The Best Star Photography Time-lapse

There probably isn’t a human being on this planet who hasn’t, at one time, looked to the night sky in amazement. Today’s digital cameras now allow us to record scenes that escape our naked eyes. Here are 8 Tips for the Best Star Photography Time-lapse to remember whenever you head out to photograph.

1 – Shoot in RAW

We are going to start with the simplest of settings to remember when heading out in the evening to photograph stars and star time-lapses…Shoot in RAW. I know RAW takes up more room. RAW takes more processing time. RAW, however, is everything that jpeg is not. It works better with noise reduction. It allows you to get the most out of your processing limits in post. RAW is also not compressed like a jpeg, so you will actually get the most detail possible when using it. If you photograph stars with RAW you can also use a single photo out of a time-lapse series as a still photograph for prints, etc.

Also, don’t forget to use a full size RAW file and not a RAWs if your camera has it. This will allow you to photograph the largest pixel file. I have a Canon 1DX, it shoots an 18MP file. That file is over 5000 pixels on the long side, which can potentially yield a 5K video file in the end.

2 – Use Good Glass

You need really good lenses for star time-lapses because it is dark out. I always tell my workshop participants that you should have a lens that has a max aperture opening of f/4 or better. An aperture of f/2.8 is much better than f/4 and then f/1.8 and f/1.4 become better still. Lenses with these wide apertures are expensive, believe me I know, but borrowlenses.com has everything you would ever need in the lens department for rental, so give a good piece of glass a try on your next star outing.

3 – The Act of Shooting

You need to set your camera to manual when shooting a star time-lapse. Manual shutter, manual aperture, manual ISO, and manual focus.

I almost always shoot my stars with the lens wide open. If you are using an f/2.8 lens, then set that lens to f/2.8. I also set my lens’ focus to infinity, the infinity mark can be confusing dependent on the lens you are using. Read the owner’s manual for the specific lens, to verify where true infinity for that lens is. For some of my zoom lenses, true infinity is actually on a line that extends from my infinity mark on the focus ring.

Now why did I say almost always above? Because if I am photographing a time-lapse that begins as the sun is setting I will adjust my aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and focus for the sunset scene and then change those settings as the stars begin to show. This type of time-lapse shooting scenario is typically called the Holy Grail Time-lapse, see more below.

Star Trail Time-lapse by Jay Goodrich
Stars Shot at 16mm Focal Length.
Star Trail Time-lapse by Jay Goodrich
Stars Shot at 200mm Focal Length.

4 – Telephoto Star Trails vs. Wide Angle Trails

I haven’t tried to create a time-lapse with a series of star trail photographs yet, but it is on my list to see if I can make it work. However, I will shoot star trails as well as pinpointed stars when I head out to photograph. Here is a little trick…I can make the star trails longer by using a telephoto lens instead of a wide-angle. Going from a 16mm wide-angle 4 minute exposure to a 200mm 4 minute exposure yields dramatic results (see photos above).

5 – An Equation for Pinpointed Stars with Any Focal Length

500 ÷ THE FOCAL LENGTH OF LENS = MAX EXPOSURE TIME

Example:

500 ÷ 16mm = 31.25 or the closest shutter speed not to exceed which is 30 seconds.

One more example:

500 ÷ 35mm = 14.28 or the closest shutter speed not to exceed which is 13 seconds.

Now there is a great tool available to us for getting these calculations in the field. It is an app called PhotoPills. PhotoPills also has a website with the Spot Stars Calculator available for free The app/website will also help you calculate the declination of stars for a more accurate number. However, I have found that the simple equation works just fine for me.

6 – Remember the Numbers for Video

All cinematic movies that are made today are typically shot at a film speed of 24 Frames Per Second. That means you need 24 photographs for each second you want the time-lapse to occur. A 10 second clip needs 240 still photos. Now I know you are saying 240 photos doesn’t sound that bad, piece of cake right. Enter technological limitations. It’s time to think about how often your camera can take an image, process out the noise, send that photo to the buffer, then to the card, and be ready to take another photo. This problem is further compounded at night when we are trying to eliminate noise from high ISO photos.

Let’s say that we are shooting with a 16mm lens. We want pinpointed stars, which yields the need for a 30 second shutter opening (see equation above). Which means your camera will need another 30 seconds to process out the noise before it can take another photo. This now dictates that we can only take a photo every 60 seconds, and finally in turn, our simple little 240 photo shoot becomes a 4 hour session in the field for a simple 10 second video.

Remember the PhotoPills App we talked about in Number 5 above? They actually have a Time-lapse Calculator available online and in the app as well.

7 – Remember the Interval

While photographing a star time-lapse your interval is really dictated by your chosen exposure and camera buffer speed, but if you decide to venture out at other times of the day, you really need to think about your interval. The interval is essentially the time frame that you will use to capture the movement of the subject that you are photographing. Think about how the sun moves across the land and how clouds boil in the sky.

Your interval MUST exceed your exposure time like mentioned above in number 6. A good rule-of-thumb is to set your exposure to 50% of your interval time. Here are some example interval times beginning with our stars…

15 – 60 Seconds

Moving Shadows

Sun Across the Sky

Stars

1 – 3 Seconds

Sunsets

Sunrises

Slower Moving Clouds

Crowds

Moon and Sun at Horizon

1 Second & Faster

Moving Traffic

Fast Fast Moving Clouds

8 – The Holy Grail of Time-lapse

Remember at the beginning of this article I briefly touched on the Holy Grail of Time-lapses? Most time-lapse photographers consider the Holy Grail Time-lapse to occur when you photograph sunset through darkness when the stars begin trailing across the sky. They say this because it is actually the hardest time-lapse scenario to get right. You need to take into consideration all of the tips that I have mentioned in this post to pull it off correctly and think about a few additional ones.

Whenever I photograph stars for time-lapse, I set my camera to manual. I manually adjust my aperture to my lens’ widest opening (f/2.8). Set my shutter according to my focal length (calculation above). Then I set my focus to infinity and usually tape it there. I lock my camera down on a tripod. And finally, set an interval that is double what my shutter speed needs to be. This all works really well when it is completely dark out. Enter sunset/sunrise.

When you are photographing sunset/sunrise the light is changing quickly. If we keep our camera settings at full manual, the outside light will change too quickly and our camera will start recording completely dark or light exposures. In addition to this issue, the sun could vary the light on your scene, which would cause another scenario that time-lapse photographers hate – flicker.

Flicker happens during a sunset/sunrise as light changes and the camera which is set to manual can’t adjust with the scene. When you play back the photos in a movie, you get a “flickering” effect as the photos jump between the lighter and darker exposures.

How do we fix this? For the sunset/sunrise portion of our time-lapse we set our cameras to Aperture Priority. This allows the camera to immediately adjust right before the exposure is triggered. Set your exposure settings as you would to record a landscape photo. A smaller aperture opening works here because you will see everything that is in your foreground at this point.

Now remember, you need to switch all of your exposure settings back to manual as your scene gets dark or the smaller aperture opening will not let enough light into the camera to record the stars in the dark. If you are proficient with your equipment, this switch will only take a second or two and that amount of time isn’t going to ruin your overall time-lapse sequence.

Once you download your photos and begin to work on them, a software that works really well for assembling the time-lapse, but also has the ability to fix most flicker issues with a de-flicker component as part of its workflow is LR TimeLapse. It makes your job really easy when it comes time to merging all of your photos together into a video.

Conclusion

Recording how the stars move overhead wasn’t really possible until the invention of the digital camera. This technology has put so many different aspects of photography into virtually any person’s hands. While there are many things to consider for creating a successful star time-lapse, you can always start simple and progress into the more difficult technical aspects. Nothing spices up a home video or keynote like a little bit of motion video, especially if that video highlights the sun and stars in motion.


Redwoods Coast Photo Adventure by Jay Goodrich

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