Shooting Star Trails photography

Photographing shooting star trails during your vacation in picturesque places can be a rewarding experience, helping you squeeze the most value out of images from your holiday trip.  In densely built cities with heavy light pollution, this genre of photography can be very challenging (although not impossible, as you read on).

So when the opportunity arises to shoot star trails, you need to know the techniques. An important tip to note is that your camera batteries must be adequately charged, you have sufficient memory cards and you brought along your standby spare batteries (especially if you own a ‘high-drain’ camera).

Star Trails 0016a_Snapseed

Easy steps to shooting star trails

1. Download Google Sky Map app or other similar astronomy apps on your phone or tablet. This application is free to use and very handy in orientation in accordance of the celestial bodies especially when you look up at the vast expanses of night skies…

2. Find a really dark place away from bright lights (street lights, building lights, etc). I recommend that you look for somewhere ideally near the seaside or mountain resorts. Even better, you could find a subject of interest (example a lighthouse or solitary tree, etc) for your shooting later, if there is any in sight.

3. For best result, you have to look for pitch dark places with cloudless night where there isn’t any moonlit in sight (you could standby a torch with red/green filter to avoid ‘blinding’ your eyes, although you may need to adjust to the environment in such low light level). If you happen to see thick cloud covering the sky, there is no point shooting as your chance of success will be limited.

4. Set up a firm tripod, change your camera settings to manual mode & manual focus (ideal lens for this shoot is between 24mm and 35mm) . If your tripod central column has a hook for carrying ballast, you should weigh it down (e.g with a camera bag) for extra stability.

5. Make sure you switch off your camera image stabilization or vibration reduction function.  Otherwise your camera will end up continuously tracking, resulting in fuzzy shots.

6. Turn off long exposure noise reduction to maintain details of your shot

7. Enable mirror lock-up to improve sharpness of your pictures (if this feature is available in your camera).

8. Attach cable release to your camera, so you can snap shots away from your camera (or activate camera intervalometer, if available) .

9. Configure your ISO between 800-3200. Set lens aperture at maximum or 1 stop from max (for e.g, if your lens is an F2.8, shoot at F3.5)

  • Set AWB to tungsten (Reason for this is to minimize warming of the night skies as cooler hue looks more natural to the human eyes than a warm brownish night skies).
  • Set shutter speed at 30s.
  • Aim your camera at the North Star (Polaris), you can locate this by tracing the “cup” edge of the Big Dipper. Refer to above image as a reference. When you see a stable bright star, there’s your point of reference. To make sure your shot is properly focus, set the focus ring at the infinity marking, look through your viewfinder and perform fine-tuning until it’s absolutely sharp (you can try to verify this with some test shots) before proceeding.

10. Shoot…. Set drive mode to continuous and lock the cable release. Work on a few test shots to confirm your exposure is correct before shooting. Anything between 70-120 frames at 30s each will be ideal.

Once when you have returned home and in good time, process your shots via StarStax software after doing batch editing with your preferred editing software. You might like check out Tony Northrup video for how-to guidance.

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Star Trails at Xueshan (Snow Mountain) , Wuling Farm. Taichung, Taiwan. This picture is a composite of 79 frames shot at 30sec each.


Star trail.jpg_Snapseed
Yuni resort , Hiokkaido. Canon 70D, EF11-24mm , 30s, F5.6, ISO800. Composite of 15 frames at 30sec each.

Have fun shooting star trails.  Put it on your “must-do” list and aim for the skies on your next vacation.

Author : Jensen Chua, CanonEOSWorld, Council Member. iStock/Getty Images contributing artist. Pictures used are copyrighted and all rights reserved.


Jensen Chua

Hello, I'm Jensen! In my travel photographic undertaking, I routinely endured challenging conditions, high-altitude sickness, trekking along slippery iced-encrusted mountain path in total darkness or sub-zero temperature while lugging my photographic equipment just to capture that perfect moment.