In this blog, Maryna Cotton from Photowise Studio talks us through star trails. She believes that people find it captivating, as it’s physical proof that our planet is spinning around an axis. Essentially, you can see time fly.

A technique as old as photography itself

Star trail photography is a technique that has been around since the beginning of photography, long before DSLR cameras. “The first recorded suggestion of this technique is from E.S. Skinner’s 1931 book, A Manual of Celestial Photography.”

Star trail image with a Quiver Tree lit up in the foreground

The start of something

“I was a very curious child,” she laughs. Maryna has always had a love of nature, physics, astronomy and photography. She can remember attempting star trail photography as a teen, but it was only much later, when she got her first SLR camera, that she created a real star trail image.


Fast forward a few years, and she’s standing in the Karoo, far from all the city lights, with the opportunity to play under the stars. Photographing for SKA (Square Kilometer Array – the largest global scientific project of this century) she realized that long exposures such as star trails, astro landscapes and painting with light can be more that just a technique to amuse yourself with; it can also have commercial value which to offer her clients. “Sarel and I were lucky enough to make approximately 20 trips to the site and we are looking forward to going to photograph there again soon!”

Star trail image with a satellite in the foreground
Startrail featuring the celestial pole

Tips and suggested gear

  • Maryna suggests, as with any nighttime or low light photography, a good, sturdy tripod such as the Benro A2682 tripod.
  • A camera. “The newer DSLR cameras handle digital noise so much better these days.”
  • Ideally, you will trigger the camera using a cable release with a lock function.
  • Because she enjoys incorporating landscapes and a variety of interesting foreground details in her images, Maryna suggests you use a wide-angle lens with a fixed 20mm (full frame) being her firm favourite.
  • Make sure your camera battery is fully charged before you start.
  • “Don’t forget to pack a head-lamp, warm jacket, buff or beanie and a flask with something to keep you warm and inspired.”
Meerkat Star trail image

How to create your own star trail image

There are two routes to follow when creating a star trail image. The one technique is to shoot one long exposure image and the other is shooting many 30-second exposures at high ISO settings and stacking them together in tailor made software such as StarStax. Maryna takes you through both.

Long Exposure

This technique needs very little post-production but produces noise-related challenges that are associated with long exposures in general. Make sure your camera batteries are fully charged and that you have the camera’s noise reduction switched on when using this technique. As a guideline, try not to use apertures that are too small (f/11 – f/22) as they will let relatively little light into the camera and will produce skinny star trails. A good starting point is f/8 with a recommended ISO of 100 or 200.

Stacking in post-production

To create a series of shots for the purpose of stacking them together in post, you’ll need to take a sufficient number of photographs. For example, to make a half-hour star trail image you would need to take 60 thirty-second exposures one after the other. In this case, you will need to switch off your camera’s ‘Long Exposure Noise Reduction’. Set a 30-second shutter speed and set the camera to continuous shooting and trigger it with a cable release that you lock once you have triggered it. You would then simply wait until the half-hour is up. Maryna also recommends that you take a ‘Dark Slide’ (same shutter speed with the lens cap on) once your series of photographs is complete. This ‘Dark Slide’ will be used by the software that blends the individual layers to reduce noise. Recommended settings for stacks are f/5.6 with an ISO of 3200 and a 30-seconds shutter speed.

Star trail image stacked using Starstax with a satellite in the foreground

Your photography technique toolbox

“Any new technique one learns in photography becomes a tool in your photography toolbox. They shouldn’t be used in isolation.” Maryna urges photographers to experiment and combine all of the techniques you’ve learned. Combine your star trail making skills with painting with lights for instance, or use speedlights to light a tree or other foreground detail. Or shoot in moonlight and let nature help you illuminate the landscape. “The more fun you have the more creative you’ll become.”

East facing star trails taken in Clarens

Added impact

For added impact, Maryna says that photographers should consider starting their exposure when there is still a little bit of dark cobalt visible in the sky. “This may seem strange but given the camera’s ability to ‘layer’ light on top of each successive layer, the small amount of blue in the sky will mount up to a stunning deep blue sky in the final image.

The holidays are just around the corner for some, and for others it’s already in full swing. So grab your gear and capture something spectacular!

“Look at the stars – look how they shine for you”


Star trail done in the Karoo