Tag Archives: site selection

Stacker’s Checklist

Created November 2, 2010
Last Updated April 19, 2019

Note: Items in RED are suggestions that apply in particular to star trail captures and may be changed based on circumstances at the scene and goals.

Site Selection

  • Sunrise, Sunset, Moonrise, Moonset and moon phase all known.
  • Safe area, travel paths known


  • Camera, tripod, release plate, camera batteries, memory card, lens, intervalometer + batteries, lens hood, rain protection, headlamp, flashlight/torch, and items for light painting.

On Site

  • Tripod set up – no leaning (center column should be vertical) – leg locks tightened.
  • Camera aimed, leveled.
  • Camera locked onto tripod. Head tightened.
  • Tripod weighted/secure and everything is wobble free. Keep the tripod low and out of the wind for best stability. Do not extend the center column.
  • Neck strap removed or secured to prevent wind throw. Intervalometer and any other cord, or wiring also secure. Velcro on the intervalometer and the tripod leg is a handy trick.
  • Save GPS coordinates and/or mark site with glow stick / other?

Camera Settings

  • Manual Mode, Bulb exposure
  • ISO 200  (varies but from 100 to 800, and up to 6400 if capturing meteors or the Milky Way)
  • Single Exposure
  • LCD brightness down
  • Image review time off
  • Record in RAW
  • White Balance = daylight (Auto not recommended)
  • Aperture f/4 (f/1.4 to f/7.1)
  • Auto focus OFF
  • Image stabilizer (vibration reduction) OFF
  • Long Exposure Noise Reduction OFF
  • Mirror Lockup OFF
  • Auto Exposure Bracketing OFF
  • Focus Assist OFF (this often fires an infra-red beam/red beam and will annoy other photographers). On many cameras this feature is on the flash unit/speedlite. On Nikons, this resource may help.

Timer Setup & Test

  • No delay, length of exposure = 1:59 minutes (adjust based on conditions. A 2 minute total interval is a good starting point), interval = 1 second, Num exposures >= 120
  • Timer cabled to camera
  • Test sequence (lens cap on) – Verify that second shot starts before canceling.

Focus & Final Framing

  • Check image composition, field of view.
  • Set camera to Aperture priority mode (not needed if it is already dark)
  • Take several bracketed shots in daylight or twilight: if it is already dark take a high ISO “range finding” shot. E.g. 2000 ISO for 30 seconds.
  • Pixel peep and adjust focus until sharp.

Battery and Card Shuffle

  • Remove memory card and insert second card. Format new card in camera.
  • Take second set of bracketed shots.
  • Return camera to Manual/Bulb mode.
  • Turn off camera and remove battery.
  • Reinsert battery (or insert fresh battery).
  • Verify that all settings are correct (See Camera Settings, above)

Final Steps

  • Check for wobble. Start by lightly jostling the camera, tripod, center column and even walking around in the area to make sure no movement occurs.
  • Set DELAY on interval timer appropriately (at least 5 seconds).  Goal is to start and/or end in twilight.
  • Secure cables for timer, external batteries (and neck strap). Do not block battery or memory card access.
  • Switch to aperture priority mode (so that your manual settings do not change), take a single image and re-verify focus. If already dark, take a high-ISO range finding shot for this task.
  • Switch back to Manual/Bulb.
  • Verify all camera settings as described in Camera Settings
  • Start Timer and verify that the timer is running.
  • If practical wait for first two shots to complete.
  • NOTE: You can leave the lens cap on for the first few exposure to collect DARK frames.

My thanks to Mike W. for comments and improvements to this checklist.

Additional References

The Many Paths to Failure

“Try to learn from the mistakes of others – you don’t have enough time to make them all yourself.” (paraphrasing Sam Levenson)

During my vacation in Hawaii I made many mistakes in attempting star trails that I will share with you in the hope that you can avoid them.  I suppose it is good training for me so that the Star Circle Academy Workshop in Alabama Hills this November will give me the opportunity to expound on how to attempt star trails successfully. Here is a short list of my faux pas all committed when I attempted to have my camera rig run unattended overnight:

  1. Failure to set the camera in the proper mode (Manual). I left the dial on AV (aperture priority) so instead of taking a series of 15 minute exposures it actually took an auto bracketed exposure every 15 minutes… and of course the exposure information was not suitable for use!
  2. Bumping the mode dial to “A-Dep” from C1. In the course of protecting and camoflaging my camera I piled rocks around/above it. One of those bumped the mode dial and caused a failure just like the one above.
  3. Pressing the “set” rather than “start” button on the intervalometer and walking away. Yep. It sat there all night but never got around to taking images.
  4. Failing to empty or reformat the memory card… so instead of hours of exposures I got a few minutes. (This happened before I left on vacation).
  5. Neglecting to turn off Auto Focus.
  6. Failing to start as soon or run as long as I could have.
  7. Choosing a location that gets a heavy dose of bright headlights from cars.

Here is a sequence that wasn’t a failure – but it does not count because I was standing, sitting or reclining next to the camera the entire time.

Nearly an hour of 2000 ISO 30-second captures from Kapalua, Hawaii.

Attempting to capture meteors necessitates a different tactic than capturing star trails. More on that in my next entry!

Steven in Galen’s Arch with composite Milky Way background.