Stacking for Star Trails

Ever wonder how images like the above were made? There are two main ways: 1)one VERY long exposure, or 2) stacking several long exposures.  In this tutorial post, I'll go through the planing, strategy, and technique of the second option - stacking. 

First up is planning (see my post on that here). After you determine the location, the right night, ascertain whether or not you have do-able weather, and select where to place your camera, then comes the fun part - guessing the exposure length, aperture, and ISO, and subsequently figuring out how many you need to take. Looking at your sensor size + lens combo should give you a good idea of how many frames of a particular length you need to make if your goal is a star circle (facing N to Polaris). I have a  whole separate post on this here. In this post, I want to focus on the post-processing portion of making an image like the above. 

So you have your frames, and (hopefully) your "plate" exposure that you shot for the foreground. Now what?

Step 1: get organized by placing all frames in  your stack in a unique Lightroom Collection. 

Step2: Synchronize ALL develop settings across EACH star trail frame so they are exactly the same.

Step3: Separately develop your "plate" frame to taste. 

Step 4: Select all frames in your stack in Lightroom's filmstrip along the bottom of the screen. Right-click on one of the photos, and choose "Edit In / Open as Layers in Photoshop"

Step 5: In Photoshop, drag the plate layer to the bottom of your layers, if it's not there already. 

Step 6: In the layers panel, select ALL star trails layers, and change the Layer Blending Mode to either "Lighten" or "Screen." Choose one based on which looks better - if shot on a moonless night with dark sky and bring star trails, I find "Lighten" to work better. This should allow all the trails to add up and create your finished blend OF THE SKY ONLY. 

Step 7: Merge all the star trail layers together via the "Merge Layers" command

Step 8: Add a layer mask to the merged star rails layer. Use regular mask-painting techniques with different brushes, hardnesses, opacity, etc. to cover over the foreground of the star trails layer with black paint (remember: white reveals, black conceals). The black paint on the mask will "conceal" or cover up the part of that layer, allowing the part of the next-lowest layer (in this case your foreground plate) to come through to the top in your photograph. Take care to make the blend look realistic. 

If you find gaps in your trails, they will need to be dealt with. Stephen Christensen of the Star Cricle Academy has an excellent post on how to manage this scenario - here

That's it in a nutshell! Any questions, feel free to leave a comment or shoot me an email. 


Night Photography Workshops - Summer 2015


I am pleased to offer several night photography workshops this summer in Truckee's beautiful Martis Valley.   

Lightning Strikes Verdi



  • August 8th 2015 - How to shoot the Milky Way (New Moon)
  • More dates and classes will be announced through the summer - stay tuned to my newsletter (sign up here).



Each workshop includes a minimum of two hours of shooting time, and at least an hour of post-processing the following day in my gallery/studio in Downtown Truckee.

The rate for this workshops is $275 per person. Maximum class size for these workshops is 4 students.


I will teach you the basics of shooting landscape photos at night, including but not limited to:

  • - How to focus at night
  • - Strategies for star dots versus star trails and proper Milky way exposure.
  • - How to shoot the milky way or moon (depending on which class you are in)
  • - High-ISO low-noise approach
  • - Proper exposure and camera settings for night astrophotos
  • - Basic post processing in Lightroom and Photoshop


You will need a DSLR, tripod, and cable release to take one of these classes. If you elect to come to the post-processing workshop, you'll get much more out of it if you bring your own laptop with Lightroom / Photoshop installed. Demo versions are available via a trial version of Creative Cloud at Adobe's website.

If you want to learn more, contact me through this blog or give me a call at 530-386-6492.


Lake Tahoe and Truckee Photography Workshops


I'm pleased to offer private small-group and individual photography and timelapse workshops custom tailored to meet your needs. Whether you are a beginner hoping to learn how to use an SLR, or a seasoned professional looking to learn some night photography or motion-controlled timelapse tips and tricks - I'd love to work with you.  Please contact me by phone at 530-386-6492 or send me an email here to schedule your workshop today.

Eclipsed full moon setting over Tahoe Donner, 12/10/2011

I am fully insured and permitted in the beautiful Martis Valley in Truckee and at Sand Harbor in the gorgeous Lake Tahoe State Park in Nevada.

Landscape Astrophotography Planning Apps and Websites


Students (and sometimes colleagues) often ask about the tools I use to plan for night sky shooting, so I thought  I'd collate a few of my favorites in a blog post.

 NOAA Weather Pages

The first step in landscape photography is understanding what the weather is likely to be doing wherever you may be venturing off to.

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration offers a wealth of weather date through numerous web pages. I like to use the graphical forecast page, like this example for Truckee:

NWS hourly

(link here--->) Truckee CA Hourly Weather Page. The NWS hourly page is a wealth of information,. including wind, precip potential, and sky cover %. You can generate this for any point in the United States.

And of course, the NWS radar is a great way to see what may or may not be coming over the horizon.

NWS radar

 Clear Sky Chart

The Clear Dark Sky website uses publicly available meteorological data to create a visualization of the aspects of weather that factor into what astronomers call "seeing." Seeing refers to the quality of potential observations at a given time. Good seeing conditions are thus clear, dark skies.

Check out their website for locations near you.

The Photographer's Ephemeris

photog ephemeris

I love this app, and it's essential for forward planning of many different types of photography. Even better, it's a free software download for your desktop. Only the smartphone app costs $.

You can use the Photographer's Ephemeris for many different things, it's really a one-stop shop for planning out astrophotography. TPE will tell you where the sun/moon will be in the sky over time (azimuth and elevation), as well as the times for sunrise/sunset, moonrise/moonset, and astronomical twilight. It provides this info in a graphical format as a line laid over Google Maps. This is a fantastically powerful tool for lining up celestial and manmade objects - say for example you wanted to shoot the moon setting between the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge and wanted to know what time of year this is possible and where you could stand in SF to accomplish the shot.

You can download the program for your desktop computer free of charge at their website, or visit the iTunes store or Andoird Play store to install on your smartphone.


Deluxe Moon

deluxe moon

Sometimes, you need an at-a-glance view of the moon's phase in a monthly calendar format. This app is great for that. it has many other features as well that I rarely use, but I keep it on the front page of my phone so I can easily and quickly tell what influence the moon will have on my night photos on any given day in the future.




Lunar Eclipse Photography - the April 14/15 Full Lunar Eclipse


Late next Monday night we will see the first of 4 lunar eclipses in a row - what is known as a "lunar tetrad" - and the best news is that all four events over the next few years will be visible from North America.


Here are eclipse times in California:

Pacific Daylight Time (April 14-15, 2014) Partial umbral eclipse begins: 10:58 p.m. PDT on April 14 Total eclipse begins: 12:07 a.m. PDT on April 15 Greatest eclipse: 12:46 a.m. PDT Total eclipse ends: 1:25 a.m. PDT Partial eclipse ends: 2:33 a.m. PDT

I enjoyed success shooting the last lunar eclipse visible from Truckee in December 2012:

Eclipsed full moon setting over Tahoe Donner, 12/10/2011


The next image is a combination of 15 images - 14 shots of the moon made equally spaced at 10 minutes, and 1 "plate" of the foreground shot at the end of the event.

Sequence of full lunar eclipse of 12/10/2011 over Truckee as seen from Martis Peak


On April 14th, the eclipse and the kind of sequence photograph possible will be completely different, as the moon will pass through the Earth's shadow from West to East, in the middle of the night, as opposed to at dawn as it did in 2011 in the above photograph. It will be around 40 degrees in elevation above the horizon (remember - 45 degrees is half way to the zenith, or directly overhead).

What will the 2014 eclipse look like as a sequence? Well, I intend to find out! As any reader of this blog knows, I am a big proponent of pre-visualization. Luckily for us in 2014, we have a variety of digital tools at our disposal to help us understand the movements of celestial bodies. I use Sky Safari Pro ($39.99 - Apple Store or Google Play)and the excellent free PC app Stellarium.

Composite sequence from Sky Safari


How do I do that?

Practice the night before! I plan to go out and photograph the moon Sunday night just to see where it's going to be in the sky with relation to the foreground where I plan to shoot it. Remember the moon rises about 47 minutes later each night. So that means to shoot Sunday night you'll want to be shooting from 10 pm to 1:30 am (for the actual eclipse you'll want to be shooting from 11 to 2:30 am).

I'm going to shoot more frequently this time, so I have more moons in my photo. The above shot from 2011 was every 10 minutes at 46 mm with a 24-70mm lens. I'm going to shoot every 5 minutes this year, with my 16-35mm lens at 20-35 (?). It will be a bit tricky to determine the composition, but that's why I'm going to test it out Sunday night!

I won't go into details about how to gauge proper exposure for the different portions of the eclipse - Mr. Eclipse has this information in an excellent and easy to use table:


The big question you need to ask yourself is - are you going to create a landscape photo with the moon in it (i.e. a sequence) or do you have specialized telescopic equipment to shoot the moon itself. Personally, I like the sequence shot as it shows the moon in relation to the landscape. I also don't own any telescope gear...

Whatever approach you take - remember - BRACKET!!!! When making a sequence later in Photoshop, as long as you take your bracketed exposures quickly, you will be able to combine everything at equal intervals so the spacing works out fine.

Good luck! Feel free to post questions in the comments or as always, shoot me an email.

 Additional Resources to Learn More:

Nikon's "How to Photograph a Lunar Eclipse"

Mr. Eclipse's "How to Photograph a Lunar Eclipse"