Learning Star Trails Photography

I first dived into Star Trails photography while up in the White Mountains of California during the Perseids meteor shower of August, 2012. A small group of us, having taught photography workshops in the Whites, had the unique opportunity to stay at the Crooked Creek White Mountain Research Center at an elevation of 10,100 feet. Given the high elevation and distance from light pollution, I knew, if the skies were clear, this would present an exceptional opportunity to photograph the stars. Having recently acquired a Nikon D800e, I was psyched at the opportunity and did a fair amount of research on the subject.

Star Trails Over White Mountains
My first successful Star Trails photo of our celestial kingdom.

Since 2012, I’ve made a number of Star Trails images in Zion National Park and other locations. I present here, for anyone aspiring to learn Star Trails photography, an introduction to the process including post-processing.

Equipment Needed

Assuming your using a digital camera system, these are the primary tools you’ll need:

DSLR Camera System

While it’s true that most any camera can take a good picture under the right circumstances, Star Trails photography is going to benefit from the features of a Digital Single-Lens Reflex (DSLR) camera. DSLR cameras are unique from other camera systems in that they offer interchangeable lenses. Traditionally, DSLR cameras also contain a mirror that allows you to view and compose an image through a view finder. Today, we now also have mirrorless DSLRs where the digital back screen acts as your viewfinder. With either system, your camera should have the following capabilities:

  • Support for manual focus lenses
  • Support for manual exposure (Manual or "M" mode)
  • Support for Interval Timed Exposures
  • Exposure capability of 30 seconds and Bulb "B"
  • Support for Remote Cable Release (optional - see sidebar)

Wide Angle Lens

In theory you could use any lens you want but the general rule of thumb for Star Trails photography is to use a wider field of view lens (35mm or wider) to capture more of the nighttime sky. Additionally, having a faster lens (f1.4 - f4.0) with a wide aperture diameter helps you to maximize the amount of light you can capture at exposure. On my original trip, I rented (from lensrentals.com) the well regarded Nikon 14-24mm f2.8 ED. At 14mm you get a whopping 114° field of view allowing for a substantial view of our celestial kingdom. The lens, however, is huge, it’s heavy, and the lens glass protrudes from its housing. It’s a little nerve-racking to fiddle with at night (and day for that matter). Images at the widest angles of the zoom also get pretty distorted which I personally don’t care for. So these days, I utilize four manual-focus lenses which provide a nice range of flexibility:

  • Rokinon 24MM f1.4 (minimal to no distortion)
  • Nikon 24MM f2.8 (minimal to no distortion)
  • Nikon 20MM f2.8 (mild distortion most noticeable in horizontal images)
  • Zeiss 18MM f3.5 (personal favorite for super wide vertical images)

Tripod

While most any tripod will work, long exposures will really benefit from a heavier sturdy tripod. To maximize stability, filling a tie string bag full of dirt and tying it to your tripod will really help lock it down (especially if wind is in the forecast). My current personal tripod of choice is the Benro Mach3 Series which has a nice range of features, options and price points.

Star Trails over Death Valley
Star Trails over Death Valley. View more in the Star Trails Gallery.

Accessories and Comfort

Extra camera batteries and a small flashlight are essential. Long exposures eat through batteries quickly. A small flashlight for seeing your equipment will keep you from cursing the heavens when something goes wrong. Brings layers of warm clothing and something in which to sit comfortably. A reclining outdoor chair or even a camping pad (if you want to lie down) are good options. Remember you may be outdoors in the pitch dark for hours at a time and it can get really cold, really fast. Don’t skimp on warming comforts under the circumstances.

Finally, I have to admit, many of my Star Trails photographs were made while I sat comfortably reading or listening to music in my truck, sleeping in a tent, even enjoying a late meal where I was able to leave the camera somewhere remote and hidden enough, I was comfortable retrieving it later. As long as you can properly, safely, and securely set up your camera to remotely make the images you need, your options are numerous. For me, this type of photography is a fun and creative alternative to my primary day work as an artistic photographer.