When making milky way photos or star trail photos, a remote shutter release is vital. There are a number of different options and I see a lot of confusion during my beginner astrophotography classes. This post addresses the different options and the trade offs for each type.
When thinking about releases, there are several factors I consider:
- How reliable is it?
- Will it work at all?
- Can it handle arbitrary exposure times (e.g. 4 minutes) in bulb mode?
- Can it fire the camera repeatedly (for star trails)?
- How easy is it to use?
The only one of these that is a show stopper for me is #1. I wont use any remote release that isn’t close to 100% reliable. There is nothing worse than setting up a star trail only to discover after waiting for hours that the remote didn’t work as it should…
Remote Shutter Release Astrophotography and Star Trails
Star trails require the ability to release the shutter multiple times either through a small computer, or by using continual release mode and locking the remote button down. Milky way and other long exposures only require the ability to release the shutter. However, the ability to lock the shutter open is useful for bulb mode. Without it, you are limited to your camera’s longest shutter time, which is 30 seconds in most cases.
Wired Simple Shutter Release
These are the simplest (and in my opinion) best option for many people. They are literally a mechanical button connected to the camera with a wire. Most have a physical lock for the shutter button that allows you to do bulb exposures of any length.
My simple method of making star trails uses a wired simple remote to avoid most complications.
They are dead simple, and as a result very reliable. They are also cheap. The only failure I’ve had is that eventually the wire can break invisibly and they will stop working. I always carry a spare for this reason. Since they are small, light and cheap, this is not an issue. If they work when you plug them in, they keep working for the rest of the shoot.
This is my recommended options for anyone just starting to make star trails or milky way photos.
Star Trails: Yes, with Limitations
Milky Way: Yes
Other Long Exposure: Yes
Wired Computerized Shutter Releases
These are frequently called “intervalometers”. They are basically the same thing as the simple wired release above (mechanical button, locking mechanism), but also have a small microchip and screen built in. Using the interface on the device, you can program in individual or multiple exposures. Most work as simple wired shutter releases if you don’t have batteries.
This seems like a good tool, and it can be when it works. My personal experience with these type of intervalometers is that they are unreliable. You have to remember to have charged batteries with you. Programming them in the dark can be confusing, even if you’ve practiced. With long exposures it can take minutes to realize you have made a mistake and have to start over. That said, many people use them successfully. While I’m not a fan, they do work.
There are higher end versions of these available online that are more reliable and flexible.
Star Trails: Yes
Milky Way: Yes
Other Long Exposure: Yes
Wireless Computerized Shutter Release
These are exactly like the Wired Computerized Shutter Releases above, except there is no wire connecting the computer & button to the camera. The hand set where you program and control everything uses RF or IR to run the receiver half attached to the camera via a cable. That means that you loose the mechanical button. To release the shutter at all, both sides have to be powered up and working right. You need twice as many batteries and there are twice as many to be dead unexpectedly. If anything goes wrong during your exposure, everything stops, or you get gaps in your star trail.
Wireless is great for things where 100% reliability is OPTIONAL. When unlocking your car, or opening your garage door, you can always press the button a second (or 3rd or 4th) time until it works. These remotes are basically a version of those devices attached to a camera, and about as reliable.
Star Trails: Not Recommended but Works
Milky Way: Not Recommended but Works
Other Long Exposure: Not Recommended but Works
IR Remote Shutter Release
Nikon, Canon and others sell small IR remotes. These work great for places the camera on a tripod and taking a selfy. They are an alternative to the self timer just about every camera has. They give you more control. You can take multiple pictures without running back and forth to the camera. At night, they are perfectly good for releasing the shutter without shaking the camera when making single exposures of 30 seconds or less.
They are not useful for star trails or anything requiring bulb mode.
Star Trails: Won’t Work
Milky Way: Limited to 30s on Most Cameras
Other Long Exposure: Limited to 30s on Most Cameras
Camera Internal Intervalometers
Many manufacturers now have internal intervalometers. Nikon (my favorite brand) has them built into every camera save the base consumer series (D3x00). The built in Nikon intervalometer can be used to make star trails assuming you know the quirks to work around. Most internal intervalometers are limited to 30 second exposures.
And here is where things get complicated. You have to test your camera’s intervalometer to know how well it works. Pentax for example has a more flexible intervalometer designed for star trails. Nikon’s intervalometer, as mentioned above, is clearly not designed for doing star trails. You can make it work, but only marginally and never well. Canon does not have a built in intervalometer at all (at least not in any camera I know of), but if you run Magic Lantern firmware, that firmware has a great one.
Star Trails: Depends On Camera
Milky Way: Won’t Work
Other Long Exposure: Won’t Work
Custom Shutter Releases
I’m going to venture into the realm of DIY for a second. Chances are, if you are asking yourself if you should just build your own, you don’t need my advice.
However, maybe some haven’t considered it. Some time back, I got tired of dealing with all the shenanigans associated with off the shelf intervalometers so I built my own using an Arduino, a Bluetooth adapter, my android phone and a hacked up wired remote (for the cord/plug). Those comfortable with simple programming and electronics can easily go this route. There are even tutorials on doing this.
The clear advantage here is that you have complete control and can tune to intervalometer however you would like. The downside is that you have to do all that work. If you enjoy hacking as a hobby, this can be fun. Once I implemented everything I wanted, my DIY intervalometer is just about perfect.
Star Trails: Up to You
Milky Way: Up to You
Other Long Exposure: Up to You
Of the six options discussed, I normally use either a simple wired remote or a DIY computerized intervalometer.
The simple wired remote is my suggestion for those starting out making star trails.
|Star Trails||Milky Way||Other Long Exp|
|Simple Wired||Works with Limitation |
Recommended for new Night Photographers
|Computerized Wired||Works but Reliability Varies|
|Computerized Wireless||Not Recommended – Unreliable|
|IR Remote||Won’t Work||Limited to 30s Exp|
|Internal Intervalometers||Works – Depends on Camera|
|DIY||Works – Depends on Photographer|