Star Trails

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A compendium of tips learned while taking images like those shown in the Image Gallery and the figures below. Some star trail related tips also apply to other low-light photography scenarios. Last updated: May 6, 2018.


  1. Low Light Rewards
  2. What Kind Of Image?
  3. Sky Considerations
  4. Preparing the Photographer for the Night
  5. Preparing the Camera for the Night
  6. Getting the Right Exposure
  7. To Stack or Not To Stack
  8. Optimum Star Trail Strategy
  9. Processing Images
  10. Additional Tips
  11. References

Low Light Rewards

Obtaining images at night or in very low light conditions can be surprising and rewarding. The camera reveals things that the unaided human eye cannot see. Our eyes only discern shades of gray in low light, but the camera sees color. Turning out the light does not make a thing go away. The chair still remains in the dark room as is painfully clear when “discovered” by means of the shin. Although our eyes can not see color in the dark or collect photons (light) over long periods of time the camera can. The amazing photographs from the Hubble Space Telescope are sometimes created by exposing the sensor for minutes – or hours – at a time. Because there is so little light it takes a long time to collect enough photons to reveal what is there. The camera can also “see” wavelengths (colors) that the human eye cannot – for example, infra-red and ultraviolet.

What Kind Of Image?

Many kinds of images are attainable at night or in low light that cannot be obtained under “normal” conditions. For example a flash, or combination of strobes or gels can be used to illuminate a scene to dramatically alter the strength and direction of the light. In the same way long exposures allow for illumination of key parts of an image with a flashlight, headlight, candle light, or glow stick. If the exposure is long, the photographer can even move through the image while it is being exposed and illuminate different parts of the scene in different light. This technique is called light painting.

It is possible also to combine multiple exposures with different illumination in each. And, starting with a sequence of shots it is possible to combine them into a time-lapse movie, or into a single image.

The first thing to decide is what kind of sky image to capture. Capturing star trails

Blast from the Past

Photo 1: Star Trail Facing North. (19 eight minute exposures, post processed with Advanced Stacker PLUS)

is different from capturing a star-filled sky.

South Side Truckin' [C_009842]

Photo 2: Starry Sky – Single 30 Second Exposure

Just as motion blur occurs when the shutter speed is too slow for a moving subject the long exposures needed for night photography allow the earth to rotate enough to streak the stars: no kidding!

To obtain a natural looking starry sky the exposure must be less than the time it takes for the stars to noticeably streak. How long is that?

  • Divide 500 by the focal length in 35 mm terms to get the maximum number of seconds of exposure without noticeable blurring. A 28 mm lens on a 1.6 crop factor camera yields: 500 / (1.6 * 28) = 11 seconds. (You may see this described as the 600 rule, but my experience is that 600 will result in streaks. For much more detail on the rule, see here.)

11 seconds is a relatively short time. If a 200mm lens is used streaks begin in 1.6 seconds – a very, very short time for a night exposure.

For star trails the limiting exposure time will be due to one of the following issues: battery life, the amount of background glow in the sky, or the relative noisiness of the camera sensor. More on these issues in a moment.

Sky Considerations

This one is pretty simple. Seek the darkest skies possible. Dark skies are found far away from city glow and when there is no moon in the sky. But don’t despair if you live near heavily light polluted cities or only have a chance to shoot in strong moonlight. The sky is darkest when the all the following are true:

  1. There is no visible glow in the direction of the photographs from any man-made sources. Sometimes such glow is noticed only in long exposures!
  2. The sun has set for at least 90 minutes or it is at least 90 minutes before sunrise. (Actual time varies by your latitude and season).
  3. The moon has set for at least 20 minutes or it is more than 20 minutes before it rises.
    NOTE: The moon is a very useful tool to get some light on your foreground objects – particularly when the foreground is large and distant from the camera. The best star trail shots usually either start as the moon is setting or end when the moon is rising. If there is no moon, shooting can start or end at twilight.

If the Milky Way is visible from horizon to horizon the environment is definitely dark enough and star trails are possible. Even when only a few stars are discernible in the sky, and even when the moon is full or nearly so star trails are usually possible – they just need more planning – usually shorter exposures.

Clouds – especially high, thin clouds can add some dramatic “milkiness” to the image – as can the Milky Way itself.

Preparing the Photographer for the Night

This one is pretty simple. Bring layers of clothes and dress more warmly than expected. A thermos of hot beverage, snacks and perhaps a blanket or sleeping bag and a comfortable chair are all useful. While it is very tempting to use a flashlight or a headlight to see in the night and it is wise to bring one of each better overall night vision is achieved by turning off ALL light and allowing the eyes at least 15 minutes to dark adapt. Turning off all lights should include turning off the camera’s various displays, or at least turning them to the lowest brightness level possible.

Preparing the Camera for the Night

When photographing with a digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera each of the following guidelines should be heeded (in fact, we have a checklist with even more detail):

  1. Use the fastest, widest lens for capturing the sky such as f/2 or f/2.8 at 17mm (or wider) if possible. f/4 or f/4.5 will work, too.
  2. Keep extra batteries accessible.
  3. Know the camera controls and where the buttons are without resorting to flashlights or artificial light.
  4. Use a sturdy tripod, well supported and weighted down. Insure that you can change the memory card or the battery without moving or removing the camera on the tripod.
  5. Turn off all the accessories that drain battery life – e.g. turn off the “image preview” feature and the on-screen display of shooting data.
  6. If using a timer with an initial delay, the camera may auto-power off before the first image is taken. This means the camera must be able to return to the settings needed, not back to different power on settings. For many Canon DSLR models, it may be necessary to use the C1, C2 or C3 (customer user settings) function.
  7. Pre-focus on infinity and remember to TURN OFF AUTOFOCUS! The moon or a bright light in the distance are great tools for focusing the camera in the dark if the daytime focusing is forgotten or has been changed accidentally. On some camera models if Auto Focus (AF) is not turned off, the camera may refuse to take a picture since it can not focus in the dark.
  8. Set the camera to manual mode. Normally “BULB” mode is used. Bulb mode keeps the shutter open as long as the shutter button is pressed.
  9. Attach a programmable release cable (preferred) or locking remote release cable (second best), or be ready to have your finger, or a jury-rigged apparatus for holding your shutter button down (e.g. pebble and tape or rubber band).
  10. Set white balance to daylight.
  11. Turn OFF long exposure noise reduction.**
  12. Turn OFF high ISO noise reduction.

**Q: Why turn off long exposure noise reduction?
A: Long exposure noise reduction will introduce gaps in time between exposures. When taking a SINGLE shot “long exposure noise reduction” can be left on. But remember that when left on the exposure will take up to twice as long to complete. High ISO noise reduction may not be as effective in-camera as out of camera. Try it both ways.

Q: How long do I have to expose to get a trail?
A: As discussed earlier, the length of the trail depends on the field of view of your lens. The field of view can be calculated from the focal length and the crop-factor (also called focal length multiplier). Stars at the celestial equator travel 15 degrees each hour. If the field of view is 15 degrees – as it would be at 100 mm – one hour of exposure produces edge-to-edge star trails. A wider angle lens such as 17mm requires 4.5 hours to get edge-to-edge trails! Stars near the north celestial pole (i.e. near the North Star, Polaris) move as well, but the trails will be much shorter and more curved in the same period of time.

Please note that a pleasing star trail requires as many as 3 hours of exposure (longer if possible), so be prepared with a spare battery… or use an excessively massive battery rig.

Getting the Right Exposure

A histogram of a night image will be skewed to the left. That is as it should be… it is a dark image after all. The camera – if allowed to – will expose a photo based on the assumption that it is capturing daylight and 12% grey. An auto-calculated exposure will make your night look like day time complete with a blue sky! To determine the optimum exposure start with the highest ISO possible and take an exposure for say 10 seconds at f/4. If the histogram is between 1/3 and 1/2 of the way across, then this is your “exposure factor.” 10 seconds * 1200 ISO = 12,000 @ f/4. Next decrease the ISO and lengthen the exposure proportionately. The best ISO setting for star trails is near to or less than 400. In our example, decreasing to 400 (dividing the ISO by 3) means we have to triple the exposure from 10 seconds to 30 seconds. Our exposure factor will remain constant: 400 * 30 = 12000. Next test a 30 second exposure and check the results. Still good? Then reduce the ISO by a factor of four (100 ISO) and expose for four times longer: 120 seconds (two minutes). Changing the f/stop will also necessitate a change in one of the other elements of the exposure factor.

Decreasing the f/stop from f/4.0 to f/3.5 means a 30% shorter exposure is needed. Increasing from f/4.0 to f/5.6 means either the exposure time or the ISO must be doubled.

SORRY. Diagram is missing. Will be restored

Figure 7
This is a good exposure in a bright moon scenario. The exposure histogram is about 1/3 of the way from the dark edge at left to the bright edge at right.

Missing Diagram. To Be fixed.

Figure 8
Later the same evening the moonlight caused the image and the histogram
to look like the above.

In the second image the stars are almost washed out by the moon glow. When the sky becomes too bright there are three possible remedies: make shorter exposures, reduce the ISO, or stop altogether and wait for the moon to be less prominent. While it may be tempting to decrease the aperture the result of that action will enable longer exposures, but reduce the contrast in the stars.

While looking at the exposure histogram, it is a good idea to check sharpness. It is hard to focus at night but if necessary a series of tweaks on the focus followed by exposures can at least improve the sharpness. The best night focus trick I can offer is to focus on the moon if it is available.

The best focus is at the hyperfocal distance for your lens and f-stop. For a 17mm lens at f/4 that distance is about 18 feet. Focusing at 18 feet can be accomplished with a bright flashlight.

The best images are often composed from sky exposures for the stars and one or more foreground exposures. The foreground exposures may need to be much longer than the sky exposures. Changes to the aperture or the focus for any of the exposures may cause a misalignment of the images and degrade the quality of the result. Changing the ISO is not recommended either as variations in star trails may occur as a result. Therefore it is best to only change the exposure duration. Having the initial or final exposures correspond with nautical twilight may provide enough light for foreground illumination.

I also recommend capturing “dark frames.” A dark frame is an image taken with all of the settings used for the “sky exposures” images but with the lens cap on! A Dark Frame is important if you have either a noisy camera or a lot of sky glow. Dark frames can be used to enhance the contrast of the image and to help control hot pixel noise. One caveat is that the dark frames should be taken with the camera at the same temperature and settings because noise varies greatly with heat. For more tips about dark frames and how they can be used please see this article.

Varying the Aperture

Figure 9 is a composite of 8 four-minute exposures taken with a 50mm f/1.4 lens using a Canon 50D digital camera. All noise reduction was turned off. The pictures were taken directly overhead in the author’s backyard and included a nearly full moon and light pollution from the city of San Jose, California. From the lower left to the upper right are increasing f-stop (smaller apertures). Two star paths are labeled. One at the bottom shows a very bright star that is clearly visible in all of the images. Another star trail
just above the upper labels is almost invisible until f/5.6 or less. By inspection the best exposures – the ones that show the best contrast and still manage to keep the sky dark – are the f/5.6 and f/8 exposures. The f/4 exposure reveals some faint stars that are barely visible in the other images, while at the extreme the f/22 image at 800 ISO is very noisy. The f/16 image at 400 ISO is noisy as well.

Sorry. MISSING IMAGE. To Be repaired…

Figure 9

To Stack or Not To Stack

You may be wondering what is stacking. There are several different kinds of stacking, but what this treatise addresses is brightness compositing (called lighten mode in Photoshop). In brightness mode, the brightest pixel at each position from all of the images in the input appears in the resulting output image. Other forms of stacking include addition, average, darkest, and a hodgepodge of bizarre statistical methods.

When taking a star trail there are three options: one long exposure (often not practical due to battery, sky glow or camera noise limitations), several intermediate length exposures (e.g. one to ten minutes each) or a hundred or more short exposures (20 to 30 seconds each). If a programmable timer is not available then many short exposures may be the only viable option.

Here are the pros and cons of each:

Exposure Length



Less than 31 seconds
  1. If an object (plane, car, cat, flashlight) marks up one image the image can be dropped from the stack or edited using a simple black out technique.
  2. May be the only practical solution if there is a lot of sky glow (which forces shorter exposures).
  3. Can be done by taping down the shutter button if the camera has a “continuous shutter” mode.
  4. Can create animation from the images.
  5. More images means averaging can reduce the overall noise.
  1. Lots of images may use up card memory. May have to use lower
    quality images (smaller size).
  2. Must stack images (post processing).
  3. Cameras have an operational life span that is shortened by every “shutter operation” so more images means shorter camera life.
  4. Camera imposed delays between exposures may cause “dotted” star
    trail images.
More than 31 seconds but less than 8 minutes
  1. Fewer images means more space available for highest quality images (preferably RAW).
  2. Every exposure has a segment of a trail.
  3. If the battery runs out only the last image is lost.
  4. Camera-delay imposed gaps between trails are less intrusive.
  5. More images means averaging can reduce the overall noise.
  1. One blown exposure leaves a hole in the result.
  2. Requires a locking cable release and preferably an intervalometer
    (programmable timer).
  3. Must get the timer set properly to avoid gaps (e.g. must allow one to three seconds between the end of one exposure and the start of the next.
8 minutes or longer
  1. Everything is in one exposure so there is less (or no) post processing.
  2. When using a locking release cable the exposure can be set and left alone for a long time without oversight or intervention.
  3. No intervalometer is needed.
  4. The “long exposure noise reduction” feature can be used to improve
    the image.
  5. No gaps in the trail.
  1. It is an all or nothing proposition – your exposure completes
    properly or the battery runs out. Good star trails, IMHO require
    HOURS of exposure, not minutes.
  2. There may be unacceptable and uncorrectable noise.
  3. Some loss of contrast is likely.
  4. Foreign elements – head lights, flashlights, airplanes, etc. – may spoil the whole exposure.
  5. For film shooters, expect reciprocity failure and color shift.
  6. Long exposures with noise reduction turned on double the length of the exposure.
  7. Very long exposures are only possible in very dark skies.

Stacking can accomplish more than creating star trails. Stacking can be used, for example to smooth out rough water just as is accomplished with a long exposure. Figure 10 shows what happens when 12 separate “normal” daylight images are stacked. Any single image showed rough water while the combined images smooth out the water. Stacking can also be used to create fascinating effects from moving clouds (see here).

Mono - Stacked DayLight Images Stacked
Figure 10
Moon Break [5_019889-99]Beach at Night
Figure 11
Moon Break - Restacked...Same as Figure 11 with a Twilight Exposure
Figure 12

Figure 11, a star trail stack when combined with a single dark frame from twilight produces Figure 12 showing how you can use multiple exposures to combine things together. Stacking can allow a shot with the moon and a shot without the moon to be combined cleanly. Figure 12 could be made even more appealing if combined with an image taken with illumination on the face of the rock (e.g. at dawn).

Minding the Gap

When stacking photos of stars images it is not unusual to find gaps in the trails. There are a number of reasons for these gaps. To understand the causes first imagine the camera sensor as a large two dimensional array of light “buckets.” Each bucket collects light (photons) for the duration of the exposure. When the exposure completes the shutter closes preventing any more light from entering any of the buckets. The camera then measures the number of photons collected in each bucket and creates an image from the millions of measurements. It takes time to close the shutter, complete the measurements and write out the resulting image to a memory card. After the processing time completes the camera is able to take the next exposure.

If the time between the end of one exposure and the beginning of the next is long enough any moving light source (stars, airplanes, meteors) will move enough during the non-exposure time to skip over some buckets leaving partially filled and unfilled buckets – dark pixels.

When a light source is moving very slowly across the sensor any interruption of light results in at least one bucket in the path collecting fewer photons. The under-filled bucket will produce a darker pixel. The bucket analogy is, of course, oversimplified because in reality even point light sources like stars cast light onto multiple light buckets at once. In most modern digital cameras the color of a pixel is created from three or more adjacent buckets each measuring a different color of light. The fact that starlight is collected across several pixels at a time gives rise to a second cause of gaps – the algorithms used to combine the images.

People like sharp images. Sharpness comes from processing the adjacent pixels in such a way that increases the contrast. So a “dim” pixel near several “bright” pixels will be brightened while a bright pixel near several dim pixels will be darkened. This processing which happens on an exposure by exposure basis is also performed when combining exposures. Using a different method to combine exposures can reduce the gaps.

Optimum Star Trail Strategy

  1. Pick your spot. Weigh down a sturdy tripod and make sure everything is solid. Wind and walking nearby should not rock the rig. If you are set up on a beach, make sure you are far enough from the surf that water will not wash near or under your tripod.
    : Be mindful of how you mount your camera on the tripod! You should be able to change both your battery and your memory card without having to unmount, move or dislodge the camera. If you have a shoulder strap on the camera, you may want to remove it to prevent the wind from wobbling the camera.
  2. Frame your shot. Do a high ISO test exposure to confirm focus and operation. You can also make a guesstimate at what length exposure is needed to properly expose the foreground. I have found that a well shot high – ISO exposure can be combined with the later shots to get a strong feeling for the sky.
  3. Set the camera back to the target ISO, put on the lens cap, format your memory card and take an exposure equal to the majority of your images with Long Exposure noise reduction OFF. This will be one of your dark frames.
  4. Start the automatic exposure sequence being sure to look at your first shot and allow enough time to be sure your second shot also starts immediately after the first one ends (three seconds is suggested). If the first shot is OK, delete it and
    the one you interrupted.
  5. Install a freshly charged battery and start the automated sequence over again. You may wish to first delete your prior shots so you do not later wonder why you have gaps in your star trail.
  6. Take a nap, walk away, get some exercise… Come back in an hour or so to confirm everything is still working. Check the battery condition and check the lens for dew – still OK? Let the shooting continue.
  7. As the current automated exposure completes, quickly reconfigure your camera to turn ON long exposure noise reduction and setup to take a LONG exposure – your goal in this shot is to get the foreground exposed pretty well and still have a long single star trail shot that is not washed out. Alternatively, you can make your exposures coincide with twilight at sunset or sunrise and use one or more shots from that (see Figure 12).
  8. When your foreground exposure completes (after noise reduction), put the lens cap back on, reset to your automated exposure settings and take two more dark frames (again for noise reduction). Make sure to keep the camera in the same climate so the dark frames are taken at the same temperature as the prior frames.
  9. Now you should check your last long exposure – the one exposed for the foreground. If it’s not right, you may need to increase the ISO and expose again. You may also need to swap batteries. Note that any shot you take now will have an unusable star trail due to the large gap in time between this step and the end of step 7. Therefore this extra fix up is ONLY for getting a foreground. You may need to resort to light painting of various forms. Heck, it’s worth a try even if your previous foreground exposure was great.
  10. Only now can you pack up or repoint your camera.

If the shot will run unattended, it is a good idea to double and triple check all of the following:

  • The ISO is set correctly (e.g. 200 to 400).
  • The f/stop is correct (2.8 to 5.6 recommended)
  • The camera is set to “bulb” exposure mode.
  • Auto exposure bracketing is OFF.
  • Exposure mode is set to single exposure (not high speed or continuous)
  • Your camera will return to the above settings if it enters auto-power down mode.
  • The intervalometer and the camera have sufficient battery.
  • The delay on the interval timer is set appropriately. It is best to
    start your first exposure near nautical twilight.
  • The exposure length is set correctly (e.g. 3 minutes, 57 seconds)
  • The delay between exposures is 3 seconds for older cameras but no less than one second for all cameras.
  • The number of exposures is correct (e.g. for 4 hours of exposures at 4
    minutes each you will need 60 exposures or more)
  • The timer has been started!
  • The timer, camera and batteries are secure.

For a complete list see “The Stacker’s Checklist“.

Processing Images

StarStax, and StarTrails.exe or Image Stacker are about all you need for pretty impressive results. In many cases Photoshop is a more effective tool for repairing images, but it is not nearly as fast or as easy to use for stacking as programs dedicated to this task. You may find the StarCircleAcademy Stacking Action useful, however. If you would like a thorough walk through of the process, you can attend a StarCircleAcademy Webinar on Creating Star Trails – or attend one of our single or multi-day workshops.

What does “stacking” do? To put it simply, it creates the final image by picking the brightest pixel from each image. Stacking can also employ averaging which has the great benefit of reducing noise. Professionally shot astrophotography uses many, many images combined together to produce the spectacular results seen in places like the Astronomy Picture of the Day.

Colorful Neighbor

Want a step by step description of how to create a star trail? We’ve got you covered in THIS article.  Once you get the hang of it, you can even get fancy.

Additional Tips

Planning For Star Trails

As described in the preceding paragraphs there are many considerations for planning a great star trail. Finding an interesting foreground, determining when the atmospheric and celestial conditions will best suit that location, scouting to find the best spots to photograph the image and so on. Here are some of the tools and tips that apply:

  1. If shooting an object to the West a half-full moon (or less) rising in the East can provide light on the foreground.
  2. If the object of interest is to the East, a setting sun or setting 1/2 full moon can be a good foreground illuminator.

Mirror Lock Up

The first press of the shutter button moves the mirror out of the way, the second press starts the exposure. When the exposure completes, the mirror moves back down. On my Canon cameras, putting the camera in mirror lock-up mode just does not work work as you would like. In lock-up mode the requirement of two presses of the shutter to take an image makes this mode worthless for star trails because an intervalometer can not be configured to generate two presses. Why use mirror lock-up at all? The theory around mirror lock-up is that certain exposures in the 1/20 to 2 second range are affected by the mechanical vibration that come from the mirror movement. This is especially true for telephoto arrangements and when the camera is not well secured. For 20 second or longer exposures mirror slap will make little or no difference.  One way to minimize mirror slap is to use Live View mode – but that eats more batteries.

What Focal Length Lens Should I Use?

The one element of the focal length that matters is that the shorter focal lengths give smaller width trails. Theoretically stars are points of light, but as you can see from pretty much any astronomy or star trail photo there is some bending of the atmosphere that moves around the point light source and widens the image.

Another element of the focal length is that the shorter the focal length, the longer you have to expose to fill the frame with a star trail (as was briefly described under “What Kind of Image”). Shorter focal length lenses have a wider angle (field of view), and that affects how long an exposure is needed to get a noticeable trail.

If you use a telephoto lens you can fill the field of view with a star trail in less time than if you use a wide-angle lens. For example: 488 mm focal length can be achieved on a 1.6 crop factor camera (Canon 50D) using a 1.4 Tele-extender and a 200 mm lens. The field of view of this lens is 4.5 degrees by 3 degrees. It takes a star at the celestial equator 12 minutes to move 3 degrees so you can have an edge to edge star trail in about 18 minutes using the telephoto lens. With a 30 mm lens the field of view is 40.5 degrees in one direction and 27.6 in the other. Since 27.6 is more than nine times bigger then 3, you have to expose nine times longer 108 minutes (one hour, 48 minutes) to allow that same star to sweep across the entire (narrow) field in the frame. Finally, from a compositional standpoint, a wider angle lens allows you to include more terrestrial or celestial real-estate in the image. There is one additional advantage, too. Wide angle lenses have closer hyperfocal distances. The hyperfocal distance is the distance from the camera at which everything from that point to infinity is in focus. In a nutshell this means you can include a nearby tree, building, cactus or other interesting foreground object and both it and the stars will be in focus.


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25 thoughts on “Star Trails

  1. Fernando

    “Divide 500 by the focal length in 35 mm terms to get the maximum number of seconds of exposure without noticeable blurring. A 28 mm lens on a 1.6 crop factor camera yields: 500 / (1.6 * 28) = 11 seconds.”

    I don’t understand why you consider the crop factor when calculating the “500 rule”. The crop is just a crop, not a magnification. Please explain. And thank you for the great articles on night photograpy

    1. Steven Christenson

      There are many factors here: pixel density (sensor geometry), field of view, amount of cropping (if any), displayed image size, and viewing distance. You are correct that if it’s just a crop no adjustment is needed. The real answer is a bit more complicated to explain (though I tried in my 600 Rule article). No adjustment would be needed IF the finished image size was also kept proportionately smaller. But what is generally true is that crop factor sensors are more densely packed than full frame sensors. Printing a small image larger introduces Magnification after the fact – as well as how far away one stands from the finished image!

      An adjustment factor would also apply to a single image from a full frame camera that has been cropped at less than full size. Finally, the thrust of the discussion is about “apparent” streaking based on a number of factors and is unrelated to the actual smearing across the sensor itself. The sensor smearing occurs in seconds!

      1. Gilles

        Ok, so physically, the crop factor was not applied to the focal length, during the image formation, but rather to the displacement on the sensor, during the subsequent image magnification.
        Thank you for the clarification.

        1. Steven Christenson

          I’m not sure I understand the way you’ve said that (but it’s late for me!). Perhaps this is a simple way to explain it: if you print an image from a full frame camera and a cropped sensor camera at the same finished size, you will introduce more magnification in the cropped image because it started SMALLER.

          To illustrate. Imagine an image from a 1×1″ sensor printed at 12×12″ vs a 2×2″ sensor image printed at the same 12×12″ finished size. The smaller sensor image was magnified 12 times, but the larger sensor image was only magnified 6 times.

  2. Bill Caid


    Your pages are right on the money! Your data is accurate and your suggestions both thoughtful and valid. I tried your techniques with good success on the first try, some equipment bugs notwithstanding. The results were sufficiently engaging that we are making another trip to “dark sky” territory to give it another try.

    Thanks for your efforts in putting these pages together.

    Best regards,

    1. Steven Christenson

      Thank you for your praise, Bill. More than one successful night photographer has told me that this material is what got them nearer where they wanted to be. I hope that is true for you as well.

  3. Narik


    This is one of the most detailed document on star trail/night photography that is out there. Thanks a lot for putting this together for everyone, helps a lot !!! I had one question, do you always shoot in RAW for star trails ? Or is jpeg recommended?


    1. Steven Christenson

      Thank you, Narik. The answer to both of your questions is “Yes”. I shoot in BOTH RAW and small JPG as I explain in my Creating Star Trails Webinars and in the Notes for the webinar (by the way you can get the notes bundled together with a Photoshop Stacking Action, too).

      Unless it’s an exceptional scenario I find the small JPGS are quick and easy to work with for “experiments” in star trails, and of course the RAWs give maximum latitude for best effect.

  4. Pingback: Shooting night time photography « GKHPhoto

  5. Todd Walker

    Steve – all this is extremely helpful. Awesome site, great references and overall just a great place to start when learning night photography. Lotta info to digest, but worth it.

  6. Ken

    Hey Steve, I really love the Advanced Star Stacker. The one thing is that it automatically flattens the image, which is unfortunately not something I want if I am to edit individual frames to remove airplanes or unwanted headlights. How do we stop this from flattening the image? Thank you very much!

    Actually, these are all my questions:
    1.) How can I keep everything from flattening? In other words, I want to keep all the layers intact for further editing.
    2.) How can I keep the action from renaming each layer?
    3.) How can I have #1 and #2 above work for other functions “long streaks”, “comets”, etc.? Thank you very much.

    1. Steven Christenson

      I hope you don’t mind, Ken, but I combined your two comments into one. The answer to your question depends on several things, which you’ve qualified. I’d start, however, by wondering how many frames you’re talking about? If large and/or more than say 20 then bringing everything in as layers is going to be VERY slow – and it’s part of the reason I created the action to work the way it does.

      Another part of the question has to do with whether you’re talking about the Advanced Stacker (ask here) or about the Advanced Stacker PLUS (ask here).

  7. Ken

    Steve, thanks, I actually like it that you combined my posts into one. I was referring to the Advanced Stacker PLUS and will post a question there. Thanks again! -Ken

    1. Steven Christenson Post author

      There is no direct way to do it. But the “Bump Technique” (one of the operations in the Advanced Stacker) can be used if the gaps are small (e.g. one pixel). See also Andy’s article on removing gaps. Most of the key points for eliminating gaps occur at the shooting stage.

  8. David Ford

    Excellent data! My question is: Can (or how) is my Canon digital camera able to focus, clearly on very far away objects such as the moon or a comet without the fuzzy, hazy atmospheric “noise?” Thank you

  9. Steven Christenson Post author

    Greg M. Asked:

    Q. I have a Canon 5DII and 5DIII with a Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 and a 24-70 f/2.8 lens. Which lens should I put on which camera?
    A. It’s a toss up. If you’re also trying to capture meteors, I’d put the faster and wider lens on the higher performing camera (the 5DIII).

    Q: Is there any advantage or disadvantage to shooting in SRAW1 or SRAW2?
    A: Yes. They are smaller image formats. When it comes time to make a wall sized print you’ll wish you shot with the larger RAW format. BUT, because they are smaller image sizes, you might choose those modes if you plan to take a lot of images and have only a small memory card.

  10. Thorsten

    Very good site here, thanks…but I’m a little confused now re. HFD. I thought I do understand this matter very well till now.

    That’s what you wrote above:

    “The best focus is at the hyperfocal distance for your lens and f-stop. For a 17mm lens at f/4 that distance is about 30 feet. Focusing at 30 feet can be accomplished with a bright flashlight.”

    Well, based on my calculations for a full frame 35mm camera and a circle of confusion of 0.03, the HFD for a focal length of 17mm and an f-stop of f4 should be 2.43 meters or ( about 8 feet) . That’s a huge difference to 30 feet. What do you think? What are your HFD calculations based on?
    Sorry to be picky but if you want foreground subjects within the composition and you want them to be sharp than I think this is very important. Please feel free to proof me wrong, may I haven’t understand it right. It would help me a lot for my own work. Thank You.


    1. Steven Christenson Post author

      Thorsten: It’s pretty clear you understand the subject. If you picked a 5×7″ camera, the Hyperfocal distance (HFD you call it) decreases to less than two feet. However, this article is intended to present advice for all photographers regardless of their equipment. The Nikon 1/C with a sensor larger than most point and shoots is probably the practical limit of what someone might try to use to shoot star trails and the hyperfocal distance there is 21.6 feet. I’ve updated the text to 18 feet as a compromise.

      A good article on Hyperfocal distance can be found at Cambridge In Colour Here is a quote from their article:

      The hyperfocal distance is best implemented when the subject matter extends far into the distance, and if no particular region requires more sharpness than others. Even so, it’s often helpful to use a more rigorous requirement for “acceptably sharp,” or to focus slightly further and improve background sharpness.

      Finally, it’s also worth noting that no lens I have seen has distance markings beyond the lens’ maximum hyperfocal distance. If the markings are accurate, focusing at infinity is a “no fail” way to get 95% of all star trail shots.

      1. Thorsten

        Thanks for your comment re. HFD Steven. I think your final words nailed it. Focusing at infinity is a “no” fail and keeps things simple and I like simple. As a newbie to astro photography but not photography in general I was only a little worried in photographing stars, trails or anything at the night sky with objects on earth in the foreground that I wouldn’t be able to get the sky AND the foreground acceptably sharp enough. Infinity is a hell of a distance 🙂 All good, physic is universal and just doesn’t belong to earth only. And of course a medium format 5×7 compared to lets say a Canon 40D APS-C, the sensor size governs HFD too.
        Cheers and thanks a lot for your help, this is a good site to learn, highly appreciated.

  11. Pingback: Swirling Stars at a Star Party | The Amazing Sky

  12. Michael MacDonald

    I go back to the film days where you could set up your camera and get star trails that were continuous streaks.Is there software that will take the many digital exposures to get the same effect, essentially connecting the dots. When blown up large, I find the micro-necklace of tiny dots unappealing. Also, I just purchased a Nikon D850. Would this camera allow for exposures of several hours?

    1. Steven Christenson Post author

      When blown up large

      The crux of the problem is that statement. But proper exposure, and stacking can all but eliminate the gap(s). For what it’s worth, one of our images (comprised of 54 separate one minute exposures) was featured in several publications and the editors never commented about the gaps (which were visible when blown up large). By micro-necklace, perhaps you’re indicating short exposures were taken, and if so, you may have suffered from the “How Long is a 30 Second Exposure” problem we discovered long ago and which continues to exist in current generation cameras.

      The problem with the “one long exposure” scenario is that a lot can ruin the attempt, and you must have dark conditions to pull it off. And finally, you find MORE noise in a single long exposure than in multiple shorter exposures, because you can always average out the multiple exposures.


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