How to Capture Stunning Star Trail Photos in Light Polluted Places

March 31, 2015 - photo frame

I’ve always found photos of star trails — a arcs a stars paint opposite a sky as a earth turns — fascinating. They’re one of a things that we can “see” with a camera that we can’t see with a eyes. Technology has altered how we fire star trails, creation star route shots in locations we formerly suspicion unfit possible.

The simplest approach to take a star route imitation is to put your camera on a tripod, squeeze a remote release, and reason a shiver open for a prolonged time. For example, we took this photo with a 20-minute bearing some years ago in a Cook Islands.

However, holding a shiver open for a prolonged time can emanate problems such as noise.

The many common approach to fire star trails now is to take a garland of brief exposures (short generally means minutes) and combination them together with Photoshop actions like’s Advanced Stacker or a giveaway app like StarStaX. This gives good formula with really low noise.

Conventional knowledge says that for star route shots, we need to be divided from light pollution, definition a subjects in these photos are customarily mountains, lakes, cliffs, splendid tents, trees, etc… However, a few years ago, we was walking out of Pixar Animation Studios (where we worked) and when we looked adult and saw an amazingly transparent night sky.

I wanted to take a star route shot with a pleasing Steve Jobs Building as a subject. This set me on a query to figure out how to fire a star route in a city, and after 5 tries, we finally succeeded.

What we found is that high-res, really light-sensitive digital sensors total with vast storage cards and computers with a lot of horsepower have done it probable to take star trails in cities: a pretence is to take many really brief exposures (seconds) over a prolonged duration of time (hours) and combination them.

A while ago, we satisfied that we live in a pleasing city (San Francisco) yet we frequency fire here given it feels like everybody is always out shooting, and we don’t like sharpened what everybody else does. we started perplexing my civic star route technique with SF landmarks. My father courteously loaned me his Nikon D800E given during a time it was a tip fortitude 35mm camera around, even yet all a controls were retrograde from my Canon gear. we knew we wanted a D800’s fortitude to constraint some-more stars and given these shots would be cool: I’d wish to imitation them big.

Taking these shots is a bit wily as they’re really continue dependent, we have to pre-visualize something that’s not visible, and we have to have ideal technique. A little tripod bump, somewhat missed concentration on a stars, a tilt/shift lens’ change resource relocating slightly, astonishing transport lights, and some-more can simply hurt a shot. we found we indispensable during slightest dual tries per location! Hearing my procession will assistance we get started.

Setting Up

First, picking a day is key. You need a dark, ideally haze-less night, and as transparent of sky as possible. Low clouds can be OK if we are sharpened far-reaching adequate (clouds retard stars). An occasional fast relocating cloud won’t impact a combination many either.

Once we have an ideal day, make certain we have copiousness of time to get to your location, as we found I’d be going to any plcae around rush hour. we aim to be setup usually before sunset, and my setup includes a tripod, a remote release/intervalometer, and an outmost battery container (I use a Goal Zero Sherpa 100). The energy container is critical because, generally on a cold night, you’ll be sharpened longer than your battery lasts, and swapping batteries can strike a camera and means a opening in a star trails. (It’s also probable to start sharpened in a center of a night and finish around blue hour, yet we found it harder to get accurate concentration during a dim night and harder to arise adult during 2am than staying adult late.)


Shortly after sunset, when a city lights spin on and there’s still some blue in a sky, we take my bottom bearing as a RAW file. This is what I’ll combination a stars onto. Depending on a situation, I’ve had to use several graduated ND filters or mixed exposures to emanate that bottom image. I’ve also found it profitable to keep fasten in my bag, as we had to emanate a dwindle around my lens with a filter box to equivocate light when an astonishing light incited on.

An hour or so later, when a sky’s dark, we switch to sharpened around f/4-5.6 or so, set my ISO to 800, set my white change to incandescent, and set my camera to fire fine-resolution JPEGs. we found illuminated to demeanour a best, yet a pivotal prove is to not be in automobile white change given we don’t wish any shot to shot variation. we didn’t fire far-reaching open given we wanted improved visual opening with my lens, and these settings mostly picked adult copiousness of stars.

I use primer mode, set on bulb, and I’ll take a integrate guesses as to a right exposure, wanting my histogram to prove that a sky was dim yet not pristine black. Generally we had 5-10 second exposures. we found that brighter exposures caused a light wickedness to turn too splendid and to mix with a stars. Once we found a right exposure, I’d start a intervalometer and wait. And wait. And wait. The shortest of these shots was about 3.5 hours of sharpened and setup, bottom exposure, and “wait until dark” time. The longest was about 8 hours (limited by storage space). we generally came home with 1,500 to 4,500 frames.

One bearing from a series. Note all a atmosphere trade to purify up! we was also regulating a graduated ND filter to reason behind a city, permitting for a longer sky exposure, in this example.


At my computer, we start with a exam star smoke-stack and do a severe combination onto a bottom bearing to make certain a fire worked and a shot has potential. This step is always a many haughtiness wracking given it’s where we learn problems.

Even when all works, it can be demoralizing as we see usually how many atmosphere trade is in a sky, such as in this combination from Battery Spencer:

The subsequent step is to go frame-by-frame by a star frames, and wherever we see an airplane, paint it out with a black brush. Fortunately with stacking, stealing planes is easy, despite tedious. (As an aside, we did quickly play with OpenCV to automate this yet found many corner cases. If a prophesy consultant is reading this and wants to work on automating craft dismissal with me, ping me!)

Once you’ve spotless adult a star frames, smoke-stack them together. we favourite a formula from StarStaX a best, as it has a opening stuffing mode to minimize a dim spaces that seem in-between a composited stars (there’s a little opening in time when your camera isn’t sharpened between any bearing where a stars still move).

Then, in Photoshop (or your editor of choice):

1. Open adult your bottom bearing and purify it adult as desired.
2. Insert a star smoke-stack as a new covering on tip of a base.
3. Change a compositing mode for a stars to abate (so a stars lighten adult a low blue sky).
4. Create a covering facade so that radically usually a sky is influenced by a stars.
5. If a stars aren’t splendid enough, supplement a levels composition covering with a writing facade so that it usually affects a stars, tweaking a white prove to lighten a stars.
6. Perform any indispensable cleanup/compositing like we would with any other image.
7. Amaze your family, friends, and followers!

100 frames from another array built together

Median of 10/100 frames from another shot. The black paint areas are planes/steam that we embellished out from many of a star frames.

The prior dual images layered over one another, set to “difference” mix mode. we flattened a picture and used a levels covering composition to make a stars brighter. This disproportion picture doesn’t have a mist in a source photos.

One additional pretence is that if a sky does turn a bit hazy, it’s probable to “subtract” a mist from a star stack, giving we a cleaner picture to composite. To do so with Photoshop:

1. Select File Scripts Statistics.
2. Choose Median.
3. Select a series of frames from when a mist rolled by and click OK.
4. Rasterize a ensuing layer.
5. Layer a star smoke-stack picture above a median layer.
6. Change a mix mode to Difference. This effectively subtracts a mist from a composite, withdrawal we with a brighter stars.
7. If any mist remains, make a new covering and use a black brush to mislay it.
8. Flatten a picture or use Stamp Visible to emanate a new layer, and combination that outcome on a strange bottom exposure. You competence need to use a levels or curves composition to make a stars brighter.

Here’s a final shot that we created:

That’s it! If we do go out and constraint some civic star route photos, be certain to share them with us in a comments below. Also, if you’d like to urge your compositional skills, my mom and we wrote a book on a subject that might be useful to you.

About a author: Josh Anon has been a wildlife, landscape, and transport photographer for 20 years. He has trafficked around a globe, looking for a subsequent good image, and his work has been shown in venues and publications around a world. He’s also been training photography and co-authoring photography books for about 10 years. You can find his work on his website, blog, and 500px. This essay creatively seemed here.

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