Star trails revisited, 10 easy steps to better star trails pictures

It’s been a learning curve the star trails shots. What I’ve noticed is that I’m pulling more stars out the shots now than when I first started and this is turn leads to denser trails. So what’s the difference and how do you get more stars?

1. You MUST shoot in RAW.

2. Compose your shot and expose to the point that you can see a lot of stars in the preview but don’t totally blow out anything else you might have in the shot. In light polluted areas I’ve been using 30s at around f7.1 and ISO400, in darker areas I can drop to around f3.5 quite happily.

3. Take at least 20 shots, the more the longer the trails. Focal length plays a big part here. At 18mm 20 shots will give a short trail, at 50mm it’ll be a longer trail. a cheap 50mm f1.8 is the perfect lens, but if you need wider try and get more frames.

4. What I do now, is to take all the RAW images and dump them into a folder. Now with Adobe Camera Raw (this will transfer to Lightroom too), open the first 10 RAW files. Select the first file and hike the clarity up to 100%.

5. Now drop the exposure slider to the right until you are bringing out stars, bumping up the fill light also helps.

6. Now swith to the Tone Curve tab, at the bottom of the box are 4 sliders, you want the light and darks sliders, make the lights lighter and darks darker until you get a balance of the stars with a darker sky. You will also need to go back to the basic settings and fine tune Temperature and Hue.

7. Once you have a nice balance save the settings and these will now appear in the Presets menu under the name you saved it as.

8. Now select all the images you opened and apply this preset to the all and click Open Images.

9. Once all images are open simply save each jpg and close the shot, repeat for all the RAW files you have.

10. Combine the processed JPG images in your chosen programme for blending, usually StarStax or StarTrails.exe and save the final image.

Once you have that final image you can fine tune with a little colour balance if needed. A bit of dodge and burn can go a long way to to lightening and darkening areas a little at a time until you get the shot you’re happy with. Once that’s done, save and admire!

Both these shots were processed in the way above, both are only around 30 exposures (which if it’s under 0c outside is more than enough!), but the first shot was as 18mm, the 2nd shot at 50mm where you can see a big difference with regards to the trails.

18mm shot:
Newhaven Star Trails

50mm shot:
Telegraph Star Trails

by way of a comparison, this was the first star trails shots I took, you can see the difference in the amount of stars I’m managing to extract now with different processing.
Forth Bridge Star Trail - Explored


7 responses

  1. Thanks for posting about your star trails technique. It’s inspired me to try something myself.

    January 16, 2012 at 9:48 am

    • Go for it Mike, it’s not that hard once you’ve figured out the technique, very addictive too!

      January 16, 2012 at 4:48 pm

  2. I’ve always wanted to learn this technique. Thanks for sharing! One question: (probably a dumb one) by “20 shots at 30s” you mean you take one photograph every 30 seconds? If so that just doesn’t sound like enough of a time laps for the stars to rotate, which is why I want to double check that that is what you mean by “30s.” Thanks for the info!

    January 16, 2012 at 4:01 pm

    • Hi Nate, 20 shots is enough to show movement, more so at 50mm than say 18mm. You take your shots one after the other every 30s. At 50mm you’ll see star movement even at 30s, you won’t at 18mm.

      January 16, 2012 at 4:47 pm

      • Great! Thanks for the reply. I’m going to give this technique a go for sure. Thanks again,

        January 17, 2012 at 5:10 am

  3. Your photos are incredible; your methods, pretty darn good!!!

    January 16, 2012 at 4:24 pm

  4. I know nada, zip, zilch about watermarking, so I googled “how to watermark photos” and found something on about dot com…

    Free watermark software available…

    January 16, 2012 at 4:31 pm

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