How to create star trails in Photoshop in three easy steps

You can create star trails in Photoshop in three easy steps. It’s really quite easy!

Star trails are magical. They show the celestial movements of the stars over a long period of time. And they’re easy to create.

You’ve taken some photos of the night sky in succession, one right after another, using a tripod to keep everything steady. And now you want to use Photoshop to “stack” them to make them into larger star trails. Photoshop has some nice advantages for “stacking”, and I’ll point some of these out near the end.

1. Stack your photos

Load files into stack screenshot.
Load files into stack. We’re gonna create some star trails!

Simply go to “File”. Select “Scripts”. Then select “Load Files into Stack” as shown above. 

2.) Select which files you want stacked

Dialogue box for stacking
Dialogue box for selecting the files you want to “stack” into star trails.

This too is straightforward. Hit the “Browse” button. Then simply navigate to where your files are and select them and hit “OK”. You don’t need to check any of the boxes below assuming that your camera and tripod did not move.

3.) Let the stars shine through!

Photoshop will stack all of your photos. If you had printed all of your individual photos, it would be as if they were all stacked on top of each other in one neat pile. Photoshop is just doing this digitally. Lean back and relax. If you have lots of photos and a slow computer, go get a drink.

Photoshop Layers lighten.
Hey, alright! Photoshop has stacked your photos! But now we need to change the opacity of the Layers from “Normal” to “Lighten”.

Once Photoshop is done, you’ll think, “Okay….I see all the layers of photos on the bottom right side….but I don’t see any star trails!” And you wouldn’t see them if you had stacked all your printed photos one on top of the other either. 

But here in Photoshop, we can turn our stacked “digital papers” (our layers, in other words) into “magic paper”. Cool, huh? 

First, highlight all the layers except the very bottom layer. 

Then go to the Layers Tab just above where all your images are stacked; You’ll see a pulldown menu that says “Normal”. Change that to “Lighten”. Wow! Let the stars shine through!

Photoshop Layers lighten.
Instant star trails! I never get tired of seeing how it all comes together. Where the red arrow is pointing, you change that from “Normal” to “Lighten”, then lean back and smile. Yeah. You just created some star trails!

If you look at this photo above, you can see some airplane trails and some lights from me mistakenly shining the light into the camera while illuminating the giant dragon sculpture. Next we will discuss how to get rid of that.

Bonus Tip: getting rid of airplane trails or unwanted lights

Some people don’t want airplanes in their star trails. Or maybe you mistakenly shine a light in the camera and you don’t want that. This bonus section is for you. This is one of the nice aspects of using Photoshop.

A lot of people choose not to do this. That’s okay. It’s your photo. You’re in charge. You do what you want.

Photoshop masks
The red arrow is pointing to Layer Masks. Here, I’ve created a lot of Layer Masks, one for each Layer, mostly to get rid of lots of airplane trails. There were probably ten airplanes that flew through while I created this image because this location is directly in the flight path of San Diego. I also got rid of some inadvertent lights while light painting and my ghostly shadow image from standing in place a little too long.

But if you want to try this, you can rid yourself of them by creating Layer Masks. Those are those white rectangles to the right of the layers in our example below. 

Creating Layer Masks so we can mask out unwanted stuff

Select one layer that has the airplane trails or unwanted light that you don’t want. You’ll create a Layer Mask that will block this out. Go to the top menu. “Choose Layer” > “Layer Mask” > “Reveal All”. This should produce a white rectangle to the right of your selected layer.

Then select the Brush tool. This is located on the left side of the image. Choose the black color. Make sure that the white Layer Mask is selected instead of the actual layer itself. Then simply start painting away on the area that you want concealed. You should see the unwanted item begin to disappear. The black color stops that one part of the image from shining through! It’s like magic!

Rattledragon star trails photo
The enormous rattledragon sculpture in Borrego Springs, California. The sculpture was created by Ricardo Breceda. This image is 28 minutes total exposure. Each individual photo was a two-minute exposure at f/6.3 and ISO 200. The star trails are relatively straight because I am zooming in from farther away and we are not facing directly north or south, so they tend to be straighter and longer when they are farther from the North or South Celestial Poles.

It’s really that easy. If you don’t like it, hit “Undo” (or paint over what you did after selecting a white color). 

Additional tips

Layer Masks can be used to get rid of “hot spots” from your light painting as well. Or shadows. Really, anything that only exists on one layer, you can eliminate non-destructively. If you don’t like it later, go back and change it.

VISIT ME, VISIT ME!

BOOKS AND PRINTS:
Head on over to the Ken Lee Photography website to purchase books or look at night photography and long exposure prints and more.  My books are available there and Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Target, Booktopia, Books A Million, IBS, and Aladin. If you enjoy the book, please leave a nice review, thanks!

NIGHTAXIANS VIDEO YOUTUBE PODCAST:

Night photographers Tim Little, Mike Cooper and I all use Pentax gear. We discuss this, gear, adventures, light painting, lenses, night photography, creativity, and more in this ongoing YouTube podcast. Subscribe and watch to the Nightaxians today!

SOCIAL MEDIA:
Ken Lee Photography Facebook Page (poke your head in, say hi, and “like” the page if you would, uh, like)
Instagram

PODCAST:
Behind the Shot video podcast – interview February 2020

VIDEO PRESENTATION:

How We Got the Shots: Five Photographers, Five Stories – Night Photo Summit 2022

VIDEO INTERVIEW:

Ken Lee’s Abandoned Trains Planes and Automobiles with Tim Little of Cape Nights Photography
Conversation about night photography and my book with Lance Keimig of National Park At Night

ARTICLES:
A Photographer Captures Haunting Nighttime Images of Abandoned Buildings, Planes, and Cars in the American Southwest – Business Insider by Erin McDowell
A Photographer Explores Southern California’s Desert Ruins – Los Angeles Magazine article by Chris Nichols

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s