Star Trail Shooting in Death Valley

45 min star trail exposure taken in Death Valley. The Milky Way can be seen at the top.

Death Valley proved to be a great place to shoot star trails. The light pollution from Vegas, although visible, wasn’t nearly as bad as I would have suspected. The best part for me was I could finally put my ioShutter SLR to the test with a “really” long exposure. This is an art in itself and an area that I’ll admit I’m not an expert. However, I had excellent results creating a circular star trail by following this very basic setup:

Night sky:

  1. The sky was clear of clouds with the stars and Milky Way very apparent.
  2. The moon was in a new phase, so I didn’t have to contend with a very bright moon which would have added to the light pollution.
  3. Airplane traffic was at a minimum.

Camera Set up:

  1. Set the camera to bulb mode.
  2. Use a low ISO (I used 200).
  3. Use a fairly open aperture (I used f/4).
  4. Use a wide angle lens (I used a 15mm).
  5. Locate the North Star “Polaris.” Click HERE to learn how to locate it.
  6. Focus your lens to infinity while pointing to the North Star. Remember to turn auto focus off!
  7. Make sure your batteries are fully charged! I found my Canon lithium battery handled the 45 min exposure with no problems.
  8. Feel free to skip Mirror lock up (for exposures of 30 seconds or longer Mirror Lockup is really not needed).
  9. Use a locking cable release (ioShutter in my case).
  10. Exposure: This is where the real art comes in. For a half moon or brighter, you’ll want to start at around 15 minutes. If you’ve got no moon, or a new moon, you’ll be looking at upwards of 50 minutes to two hours. The longer the exposure, the longer the star trails will be, which is why you want to try and plan for a new moon phase. You can find moon phases HERE.

Tips:

  1. Avoid any bright lights. Headlights, flashlights (torches for my UK fans, etc.
  2. Use a sturdy tripod to avoid any shifting during the exposure.
  3. Turn Long Exposure Noise reduction off for very long exposures unless you have a ton of time to burn. In some cameras it will take a second exposure for the same length of time and compare the images.  When you have time you may want to experiment with this setting and compare the results.
  4. Shoot in Raw so you can process the image and make adjustments to the White Balance later.  Otherwise, set your white balance to Daylight.
  5. Your composition will be more interesting if you can find an object for the foreground, such as a cool tree or rock formation. In my case I was more interested in capturing the Milky Way. But again, you’ll want to experiment in finding a foreground subject and lighting it with a flashlight briefly to illuminate it.
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Comments

  1. Hi John,

    Thanks so much for the tips…. I’ve tried to shoot star trails many, many times and after dark, I just can NOT get it. My sky is always white(ish) beige. I’ve done short exposures of 15/30 seconds as well as 4/5 minutes. I just figured more time would make the sky even whiter.
    It’s a full moon right now, so after the moon wanes I want to try again. It’s been a major frustration for me. Everyone makes it sound so easy, but mine are just terrible.
    I’ll let you know in a few weeks how it goes.
    Thanks again for the tips. I won’t be shooting in Death Valley, but I know a few good places with very little ambient light at night. Up in Tehachapi, too.

    Merry Christmas,
    Deborah Flowers

    • Clear info and tips on Star Trail Shooting. Also very interesting App. Thank you John for sharing!

  2. Great image and the Milkyway is just mind-blowing!
    Thanks for all the instruction and the link to the ioShutter.

  3. I want some advice on the equipment best for star trails. I have 35mm film bodies which should be the best right? No noise, no sensor to overheat etc. Except that you cant find a descent scanner anymore to scan film (unless you want to buy one…) What software would I use to overlay dozens of 30 second exposures?

    Stephen Williams