Learning how to shoot star trails properly can be confusing. Lets learn how to do it simply, with just ONE PHOTO…

Download the image and follow along to create STUNNING star trails for yourself!

People learn best by doing, follow along by download the image below:


In this tutorial we also will be using a free, star trails program, called StarStax. Download Starstax on Mac or PC below:


If you’re more into reading, then continue below!



The first star trail up is called the Zoom Effect! This effect is achieved by making a custom Photoshop action that we repeat 30-80 times. We later export all these layers as individual files and make it look extra crispy with Starstax.


Since we will inevitably be repeating the same transform process 30-80 times, lets save ourselves some time. Lets create our own Zoom Effect Photoshop action! Click the play button as circled in the image below to open your actions window.

Screen Shot 2017-11-06 at 2.32.37 PM

If this play button is not on your screen, go to the top of your screen and click WINDOW > ACTIONS and the actions panel will appear for you.

Once your panel is open, click the NEW LAYER ICON to create a new Photoshop Action.

Screen Shot 2017-11-06 at 2.33.04 PM

Name your new action “Zoom Effect” then click RECORD to begin making your Photoshop Action.

Screen Shot 2017-11-06 at 2.33.27 PM

Double check you are recording by finding the red circle at the bottom of your actions panel. Now lets duplicate out Background layer by press CMD + J or CNTRL + J(pc) to create a Layer 1.

With Layer 1 selected, press CMD + T to TRANSFORM. Now at the top of your window, change the H(height) and W(width) to 99.8%. Once that is done, click the check box to finalize as shown below:Screen Shot 2017-11-06 at 2.33.47 PM.png

Now head back over to your layer panel. Change your layer blending mode from NORMAL to LIGHTEN. Once complete, we are complete our Photoshop action. We can now press the stop button to end the recording. Stop button circled below:

Screen Shot 2017-11-06 at 2.34.25 PM

Our Photoshop action is now complete! Time to put it to use. Make sure your “ZOOM EFFECT” is selected in your actions window. Also ensure Layer 1 is selected in your layers window. Once ready, press the play button 30-80 times to apply the zoom effect as shown below:

Screen Shot 2017-11-06 at 2.34.38 PM.png

In this case, I chose to apply this action 35 times. You can apply the action more or less depending on how zoomed you wish your star trails to appear! Screen Shot 2017-11-06 at 2.37.44 PM.png

If you are happy as is, select all your layers and press CMD + E to merge all your layers into 1. If you prefer to make your star trails more smooth, I detail the export settings and Starstax application below!

Star Vortex Effect:

The next star trail up is called the Vortex Effect! Rather than zooming into our stars we are now rotating our stars around a singular point. This process is extremely similar to the one outlined in the Zoom Effect, with a few subtle differences. Lets get started.


Just like before, we will be applying this same effect onto our image 30-80 times. Lets make it easy on ourselves once again and create a custom Photoshop action!

Screen Shot 2017-11-06 at 2.32.37 PM.png

Click the play button to open your actions panel. If you do not see the play icon: go to the top of your screen and click WINDOW > ACTIONS and the actions panel will appear. To create a new action lets click on the NEW LAYER icon as shown above.

Screen Shot 2017-11-06 at 3.14.15 PM.png

Name your new action “VORTEX EFFECT” then click RECORD to begin creating your new action.

Screen Shot 2017-11-06 at 3.14.57 PM.png

Double check you are recording by looking for the red circle recording icon on the bottom of your actions window. Just like before, our first step is to duplicate our Background layer by pressing CMD + J.

Next we will press CMD + T to TRANSFORM our image. Pick a place in your image to put your anchor point. Where ever you place this point, your stars will rotate around that area. I moved mine into the top left corner as shown below: Screen Shot 2017-11-06 at 3.15.18 PM.png

Next we will go to the top of our window and change H(height) to 99.8% and our angle to 0.2. Once complete, press the check box to finalize the transformations.

Screen Shot 2017-11-06 at 3.16.02 PM.png

Lastly, change your layer blending mode from Normal to Lighten. Now our action is complete so we can do ahead and press the stop button to end our recording. Detailed in the image below:

Screen Shot 2017-11-06 at 3.16.32 PM.png

Now with Layer 1 selected, press the play button on our Vortex Effect. Apply this action 30-80 times. In my case, I applied the effect 46 times. If you wish to add more of an effect, continue to apply the Vortex Effect Action to your layers!

Screen Shot 2017-11-06 at 3.17.50 PM.png


Now we have created our effects! Lets make these star trails look a bit more smooth by using Starstax.


Lets export all of our layers into individual files. We can do this by going to FILE > EXPORT > LAYERS TO FILES.

Set your file type to either JPEG or PNG-24. I prefer to use JPEG as the file sizes are smaller and it exports 10x faster from Photoshop. Using JPEG will leave you with a white border around your image after using Starstax.

If you don’t want the white border, then export your files to PNG-24. Remember white borders can be cropped out.

Set a destination folder for all of your layer files and click run when ready. All of your layers will export into the destination file. We will now open all of those files in Starstax.

This process may take a few minutes.

Screen Shot 2017-11-06 at 3.36.12 PM.png


Now we are ready to move our files into Starstax! In the examples below I am using the Zoom Effect star trails. Not to worry, the settings for both the Zoom and Vortex trails are the exact same in Starstax.

Here’s How:

Open the folder of your newly selected files, select all, then drag and drop into star Starstax as shown below:Screen Shot 2017-11-07 at 10.54.59 AM.png

Once all your files are imported, move to the right of the window and click on the gear icon. Go to the BLENDING TAB and make sure your blending mode is set to GAP FILLING. Screen Shot 2017-11-07 at 10.55.13 AM.png

Once you have set the blending mode, move back to the left of your screen and click the PROCESS button to create your star trails.Screen Shot 2017-11-07 at 10.55.26 AM.png

When processing is finished, move to the right of the window and click on the wrench. Here you can adjust the settings for gap filling in your trails! Below are the settings I like to use. However, I encourage you to experiment!Screen Shot 2017-11-07 at 10.58.30 AM.png

Now we have smoothed out our star trails and they are ready to be exported! Click on the save button and set a destination for your file!Screen Shot 2017-11-07 at 11.07.04 AM.png

Now What?

So we learned how to create these amazing star trails, but now what? Now its time to add these stars into some of your images!

These trails are a great effect to make people ask themselves, “how the heck did they do that?”. Well now you know… go blow some minds. 🙂

Here’s how I used this effect in one of my images:TorchBeach_IGWATERMARK.jpg

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Happy creating 🙂


Article By

Brendan Williams

Hey, I'm Brendan! I'm a professional photographer and photo retoucher who has spent the majority of his career shooting or retouching outdoor lifestyle and social media campaigns for brands like G-Adventures, xoxo Bella, P&G, Fitbit, Chevy, Tourism California, and more. These days I primarily focus my efforts on this site, creating guides and tutorials that I wish I had earlier in my career. Each week I publish new tutorials on Photography, Photoshop, Lightroom, and Canva to help you unlock new skills and bring your creativity to new levels! Everything you learn here is backed by real experience, so you can finally skip the fluff and focus only on what matters.

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