test shot, check the histogram and adjust exposure
You’re almost ready to start the shooting. You’ve calculated the exposure time to get stars as bright spots, and you have set a wide aperture and the ISO value according to all the considerations I explained before.
All you have to do now is to take a couple of test shots and check the histogram to adjust exposure.
Let’s say you start testing a 30s exposure time, a f/2.8 aperture and a 1600 ISO:
If your image is too dark, crank up the ISO or increase the exposure time.
If your image is too bright, lower the ISO.
You’re looking for an histogram that gives you a neutral exposure, with both edges of the histogram just touching the edges of the histogram window. Obviously, this depends entirely on the colors of your scene.
Once you get the exposure you want:
Set the camera to Bulb mode.
Set the exposure time in the intervalometer.
Set a 2-second time frame time between two consecutive photos in the intervalometer.
Shoot a few photos to adjust the light painting of the foreground.
Finally, when you get the foreground lit in a pleasant way, quickly start shooting the rest of the photos.
Before you finish the shooting, lit again the foreground and take the last shot. This way, you’ll have two foregrounds to choose from 😉
Turn off the LCD display before start shooting
Turn off the LCD display before starting the shooting. Otherwise, your camera will automatically display every single frame.
You’re not going to check all the photos, are you?
Take a couple of dark frames at the end of the shooting session (optional)
Depending on the noise performance of your camera, it may be a good idea to take a couple of dark frames at the end of the shooting.
These dark frames will capture the noise produced by the sensor heat. They will be very useful during the post-processing to reduce the noise of the final Star Trails image.
How to include a model in the photo
If you want to include a human figure in the foreground, you should include it in the first photo you take, making sure his or her body doesn’t go above the horizon (doesn’t cover any star) to avoid the ghost effect.
Repeat the photo until you make sure the model has stayed still during the whole exposure time.
Then, start shooting the rest of the photos.
Take a second camera with you and enjoy shooting the Milky Way
When you have your main camera set and working, it’s time to set a second camera, lens and tripod and start shooting the Milky Way.
But always keep an ear on the first camera. You’re going to be listening to its music for hours.
If the music stops, run to the camera and change the battery!
And you’d better run fast…
9. The best star stacking software for Mac and PC (and how to use it step by step)
This is one of my favorite moments!
After waking up late the following day, and having a delicious well deserved breakfast, I sit down in front of my computer and start creating the Star Trails image.
My workflow is very simple:
First, I edit the RAW files in Lightroom and export them (JPEG or TIFF format depending on the star stacking software you’ll use).
Then, I use StarStaX to create the Star Trails image.
Further down this section, I show you how to use Lightroom and StarStaX to edit and put together a truly hypnotic Star Trails image.
But first, let me say a word on the different star stacking software options you have.
The best star stacking software
You know that the main function of any star stacking software is to merge a series of photos into a single image. By doing so, the relative motion of the stars creates structures that look like Star Trails.
Here are the main options you have.
StarStaX is my favorite star stacking software by far. It’s free and it runs on Mac, Windows and Linux.
In my opinion, these are the main pros:
It’s much easier and faster than other options like Photoshop.
What this software do is to take one photo as a base and adds to it any extra light it finds in the other photos.
You don’t need to create a blank document at the beginning of the session.
It includes an interactive easy to use gap-filling blending mode. This feature is great to get rid of those ugly gaps in your Star Trails.
You just import your images, enable the gap-filling option and click ‘Start’ to get the image finished in a few seconds.
Combined with After Effects, you can create an awesome timelapse video showing the image sequence of the blending process (section 11).
Startrails for Windows (free)
StarTrails is one of the first star stacking software solutions that was created. It was very popular among photographers before the launch of StarStaX.
Star Trails app for Mac (paid)
This app for Mac is a great choice because it allows you to do both:
Create Star Trails images.
Create Star Trails timelapse videos: simple, partial and full.
It makes things even easier.
Star Trails stacking in Photoshop
Unfortunately, it takes too much time to fill in the gaps and to stack all the images in Photoshop.
But, there are a few free actions that help though:
Image stacking Photoshop Stacking action by Chris and Dow Schur.
Star Trails gap-filling action by Floris Van Breuge.
Star Trails stacking in Lightroom
Can you use Lightroom for Star Trails stacking?
The answer is yes, but don’t do it!
Star Trails stacking in Lightroom is pretty painful and time consuming. You’re forced to use Photoshop actions, which it takes too much time and computer memory.
My advice: use StarStaX.
How to post-process Star Trails
It’s very easy. There are tons of videos on YouTube that explain how to do it.
I particularly like a video by Michael Shainblum. Watch it to learn:
How to use StarStaX to create the Star Trails image.
How to use Photoshop to create the meteor effect in a Star Trails image.
I think this video is super helpful, but I thought that you’d like to have the main steps written down too.
How to edit your Star Trails RAW files in Lightroom
No matter if you have to edit 80, 160 or 1,000 photos. It takes the same time.In Lightroom, select the image you wish to use as the foreground, the one you like the most. Then, edit it according to your preferences.
I follow this order when editing:
Global adjustments: exposure and contrast.
Volume local adjustments: highlights/whites and shadows/blacks.
Contrast local adjustments: clarity or remove haze (Dehaze slider).
Adjust contrast in specific areas with the tone curve panel.
White balance adjustments.
Increase sharpness if necessary.Since this editing workflow will be copied to the rest of the photos, I never use advanced features like the radial filter, gradient, brush, etc. Remember that all the photos are different and if you do copy this type of settings to all of them, you get something that doesn’t look good at all.Try to make the photo as powerful as you can. Then, go to Settings > Copy Settings to copy all the adjustments you’ve done. Before you copy them, make sure all the settings you’ve changed are selected.Now, paste these settings to the rest of the images. Select all the images, and right-click on any of them. Then, choose Develop Settings > Paste Settings and you’re done. All the settings will be also applied to all the selected images. You can also copy and paste the settings by using the Sync feature. Select the image you’ve edited and make sure it’s visible on the screen.Then, select all the images by holding Control + A on PC or Command + A on Mac. Now, click the Sync button located in the lower right-hand side of the panel, choose all the settings you adjusted and click Synchronize.Finally, create a folder and export all the photos in JPEG format.
Let’s switch to StarStaX!
How to use StarStaX to stack Star Trails
It takes just a few minutes to create the Star Trails with StarStaX.
In StarStaX, load all the images you’ve edited in Lightroom with the Open image icon or just drop them onto the left area of the StarStaX UI.
Load the the black frames you took with the Open Dark Frames icon. StarStaX uses them to reduce image noise.
The Preferences panel is on the top left-hand side. There, select the Blending tab and then Blending Mode.
Here, select Gap-filling mode as the blending mode. It automatically fills in the gaps when the Star Trails is created.
Start processing by clicking the Start Processing icon (4th top button) or the corresponding menu item.
In the Gap Filling mode, once the stacking process has finished, the Tools palette with the interactive gap filling controls comes up automatically.
Let’s have a look at the first control parameter Threshold:
The last step is to save the Star Trails image. By default, the image will be saved as a JPEG. If you want to save it as a TIFF image, make sure you name the file with the suffix .tiff when saving it.
If you don’t use the Gap filling mode, your image will probably have gaps in the Star Trails. Maybe you don’t notice it on your computer screen, but if you zoom in, you’ll see them.
10. How to create a Star Trails vortex (or swirl)
Spending the whole night shooting like crazy to build a beautiful Star Trails image is great, but there are a couple more astonishing images and effects you can create. So, why stopping now?
Why don’t you take advantage of all the shooting and create a vortex Star Trails?
Hypnotic, isn’t it?
When I first saw Lincoln Harrison‘s vortex Star Trails, I felt completely blown away. Lincoln is truly a master telling stories with the Milky Way and Star Trails. And he has inspired me in many ways.
In section 13, I’ll talk about Lincoln and many other awesome photographers that have inspired me, but now, let’s go straight to the point.
How can you create vortex Star Trails?
Well, you could do it in the field using a custom motorized zooming device, like Lincoln Harrison does. If you’re looking for a great motorized zooming system, check the ZenFocus and the Opteka FFR-900.
These zooming devices progressively move your lens’ zoom ring during the shooting (zooming out). For example, you start with a focal length of 50mm and end with 14mm. Then, you stack all the photos in post-processing getting the spiral effect.
Doing it in the field is a real adventure, but you can also do it at home, comfortably sitting in front of your computer.
Mike Ver Sprill wrote a great article on how to create vortex Star Trails. It has a few years but you may like to have a look at it.
He also published a great video tutorial on how to create vortex Star Trails using LRTimelapse and Lightroom.
11. How to create a Star Trails timelapse
Yes, you can make a Star Trails video, starting with the first photo and ending with the last one to shows the Star Trails growing over time.
Here’s an example!
This is another great way of showing the apparent motion of the stars as Earth rotates.
And you can easily do it!
Creating a Star Trails time lapse video with StarStaX and After Effects
In section 9, I showed you how to create a Star Trails image combining Lightroom and StarStaX.
Now, to create a Star Trails timelapse video, follow the same workflow. But in StarStaX, select the Save each cumulative stacked image option before stacking.
So at the end of the stacking process, you’ll end up with the same number of photos, but each one will contain the cumulated trail resulting from stacking the previous ones. And the last image will be the full Star Trails image.
Finally, take all these cumulated images and use After Effects to easily create a timelapse video.
Photographer Purwaji Santoso shows how he creates it in this video.
If you are a Mac user you can also use the Star Trails app.
This simple to use piece of software is incredibly useful, because it allows you to do both:
Stack photos to create Star Trails images.
Automatically produce Star Trails timelapse videos.
An even more hypnotic video
I love this effect!
Daniel Low‘s approach to Star Trails timelapse is to show how Star Trails are formed (until a certain size) and then they start rotating (keeping a constant length).
This effect makes the Star Trails video even more hypnotic.
Judge it by yourself.
If you want to learn how he did it, take a look at the the following article on Petapixel: ‘Beautiful Time-Lapse of Long Exposure Star Trails Traversing the Night Sky’.
12. How to shoot defocused Star Trails
I learnt this effect from Ian Norman thanks to his tutorial ‘How to Photograph a Defocused Star Trail “Rain Shower”‘.
Defocused Star Trails is one of the most challenging effects. You create it directly in camera, while shooting.
You have to continuously defocus your camera’s lens during one single long exposure or from shot to shot (when shooting multiple exposures).
The more you defocus the lens, the wider the trail will be. The result is a pretty curious effect, which reminds me of a badmington shuttlecock.
These are the steps I followed to create the image above:
I went to the location and used the PhotoPills Night Augmented Reality view to choose the shooting spot and shooting direction for the Star Trails pattern I wanted. Go to section 5 to learn how to plan a shot with a specific Star Trails pattern.
Once at the shooting spot, I placed the tripod and framed the scene including a large area of the sky.
I shot a couple of test photos to get the right exposure and foreground illumination (using a LED)
Then, I started shooting multiple exposures. Go to section 8 to learn how to shoot multiple long exposures Star Trails.
Between each photo, I consistently defocused the lens a few degrees trying to keep the same rotation.
Once at home, I followed the steps I described in section 9 to create the final image with Lightroom and StarStaX.
And that’s it!
There are many other stunning effects you can produce (comet, blobulous and even panoramas), but I believe it’s time to start learning from the best: the true Star Trails Masters!
13. The 19 mistakes that will seriously damage your Star Trails images
These are the most common mistakes that people make when doing Star Trails photography. I know them because I’ve made them too.
Believe it or not, all of them are very easy to avoid 😉
Not planning (1)
What happens when you play the lottery?
That you lose 99.99% of the times.
Having ideas and not planning them for perfect execution is like playing the lottery. It might be easy, it might be fun, but you lose every single time.
If you want to start shooting stunning images you need to start planning them. Period.
Follow the steps I showed you in section 5 and you’ll turn your ideas in real images in the blink of an eye.
Not composing during daylight (2)
“Work during the day to succeed at the night.”
I’m not talking about partying, I’m talking about photography! 😀
Do your scouting work during the harsh light hours of the day. Go and look for locations and frames. Just take your camera out, place the tripod, focus at the hyperfocal distance and take the same photo you want to take at night.
It’s much easier to compose your shots when you see than when it’s completely dark.
This may seem obvious, but it’s a pretty common mistake.
Run out of memory space (3)
If you’re going to shoot multiple short exposures (stacking), you’re probably going to take several hundred photos to get long Star Trails. This means that you need to plan the number of memory cards you need to take.
So, use PhotoPills Timelapse calculator to find out the total memory usage and take enough memory cards with you!
Run out of battery in the middle of the shooting (4)
Ah! My favorite!
I can really feel the pain in my heart when my camera stops because the battery died, and I forgot to take a spare one with me… Such a waste of time!
Before leaving home, always make sure you charge your batteries and take a few spare ones. You can also use a grip with extra batteries.
You’ll be shooting at night, usually in the cold, and low temperatures drain batteries much quicker.
Tripod is not stable enough (5)
There are two main causes of an unstable tripod: little weight and misplacement.
And both can cause:
Star Trails not to follow a continuous path.
Blur in you photos due to camera shake.
What’s even worse, your camera and lens could fall.
The solution: get a sturdy tripod and make sure is steady and still.
Gaps in your Star Trails (6)
To avoid gaps in your Star Trails make sure:
To turn off the noise reduction function of your camera when shooting multiple short exposures (stacking). On the contrary, the camera will wait another full exposure before taking the following shot, causing big gaps!
To set a 2-second time frame between two consecutive shots. It gives enough time to the camera to save the image in the memory card, to cool down a bit the sensor and have no gaps in the trails.
There are other things that can cause gaps: you ran out of battery, you ran out of memory space in your card, you got several ruined frames (lens condensation, plane and satellite trails, punctual intrusive lights, sporadic clouds, etc.) and you removed them.
Sometimes, dealing with gaps is inevitable.
In this case, you can get rid of small gaps when post-processing in StarStaX. Just make sure you select the Gap filling blending mode.
The Star Trails are not following a perfect arch (7)
Sometimes your Star Trails don’t draw a circumference. It looks like somebody or something has altered the framing. And now the stars follow a different path.
This problem can be easily corrected by:
Using a sturdy tripod and making sure it’s stable.
Turning off the lens stabilisation system. You’re going to use a tripod, so you don’t need to use this function. In absence of vibrations, it can try to correct inexistent movements causing the opposite effect!
Using an intervalometer or a shutter release. Avoid touching the camera no matter what.
The horizon is not horizontal (8)
Always, always, always level the camera before start the shooting. Use an external bubble level or the internal level of your camera.
If you’re still getting an unleveled horizon, follow these steps in Lightroom to correct it:
Go to the Lens correction/basic tab
There is a second way to do it:
Go to the Develop module
Choose the Crop and Straighten tool
Straighten and crop the photo
And a third way to do it:
Go to Panel > Transform
Choose Upright > Level
The Star Trails are out of focus (9)
When you get the foreground in focus but the stars out of focus, it means that you failed when focusing at the hyperfocal distance. You probably focused at a shorter distance.
Refocus again and make sure that you’re focusing the lens at a slightly larger distance than the hyperfocal distance (1 m is ok). Above all, make sure not fall short again!
You’ll find how to focus at the hyperfocal distance in section 8 and in this video.
Your photo is completely blurred, what’s going on? (10)
If the whole photo is completely blurred, and you’ve focused correctly at the hyperfocal distance, it’s because you’re having vibrations in the camera and lens, you accidentally changed the focus or you’re suffering from moisture condensation on the lens:
Use a sturdy tripod and make sure it’s stable.
Turn off the lens stabilisation system. You’re using a tripod, so you don’t need to use this function. In absence of vibrations, it can try to correct inexistent movements causing the opposite effect!
Use an intervalometer or a shutter release. Avoid touching the camera at all costs.
Check the lens autofocus is disabled.
Double check the focal length is the right one. Make sure you don’t touch the ring of the lens.
Keep your lens dry. Use the anti dew tools I mentioned in section 6.
Always take a test shot to double-check that everything is in focus.
The stars are not as bright as you thought (11)
You’re probably using a narrow aperture like f/8 to increase the depth of field.
Don’t do it!
With narrow apertures, you’re not letting too much light into the system, and the Star Trails will be pretty weak. Obviously, you could crank up the ISO, but your camera will produce more noise!
Instead, use a wide aperture and focus at the hyperfocal distance. You’ll get bright Star Trails and everything in sharp focus.
The foreground is too dark (underexposed) (12)
If there is no Moonlight or light pollution, you’ll get a pretty dark foreground when exposing the photo. Use a LED or a torch to add artificial light.
Have a look at section 8 and learn how to light paint the foreground the right way.
The foreground is too bright (overexposed) (13)
When there is a lot of light in the scene that you don’t control (such as light pollution or the Moonlight), the workaround is to lower the ISO, close a bit the aperture, reduce the exposure time or a combination of the three.
Another solution is to use a graduated neutral density filter (GND). Place it keeping its darker side in the bottom of the filter holder. This way, you’ll be darkening the foreground.
You’re getting too much noise and you don’t know why (14)
Usually, a high ISO and sensor overheating produce noise. To avoid this you can:
Lower the ISO or use the highest value at which your camera can still provide good noise performance.
Shoot multiple shorter exposures to get noise under control. On the contrary, when shooting a single long exposure Star Trails, noise becomes a real challenge. In this case, noise will surely limit much more the length of the Star Trails (limited exposure time to avoid noise).
For the same sensor size, use a camera with less megapixels. The more megapixels, the more sensor heat (more noise).
For the same megapixels, choose a camera with a larger sensor size. The larger sensor size, the less sensor heat (less noise). Just keep in mind that technology is advancing very fast. Nowadays, there are new cameras with more megapixels and better noise performance than older cameras with less megapixels.
Set a 2-second time frame between each photo to help the sensor cool down a bit.
Shoot in cold nights to keep the sensor temperature low.
Your Star Trails are too short or too long (15)
One of the reasons image stacking is so great is that it allows you to have absolute control over the Star Trails length. Depending on the number of photos you’re stacking, you get one length or another.
The more photos, the longer the trails are.
You only get white stars! Damn! (16)
Different stars have different colors (white, blue, red, etc.). If you’re getting only white stars, it’s because the camera sensor is capturing too much light:
The ISO is too high.
The exposure time is too long.
There’s too much light in the scene (light pollution or Moonlight).
It’s much easier to capture the true color of the stars when you’re shooting multiple short exposures under a pitch black sky. Find out the right exposure using ISO values from 800 to 1600.
Light pollution or Moonlight washes out the color of the stars. In this case, if you’re stacking, close a bit the aperture (f/4, f/5.6) and lower the ISO (400-800).
In this case, avoid shooting a very long single exposure.
Wow… Was it that foggy? (17)
It’s not fog, it’s moisture condensation on the lens!
Use the anti-dew equipment I mentioned in section 6 😉
You got the sky with a blue hue… (18)
Check the white balance you’re using. I bet you’re using something around 2500-3000K.
If that’s the case, you’re telling the camera the scene is warm (yellow hue). And the camera will try to compensate it with a blue filter, giving a blue hue to the photo.
The goal here is to capture the real color of the sky (as real as possible). To do so, I like to use the following white balance settings:
Dark skies: 3900K
Light pollution or Moonlight: 3400K
You shot in JPG and now you cannot edit! (19)
Always shoot in RAW, and edit the RAW files in Lightroom.
The RAW file contains all the information captured by the sensor of your camera. So it’s much easier to make adjustments in the image without losing any quality.
In JPEG format, the image is compressed and a lot of information is lost.
How to Shoot and Stitch Nightscape Panoramas
Panoramas featuring the arch of the Milky Way have become the icons of dark sky locations. “Panos” can be easy to shoot, but stitching them together can present challenges. Here are my tips and techniques.
My tutorial complements the much more extensive information I provide in my eBook, at right. Here, I’ll step through techniques for simple to more complex panoramas, dealing first with essential shooting methods, then reviewing the workflows I use for processing and stitching panoramas.
What software works best depends on the number of segments in your panorama, or even on the focal length of the lens you used.
PART 1 — SHOOTING
What Equipment Do You Need?
Nightscape panoramas don’t require any more equipment than what you likely already own for shooting the night sky. For Milky Way scenes you need a fast lens and a solid tripod, but any good DSLR or mirrorless camera will suffice.
The tripod head can be either a ball head or a three-axis head, but it should have a horizontal axis marked with a degree scale. This allows you to move the camera at a correct and consistent angle from segment to segment. I think that’s essential.
What you don’t need is a special, and often costly, panorama head. These rotate the camera around the so-called “nodal point” inside the lens, avoiding parallax shifts that can make it difficult to align and stitch adjacent frames. Parallax shift is certainly a concern when shooting interiors or any scenes with prominent content close to the camera. However, in most nightscapes our scene content is far enough away that parallax simply isn’t an issue.
Though not a necessity, I find a levelling base a huge convenience. As I show above, this specialized ball head goes under the usual tripod head and makes it easy to level the main head. It eliminates all the fussing with trial-and-error adjustments of the length of each tripod leg.
Then to level the camera itself, I use the electronic level now in most cameras. Or, if your camera lacks that feature, an accessory bubble level clipped into the camera’s hot shoe will work.
Having the camera level is critical. It can be tipped up, of course, but not tilted left-right. If it isn’t level the whole panorama will be off kilter, requiring excessive straightening and cropping in processing, or the horizon will wave up and down in the final stitch, perhaps causing parts of the scene to go missing.
NOTE: Click or tap on the panorama images to open a high-res version for closer inspection.
Shooting Horizon Panoramas
While panoramas spanning the entire sky might be what you are after, I suggest starting simpler, with panos that take in just a portion of the 360° horizon and only a part of the 180° of the sky. These “partial panos” are great for auroras (above) or noctilucent clouds, (below), or for capturing just the core of the Milky Way over a landscape.
The key to all panorama success is overlap. Segments should overlap by 30 to 50 percent, enabling the stitching software to align the segments using the content common to adjacent frames. Contrary to some users, I’ve never found an issue with having too much overlap, where the same content is present on several frames.
For a practical example, let’s say you shoot with a 24mm lens on a full-frame camera, or a 16mm lens on a cropped-frame camera. Both combinations yield a field of view across the long dimension of the frame of roughly 80°, and across the short dimension of the frame of about 55°.
That means if you shoot with the camera in “landscape” orientation, panning the camera by 40° between segments would provide a generous 50 percent overlap. The left half of each segment will contain the same content as the right half of the previous segment, if you take your panos by turning from left to right.
TIP: My habit is to always shoot from left to right, as that puts the segments in the correct order adjacent to each other when I view them in browser programs such as Lightroom or Adobe Bridge, with images sorted in chronological order (from first to last images in a set) as I typically prefer. But the stitching will work no matter which direction you rotate the camera.
In the example of a 24mm lens and a camera in landscape orientation you could turn at a 45° or 50° spacing and yield enough overlap. However, turning the camera at multiples of 15° is usually the most convenient, as tripod heads are often graduated with markings at 5° increments, and labeled every 15° or 30°.
Some will have coarser and perhaps unlabeled markings. If so, determine what each increment represents, then take care to move the camera consistently by the amount that will provide adequate overlap.
To maximize the coverage of the sky while still framing a good amount of foreground, a common practice is to shoot panoramas with the camera in portrait orientation. That provides more vertical but less horizontal coverage for each frame. In that case, for adequate overlap with a 24mm lens and full-frame camera shoot at 30° spacings.
TIP: When shooting a partial panorama, for example just to the south for the Milky Way, or to the north for the aurora borealis, my practice is to always shoot a segment farther to the left and another to the right of the main scene. Shoot more than you need. Those end segments can get distorted when stitching, but if they don’t contain essential content, they can be cropped out with no loss, leaving your main scene clean and undistorted.
Shooting with a longer lens, such as a 50mm (or 35mm on a cropped frame camera), will yield higher resolution in the final panorama, but you will have much less sky coverage, unless you shoot multiple tiers, as I describe below. You would also have to shoot more segments, at 15° to 20° spacings, taking longer to complete the shoot.
As the number of segments goes up shooting fast becomes more important, to minimize how much the sky moves from segment to segment, and during each exposure itself, to aid in stitching. Remember, the sky appears to be turning from east to west, but the ground isn’t. So a prolonged shoot can cause problems later as the stitching software tries to align on either the fixed ground or the moving stars.
Panoramas on moonlit nights, as I show above, are relatively easy because exposures are short.
Milky Way panoramas taken on dark, moonless nights are tougher. They require fast apertures (f/2 to f/2.8) and high ISOs (ISO 3200 to 6400), to keep individual exposures no more than 30 to 40 seconds long.
Noise lives in the dark foregrounds, so I find it best to err on the side of overexposure, to ensure adequate exposure for the ground, even if it means the sky is bright and the stars slightly trailed. It’s the “Expose to the Right” philosophy I espouse at length in my eBook.
Advanced users can try shooting in two passes: one at a low ISO and with a long exposure for the fixed ground, and another pass at a higher ISO and a shorter exposure for the moving sky. But assembling such a set will take some deft work in Photoshop to align and mask the two stitched panos. None of the examples here are “double exposures.”
Shooting 360° Panoramas
More demanding than partial panoramas are full 360° panoramas, as above. Here I find it is best to start the sequence with the camera aimed toward the celestial pole (to the north in the northern hemisphere, or to the south in the southern hemisphere). That places the area of sky that moves the least over time at the two ends of the panorama, again making it easier for software to align segments, with the two ends taken farthest apart in time meeting up in space.
In our 24mm lens example, to cover the entire 360° scene shooting with a 45° spacing would require at least eight images (8 x 45 = 360). I used 10 above. Using that same lens with the camera in portrait orientation will require at least 12 segments to cover the entire 360° landscape.
Shooting 360° by 180° Panoramas
More demanding still are 360° panoramas that encompass the entire sky, from the ground below the horizon to the zenith overhead. Above is an example.
To do that with a single row of images requires shooting in portrait orientation with a very wide 14mm rectilinear lens on a full-frame camera. That combination has a field of view of about 100° across the long dimension of the sensor.
That sounds generous, but reaching up to the zenith at an altitude of 90° means only a small portion of the landscape will be included along the bottom of the frame.
To provide an even wider field of view to take in more ground, I use full-frame fish-eye lenses on my full-frame cameras, such as Canon’s old 15mm lens (as shown at top) or Rokinon’s 12mm. Even a circular-format fish-eye will work, such as an 8mm on a full-frame camera or 4.5mm on a cropped-frame camera.
All such fish-eye lenses produce curved horizons, but they take in a wide swath of sky, making it possible to include lots of foreground while reaching well past the zenith. Conventional panorama assembly programs won’t work with such wide and distorted segments, but the specialized programs described below will.
Shooting Multi-Tier Panoramas
The alternative technique for “all-sky” panos is to shoot multiple tiers of images: first, a lower row covering the ground and partway up the sky, followed by an upper row completing the coverage of just the sky at top.
The trick is to ensure adequate overlap both horizontally and vertically. With the camera in landscape orientation that will require a 20mm lens for full-frame cameras, or a 14mm lens for cropped-frame cameras. Either combination can cover the entire sky plus lots of foreground in two tiers, though I usually shoot three, just to be sure!.
Shooting with longer lenses provides incredible resolution for billboard-sized “gigapan” blow-ups, but will require shooting three, if not more, tiers, each with many segments. That starts to become a chore to do manually. Some motorized assistance really helps when shooting multi-tier panoramas.
Automating the Pan Shooting
The dedicated pano shooter might want to look at a device such as the GigaPan Epic models or the iOptron iPano, (shown below), all about $800 to $1000.
I’ve tested the latter and it works great. You program in the lens, overlap, and angular sweep desired. The iPano works out how many segments and tiers will be required, and automates the shooting, firing the shutter for the duration you program, then moving to the new position, firing again, and so on. I’ve shot four-tier panos effortlessly and with great success.
However, these devices are generally bigger and heavier than I care to heft around in the field.
Instead, I use the original Genie Mini from SYRP, (below), a $250 device primarily for shooting motion control time-lapses. But the wireless app that programs the Genie also has a panorama function that automatically slews the camera horizontally between exposures, again based on the lens, overlap, and angular sweep you enter. The just-introduced Genie Mini II is similar, but with even more capabilities for camera control.
While combining two Genie Minis allows programming in a vertical motion as well, I’ve been using just a regular tripod head atop the Mini to manually move the camera vertically between each of the horizontal tiers. I don’t feel the one or two moves needed to go from tier to tier too arduous to do manually, and I like to keep my field gear compact and easy to use.
The Genie Mini (now replaced by the Mini II) works great and I highly recommend it, even if panoramas are your only interest. But it is also one of the best, yet most affordable, single-axis motion control devices on the market for time-lapse work.
When to Shoot the Milky Way
While the right gear and techniques are important, go out on the wrong night and you won’t be able to capture the Milky Way as the great sweeping arch you might have hoped for.
In the northern hemisphere the Milky Way arches directly overhead from late July to October for most of the night. That’s fine for spherical fish-eye panoramas, but in rectangular images when the Milky Way is overhead it gets stretched and distorted across the top of the final panorama. For example, in the Bow Lake by Night panorama above, I cropped out most of this distorted content.
The prime season for Milky Way arches is therefore before the Milky Way climbs overhead, while it is still across the eastern sky, as above. That’s on moonless nights from March to early July, with May and June best for catching it in the evening, and not having to wait up until dawn, as is the case in early spring.
TIP: The best way to figure out when and where the Milky Way will appear is to use a desktop planetarium program such as Starry Night or Sky Safari or the free Stellarium. All can realistically depict the Milky Way for your location and date. You can then step through time to see how the Milky Way will move through the night, and how it will frame with your camera and lens combination using the “field of view” indicators the programs provide.
When shooting in the southern hemisphere I like the April to June period for catching the sweep of the southern Milky Way and the galactic core rising in late evening. By contrast, during mid austral winter in July and August the galactic centre shines directly overhead in the evening, a spectacular sight to be sure, but tough to capture in a panorama except in a spherical or fish-eye scene.
That said, I always like to put in a good word for the often sadly neglected winter Milky Way (the summer Milky Way for those “down under”). While lacking the spectacle of the galactic core in Sagittarius, the “other” Milky Way has its attractions such as Orion and Taurus. The best months for a panorama with that Milky Way in an arch across a rectangular frame are January to March. The Zodiacal Light can be a bonus at that season, as it was above.
TIP: Always shoot raw files for the widest dynamic range and flexibility in recovering details in the highlights and shadows. Even so, each segment has to be well exposed and focused out in the field.
And unless you are doing a “two-pass” double exposure, always shoot each segment with identical exposure settings. This is especially critical for bright sky scenes such twilights or moonlit scenes. Vary the exposure and you might get unsightly banding at the seams.
There’s nothing worse than getting home only to find one or more segments was missed, or was out of focus or badly exposed, spoiling the set.
PART 2 — STITCHING
Developing Panorama Segments
Once you have your panorama segments, the next step is to develop and assemble them. For my workflow, the process of assembling a panorama from its constituent segments begins with developing each of those segments identically.
NOTE: Click or tap on the software screen shots to open a high-res version for closer inspection.
I like to develop each segment’s raw file as fully as possible at this first stage in the workflow, applying noise reduction, colour correction, contrast adjustments, shadow and highlight recovery, and any special settings such as dehaze and clarity that can make the Milky Way pop.
I also apply lens corrections to each raw image. While some feel doing so produces problems with stitching later on, I’ve never found that. I prefer to have each frame with minimal vignetting and distortion when going into stitching. I use Adobe Camera Raw out of Adobe Bridge, but Lightroom Classic has identical functions.
There are several other raw developers that can work well at this stage. In other tests I’ve conducted, Capture One and DxO PhotoLab stand out as producing good results on nightscapes. See my blog from 2017 for more on software choices.
The key is developing each raw file identically, usually by working on one segment, then copying and pasting its settings to all the others in a set. Not all raw developers have this “Copy Settings” function. For example, Affinity Photo does not. It works very well as a layer-based editor to replace Photoshop, but is crude in its raw developing “Persona” functions.
While panorama stitching software will apply corrections to smooth out image-to-image variations, I find it is best to ensure all the segments look as similar as possible at the raw stage for brightness, contrast, and colour correction.
Do be aware that among social media groups and chat rooms devoted to nightscape imaging a lot of myth and misinformation abounds about how to process and stitch panoramas, and why some don’t work. Someone having a problem with a particular pano will ask why, and get ten different answers from well-meaning helpers, most of them wrong!
Stitching Simple Panoramas
For example, if your segments don’t join well it likely isn’t because you needed to use a panorama head (one oft-heard bit of advice). I never do. The issue is usually a lack of sufficient overlap. Or perhaps the image content moved too much from frame to frame as the photographer took too long to shoot the set.
Or, even when quickly-shot segments do have lots of overlap, stitching software can still get confused if adjoining segments contain featureless content or content that changes, such as segments over rippling water with no identifiable “landmarks” for the software to latch onto.
The primary problems, however, arise from using software that just isn’t up to the task. Programs that work great on simple panoramas (as the next three examples show) will fail when trying to stitch a more demanding set of segments.
For example, for partial horizon panos shot with 20mm to 50mm lenses, I’ll use the panorama function now built into Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) and Adobe Lightroom Classic, and also in the mobile-friendly Lightroom app. As I show above, ACR can do a wonderful job, yielding a raw DNG file that can continue to be edited non-destructively. It’s by far the easiest and fastest option, and is my first choice.
Another choice, not shown here, is the Photomerge function from within Photoshop, which yields a layered and masked master file, and provides the option for “content-aware” filling of missing areas. It can sometimes work on panos that ACR balks at.
Two programs popular as Adobe alternatives, ON1 PhotoRAW (above) and the aforementioned Affinity Photo (below), also have very capable panorama stitching functions.
However, in testing both programs with the demanding Bow Lake multi-tier panorama I used below with other programs, ON1 2019.5 did an acceptable job, while Affinity 1.7 failed. It works best on simpler panoramas, like this partial scene with a 24mm lens.
Even if they succeed when stitching 360° panoramas, such general-purpose editing programs, Adobe’s included, provide no option for choosing how the final scene gets framed. You have no control over where the program puts the ends of the scene.
Or the program just fails, producing a result like this.
Far worse is that multi-tier panoramas or, as I show above, even single-tier panos shot with very wide lenses, will often completely befuddle your favourite editing software, with it either refusing to perform the stitch or producing bizarre results.
Some photographers attempt to correct such wild distortions with lots of ad hoc adjustments with image-warping filters. But that’s completely unnecessary if you use the right software to begin with.
Stitching Complex Panoramas
When conventional software fails, I turn to the dedicated stitching program PTGui, $150 for MacOS or Windows. The name comes from “Panorama Tools – Graphical User Interface.”
While PTGui can read raw files from most cameras, it will not read any of the development adjustments you made to those files using Lightroom, Camera Raw, or any other raw developers.
So, my workflow is to develop all the raw segments, export them out as 16-bit TIFFs, then import those into PTGui. It can detect what lens was used to take the images, information PTGui needs to stitch accurately. If you used a manual lens you can enter the lens focal length and type (rectilinear or fish-eye) yourself.
I include a full tutorial on using PTGui in my eBook linked to above, but suffice to say that the program usually does a superb job first time and very quickly. You can drag the panorama around to frame the scene as you like, and change the projection at will to create rectangular or spherical format images, as above, and even so-called “little planet” projections that appear as if you were looking down at the scene from space.
Occasionally PTGui complains about some frames, requiring you to manually intervene to pick the same stars or horizon features in adjacent frames to provide enough matching alignment points until it is happy. Its interface also leaves something to be desired, with essential floating windows disappearing behind other mostly blank panels.
When exporting the finished panorama I usually choose to export it as a layered 16-bit Photoshop .PSD or, with big panos, as a Photoshop .PSB “big” document.
The reason is that in aligning the moving stars PTGui (indeed, all programs) can produce a few “fault lines” along the horizon, requiring a manual touch up to the masks to clean up mismatched horizon content, as I show above. Having a layered and masked master makes this easy to do non-destructively, though that’s best done in Photoshop.
However, Affinity Photo (above) can also read layered .PSD and .PSB Photoshop files, preserving the layers. By comparison, ON1 PhotoRAW flattens layered Photoshop files when it imports them, one deficiency that prevents this program from being a true Photoshop alternative.
Once a 360° panorama is in a program like Photoshop, some photographers like to “squish” the panorama horizontally to make it more square, for ease of printing and publication. I prefer not to do that, as it makes the Milky Way look overly tall, distorted, and in my opinion, ugly. But each to their own style.
You can test out a limited trial version of PTGui for free, but I think it is worth the cost as an essential tool for panorama devotees.
Other Stitching Options
However, Windows users can also try Image Composite Editor (ICE), free from Microsoft Research. As shown above in my test 3-tier pano, ICE works very well on complex panoramas, has a clean, user-friendly interface, offers a choice of geometric projections, and can export a master file with each segment on its own layer, if desired, for later editing.
The free, open source program HugIn is based on the same Panorama Tools root software that PTGui uses. However, I find HugIn’s operation clunky and overly technical. Its export process is arcane yet renders out only a flattened image.
In testing it with the same three-tier 21-segment pano that PTGui and ICE handled perfectly, HugIn failed to properly include one segment. However, it is free for MacOS and Windows, and so the price is right and is well worth a try.
With the superb tools now at our disposal, it is possible to create detailed panoramas of the night sky that convey the majesty of the Milky Way – and the night sky – as no single image can. Have fun!
What is the 500 rule in astrophotography?
By far the simpler of the two popular rules for astrophotography is the 500 rule. It recommends that your shutter speed is equal to 500 ÷ Equivalent Focal Length. So, if your full-frame equivalent focal length is 20mm, the 500 rule would suggest that you use a shutter speed of 500 ÷ 20 = 25 seconds.
Astrobackyard.com, ” Beginner Astrophotography: How to Get Started. “; space.com, ” Astrophotography for Beginners: How to shoot the night sky.” BY Stuart Cornell; photographylife.com, “Night Photography Tutorial: A Beginner’s Guide.” BY ALEX COLEMAN; capturetheatlas.com, “ASTROPHOTOGRAPHY WITH A STAR TRACKER – HOW TO GET STARTED.” by Dan Zafra; Iso.500px.com. “Everything A Beginner Needs to Know about Astrophotography. ” BY Dan Ophaug; photopills, “Star Trails Photography: The Definitive Guide (2022).” By Antoni Cladera; amazingsky.net, “How to Shoot and Stitch Nightscape Panoramas.” By Alan Dyer;
photographylife.com, “500 Rule vs NPF Rule: Shutter Speed for Astrophotography: How to eliminate motion blur in your Milky Way photos and get sharp stars.” By Spencer Cox;