Ever since I can remember, I've had a fascination with the night sky. As
a young kid I'd stare up at the stars. Later, I'd take my daughter out
during meteor showers to see how many shooting stars we could count. And
throughout, I've experienced an uncanny need to keep staring at the
full moon for about an hour after it rises. Yet my fascination with the
night sky grew exponentially about six years ago when I learned that my
digital SLR had the capabilities to capture the brilliance of the night
sky, including details that my own eyes weren't able to resolve. After
capturing a sequence of photos, it's a simple matter to turn them into
breathtaking time-lapse videos.
If you're an avid photographer it's likely you already have the tools
you need to start capturing the night sky. Beyond the right tools, all
you really need is the right camera settings. In the chart below I have
listed the basics you'll need, as well as a list of the key settings.
|Digital SLR or mirrorless system camera
|Wide-angle lens with f/2.8 or faster aperture
|Timer remote (intervalometer)
||Finding sharp focus
|Large memory card (16GB, 32GB Preferred)
|Fully charged camera battery
Why Time-lapse Photography?
Time-lapse photography is an art form that allows us to see the world in
a different way. Most of us have witnessed a star-filled sky, but the
sky in motion is not something that happens fast enough for the naked
eye to perceive. Up until the introduction of high-ISO capable DSLRs,
there wasn't an easy or affordable way to capture the beauty of the
night sky in motion.
To capture the night sky as a single photograph involves taking just one
picture, but to capture the night sky in motion will require a series
of pictures that, when assembled using software, will turn into a motion
video; it's the digital equivalent of a flip-book. This tutorial will
help you get started.
Let me first give a simple overview of the key settings that go into capturing the night sky.
RAW versus JPEG
All of today's digital SLRs have the ability to capture images in either JPEG or RAW format.
JPEG format applies in-camera effects, filters, and
sharpening to an image before compressing and saving the image to a
memory card. JPEG photos often look ‘finished' right out of the camera
but have much less flexibility when it comes to tweaking things later or
bringing back blown-out highlights. Since JPEG is a compressed (lossy)
image format, you'll also notice banding in areas of solid color, like
blue skies. You can fit more images on a card using the JPEG format, but
it comes with quite a few trade-offs.
RAW format actually saves the exact image -- what the
sensor sees through the lens -- onto a memory card. By preserving the
original scene and not altering or compressing it in-camera, the image
becomes a true digital "negative." Since you'll need to post-process
your still images in order to turn them into a time-lapse, capturing in
RAW format doesn't really add complexity to the workflow. Of course, RAW
images take up more space on a memory card, but this can easily be
countered by shooting with larger cards. SD/SDXC memory cards are
relatively inexpensive, so jumping from an 8GB to 16GB or 32GB card
might only add $10--$20 to the overall cost of the card.
The real advantage to shooting RAW is an extra one to two stops of
exposure latitude. Skies that are just a tad too bright can be "dialed
down" in post, and shadow areas can be brightened up a bit without
adding a ton of extra noise. Also, solid colors won't have the
appearance of "banding" that's often visible in JPEG images, especially
as you edit and re-save the images.
The aperture value (Av) refers to the size of the lens opening, which
determines how much light makes it through the lens. Since aperture
values (or f-stops) are represented as fractions, the smaller values
actually provide a larger lens opening -- and a larger lens opening
means more light will pass through the lens. This is a very simple
definition of course, but what's important to know is that a lens with a
larger aperture will let a lot more light through to the camera sensor.
To shoot the night sky it is highly recommended that you use a lens
with a maximum aperture value of at least f/2.8.
Digital SLR cameras feature a mechanical shutter or "curtain" that
sits between the camera's image sensor and the rear opening of the lens.
This shutter opens and closes based on the settings you choose and
ultimately determines how long the image sensor will be exposed to the
light coming in through the lens. Faster shutter speeds (1/250th,
1/500th, etc.) are used in sports because their speed helps to freeze
the action, while slower shutter speeds (1 second, .5 second) are often
used to create silky images of flowing rivers, since a slower shutter
allows the image sensor to be exposed to light for a longer period of
time, blurring and softening any motion in a scene.
A slower shutter speed allows more light to reach the image sensor
(great for night photography), while a faster shutter speed allows less
light to reach the image sensor (great for controlling too much light on
a bright sunny afternoon).
When shooting the night sky we'll be setting a very slow shutter
duration of between 20 and 30 seconds. Because the sensor will be
exposed for a long time, it is important to make sure that when framing
the night sky you don't have any bright lights around the area you'll be
shooting. Street lights, car headlights, and even a full moon may prove
too bright for a slow exposure, and may ruin your attempt at capturing
the night sky.
The ISO value is the digital equivalent of film speed. The higher you
set it, the more light-sensitive the sensor becomes, with the trade-off
being increased noise or "grain." Despite some noise at a higher ISO
setting, today's cameras are still quite amazing. In fact, setting a
newer model DSLR to ISO 1600 will produce less noise than a 4-year-old
camera shooting at ISO 400. Not only have cameras become cleaner at
higher ISO settings, software tools such as Adobe Lightroom allow you to
clean up images even further.
Keep in mind that all cameras have a sweet spot and just because the
camera claims its ISO can reach 52,000 or 102,400 doesn't mean the image
will look good at those settings. The Canon 5D Mark III, a camera I've
been shooting with for a couple of years, has a maximum ISO rating of
102,400 -- yet the highest setting I'll shoot at is ISO 6,400. Any
higher and noise really becomes a problem. Test your camera's limits
before deciding how high is too high.
When shooting the night sky, you're asking your camera to record an
image that even your eyes can't see all that well. To do that will
require using a "fast" lens (large aperture), a very slow shutter speed
(25 seconds), and a high ISO setting (1,600--6,400). When these three
items (aperture, shutter, and ISO) are combined, your camera will be
able to record images that you won't believe.
When shooting still frames for time-lapse, you don't want your camera to
change focus every time it takes another picture, so it is important to
shut off autofocus when shooting time-lapses. Many photographers have
never used manual focus before, but don't let that scare you away. It's
as easy as turning on your camera's Live View mode, switching your lens
to manual focus, and turning the focus ring until the subject looks
sharp on the monitor.
When shooting the night sky, focusing becomes a greater challenge. Since
the camera is aimed into darkness, it's difficult to know when the
scene is in focus. A trick to focusing on the night sky is to aim the
camera at whatever the brightest star is at that time, use the Live View
zoom and magnify feature to make this object larger, and then turn the
focus ring until the star looks sharp. Now you can re-compose your shot,
being careful not to touch the focus ring.
NOTE: You may also have to turn on your camera's Exposure Simulation
mode, which makes it easier to view low-light scenarios on the camera's
When shooting in RAW mode, the white balance setting isn't really
important; you can change it later. But you don't want your white
balance to shift from frame to frame, so it's important that you do not
set it to Auto. I usually set the camera's white balance manually to
between 3,800 and 4,200 degrees Kelvin when shooting the night sky, as
this gives the sky a bit more of a blue hue. But ultimately I make my
final decisions about white balance during post-production.
SETTING UP YOUR NIGHT SKY SHOOT
Sky Guide for iPad
When I refer to sky conditions, I'm not talking about the weather. It's
obvious that clouds will prevent a view of a star-filled sky, but less
obvious is that there are better and worse times to shoot the night sky
-- and these change throughout the year. For example, as I write this
article it's 12:19 a.m. on Saturday, March 29, 2014. If my goal was to
capture the Milky Way, I wouldn't have much luck until after 2:00 a.m.,
since that's when the brightest part of the Milky Way starts to rise in
the east. As spring and summer progress, that time will get earlier and
You'll also want to make sure that the moon has either already set or
won't be rising until you're done capturing the sky. Most avid night sky
photographers will wait for the days just before, during, and after a
How do you learn about sky conditions? Simple! Download one of many free or inexpensive apps. The ones I use are Sky Guide (iOS), Photo Pills (iOS), and Star Walk
(iOS, Android, Kindle Fire, Windows Phone), but there are plenty of
great apps for both Android and iOS platforms. These mobile apps will
use the device's built-in GPS and compass to know exactly where you are
and will show you the sky as it appears above you at any given day and
A popular app for the desktop is the free Stellarium app for Windows, Mac, and Linux.
This is a very subjective aspect of photography, so I won't go into what
makes a good or bad composition. I will say that shooting the sky
without anything else in the frame tends to be boring, so try to include
something in the foreground. Photographs with layers tend to be more
interesting than an image without.
Finding a Dark Sky Location
If you live near a major city (L.A., Boston, Houston, Chicago, Miami,
Orlando, Salt Lake, Denver, etc.) you're not going to have any success
capturing the night sky; the light pollution will wash out any attempt.
Remember the high ISO and long shutter speeds you'll be using? These
settings are designed to flood the camera sensor with as much light as
possible -- from the sky itself. Any ambient light from the ground will
throw way too much light onto the sensor, thus washing out your
I teach night-sky workshops in Moab, Utah, because the sky there is so
incredibly dark that you can see the Milky Way with just your eyes
(after they adjust). However, you don't need to travel to southern Utah
to capture spectacular night sky photographs. Just drive 60--90 minutes
away from the brightest, largest towns in your area. The darker the sky,
the more stars you'll see, but you don't need total darkness to still
have a decent viewing and time-lapse experience.
In the Boston area, for example, this means driving west towards the
Berkshires, northwest towards Groton, Mass., or north into New Hampshire
towards the Lake Region or White Mountains (beyond Manchester and
In Salt Lake City you could drive up into the mountains near Solitude,
Alta, or Snowbird, which puts you above much of the light pollution from
the city. You can also drive south to places around Spanish Fork or
further south to the national parks.
A free iPhone app called DSM Lite
(Dark Sky Meter Lite) will give you a light measurement of the night
sky above you. There's also a great tool online called the Clear-Sky Chart that will help identify the best time(s) in the next 24 to 48 hours to capture the night sky.
PHOTOGRAPHING THE NIGHT SKY
Okay, so now that you know where to shoot, it's time to jump in and set
up your camera to capture your first images of the night sky. Here are
some settings that will get you started. Once you've seen the results
from your camera, feel free to tweak these settings to achieve the best
results from your setup.
- Install a freshly charged battery
- Nothing will ruin a time-lapse quicker than a dead battery or full memory card.
- Insert an empty 16GB or 32GB memory card
- A smaller 8GB card may work as well, depending on how many images your camera can capture in RAW mode.
- Manual mode
- Place your camera into "M" or "MANUAL" mode.
- f/2.8 aperture
- Set the lens aperture to its maximum setting. A lens with an
aperture of at least f/2.8 works best, remembering that faster is better
for night photography.
- Wide-angle lens
- A lens with a focal length of 24mm or wider works best when
capturing the night sky. But keep in mind your camera's "crop" factor;
if you're shooting with a cropped-sensor camera then a 24mm lens
actually performs more like a 36mm or 38mm lens, which isn't ideal for
night sky capture. Instead, you'll want to shoot with a 14mm--16mm lens
(or wider), which is equivalent to a 24mm lens on a full-frame camera. A
lens in the 8mm--16mm f/2.8 range is a good choice for cropped-sensor
cameras, while a 14mm--20mm f/2.8 (or faster) lens is a good choice for
- Shutter speed of 25 seconds
- Set your camera's shutter speed to 25 seconds. This should show up
on your camera's LCD display as 25". Don't confuse this with 1/25th of a
- ISO 1,600
- Set your cameras ISO to 1,600.
- Set white balance to "Incandescent" or 3,800°--4,200° Kelvin
- Feel free to experiment with white balance settings; just don't
select Auto, as you risk having the white balance change between
- Manually focus to infinity (~)
- Keep in mind that many lenses actually fall short of sharp focus
at the exact infinity point, so make sure to take test images and tweak
as needed before finalizing the focus point.
Set Up the Intervalometer
Now that your camera is set up and ready to shoot, it's time to connect
the external intervalometer to the remote port of your camera. You can
also use your camera's built-in intervalometer if it has one.
First, set the maximum number of pictures on the intervalometer to
infinity ("~"). If it shows a number (i.e. "99"), it is telling you at
what shutter count it will stop taking pictures. The only other mode on
your intervalometer that you'll be using is the Interval mode. This is
basically a countdown timer that takes a photo each time the counter
reaches 0:00. It then starts again, and will take pictures indefinitely
until you stop it. When you set the Interval timer to 30 seconds, you're
telling the intervalometer to keep taking photos every 30 seconds.
Since you're setting the exposure time (shutter speed) of the camera to
25 seconds, there will be a 5-second delay between pictures. This
5-second delay should be enough time for your camera to write the
captured image to the memory card and get ready to capture the next
photo. If you find that your camera needs a second or two more, then
change the interval setting to 32 or 33 seconds.
NOTE: If you've set a 25-second shutter speed but your camera seems
to be taking 50 seconds for each still image, you need to turn off a
feature called Long Exposure Noise Reduction or High ISO Noise
Reduction. This noise-reduction mode will take a black image equal in
length to your set shutter speed and compare it to the snapped image in
order to reduce noise. Not only will this slow your capture process to a
crawl, I've found that noise reduction is best left to more advanced
desktop software instead of your camera.
How Many Photos Do I Need to Capture?
The photo above is one frame from a sequence. Since video plays 24
frames per second, a single picture would only stay on the screen for
1/24 second. However if you capture enough images, you can create a
short time-lapse segment. In the final video (see below) I captured 408
photographs over a period of 2.5 hours.
Here's the full 17-second video (roughly 408 photographs captured).
Capturing night sky time-lapses is equivalent to watching paint dry.
It's a slow process. The reason is twofold: You need to capture quite a
few frames to make even a short video, and each frame can take 20, 30,
or 40 seconds to capture. In order to figure out how many photos you'll
need, you'll first want to know how many photos make up each second of
video. At the theater most films are played back at a frame rate of 24
frames per second, while the TV standard is 30fps. In the field, when
I'm figuring out how many frames I should capture, I usually use the TV
standard of 30fps since it makes the math a bit simpler.
Don't make the mistake of believing that more is always better. In
reality, most people don't enjoy watching any one scene for much more
than 6 or 7 seconds. Why stay out all night capturing a one-scene
time-lapse that lasts 30 or 40 seconds, when you'll likely end up
trimming away more than half of the final product? Instead, capture
enough for 6--8 seconds of video, then change the composition and shoot a
second time-lapse if time allows. Put these two (or more) time-lapses
together and you'll have a much more interesting end product.
How Long Will It Take?
Now the question is how long will this take? The answer is known once we
take into account the interval between pictures. Since a new photo is
being taken every 30 seconds I know that my camera will be taking 2
pictures every minute. If I need 180 pictures, I'll need to let the
camera continue for 90 minutes.
Remember I said it's equivalent to watching paint dry? For me, that's
not really true. I now have 90 minutes where I have nothing to do except
gaze and marvel at the night sky. You'll see satellites move across the
sky, you'll likely see a few shooting stars or meteors, and if you live
in the northern United States and the timing is right, you might get to
witness the northern lights, also known as the aurora borealis. It's a
time when you're free from the stresses of everyday life. It's quiet,
meditative, and a gift that you'll be thankful to have.
ASSEMBLING THE TIME-LAPSE VIDEO (Post Production)
Now that you've captured your first batch of photos, let me step you
through a simple but effective way of assembling them into a movie. The
software I'll be using for this tutorial is:
Adobe Lightroom is a photo editing software package for PCs and
Macs that allows you to import, catalog, and enhance photographs without
actually making any changes to the original file. Lightroom does this
by saving the edits and changes you make in a small "sidecar" metadata
file in Adobe's XMP format. Anytime you want to re-edit a photograph,
Lightroom looks for this sidecar file and loads in the series of changes
you previously made.
LRTimelapse is a program designed to read and write the sidecar
metadata files that Adobe programs create, to "ramp" the changes you
make in Lightroom, and to assemble the final images into a video.
What is ramping? Let's assume you started a time-lapse before the sun
set and ended it after the sun set. Your camera's white balance was
preset to Tungsten. This might have been the perfect setting for the
beginning of the time-lapse, but as the sun set the color of the ambient
light changed, yet the camera was still fixed on Tungsten. LRTimelapse
allows you to set key frames (stars) on your images and then make
adjustments to just those key frames inside Adobe Lightroom. So now,
instead of making incremental changes to every image, you just have to
worry about two of them -- the start and end key frames. You then make
the adjustments needed in Lightroom and save the metadata changes to
those two files. Reload the folder in LRTimelapse and it will ramp the
changes you made in as many steps as there are photos. If you have a
180-frame time-lapse, LRTimelapse will change the color temperature over
the 180 frames, making the change gradual and smooth. LRTimelapse can
ramp virtually any setting in Lightroom, making it a powerful tool for
This section is not really designed to teach you how to use Lightroom or LRTimelapse, but instead will take you through the basics that are needed to enhance your captured photos and turn them into a rendered time-lapse video sequence.
- Transfer the images to your computer. Connect your camera to your
PC's USB port or use a card reader. Open up Adobe Lightroom and import
the captured photos into your PC. Lightroom creates thumbnail images
automatically as it moves each photo.
- Once the photos have all been imported into Lightroom, take a look
at the first 10 or 20 photos. This is the time to delete or move any of
your test images out of the folder that contains the time-lapse images
(test images are the ones where you were playing around with composition
or focus prior to starting the time-lapse capture).
- Now open up LRTimelapse and locate the folder that was created
when you imported your images into Lightroom. Once the folder has been
read by LRTimelapse, click on Initialize, under the Basic Workflow tab.
This will take a few minutes, but is an important step. Once LRTimelapse
initializes your images, it will display an overlay graph showing the
luminance progression in your time-lapse sequence.
- Click the Key Frames Wizard button in LRTimelapse. (It's located
next to the Initialize button.) This will set a key frame on the first
and last image in your sequence. NOTE: If a warning dialog box pops up
just click on OK to close it.
- Now click the XMP Save button in LRTimelapse (to the right of the Key Frames Wizard button).
If you haven't noticed, LRTimelapse was designed with simplicity in
mind. The layout was designed so that you start with the first button,
move right to the second button, and so on. You won't use the next row
of buttons until you've tweaked the key frame images inside of Lightroom
- Now go back into Adobe Lightroom and select all the images in the
folder by holding down the Ctrl and A keys on your keyboard. This action
will highlight all of the images in the selected folder.
- Now right-click over any one of the images and select Metadata
--> Read Metadata From Files. This will import and update the XMP
files that were altered by the steps in LRTimelapse.
- Once Lightroom is done reading the metadata, you'll notice that
the first and last images in the folder have a 1-star rating. This
1-star rating is LRTimelapse's way of letting you know that these are
the "key frames" that should be edited. You don't have to worry about
the in-between images -- LRTimelapse will take care of those
automatically by ramping the settings between the first and last frame.
- Start with the first keyframed photo and make any adjustments as
you see fit -- staying away from the brush tool*. In this step I will
usually add some noise reduction (luminance and chroma), a little bit of
clarity, bring up the contrast just a bit, and change the white balance
settings until the composition has the feel that I'm looking for.*
NOTE: LRtimelapse will work with the gradient filter tool and actually
adds 3 to the keyframed images. These can be left alone or altered if
you feel your composition will benefit from them. Gradient filters are a
great way to make enhancements to just a part of the image. For
example, you could increase the clarity and color saturation in the area
of the Milky Way, leaving the ground or foreground untouched.
- Once you're finished editing the first keyframed image, it's time
to copy the changes you made to the last keyframed image. Use the
keyboard shortcut Shift-Ctrl-C (pressing them together) to bring up the
copy settings dialog box. Make sure that all checkboxes are selected by
clicking the Check All button, then click Copy. Now go to the last
keyframed image (last image in the folder) and press Shift-Ctrl-V to
paste the settings you just copied over to this image.
- Now it's time to enhance the last image to get it to where you
want it. Since the changes you made from the first image have already
been copied over to this image, you'll likely find that less tweaking is
needed. In either case, make the changes you feel necessary (increasing
or decreasing exposure, altering the color temperature, etc.).
- Once you've finished enhancing the last image, it's time to have
Lightroom save the changes. Do this by highlighting both the first and
last image and then right-clicking over one of them and selecting
Metadata --> Save Metadata to File.
- Now go back to LRTimelapse and click Reload (the first button on the second row). This will take just a second or two.
- Now click the Auto Transition button. This tells LRTimelapse to
adjust the settings of all images between the first and last image so
that the changes are gradual. Once that step is complete, click the XMP
Save button to write the changes to the XMP sidecar files.
- Now jump back into Lightroom and highlight all the images in the
folder (Ctrl-A). Right-click on any of the images and select Metadata
--> Read Metadata from File. This tells Lightroom to load in all the
updates that LRTimelapse just made to the XMP sidecar files.
- This will likely take a minute or two. Once completed you'll
probably notice that the thumbnails in view are starting to update
themselves to reflect the changes that LRTimelapse made for you as it
ramps the settings between the first and last image.
- In Lightroom, make sure you're in the Library module (pressing the
G key will get you there) and click the Export button on the bottom
left of the screen. When the Export dialog box opens, select the
LRTimelapse option on the left column. This box will send the enhanced
images over to LRTimelapse so that LRTimelapse can build your final
video from the original images. You'll need to select the output path
where you want LRTimelapse to save your video, then click Export.
- This process will take a while depending on the number of images
in your sequence and the speed of your computer, but plan on at least
20--30 minutes. Once the images have been exported you'll automatically
be taken back to LRTimelapse where you can choose the output format for
the final video. I suggest rendering in either QuickTime or ProRes
format at full 1080p resolution.
- When LRTimelapse is finished, your final time-lapse video will be
located in the folder that you selected as the output folder. Navigate
to that folder and enjoy!
Capturing and creating time-lapse videos require a great deal of
patience, but the steps do become secondary once you have done them a
couple of times. There are other workflows that might make more sense
when rendering multiple time-lapses sequentially, but for rendering one
sequence at a time this is a popular workflow.
I encourage you to make the time to shoot the night sky. In photography
it's often difficult to set yourself apart, but because of the time
required to capture time-lapses of the night sky, most photographers
don't bother. This means that you'll likely be one of only a few in your
area doing it. It's a lot of fun and a great way to stand out in a
About Ron Risman
Ron Risman is an award-winning cinematographer and founder of Cinematic Stories Event Films and Timelapse Moab Workshops.
Ron's client list includes Liberty Mutual, Restoration Hardware,
Scorpion Helmets, Revit! Sports International, Berklee College of Music,
FOX CT News, WFTV-9 Orlando, and some of his time-lapses can be seen in
the 2013 HBO Documentary The Crash Reel.