The Night Sky – Stars Without Star Trails

Shooting Stars Without Star Trails

Welcome again to another Where to Willie tutorial.  As always, glad you could make it.  This is a quick guide to help you get started with some beginning and then advanced techniques in shooting stars.

First things first, the most important thing to shooting the night sky, especially stars and the milky way is a good ‘dark sky’.  Light pollution from our cities is ever expanding, and encroaching on our truly dark places.  I’ve added some links near the end of the tutorial that help you locate the darkest skies.  Second, you’ll want something interesting in the foreground.  The quickest way to add a little extra to your star shots is to find the right subject to accent the sky.

Gear You’ll Need

  • Camera – You need to be able to put it in a ‘Manual’ mode, and ideally one that shoots in RAW.
  • Tripod – Something sturdy; as you can imagine, the slightest shake will send your stars into a blur.  I use Feisol, who make some great options.  A solid tripod is an investment, but invest in a good one, and it will reward you in ease of setup, takedown, and support.  (See more information and reviews about my support kit in the Gear section)
  • Remote – This makes keeping the camera shake to a minimum easier.  It’s not really required, but if you don’t have one your camera will need a timed release mode.  Most cameras that have manual mode will have this option.



On your camera, you’ll have a lens… (o_o)  Okay this is important so stick with me here.  The focal length of lens that you choose has an effect on how long you’ll be able to leave your shutter open without causing the stars to ‘trail’.  When this happens, your stars change from nice little dots, to nice little lines.  If you want a shot of the milky way, you don’t want all of your stars to be little lines.  Here’s a shot in which I used the “Rule of 600” to determine how long I could leave my shutter open, while still keeping the stars as dots.

Lost in the Night - Alvord Desert - Princeton, Oregon

100% Zoom

Take a look here at the above image zoomed in to 100%.  You can see the slightest amount of movement in the stars, seeing as the earth is rotating at over 1000 miles per hour! (there’s a little science for ya)

100% Zoom


Shutter Speed – The Rule of 600

Or, to make things just a little safer, the rule of 500.  The old adage is to take 600 and divide it by your lens length (in full frame).  That will give you the number of seconds that your shutter can be open without causing trailing.  I like to err on the side of safety, so I like to shoot a little bit faster than the ‘max’ allowable.  I made a little chart below for you to get a feel for the rule.  The shot above was taken at 14mm on a full frame sensor.  Then by the rule, take 500/14 (remember the formula is for full frame sensor lens length), I could potentially leave the shutter open for 35.7 seconds before the stars would move too far in the sky, leaving a trail of light (technically, the earth is rotating, but who’s counting…).

Crop sensor folks – Make the formula a little easier for yourself, and take 500 and divide your crop ratio (usually it’s around 1.5 or close enough).   So then you’ll use the formula of 333/lens length.  For example, a shot at 10mm, 333/10 = 33.3 seconds.

As you can see, having a wider angle lens allows you to keep your shutter open as long as possible without letting the stars trail.  Longer shutter speeds = more light hitting the sensor.

Full Frame Lens Length (mm)Crop Sensor Lens Length (mm)Shutter Speed (sec)


Aka your f-stop.  You’ll want to set this as FAST as possible, which means setting it to as low of a number as possible.  Why?  The lower your f-stop, the wider open the aperture of your camera, the more light you allow in.  Generally I shoot at f2.8, which is the fastest wide angle lens currently available.


First thing, switch your lens over to Manual Focus, this will make things easier once you get your focus set.  To start, set your focus to just a hair short of infinity.  You’ll have a chance to tweak this in a bit later.


This is where we start getting in to the fun part.  You’ve set your shutter speed based on your lens.  You’ve then set your f-stop to the lowest value.  All that’s left to adjust is your ISO.  A good place to start is somewhere in the 1600 range, then work your way up or down from there.

Other Settings

Depending on the camera, these may be called something slightly different, but you want to make sure they are both off.  Turn off Long Exposure Noise Reduction and High ISO Noise Reduction.  You can also turn off the preview, and turn off any Image Stabilization or Vibration Reduction your lens may have.

Test Shots

One school of though says start high with your ISO, and work your way down.  Another says start low, and bring it up.  I’m kind of torn, they both work, for different reasons.  Generally, though, I suggest you start a little lower, to keep the noise down while you get your focus.  Too low, though, and you’ll have nothing but a black screen, and that helps no one.  Once you have your focus in check, then you can turn that ISO up nice and high, say at 3200, and use the camera to set your composition (if you arrived early to the scene, you could always do this in the light, but who’s that prepared??).  Take a few more test shots, making sure you have what you want and don’t want in the scene.  Since you’ve turned up your ISO, the picture will likely be overly bright, but that is good thing for composing the photo.


You’ve got your settings all dialed in, the focus is sharp, the composition is set, now you’re ready to shoot!  Remember that remote shutter release, well make sure you’re using it, make sure you’re not bumping the tripod, and fire away.   Try different compositions, landscape and portrait versions, just like you would with anything else.

Digital Darkroom

As we have seen before, there is nothing better than using all that lovely RAW information to pull out the fun details in a photo.  Here’s a before and after of one of my Alvord Desert shots.  It’s pretty plain to see that tweaking your photos a bit will really pull out the light and stars that are there.

Star Photography Tutorial - Before and After Lightroom

Left: After Lightroom edits

Basic Settings

As you can see here, I’m developing the RAW files with Lightroom 5, but the process will be similar for all of your RAW developing software.  First, you’ll probably need to bump up the exposure.  As good as our camera sensors are, they need a little help with light coming from such a distant source.  The rest is really subject to the image, but you can see where I have gone with this shot.  Rules of thumb:

  1. Don’t over brighten the image, the first thing that will happen is you’ll highlight the light pollution
  2. Contrast and Clarity are great for stars.  Don’t over-do it tho or you’ll get some funky halos around your foreground
  3. Adjust your white balance.  It’s almost never right on for star shooting.  Find a balance that looks like you remember.
Star Photography Tutorial - Lightroom Edits

Basic’s Panel in Lightroom showing my edits


Further Edits – Photoshop

Without getting into a full blown Photoshop lesson here (not that I really know THAT much about PS…), there are a few things that can really pump up your star photographs in Photoshop.  I may use one or all of these on any given image:

  1. Luminosity Masking
  2. Hue/Saturation Layers
  3. High Pass Sharpening
  4. Selective creative masking with curves adjustments
Star Photography Tutorial - Before and After Photoshop

Left: After Photoshop edits



Useful Links

Stars Tracker: – this is great to check out where stars will be on any given night, and helps you track the Milky Way.

Dark Sky Finder:  and

Star Trails

Interested in Star Trails?  Check out the next section of the tutorial HERE.

Go forth, star searchers! And


Reaching in to the Night

The Milky Way rises over the Grand Tetons

A Night at Trillium Lake - Trillium Lake, Oregon

Milky Way reflections at Trillium Lake, Oregon

Swept Away - Ruby Beach - Forks, Washington

Stars peak out from the clouds at Ruby Beach, Washington

As the Town Sleeps - Big Bear Lake, California

A Milky Way rise over the sleepy town of Big Bear Lake, California

Run Away With Me - Crater Lake NP, Oregon

A dead tree reaches towards the Milky Way at Crater Lake National Park

Star shooting in Death Valley, late in to the night at the Racetrack


  1. Sarah

    Hey Will – this is amazing! wish i could do all this complicated stuff. i love seeing your pictures though 🙂 and the compass pic on the top is very cute. wish i were traveling around like you!!

    • William

      Thanks Sarah!! You can totally do this stuff, it all sounds more complicated than it really is, you’ve just got to try. And if something goes wrong, let me know and we’ll fix it 🙂

  2. Dan Richardson

    Hi William & Britta, Thank you for the lessons out at the race track !!! My star circle picture came out great ! It was good to meet the both of you and am now a fan of your work ! Thank you again for taking the time to teach the 3 of us old dogs from Clovis,CA some new tricks… Cheers!!! Dan Richardson

    • William

      Hey Dan! Glad the star circles picture worked out so good! Did you put it up on the web? I would love to see it. It was great fun getting out on the playa with you all, we really enjoyed it and have been telling the story a lot back in Illinois.

  3. jack

    Hi Will
    I am curious as to why you stated to turn off long exposure noise reduction and image stabilization. I am just curious on your train of thought because other websites say different. I like to get all opinions so I can become a better photographer.

    • William

      Hey Jack, thanks for the question.

      **edit, this answer regarding LENR applies to star trails more than stars without trails** The reason I turn off the LENR (that’s not a real acronym) is because it will effectively DOUBLE the amount of time between shots. LENR uses two exposures. The extra frame is a dark frame reduction which shoots an exposure for the same length of time as the original exposure with the shutter closed, then does a comparison of the noise and removes it. It’s not the same as regular noise reduction which is based on an averaging algorithm.

      So, this effects us in doing star trails because we really don’t want a long period of time between our exposures, or you’ll risk having gaps in your trail. Notice above I mention that you should really have no longer than a 5 second pause between each frame.

      The second reason that I turn this off is because using the stacking method for star trails (as opposed to one ultra long exposure) inherently reduces most noise because of the process.

      For the image stabilization, you should really be on a solid tripod to do star trails, and I always turn off IS on my tripod. Some cameras will do this automatically, some don’t, so I just make it a habit. The other reason is that depending on how the IS sets itself each time, there can be a slight shift between your sequential images, which is no bueno.
      **more on LENR and IS/VR below**

      Hope this helps! And sorry if I was a bit long winded 🙂


      • Jack

        Thanks Will, I am going to try that tonight as I try and frame a saguaro cactus with the Milky way in the background.

        • William

          Jack, it seems in my haste to respond, I assumed we were talking about star trails, not Milky Way shots!

          After a little experimentation myself, I’ve found I can take or leave LENR, and I’d rather just not wait that extra time. If you’re really concerned about noise, you can leave that setting on.

          I would still turn off image stabilization/vibration reduction for the reasons above, and the High ISO noise reduction is only applied to JPEGs so as long as you’re shooting in RAW, it won’t effect the final product.

  4. Arvnd

    I’m so thankful for your blog.Really looking forward to read more. Fantastic.

  5. Lenard

    Very nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to
    say that I’ve really enjoyed surfing around your blog posts.
    After all I will be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again very soon!

  6. Angela

    Hi can you tell me a good lens to start with for astrophotography please.

    • William

      Hi Angela, I certainly can make a couple recommendations. What type of camera are you currently shooting?

      • Angela

        Hi I have a canon 6D the lenses I have been looking at a Sigma AF35mm f1.4 EX DG HSM ‘A’, Canon EF 24mm f2.8 IS or the Canon EF 35mm f1.4 L USM not sure about 50mm lens. I have been told the samyang 14mm f2.8 is good so what do you think. Thanks Angela

        • William

          Well you’re definitely already looking in the right places. I think the most common lens for Canon shooters would be the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II. It’s a bit pricey, but it’s the one lens I wish Nikon had. I currently am using the Rokinon (same as the Samyang) 14mm 2.8 for the bulk of my night photography.

          One thing you’ll want to think about is how wide you want to be able to shoot, and what that will do to your shutter speed requirements. If you’ll see the table above, going with a 24mm lens will require approximately a 20 second exposure, and then a 35mm lens will require an even faster 14 second exposure. The shorter the exposure, the higher your ISO (or lower f stop) will need to be in order to capture more light.

          Luckily, the 6D is well known for it’s low light/high ISO performance, so shooting a bit faster shutter speeds may be okay.

          Final note, all the images above were shot at 14mm. The Milky Way is surprisingly large, and can fill up a large section of your frame 🙂

          • William

            Side note on this, you’ll also want to think about what else you can use the lens you chose on. I use my 14mm exclusively for night/star photography, and honestly if I could get rid of it I would. But, for now, it’s my best option until Sigma (or someone) comes out with a 16-35 f2.8 for Nikon mounts, at which time I’ll drop my 16-35 f4 and 14mm f2.8 and consolidate.

          • Angela

            Hi so do you think the samyang would be a good lens then. I have the canon 16-35mm f4 L is lens. 🙂

          • William

            I do think it would be a great lens to get out and do star photography!

            Realistically the f4 is only 1 stop slower than the 2.8 that you’ll get with the Samyang, so you should be able to start practicing with the lens you have now, and just crank the ISO up to around 4000. The 6D should be able to handle that without getting excessive in the noise category.

  7. Angela

    Thank you 🙂

  8. Angela

    Hi again between the Canon EF 24mm F2.8 IS USM And the Samyang 14mm F2.8 IF ED UMC which would be the better one for astrophotography. Am looking at getting one of these now as they are both in my budget. Thanks

    • William

      I think you should take your 16-35 out and do a test, shoot one shot at 16mm, and another at 24mm and see which you like better. I don’t think either are ‘better’ for stars, since they are both f2.8, but you will have to shoot slightly faster shutter speeds with the 24mm to compensate for being slightly more zoomed in to keep the stars from becoming trailed.

    • William

      There is a nice in-between lens that I will likely be testing out in a few weeks, the Sigma 20mm f1.8, that you can get in Canon mount. Super fast, and (in my opinion) plenty wide angle.

      • Zach

        What were you’re thoughts on this lens compared to the Rokinon 14mm?

        • William

          Hey Zach. I really enjoyed the 20mm, mainly because it’s so small! Image quality wise I would say that it was comparable to the Rokinon, but 14mm and 20mm are such drastically different focal lengths that it really depends on what look you’re going for.

  9. Angela

    Hi thanks I will have a look at that. 🙂

  10. Muhammad Badawy

    i don’t really know what to say except thank you, thank you so much, you don’t know what your photos made me feel



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