Startrails compared to Starmaps

What are they?

In this post we will discuss the differences between startrails compared to starmaps, and how to take each sort of photo.

The differences

A startrail is usually a night time shot of the sky that shows movement in the stars, which is of course all wrong as the stars do not move, the Earth rotates as the stars stay still! A star map however shows all the stars across the sky as single points.

How do I take either one on my camera?

Starmaps are the easiest of the star shots to take. All you need is a camera that can take pictures at ISO 1600 without too much noise, a tripod and a wide angle lens with a small number aperture. A kit lens like the Canon 18-55 F3.5-5.6 has a reasonably small number aperture F3.5, enough for a good try at a starmap. A remote shutter cable can be useful but is not required; you can use your cameras self-timer.

Make sure you are as far away from the city lights as possible, and of course you need a clear night with no clouds, if you pick a night with no moon you will get more light from the stars and more stars in your map!

Your camera will have a very hard time focusing on the night sky, so it is best to turn the focus off and using the view finder or live view focus on the stars. I prefer to use live view, zoom in on the back of the camera to a few of the bright stars and then focus manually.

Set the camera manually (M mode) and start with these settings, aperture F3.5, ISO 1600 and use a shutter speed of 15 seconds.

Startrails compared to StarmapsYou should get something like this; this was taken on a 5D Mark II, ISO 1600, F2.8 and 15 seconds. This shot is a wide panorama of 11 images that have been put together.

You can make the stars brighter by increasing the shutter speed from 15 seconds to 20 or 30 be careful though as any longer than this and the stars will blur. Increasing the ISO number from 1600 to 3200 or more depending on your cameras capabilities, if you have a lens with a smaller aperture number, then use the smallest number you have.  If your shot is too bright, you can darken the shot by reducing the shutter speed (less time) decreasing the ISO (smaller number) or increasing the aperture number. It is best to use the smallest number ISO you can.


Startrails are almost the same. You will need a tripod, camera and wide angle lens with a small aperture number, you will need a shutter release cable, or an intervalometer, this device can be set to take a certain number of pictures that have the same shutter speed.

With startrails it is of course better to get as far away as possible from the city lights, as you will get more stars in your trail, but with software like Starstax or Startrails, you can easily shot lots of images and add them together, this is my preferred option. Starstax is a little easier to use, Startrails has the functionality of making a video built in.

Most of my startrails are setup as above, with my starting settings of F5.6 ISO 3200 and shutter speed of 30 seconds. The reasoning behind lots of short shots, is that in a 30 second shot there may be a light or something that ruins the exposure, in this case it has ruined one exposure in many, if I was shooting 6 or 8 minute shots, it has ruined the entire shoot and startrail.

Startrails compared to StarmapsThis was one of my first star trails, 5D Mark II ISO 400 F2.8 16mm and 300 seconds per shot. I was using a intervalometer to do the 300 seconds, and the gap between each shot. In shot 3 of 5, a car drove past and lit up the trees in the foreground. This could have ruined my startrail, but in this case it made it even better. This is a 25 minute shot!

As you can see in the above the stars a spinning around a central start, this star or spot is called the Celestial South Pole. I will show you how to find it soon.

Startrails compared to StarmapsThis was taken the same night as the shot above, by turning 90° left from the Southern Celestial Pole, you get this sort of startrail pattern. 5D Mark II, ISO 800 F2.8 and 225 seconds. 6 images in total. So this image was 22.5 minutes.

So how do you find the Sothern Celestial Pole?

Startrails compared to StarmapsI have circled the Southern Cross and the two pointers in this picture. I have drawn an imaginary line through the long part of the Southern Cross and a line between the two pointers. Where those two lines cross is the Southern Celestial Pole. You can also use phone apps and other star maps to help, but some of those apps may need an internet connection, which in the middle of nowhere, to get away from all the city lights you may not have. There are some apps, which will also give the trajectory of the Sun and Moon. They can be handy too.

Startrails compared to StarmapsThis is the result. 5D Mark II ISO 400 F2.8 and 300 seconds, there are 9 images in this startrail, which is a 45 minute photo. I wanted the stars to rotate around the tree. This was a moon lit night and the light on the background was due to it, it did reduce the amount of stars, but I like the background in this shot.

So if the above long shutter speed shots work why use lots of 30 second shots? Below is a great reason.

Startrails compared to StarmapsThis is 125 shots stitched in Starstax, each shot is 10 seconds, at F5.6 and ISO 400 that’s a 20 minute photo, if we were to use the settings from the shots above, the long exposures would make the house and street in front of me too bright, I would see more stars, but the remainder of my image would not be correct, also a few too many lightning strikes could ruin the photo. So this image has lightning a startrail and planes coming in to land!

Startrails compared to StarmapsThis shot is made up of 115 shots stacked in Starstax, each photo was taken at F3.5 ISO 1600 and 30 seconds, 57.5 minutes. Using long shutter speeds would make the foreground too bright, and ruin this shot. The clouds started to cross the sky as I took them, but I like the effect they have given the shot.

Try This

On the same night set yourself up to take both a Startrail and a Star Map, make a night of it, and invite some friends with you, will give you something to do while your camera is doing all the work.

Post up some of your pictures! Would be great to see what you have captured.

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