One of the most dramatic types of landscape images you can make is the classic, simple “star trail” photo.  The process of creating start trail photos is actually quite simple, and possible with almost any camera and lens!  If you don’t believe me, watch the video and read on below to see how we created the final Joshua Tree photo.

For more information on nightscape photography, don’t forget to check out our workshop, Photographing the Milky Way.

Joshua Tree Star Trail Video

Watch our step-by-step process to creating a beautiful, long exposure Joshua Tree Star Trail Photo.

Joshua Tree Star Trail Final Photo

Here’s the photo we’ll be working to create in this tutorial.

joshua-tree-star-trails-650(Click HERE to see a larger version!)

The Equipment and Settings

The Joshua Tree photo above was created with the following equipment

How We Shot It

There are a few critical things to keep in mind here.  First and foremost, you have to figure out your exposure for the essentially pitch-black night sky.  Unless a half-to-full moon is shining, or you’re near some light pollution, there’s a good chance you’ll need to shoot at ISO 3200 or 6400, your aperture wide open or nearly wide open, and with a 30 second shutter speed or longer.

To get a shutter speed longer than 30 seconds most cameras will require an intervalometer; simply set your camera to “bulb” exposure and then set your shutter duration via the intervalometer.

Personally, I prefer to work with shutter speeds in the 30-120 sec. range.  The fewer image it takes to capture an hours’ worth of star trails, the fewer images you’ll have to layer in Photoshop later!

Of course it goes without saying that you’ll want to use a rock-steady tripod, and any bumping of the camera during the entire 1-2 hr sequence could ruin your star trail.

However aside from having a decent tripod, pretty much any camera and wide angle lens will do.  Don’t have an exotic f/2.8 zoom or f/1.4 prime?  Fear not, this technique doesn’t really rely on those things; though you may have to push your ISO up a stop, or opt for a slightly longer shutter speed such as 4-8 minutes.  (Google “dark frame subtraction”, if you often need exposures that are longer than 1-2 minutes!)

By the way, for tips on how to focus on the stars at night in very dark conditions, check out our article “15 minute self portrait under the stars“!

Anyways, the next critical thing is to make sure your images are captured back to back, so they look seamless when you composite them all in Photoshop.  If you wait more than 2-3 seconds between 30+ second exposures, the star trails will  begin looking like dotted lines.  So be sure to play around with your intervalometer, and make sure it is clicking images as back-to-back as possible.  Or, if you have a fast enough lens, just set your shutter speed to 30 sec, stick a small ball of tape to your shutter, and then wrap a rubber band around your camera to press the shutter down continuously.  (Watch out, Nikon users, there is a max shutter release in Continuous shutter mode, usually 99 clicks..)

You may have to swap out your batteries half way through in order to get a more extended star trail; most DSLR batteries will die after about 1-2 hrs of consecutive open-shutter image recording, regardless of the number actual images being created.  Especially if it is near or below freezing!

After all that, you should wind up with a ton of images that look like this.  Now, all we have to do is blend them together in Photoshop!


Post-Processing The Joshua Tree Star Trail Photo

Since I didn’t mention it in the video, I’ll point out that these images were all RAW frames and they were processed in Lightroom 5 using the new SLR Lounge Preset System for Lightroom 5/4.  There is a full array of presets that allow you to get the perfect “look” for landscape images with just a few clicks.  :-)

Once you get the images into Photoshop, here are the important points to remember:

  • The layer blending mode you are looking for is “Lighter Color“.  There are a few other blending modes in there that work similarly well, and I do recommend toying around.
  • The fastest way to do this to 25-50+ photos is to create an action in Photoshop.  Make sure that the action you record doesn’t attempt to select specific photos, but simply copies the current image, closes it, and then pastes it on the next open image. As long as you always select the main PSD image just before you select your next RAW frame, it will run smoothly. (And let the action create a layer mask and change the blending mode too, of course.)
  • Unless you have a huge amount of RAM, you may want to flatten the image every now and then, close Photoshop completely, and re-open it.  This will help clear your cache when stacking dozens of large RAW photos!
  • Whenever something you don’t like enters the photo, simply mask it out.  Oppositely if a lot of your foreground frames are really messed up, you can simply mask in a final image. (Set to the normal blending mode)

And there you have it!  A simple technique using almost any camera and lens, capable of accomplishing one of the most eye-catching types of photos possible!

Take care, and happy clicking,
=Matthew Saville=