Night Sky Time-lapse Photography Guide

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Few natural phenomena can instill the same sense of wonder and awe that the night sky can. For hundreds of years, our ancestors believed that when they looked up at night they were gazing into the heavens themselves, and today, we know that the truth is even more mysterious than we could have imagined.

Our Milky Way galaxy is a sight to behold, and for several decades now, an entirely new way of observing its intricacies has been possible, thanks to advances in modern camera equipment. This style of imaging is commonly referred to as night sky photography, or astrophotography. Today, we’re going to be looking at a particular style that involves capturing the stars as they appear to move through the sky. By the end of it, you’ll know how to capture your very own night sky time-lapse sequences, much like this one below.

Excited? You should be. Let’s begin.

Intro To Night Sky Lime-Lapse

Night sky time-lapse photography involves much of the same equipment and techniques that traditional time-lapse work does. We’ve covered these extensively before, but today, we’ll be taking a much closer look at the specific skills and equipment used to capture a more challenging subject.

In general, you’re going to need a bit more specialized equipment to be truly successful at night sky photography than just about any other form of the craft. As opposed to shooting a busy city center or a sun-swept mountainside, shooting in absolute darkness will require a high-powered camera system that is capable of pulling light seemingly out of thin air. Let’s take a closer peek at everything you’ll need to capture successful night sky photography below. From there, we’ll jump into specific techniques you can use to capture the night sky sequence of a lifetime.

What You’ll Need

Unlike traditional time-lapse photography, you probably won’t have much luck using something like your iPhone for night sky work. One of the main requirements for viewing the Milky Way in all of its glory is to be somewhere with very little light pollution, which is the ambient light given off by cities and larger towns across the world.

Because of this, you’ll need an image sensor that is capable of capturing even the faintest amount of light and recreating it in vivid detail. In our opinion, because this is a more advanced time-lapse technique, we recommend making use of a full-frame camera. These allow much more light into the image sensor than point-and-shoot and crop-sensor camera bodies, and also tend to have a wider selection of high-quality lenses to choose from.

Here’s a basic list of equipment you should bring with you to your first night sky shoot:

  • Backpack: You’ll potentially need to hike out a bit in order to find the perfect spot, so it pays to have a quality pack to hold your gear, food and water.
  • Camera body: Again, we recommend a full-frame system like the Sony a7s or the Canon 5d Mkiii, but a decent crop sensor body can work if you’re just getting started. Just know that you will be somewhat limited with this setup.
  • Wide-Angle lens: Since we’re trying to capture the enormity of the night sky, a wide, open lens is necessary. The shallower the better, so we’d recommend going for something that stops down to f/2.8 or lower.
  • A sturdy tripod: Your tripod is a vital support platform for capturing your images. Without it, you’d have no way to ensure that no unwanted motion was caught in the image sequence, especially since we’ll be shooting at low shutter speeds.
  • An intervalometer: This device acts as a control center for your camera, dictating how frequently it captures images in sequence. Some camera systems even have a built-in intervalometer function, but for most folks, you’re better off using a standalone device.
  • A high-speed, high-capacity SD card: We’d recommend a 32-64 GB card if possible, with at least 50mb/s processing speed.
  • A large amount of patience: Night sky photography isn’t exactly a thrill-seeker’s paradise; capturing emotive and awe-inspiring images of the heavens is almost always a slow, deliberate process. That doesn’t mean it isn’t fun!

Planning Out Your Shoot

Now that you have all of your gear in-hand, it’s time to start getting a plan together for your shoot! This is an exciting step, but there are a few things to keep in mind when mapping out your next moves.

Sky Conditions

If you live in or near to a major city, such as Dallas, New York City, Los Angeles, or Seattle, we have some bad news; the immense light pollution these hubs of urban life give off make any attempt at stellar photography pretty much a no-go. Remember, we’re using highly sensitive camera settings to pull in even the faintest light source, so these areas will quickly result in blown-out, unusable photos. In order to make this work, you’re going to need to get 60-90 minutes outside of any major sign of civilization.

Beyond this, you’ll also want to account for both the weather and the phase of the moon when planning your shoot. Cloudy skies are obviously detrimental to being able to capture the stars beyond. Similarly, a big, full moon will wash out any hope of seeing the inner workings of the Milky Way. It’s important to keep close tabs on these conditions leading up to your planned shoot so that you avoid disappointment when you arrive at your destination.

As a final note, the Milky Way’s position in the night sky is not constant. In the Northern Hemisphere, for instance, the core shifts from being visible in the southeastern skies in Spring to due south in Summer, and finally southwest in the Fall. For the Southern Hemisphere, it’ll be the southwest in the Spring, and southeast in the Summer and Fall.

Finding A Dark Sky

To help you find a good site to capture your night sky time-lapse, we’d recommend using tools like the excellent Dark Site Finder. These will help provide you with a visual aid so that you can gauge the level of light pollution in your area, and also help you find just how far out you’ll need to go to see truly dark skies.

For obvious regions, National Parks such as Yosemite and Big Bend are popular choices for astrophotography in general, due to their beautiful landscapes and lack of polluting light nearby. It’s important to consider this carefully, as it will determine how the finished product looks when everything is said and done.

Setting Up To Capture Your Images

Now is the time to put your new knowledge into practice. With your gear packed and destination mapped out, you’re ready to head out into the field and gather your images. Take a moment and appreciate that you’ve put in the effort to get this far; the key to progressing in any skill is to acknowledge the progress you make, however big or small.

When you arrive at your chosen dark sky site, here’s what you should do.

Composition & Framing

You’ll want to first begin scouting the immediate area for potential points of interest. This will obviously be much easier during the daytime, so we’d highly recommend arriving at or before the late afternoon in order to get the lay of the land around you. Remember, you’re looking for a spot that not only has a fantastic view of the section of the sky that the core of the Milky Way will be visible in, but also one that features some interesting foreground elements as well. For instance, in the video below, notice how the people around the campfire, the still waters of the lake, and the imposing majesty of Mt. Hood are all on full display:

Each of these elements brings interest to the composition, giving it a unique feeling that helps it stand out amongst a slew of other videos that just show the sky and nothing else. Try and keep this in mind when framing out your shots; perhaps there’s a particularly interesting broken tree that might look interesting from underneath, or maybe a nearby valley offers picturesque views of the countryside. In this regard, you are really only limited by your surroundings and your own creativity, so give some thought to this and take all the time you need to compose a fantastic shot. Your video will be better for it in the end.

General Camera Settings

Once you feel happy with your framing, it’s time to dial in the appropriate settings. It’s important to note here that there is no “golden rule” of astrophotography, which is to say that there is no group of settings or features that will reliably churn out incredible images in any spot around the globe. Finding the right exposure for your scene is a very specific, detailed process that will change depending upon a variety of factors.

With that said, there are some general guidelines that you can use as a frame of reference when dialing in your settings. Let’s look at a few of them below:

Shooting Mode: For starters, you’re going to want to put your camera into “Manual” mode when shooting time-lapse photography. The reason for this is simple; we don’t want the camera to be changing the focus between images in our sequence, because doing so would result in a poor-quality final video once everything is lined up. Manual mode gives us full control over what changes are made, and when.

Focus: Speaking of focus, it is very important to set it up properly for the first photo, as it will not be changing throughout the night. Of course, this can present a challenge during the night, as you’ll be pointing your camera into complete darkness. In order to ensure the scene is sharp, we’d recommend using your camera’s LIVE mode and zooming in on the brightest star in the sky. Once you have it isolated, turn the focus ring until it appears to be sharp. With this set, you can zoom back out, but be mindful not to bump the focus wheel again.

Shutter Speed: Because we need to let as much light spill into the sensor as possible, it is best to use a very slow shutter speed of around 20-30 seconds. Keep in mind that this will greatly exaggerate any bright source of light, so car headlights, streetlights, and even the moon can thwart your best efforts if you aren’t careful. Hopefully, you’ve taken care of that in the planning phase, and your scene is devoid of any such obstructions.

Aperture: Again, we need to let as much light into the sensor as possible, so when it comes to aperture, we want to use the widest opening your lens can muster. This can make all of the difference, so once again, we highly recommend using a lens that is capable of shooting at f/2.8 or “faster”. This will allow you to truly bring out the details in your scene.

ISO: In simple terms, ISO represents the amount of sensitivity the camera sensor itself has. The higher this number is, the more sensitive it will be to light. Sounds great, right? The key thing to keep in mind here is that with more sensitivity comes more noise in an image. Noise decreases the overall quality of the image, so you want to use just enough ISO to get the job done, and that’s it. In addition, this should be the first setting you turn down if you find that your images are overexposed at all.

Image Type: Every full-frame camera (and most crop-sensor bodies) will have the option to choose between JPEG and RAW files for your images. JPEG files will be compressed, and since we’re looking to preserve all of the data the sensor takes in, it’s best to instead choose RAW in just about any situation where you are shooting the night sky. Not only will this give you more flexibility during the editing phase, but it will also help you capture as much detail as possible, resulting in a more interesting, vivid final sequence.

That’s it; now that you have the basics down, there’s nothing left to do but start shooting! Relax, enjoy yourself, and remember that this is a marathon, not a sprint. You will make mistakes, you will have images that you aren’t fully happy with. It’s all part of the process; don’t let it discourage you from continuing along your path.

After The Shoot: Processing Your Images

When you’re back home with your collection of images, it’s now time to organize, edit, and bounce them down into a sequence to be played back like a video. This is its own topic altogether, so if you’re ready for the next step, be sure to read Part Two of our night sky time-lapse guide right here.

Happy Shooting!

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