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How to Shoot Star Trails and Sample Images for You to Practice Stacking

Recently I taught my night photography class in the most ideal location for that topic. A placed called the Sitka Centre for the Arts, in Otis, Oregon. It's literally located deep in the forest, and it's dark. Really dark!

They also allowed us to cover up all the motion sensor lights and turn off any other stray ones that might contaminate our night photography. This is ideal conditions for shooting stars, The Milky Way and doing star trails. So that's exactly what I, and a couple of my die-hard class participants did one night, thanks for hanging out with me Jim and Tim! You can see some of Jim's images from Oregon (and that night) here – he made the journey from Kansas just to attend the workshop.

This is my resulting image:

star-trails-stacking-750px-05
No it's not upside down or sideways – this is shot with an 8mm Rokinon lens on my Fuji X-T1 pointed almost straight up (like 12mm on full frame). It's so wide that it can see the totem pole on my left and the building on the right.

How to create a light painted star trails image

This was created from 91 images, shot over 45 minutes – then layered with three additional images for the light painting effect on the foreground trees and totem pole. To learn how to do this I'm going to walk you through step by step and provide you with all 94 images (1600px size) so you can try this yourself and follow along with the same images.

Download the ZIP file here

You will need to then unzip the folder. Usually you can do that just by double clicking on it. If that doesn't work you may need an unzipper program if you don't already have one on your computer. For Mac, try StuffIt Expander, if you use Windows, try one of these free options, or Winzip if you want more unzipping power and options.

Step one – shooting

I've already done this part for you, but if you want to try it yourself here is what you need to do:

  • Find a dark area, ideally away from city lights and light pollution. DarkSiteFinder or other similar sites might help.
  • Use a tripod (you're going to be doing really long exposures it is NOT possible without one).
  • Make sure you have an empty memory card and a fully charged battery. This is going to take a lot of shots and use a lot of power. Make sure neither run out before the series is fully shot.
  • Compose your shot. This one is a bit tricky as it's dark! Use a flashlight (or get a friend to help you) light up the scene around you so you can see what will be in your exposure. Using a wide lens will make the star trails more dramatic. Figure out where the North Star is (there are apps that do that on a smartphone or tablet) – as the others will rotate around it. Then put something in front of your stars – it's the same principal as a sunset. Without a foreground subjects stars will just be a bunch of dot or trails.
  • Set your camera to the correct exposure. I used the following, you can start here: ISO 3200, f/2.8 for 30 seconds, and Daylight White Balance. If you don't have f/2.8 on your lens you may need to bump your ISO up to 6400. If you have f/2.0 use that and the stars will come out even brighter and you can possibly lower your ISO to 1600 also. It will look dark but you want an exposure where you can see some stars clearly.
  • Shoot RAW if possible. But you can make JPGs work just fine too.
  • Do a test shot and review on the camera. You are looking for composition, exposure, white balance – all the usual things you should be checking. Once you're happy with it you're ready to shoot your series.
  • Set up to shoot a series of images at least 30 minutes long total. Using either your camera or remote (intervalometer if you have one) set it up to take a series of 30 second exposures. You want to do it this way, as opposed to just one big long 30 minute exposure, because it will help keep your camera from overheating – causing possible sensor damage at worst, or excessive noise in your image, at best. If you don't have a camera with this feature built-in, or a fancy intervalometer remote – you can still do this. Just get a one of the locking, plugin remotes, set your camera to Continuous shooting mode (high speed drive) and your exposure to 30 seconds, then press and lock it. Come back in 30-60 minutes and unlock the remote. Voila – you will have a series of images (make sure it's shooting before you walk away).
    • NOTE: we tried to set up a Nikon that has a built-in intervalometer and we messed it up. Make sure you read the manual and test how to set it up right before you get on site in the dark! You do not want to walk away assuming your camera will shoot 100 images and it only takes 10 and stops.
  • Get a snack or a pillow and relax and enjoy the stars! You're going to be there a while so get comfortable, or if you're in a secure area – leave the camera to do its thing and come back later.

This is what your single image should look like roughly:

star-trails-stacking-750px-07
This is straight out of camera, no processing. Notice we got The Milky Way too!

Step two – image processing

Now that you've got your series of images, import them into Lightroom (or your preferred image editing software) and edit the first one in the set. Apply a lens correction (if you wish), add clarity, reduce the noise a bit, add sharpening, and boost the whites. I also tweaked the Temp and Tint sliders a bit to add more blue and magenta to bring out the night sky colors more.

Tip: Hold down the Option/Alt key while clicking and dragging the Whites slider to the right. It will turn your image mostly black, and only areas which are clipped (white with no detail) will appear white. Drag it to the right and watch as more dots (stars) appear. This is a good thing! This will make your stars pop more.

star-trails-processing-sync

Once you have the first image processed, select the entire series (with the processed one highlighted) in your filmstrip at the bottom of the screen. Then click Sync and in the box that pops up choose “Check all” then hit “Synchronize”. That will apply the same adjustment settings from the image you just edited, to all of them (see above screenshot).

My single image looks like this after editing:

star-trails-stacking-750px-03

The differences are subtle, but if your image is slightly darker or a bit underexposed, this step will make a ton of difference once they get stacked for star trails. Lastly, you'll need to Export (save as) all your images from the series out as JPGs. Save them all into a separate folder and call it “Images for star stacking” or something similar, and put it where you can find it easily.

Step three – stacking the images

You can do this using Photoshop but to be honest there is a WAY easier and faster way to do this, and it's free. So, if you don't have Photoshop, or want to try this method – go download StarStax right now so you can continue to follow along.

star-trails-stacking-750px-08

When you open the program you'll see something similar to the image above. Find the folder where you put all your JPGs and literally drop it where it says. You'll see previews appear in that box.

star-trails-stacking-750px-09

From the Blending Mode pull-down menu choose “Gap Filling”. You can play with the different choices, but as we took images with little breaks between them, this option will fill in those gaps so you have nice complete star trails. You can also try out the Comet Mode if you like which adds little tails on to the end of your trails (makes them fatter at the end). I tried it with and without comet tails and saved them both so I could choose later.

Next hit “Start Processing” – it's the 4th button from the top left. You'll be able to watch as it forms your trails in front of your very eyes. The more images you have, and the large the file sizes – the longer it will take to process. The set I've given you to practice with was exported at 1600px wide, so it only took about 9.2 seconds to process on my computer. If you use full sized ones and have more images it could take a few minutes, depending on your computer's speed as well.

star-trails-stacking-750px-10
You should see something like this.
Important: You need to save this image! It does not do that for you automatically. You can make any adjustments or play with the settings and save as many different variations as you like – just remember to hit the Save button (third from the left) each time and give them unique names. I saved them in the same folder as the series of star shots.
Here is my star trails image as saved from StarStax.
Here is my star trails image as saved from StarStax.

Step four – add light painted images using layer blend modes in PS

Now let's turn the lights on in the foreground! For this last part you will need Photoshop, or a program that handles layers and Blend Modes. Elements will work, as I do believe GIMP will as well (don't quote me on that one, I haven't used it personally).

I like to pull the new star stacked image back into Lightroom first, so just do an Import and Add it (not Copy) to your LR catalogue. Then, however you do it, select the new star trails image, and the three light painted ones (note: I saved them out at the same 1600px size so make sure your images are all the same size if you're doing this with your own) and open them as layers in Photoshop.

Here is what the three painted images look like (processed in LR only):

star-trails-stacking-750px-04

star-trails-stacking-750px-02

star-trails-stacking-750px-01

Put the star trails one (darkest one) on the bottom and the light painted ones on top. I'm not going to go into detail on how to combine them here as I've covered that in more detail in some part articles (videos). So if you aren't sure how to use layers or blend modes have a read/watch of these:

Light painting is a bit unpredictable so do a few variations that you can pull from later. I used the best parts from each of the three images above, combined with the star trails image and got the final version. Here it is again:

star-trails-stacking-750px-05

Action plan

Now it's your turn. Take the images I've given you here and play around. See what you can come up with. If you have a different method of stacking please share in the comments below, and show me your final version! Most of all, have fun with it.

Cheers,
Darlene-1-250x130.png

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  • Saurav Dhyani

    This is another great read Darlene… I do not have Light room, but can try stacking them into PS and share results…. I required all these tips last month, when I shot my first Star Trail (you’ve already seen the results, hence not sharing again).
    I have a question for you, keeping the aperture at F2.0 will it allow to capture those tiny dots(stars), since the shutter speed is very slow and ISO is also very high… I am a bit confused on this one. Also, can you please help in explaining White Balance as well. What should be the appropriate mode to be selected for such pictures?
    Thanks in advance.

    • Yes opening the lens wide is the only way to capture the light from the stars. It’s also why if the moon is full, or bright it will overpower the stars – as will any ambient light which is why you need to be in a dark area away from the city. So new moon or times of the month when the moon is small is best for shooting stars. So the large aperture, long exposure and high ISO allow capture of the stars.

      For white balance – shoot raw is the best plan. But try shooting in Daylight balance. That will give a nice blue night sky. This is mentioned under Step One Shooting, the 5th bullet point down:

      Set your camera to the correct exposure. I used the following, you can start here: ISO 3200, f/2.8 for 30 seconds, and Daylight White Balance. If you don’t have f/2.8 on your lens you may need to bump your ISO up to 6400. If you have f/2.0 use that and the stars will come out even brighter and you can possibly lower your ISO to 1600 also. It will look dark but you want an exposure where you can see some stars clearly.

  • David Itzkowic

    hi darlene, really enjoyed this article. what is a locking plugin remote ?

  • Ashvin

    Hi Darlene, very good article I was waiting for. I have seen some star trail photos and was wondering how it can be shot! You have answered my question with detailed and more important understandable explanation. Thanks for great article. I am not sure when I will shoot star trail, but I will do it definitely.

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