We had been yearning for a new travel adventure but due to upcoming projects and clients, we knew we couldn’t roam far. So we packed up a tent, camera equipment, firewood, and drove out to the closest landscape we could think of for a few nights with the new moon. Joshua Tree. It was the best solution for a much needed California stay-cation. I had been to Joshua Tree once before and instantly fell for its neutral canvases, contrasting sunsets, suess-shaped trees and crater-type textures. One can get completely lost in Joshua Tree’s landscapes, it’s one of the best locations within the US to view the stars. Best of all, it’s only a three and a half hour journey from LALA land!

“We’re going on a walkabout!” I excitedly screamed as I Polished up the camera equipment and created a storyboard full of shots. Star trails here we come!

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Yes, my main photography goal was to capture a few star trails. There are two ways one can go about doing this. You could either capture one incredibly long exposure, leaving the shutter open for three to four hours OR you could capture it with multiple, thirty-second intervals that can later be stacked in post. I had tried option one in the past so this time, I wanted to try the second on for size. With the second option, I can also get a small time lapse of my star trails. Two for the price of one! Please keep in mind, while this process is user-friendly, it can be extremely time intensive. However, when done correctly, the final image always speaks volumes and is well worth the effort.

How to Make Star Trails:

  1. Have patience.
  2. Do your research, know your camera settings prior, decide on a lens (usually a wide) know the area you plan to shoot and the direction in which you’ll be shooting.
  3. Once at your chosen location, set up your tripod and remote early. Take a few test shots and confirm all settings/ framing.
  4. Be sure to take your camera off of all auto settings, including white balance and autofocus!
  5. For full circular star trails, point your camera towards Polaris. Polaris (the North Star) lies a short distance away from where the Earth’s axis points. For that reason, all stars appear to rotate around it. Polaris does move but not much so it’s an excellent guide on where to point the lens.
  6. Check out the apps. “Stellarium” and “Moon,” they’re designed to guide you through the stars, constellations and the cycles of the moon. These apps do half the prep work, for a fraction of the time.
  7. There are two ways in which you can capture star trails. You can either keep your shutter open for the entire duration (3-4 hours) or you can take several exposures and stack them later in post. If you do choose to stack them, please refer to tip number ten.
  8. Once the camera has been set-up, and you begin to trigger the remote… move away from the camera. Don’t obsess about it, just let it roll. Keep a safe distance so that you can keep an eye on your camera but make sure it’s in the clear. You don’t want anyone accidentally moving, bumping or nudging your capture.
  9. If the spirit moves, find an object within your foreground and “paint it” into your star trail, with light. For example, a flashlight is a perfect tool for this. Make sure to paint the object quickly and evenly. Due to the long open shutter, you should be able to illuminate your object brilliantly within the frame.
  10. For stacking, StarStax. Download it now. It’s a multi-platform image stacking and blending software, which is developed primarily for Star Trail Photography. It’s amazing. Best of all, it’s free.

“Maybe that’s what life is… a wink of the eye and winking stars.” ~ Jack Kerouac