How to Shoot Stars!

This is my personal journey as I continue to learn to shoot star trails. I am fascinated and obsessed with star trails.  What are star trails you ask?  Well, They are bascially just light trails…light trails with a twist. You see, stars stay in their assigned places in the sky, but we here on the earth are constantly moving in an orbit. That being the case the stars seem to change their position in the sky constantly. When taking a long exposure of the sky on a clear night, the camera actually captures the trail of light left in the sky as the earth rotates. Fascinating ;)

  What do you need to capture star trails?

Well you need a DSLR camera, a tripod, and a place where you can see the stars at night with limited light pollution. A remote or cable release is also VERY useful, but not necessarily essential. I’ll explain… 

  Preparing the shot 

The most difficult part about capturing star trails is setting up the shot. It takes planning, and seriously, who likes that?  But it’s worth it. Take time during the day to scout out possible locations for your shot. This is essential as once it is dark enough to capture the stars you usually can not see anything around you. lol. I learned this the hard way. Take note of things that might damage your shot, such as street lights, nearby roads, etc.  Ideally you will want to be shooting away from distracting lights. You also want to take note of the landscape. While the stars in themselves are dazzling, including foreground in your shot makes for a stronger composition. Be sure that all foreground elements are at least 10 feet or more away from you….

  (My 1st sucessful shot taken outside of Half Moon Bay California with a bright moon. Exposure: 215, Aperature: F/10, Focal Length: 18mm, ISO: 200)

  (Taken in the countryside over Russian River, just about an hour after sunset. Exposure: 365, Aperature: F/5, Focal Length: 18 mm, ISO: 200) 

 Taking the shot

 So it’s a nice clear night, you have a location, and it’s time to take your shot.  Now for the technical bit ;)  First, set your focus on infinity. This means setting the focus to the ∞ symbol, or, if you have Nikkor lenses like me, turn all the way to the right. Next, ask yourself some questions. How dark is it? Are you way out in the country with hardly any noise pollution? If so, keep your aperture wide open to soak up the light, something like f/5. If you live where there is more light pollution though, start out with a smaller aperture like f/10. With practice you will learn what is best for your area.  In super dark places you may need to increase your ISO, but try the lowest number first ;) 

 Next question…how long do you want to shoot for? When I first started I over eagerly insisted on super long exposure times. Don’t make my mistake. Try shorter exposures first, like 3 minutes. See how the shot comes out. Was it sucessful? Great, now try 5 minutes. Remember, the longer the exposure time, the more noise in the image. To take exposure times longer than 30 seconds you will most likely need a remote for your camera, or a cable release. Set your shutter speed to “bulb” and use your remote or release to take the shot. Be sure to time your shot carefully.  If you do not have a remote or cable release, don’t worry, you will find a trick at the end of the article… 

 (Exposure: 423, Aperature: F/4.5, Focal Length: 18 mm, ISO: 200)

Another interesting tidbit to keep in mind is…the direction you shoot will affect the movement of your light trails. Don’t worry about this at first as any star trails you capture will be amazing.  But, it is interesting to note that if you face North, the light trails will move in an arc around the North Star, or Polaris.  If you want to capture circular trails in the sky, therefore, it is handy to carry a compass while you scout for locations. Then, once it is dark, you will know exactly where to find North :) I finally found North after shooting the shot below!

Milkyway. Exposure: 431 sec., f/5.6, ISO: 200 (The Milkyway as seen from Jenner, California. Exposure: 431 sec., f/5.6, ISO: 200) 

Do you see the one non-moving star to the left of the shot?  The other stars seem to be moving around it. That is the North Star. How do you find it? Well, the way I find it, besides using a compass, is to find the big dipper. Follow the big dipper from the handle to the ladel and the ladel part will point to Polaris.

 (Apple Orchard in Guerneville, California. 6 shots, 6 minutes each at f/5.6, ISO: 200)  

For this shot I tried a little trick I’ll share with you :)  Oooh this is a really great trick!!  You see, the longer your exposure is, the more noise you will have in your shot. This is especially so if you have to have a higher ISO number. So, instead of taking one super long shot here, I took six shots consecutively each 6 minutes long. Then I layered them on top of each other in Photoshop and set the blend mode to “lighten”.  This mode allows only the lightest parts  of each layer to show through and thus the result here is one shot showing a 36 minute time frame.  I used the same trick here…

(Selyem William’s vineyard. 11 shots 3 minutes each, F/5.6, ISO: 200) 

For this scene I chose short exposure times of 3 minutes each. The reason, it’s was still very early in the evening with alot of ambiant light, plus a very bright moon.  Taking so many shots and layering them allowed me to ensure that my image wouldn’t be over exposed and still capture the trails.  I hope to revisit this scene the next time I visit the countryside… 

Here’s a tip: If you don’t have a remote or cable release you might not be able to do extended long exposures. You can however take 30 sec exposures. So take alot of 30 second exposures consecutively and overlay them using the “lighten” blend mode. Or, if there are just too many shots, try merging them with a star trail program like this one :)

 (Shelter Cove, Pacifica. Exposure: 128 sec, F/5.6, ISO: 200, Focal Length: 15 mm) 

Now of course we know that stars trailing in the sky are awesome, but sometimes just stars, without trails, are even better. After trying the scene above with and without trails, the image with the stars as static won the vote…

 (Old Cottage, Guerneville. 51 shots at 30 sec each, F/5.6, ISO: 200, Focal Length: 13 mm) 

 (Safari West, Santa Rosa. One hour of stars. 21 shots at 3 min. each, F/5, ISO: 200)

Watch a video of these stars growing :)

 Things I’ve learned thus far…   

  • Scout out a place to shoot BEFORE nightfall, perferably with a compass to determine the direction of the stars
  • Make sure foreground elements are at least 10 feet or more in front of you
  • Set focus to infinity
  • Set shutter speed to bulb
  • Shoot at the lowest ISO number you can get away with
  • Shoot with the widest aperture you can you can get away
  • doBring a tripod and a remote or cable release
  • Higher places are better, and shooting over the ocean is not ideal because ocean mist often conceals and distorts stars
  • Stay away from roads unless you want the headlights of vehicles to illuminate your foreground
  • In real dark scenes use a flashlight to gently light paint your foreground


Check out this blog for amazing star trails!

31 Responses to “How to Shoot Stars!”

  1. You’ve progressed amazingly with these Amber. I always look forward to your next star shot, and finding out what the next step you take will be. Maybe some shooting stars next time. How cool would that be. These are seriously amazing though. Now conquer that fear of the dark and get out there some more. lol. :)

  2. You’ve got some real good tips here Amber, and a wonderful selection of stunning shots. It’s great to see how you’ve progressed with all the practice, and real good to read what you’ve learnt too. I feel like quite the expert now, and really must give this a go. Can’t wait for your next instalment. :)

  3. […] visiting this gorgeous blog I have realised I have a new thing I need to add to my list-of-things-to-learn: Star Trail […]

  4. Hey Amber,
    Those pictures are gorgeous! I love star trails and astrophotography, so thank you for giving me a reminder of another thing I need to learn how to do (you can see from your ping-back I had to write a post on that :P).
    I will be back to check your progress and learn vicariously through you :)

    • Thanks Amy. I’m so glad you like the post. There is somethiing so amazing and addicting about star trails! Once you start you just can’t get enough :)

      • Hahaha I can imagine! It’s just another enticing reason why I *have* to get a dslr…better start saving :P

  5. …and set your camera to bulb and lock the shutter release. Make yourself a coffee and enjoy:-) Love to “read” your process, sure will come back here to see how things are growing!

  6. Another great article, thanks. I don’t have a DSLR yet but will by spring, so this is very useful. I really gotta dial up the Photoshop, though. I have so little experience with it. I currently edit in ACDSee, which is more like Photoshop Elements.

    • Oh, hmmm….never heard of that editing software. You must try star trails when you get a dslr. Even without PS you’ll get great results!

  7. […] when I had to take a shot I’d been after for a while…. and using the tried and trusted layering technique … I blended this from 18 30sec exposures… Well it didn’t come out quite how I […]

  8. wow thank you so much for writing this tutorial! your photos are stunning :)

  9. im gonna try tonight! thanks for writing this up. aloha!

  10. Hi, I must say this has got to be the most user-friendly, easiest to understand, and my favorite guide on shooting star trails.
    I will definitely keep your tips in mind, and am about to set on a a nice vacation in Melbourne, out at the countryside, where the night sky is breathtaking.
    I hope I’ll be able to get some decent shots.
    Thank you for the tip! I really appreciate it.

    • Oh thank you so much for the comment. I’m so happy that you find this page useful and I hope you get some amazing shots in Melbourne. Be sure to share what you get! :)

  11. Hi Amber,
    Further to my comment above, I’m in Melbourne now. I’ve been shooting (with little success, thanks to successive nights of cloud cover!) the night sky.
    I don’t have a remote trigger, so my first attempt resulted in camera shake. Subsequent nights, I mitigated it by tightening the tripod’s grip of the camera. But I realized that during that 1hour+ of star gazing, (as you rightly said) I could really see the whole starry sky move! It’s so fascinating! Made me so philosophical during that moment as I took it all in, thinking how our earth is revolving.
    My next question is, now that I’ve got many 30 second bursts enough to show the star trail, how do i layer them in Photoshop? Would you be able to share how you do it (I have photoshop but I’ve never tried layering).
    Thanks, I’m so excited to layer them (as soon as I figure out how to do it). When I finally do, I’d love to show you what I took, from your tutorial above! ;)
    Thanks a heap!

    • Oooh sorry to respond a little late. Congrats on your star shooting experience. It sounds like it was wonderful! Well, to layer, first make sure your layer palette window is open. Next, open up your first image. Then, open your second image, click “select all”, “copy”, and then “paste” onto your first image. Now on your first image you will see 2 layers in your layer palatte. Do you see “blending options” in your layers palatte? Change blending mode to “lighten”. Now go ahead and close that second image, open your next image and repeat the above steps. Do this for all your images. Hope this helps ;)

  12. Hi Amber,
    Sorry for the tardy reply. Thank you so much for the tip. I just successfully layered 12 shots of 30 second exposures. They’re not as smooth as I thought it would be, it had “breaks” in between, the 2 second delay before I went and snapped in between shots.
    I’d love to show you, but how do I share the pic?
    Thanks again

    • Hi Elnie. Do you post pictures to any site? WordPress? Flickr? Picassa? If not, and if you feel comfortable emailing me a small version of the pic I’d be happy to see it that way. You can shoot me an email through my website and I’ll reply using my actual email address ;)

  13. Hi Amber, I recently borrowed some books and a magazine on astronomy, and have been learning how to spot constellations.
    I’m excited to have identified my 2nd constellation, ie. gemini.
    Anyway, I have been taking pictures of the night sky too, and as usual, I turn to this page, as my reference.
    Still say, it’s one of the best guides I’ve found. So easy to follow and your work is always something I learn something new from! Keep it up! Love it!

  14. Hello Amber, what a great post! Easy to understand, thanks to you. Lots of interesting information, I will try that someday, until than I will come back and check your beautiful photos.


  15. Found your site randomly when looking up how to shoot stars. Great tips and great photos!

  16. Thanks for the great tips… Maybe I’ll head outside now.

  17. I am going to try this when it gets warm out it to cold here it has been in the lows here .

  18. Fantastic shots. I was looking for a way to shoot the COSMOS at night and your site was the first one I saw when I Googled on “how to do this” and I am glad I did.

    I will dedicate my first attempt to you and my masterpiece also. Thank you for such talent and great information.


  19. too good job

  20. I used to shoot at night alot back in the film days but ran into noise roadblocks with digital. Thanks for the post, I think I can do this!

  21. Oh wow. I love shooting stars too. We got back from Namibia a couple days ago which by the way is a wonderful place for star-shootings ;) I’d be happy to hear your thoughts on it:

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