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How to find the North and South stars - star trail photography

Updated on August 20, 2012

Example 1

Example 2

Why do I need to find north or south for star trails?

Generally, the area at which you point your camera depends on what you want your star trails picture to look like.

As a rule, to achieve circular pattern star trails you must point your camera at the north (if you are in the northern hemisphere) and at the south (if you are in the southern hemisphere)

  • If you look at the picture of example 1 - the photographer has selected either the North star(if he were in the northern hemisphere).
  • If you look at example 2 - the trails are not in a circle, this means the photographer did not point his/her camera directly north or directly south, but rather more towards the east or the west.
    This might sound very complicated, but it is in fact very easy! it just takes practice.

How do I find the North Star?

North Star

If you are in the northern hemisphere, then it is easy to find the North star, it does however take short period of star gazing, but once you learn to find "the big dipper" (or plough) in the sky, you'll never look back. This is by far the easiest way to quickly find the North Star.

1. Find "The Big Dipper" (also known as the Plough) in the sky. This is the star formation that a plough!

2. Find the far right upper star of the square part of the plough

3. Follow directly diagonally along an imaginary line to the 1st and then 2nd star lying on this line. The 2nd star is the North Star! Take a look at the diagram to help you, and get out there a practice finding it!

How do I find the south star?

South Star

If you are in the southern hemisphere, you will need to find the "south star." However, there is no actual south star, the Sigma Octantis is the closest star to south, but is not viewable by eye. Therefore on can use a few methods to find direct south;

1. Use of software - such as that found at

2. Find the "southern cross" constellation - which is the closest and usually best way to find direct south by eye. A great guide can be found here:

3. Trial and error - simply set your camera up for a night shot, for example - a 10 minute exposure with a low aperature, and view the result. Adjust the position of your camera accordingly, if you want circular star trails.


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    • crookedcreekphoto profile image

      crookedcreekphoto 5 years ago from Ohio, USA

      I've been wanting to go out and photograph the stars. I did it about 25 years ago when I got my first SLR camera. I'll have to use your suggestions and try it again. Thanks for the suggestions!