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Nail the Shot: Perfectly Aligned Star Trails Revolving Around Polaris

In this shot, the North Star (Polaris), which is the centre of the circular star trail, is aligned directly above the summit of the mountain. Here’s how you too can achieve the same effect. (Reported by: Michiko Kaneko)

Circular star trails over mountain

EOS 5D Mark III/ EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM/ FL: 16mm/ Manual exposure (f/9, 25 minutes)/ ISO 200/ WB: Auto

Location of shoot: Mount Nantai (Tochigi Prefecture)


Preparing for the shoot

The beauty of the shot above is how the North Star, which forms the centre of the circular star trail, is perfectly aligned right above the mountain summit. Shots like this are certainly not achievable by simply pointing your lens and shooting at random.

Some starting tips:
1. Find out the precise location of the North Star.
2. Think of how you want it to relate to the other subjects in your composition.
3. Choose a shooting location that has minimal street lighting. This way, more stars will be visible in your shot.
4. Light from the moon can affect star visibility too. It’s a good idea to shoot on the night of a new moon.


Location and time: The fewer artificial lights, the better

To avoid exposure in the area around the lake (Lake Chuzenji), I did this shoot late at night when there were fewer artificial lights. In fact, the lights were just enough to reflect off the surface off Mount Nantai, allowing the shape of the mountain to be captured clearly.


Step 1: Decide where you want the star trails and mountain in your frame

When I composed my shot, the first thing I did was to frame it so that the North Star fell directly above the peak of the mountain. After that, I decided on my primary subject (the star trails) and the secondary subject (the mountain).

Composition breakdown

A: North Star
B: Primary subject (star trails)
C: Secondary subject (mountain)


How to identify the North Star

As a second magnitude star, the North Star is relatively bright and easy to identify. There are a number of mobile apps that you could use to help you locate it, but if you prefer the traditional, analogue way, here are two other methods:

Using the Big Dipper:
1. Locate the Big Dipper.
2. Draw an imaginary line to connect the sixth and seventh stars from the tip of the Big Dipper’s handle.
3. Extend the line by five times. The North Star will be somewhere around the end of the line.

Using a compass (or compass app):
1. Know your latitude.
2. Use a compass (or the compass app on your smartphone) to locate True North. Face it.
3. The height of the North Star above the horizon is equal to your latitude, i.e., if you are at a latitude of 36 degrees north, then the North Star will be positioned somewhere about 36 degrees above the horizon.


Tip: 10 degrees is roughly your clenched fist held at arm’s length. If you are located 36 degrees north, the North Star would be approximately 3.5 fists above the horizon. (Source: www.space.com)

Screenshot from compass app


Step 2: Ensure tack sharp focus on the North Star

The key to achieving a beautiful shot of the stars is to ensure that the North Star captured in precise focus. Set the lens focus mode switch to MF and enlarge the Live View image. The North Star might look blurred and defocused—adjust until focus is sharp. The tinier and sharper it appears as a dot, the better.


Tip: For more faithful reproduction of colours, set the Picture Style setting to ‘Standard’ or ‘Faithful’.

MF switch on lens

Switch to MF

Picture Style menu


Step 3: Use Bulb mode; expose the shot for a long duration

Bulb mode on mode dial

Turn the mode dial to ‘B’ (Bulb mode).

I took the shot at 16mm and composed it so that the sky took up a large part of the image. This ensures that the circular path of the stars is clearly captured.

To create circular star trails, you need to use a very long exposure. I used the Bulb mode and my camera's built-in interval timer. If your camera does not have an interval timer function, you might need to find other means to "lock" the shutter for the entire period, such as an intervalometer, or a remote switch with a timer function.

Tip: Exposure time
The stars in the northern sky move by about 15 degrees every hour. The longer the exposure time, the longer the trails, but it also depends on the focal length that you use and other factors. For this image, I set an exposure time of 25 minutes as any longer than that was likely to cause overexposure in the lights at the base of the mountain. It might take some trial-and-error to find something that works for your composition and shooting conditions. 


Here are some other ideas for photographing starscapes:
Slow Shutter Art: Using Zoom Burst to Transform Stars in the Sky into a Meteor Shower
Stunning Starscapes: Photographing Glowing Fireflies under a Sky Full of Stars

For more tips and recommendations for astrophotography, check out:
Astrophotography: What To Avoid When Shooting Stars
Essential Apps to take Outdoor Photography to the Next Level
5 Reasons Why the EOS 5D Mark IV is Great for Astrophotography


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Michiko Kaneko

Michiko Kaneko

Born in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, Kaneko started to engage in photography activities after chancing upon a deeply inspiring shot in Okunikko in 1987. She studied under the late renowned photographer, Shotaro Akiyama, before setting up a photo studio and becoming a freelance photographer. Fascinated by the beautiful colours of nature, she travels around Japan in a car, to capturing soothing shots of landscapes in the different seasons as well as photos that feature both trains and landscapes. A member of Japan Professional Photographers Society (JPS) and Japan Society for Arts and History of Photography (JSAHP).