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Orange and yellow sunset over the top of clouds and the tip of a mountain Orange and yellow sunset over the top of clouds and the tip of a mountain
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JENNIFER WU

"In reaching for the stars, I'm on a quest to empower others to do the same."

Photographing the Milky Way and Night Time-Lapse: Part 1

February 19, 2019

Photographing landscapes with a friend in Mount Rainer National Park, I tried to fit in some night shooting. During the day, I scouted to find a vantage point that I suspected looked good from the middle of the meadow. I had to compromise on the composition because a sign said to stay on the path. Although tired, I returned at night while my friend slept. Walking down the path, I easily set up by moonlight and then waited for the moon to set. Leaving my camera in the field, I went to the hotel for some sleep after having been up a couple of nights already. I set my alarm with enough time to get my gear to shoot sunrise, arriving before the hikers.

I woke up to bright sun streaming through the curtains. My friend told me I had slept through my blaring alarm. Exhausted, I never heard it! UGH. In a panic, I raced to the place where I left my camera. Would it still be there? I arrived to find a park ranger looking at my camera among the trees. I wondered, was I not allowed to leave it there? I parked away from her and waited. Hikers come and go but she didn’t move.

I pretended to be going for a hike and started walking on the trail but she stopped me. “Is that your camera?” I nodded. She wasn’t pleased. “This area is being reforested. You’re not allowed off trail.” I proclaimed, “I was on the trail, you see my camera is on the dirt trail.” The park ranger replied, “That is not an official trail.” She warned me that I was to stay on paved or official dirt trails only. Luckily, she didn’t give me a ticket. She had even protected my gear while I slept. I checked my camera’s LCD screen. It worked! I scrolled through a lovely Milky Way time-lapse.

Jennifer Wu Canon Timelapse Video White Mountains video thumbnail

Bristlecone Pine and Clouds Time-LapseThis night was partially cloudy and I immediately thought of doing a night time-lapse to showcase the clouds, photographed in the White Mountains of California. Many of the stars are in soft focus and have a halo created by the thin cloud layer. This doesn’t always look good in print but I like the soft look for video. This 25-second clip has 763 photographs that I shot for 4 hours and 40 minutes with a 2-second interval at f/1.4, 20 seconds, ISO 2000, EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM, Canon EOS 5D Mark II.

MAKING TIME-LAPSE

Creating night time-lapse videos is exciting. Once you learn how to take a Milky Way image, you can take a time-lapse sequence and start creating your own Milky Way and night photography videos. I will explain how to easily create night time-lapse videos.

WHAT IS TIME-LAPSE?

Time-lapse is a series of still photographs of a scene. For example, a photograph of a slow-moving cloud is taken and then one after another in sequence. Then these still images create a time-lapse video by showing them in rapid succession, which combines the images to make a video. This fast motion gives the video a surreal and stunning look we are not used to seeing in nature, such as fast-moving clouds. Normally you take one image of a cloud or the dense area of the Milky Way. Now instead, you’ll take two hundred images in sequence of the same scene for an hour or two and turn it into a video.

Excellent time-lapse subjects include the ocean surf, the opening of a flower, moving shadows, taillights on a car and people in motion. For night time-lapse, the moon, Milky Way, auroras, meteor showers and moonlit landscapes create interest by speeding up the movement of the moon, moonlight or stars.

It was by trial and error that I discovered how to take my first Milky Way night time-lapse in 2007, before I had ever seen a Milky Way time-lapse or knew it was possible. In this article, I will share what I learned and provide tips on how to photograph night time-lapse so you can learn from my mistakes. It is okay if you prefer different settings. Feel free to experiment on your own.

PLANNING YOUR SHOOT

Plan ahead before heading out into the dark night when you can’t see as well. Look for interesting foreground elements to make your video stand out from the stars. One image of the stars can look like any other image, but the foreground will set it apart. Elements like an old barn, gnarled tree, mountain peak, boulders, lake or sea stacks at the ocean can add interest.

While scouting your location during the day, determine where you want to shoot and place a rock there to find your spot easily in the dark. If you are hiking from your car, become familiar with the trail and find the best path to your location.

Use a compass to orient yourself to find the location of your nighttime subjects like the Milky Way or the moon. Take some test shots allowing room for the night sky and decide on the lens you want to use. Doing this makes photographing the time-lapse go smoother and faster. Most people get tired late at night and it is easier to make these decisions during the day. This way you can set up quickly and get to sleep sooner. What is the best time to do night time-lapse? For me, it is just after it gets dark. The sooner I am finished shooting, the sooner I can get some shut-eye!

Check for any source of light at your location, like streetlights, the path of car headlights in your scene or distant city lights. At night, distant city lights will have a warm glow on the horizon. Decide if you want to shoot with it in the background or away from it. In addition, look for distant building lights. I have discovered these when I didn’t want or anticipate them, so check out your location at night before the shoot if possible.

When photographing, I hiked to a good vantage point around to the other side of a lake and away from the road. Even though I was farther away from the road, car headlights from the road disrupted the time-lapse. I ended up not using it because I could not get a long enough clip without lights. Be sure to check the path of far reaching car headlights, especially on curved roads.

Time-lapse takes time and you can be photographing for as little as 15 minutes up to a few hours. Plan on watching over your time-lapse sequence so you can adjust exposure, keep people out of your scene and keep an eye on your gear.

PHOTOGRAPHING THE MILKY WAY

To photograph the night sky, please first read my article Photographing the Milky Way and Night Sky.

To photograph the moon, lunar eclipse, auroras or meteor showers as time-lapse, please read the following articles with detailed information on settings, equipment recommendations and when and where to located them in the night sky with discussed resources.

COMPOSITION OF LIGHT AND MOVEMENT

Subjects in the night sky, such as the bright area of the Milky Way, the moon or auroras, are brightly lit against the dark night sky. They move throughout the night, creating movement in your time-lapse. In addition, the light on the landscape created by the moon or auroras will move and shift through the night too. Make your composition to include the movement of the subject through the frame during your sequence, such as the Milky Way moving from left to right through the video.

SUNSET AND SUNRISE TIME-LAPSE

Photographing from day to night and the setting sun or sunrise, use the resources listed for determining times and the directions of the light. I use a wide-angle lens when photographing a landscape with sunrise or sunset light landing on it. For photographing the sun, it is best when it is close to the horizon at sunset or sunrise.

I use a telephoto lens and faster shutter speed. I don’t use filters for this but if shooting an eclipse, then a solar filter is needed. I manually change the shutter speed to adjust exposure as needed for the scene.

Jennifer Wu Canon Timelapse Video Tamalpais Sunset video thumbnail

Sunset Time-LapseI photographed the sunset with a telephoto lens set to 190mm to have the sun show as a good size in the frame. A longer lens would produce an even more pronounced effect. This 5-second clip has 148 photographs that I shot for 6 minutes with a 2 second interval. Photographed at f/11 (I would recommend f/8 as a maximum, which helps reduce flicker), 1/60th second, ISO 100, EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM at 190mm, Canon EOS 5D Mark II.

CLOUDS AND NIGHT SKY TIME-LAPSE

Clouds make a fantastic subject to photograph time-lapse. Photographing clouds during twilight, after sunset, generally provides light that is soft with low contrast. The pastel blue and pink colors of twilight make a soothing video.

At night, a partially cloudy sky can cause problems for star trails, leaving gaps in the circles that look unappealing for a still shot of the Milky Way. Clouds obscure the Milky Way or moon, making stars look soft from the thin cloud cover. This, however, is not a problem with partial clouds as they can work well to provide interest in a night time-lapse video.

Jennifer Wu Canon Timelapse Video Tamalpais Clouds video thumbnail

Twilight and Clouds Time-LapseThe twilight bathes the clouds in blue and pink hues that are relaxing. The clouds are like ocean waves. This 6-second clip has 183 photographs that I shot for 6 minutes with a 2-second interval. Photographed at f/8, 1/40th second, ISO 200, EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM at 43mm, Canon EOS 5D Mark II.

MOONLIT LANDSCAPES

Photographing the moonlight on the landscape, consider moonlight rising or falling on a tall tree, boulders, barn or mountain scene. The shadows that happen towards moonset are long and similar to a sunrise or sunset shadows, versus short midday shadows, only without the warm color of sunset. For longer and faster-moving shadows, plan on photographing the moonlight when the moon is low on the horizon versus directly overhead. Use the resources in article 2 to find out when and where the moonset will occur.

Jennifer Wu Canon Timelapse Video Cathedral Lake video thumbnail

Moonlight on Mountain Peak Time-LapseI photographed the moonlight on the lake and mountain as the moon set over the horizon in Yosemite National Park, California. I looked up the moonset time and location of the moon in the sky using the apps in the resources section. I planned the shoot in the direct moonlight landing on the mountain, pointing the camera to the east as the moon set to the west. Notice how I made the composition to show the movement of the shadow across the mountain. This 7-second clip has 222 images. Photographed for 1 hour and 24 minutes at f/1.4, 20 seconds, ISO 800 for the first image in the sequence and ending with ISO 1250. I manually changed the ISO as the night sky darkened. I used EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM, Canon EOS 5D Mark II.

MILKY WAY AND LANDSCAPES

The Milky Way looks similar in any night time-lapse. Your composition of foreground elements will set it apart. Look for subjects that reach into the sky so that you have interest in all areas of the frame and not just the foreground, such as photographing an ocean. Placing a palm tree with the ocean will add more depth. Look for subjects like trees, boulders, barns and mountains to set against the night sky. Some examples are the foreground elements in the videos throughout this article.

Jennifer Wu Canon Timelapse Video Bryce Canyon video thumbnail

Canyon Walls and Milky Way Time-LapseWhile photographing in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah, I scouted the location during the daylight hours. I looked for expansive canyon walls to use as a foreground element and then used the apps listed in the resources section to locate an area where I would see the Milky Way later that evening. I composed to look up at the canyon walls with a fisheye lens for a wide perspective. This 5-second clip has 151 images. Photographed for 1 hour and 24 minutes with a 3-second interval between frames at f/2.8, 30 seconds, ISO 6400, EF 15mm f/2.8 Fisheye, Canon EOS 5D Mark III.

AURORA TIME-LAPSE

When photographing auroras, using a faster shutter speed than when photographing the stars as points of light helps stop the action of the auroras. I like a shutter speed of 10 seconds or less. Consider using only two seconds between frames to photograph as much of the movement as possible.

CAMERA SETTINGS

Manual vs. Aperture-priority

For all night photography, I use and recommend Manual mode. If you desire, there are some situations where you can use Aperture Value/Aperture-priority (Av) including sunset, sunrise or bright auroras. Do not use Time Value/Shutter-priority (Tv) or other auto modes because they can change the aperture, causing the video to vary in depth of field or areas of good sharpness.

For changing lighting conditions such as a sunrise, I set the camera to Manual mode and manually change the exposure between shots as needed. As light decreases for the scene, I first change the shutter speed to the longest shutter speed I desire. Next, I start raising the ISO as needed for the scene. I change the ISO only after I have changed the shutter speed to have less noise, as higher ISO settings can create more noise. For light increases, I first change the ISO to the lowest setting and then the shutter speed. Do not change the aperture to avoid changes in depth of field. If there are clouds or changing lighting conditions, meter off a blue sky area and not on the ground where the shadows will be coming and going.

You can make transitions from exposure changes such as from day to night smoother by using a bulb ramping device to slowly make incremental changes in exposure. There are many available, however I didn’t use any for the videos in this article.

White Balance

I like to choose a set white balance for the scene such as sunny, cloudy, tungsten or custom white balance. Do not use auto-white balance because this can change color significantly with different exposures, causing color shifts that look strange when viewed as a video.

Long Exposure Noise Reduction

Disable Long Exposure Noise Reduction, LENR. This is set to automatic on some older Canon cameras by default so check your camera to see how it is set up. Turning on the Long Exposure Noise Reduction will double the time of your exposure. Unless you want an exposure time to also be the time between frames, then turning it off can create smoother looking time-lapses.

Every Frame Counts

On one of my early time-lapse sequences at night, I was photographing on a cliff. The light on the horizon was compelling. So after sitting under the stars for a couple of hours I became bored. I walked over to the cliff, in front of the camera, to see if I could see anything in the valley below. Nope. I thought I would only ruin one frame so no big deal, but this was the end of the sequence. Taking that frame out (the frame in which I cross in front of the camera) meant there was a slight jump in movement that didn’t look good.

Jennifer Wu Canon Timelapse Video Death Valley video thumbnail

Colorful Clouds at Night There was a colorful sunset at Badwater in Death Valley National Park, California. Photographing shortly after sunset, I photographed these colorful clouds before they faded into white. I photographed in the direction of the setting crescent moon and the strong light adds contrast to the scene.

In this 9-second video, I used 257 images. I included this to show my mistakes and the importance of the interval time. I bumped the tripod and you can see an objectionable shift of the mountains in the middle of the video. Be sure to not bump your tripod like me. You can adjust your camera without touching it with apps like qDslrDashboard. The Canon Camera connect app allows you to remotely control camera settings so you don’t have to touch the camera. It allows you to take photographs in continuous or self-timer mode; however you are not able to start or change settings for time-lapse.

I used a 7-second interval between frames that resulted in an unpleasant and choppy movement of the clouds and moon. For a smoother look, try a 2-5 second interval. Photographed at f/1.4, 20 seconds, ISO 800, EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM, Canon EOS 5D Mark II.

INTERVAL TIME

The interval is the time between the end of one frame and start of another. This is when the camera will not be photographing between each image. When setting this time consider:

  • How fast is your subject is moving though the frame?
  • How fast are the lighting conditions and shadows changing? The long shadows from sunrise, sunset or when the moon is near the horizon are more apparent than when the sun or moon is high in the sky. Use a shorter interval time when the sun or moon is close to the horizon.
  • The longer the focal length of the lens, the faster the subject will move across the frame. Use a shorter interval time such as 1-3 seconds for longer focal length lenses and longer interval times such as 5-15 seconds for wide-angle lenses.

Here are some suggestions to get started, adjust to your preference.

  • The Milky Way and Auroras: I like two seconds between frames. Two seconds will allow for any processing time. You may prefer 20-30 seconds between frames for stars so that they move faster through the frame.
  • The Moon: The moon moves very quickly across the frame with a long telephoto lens and slowly with a wide-angle lens. I like to use 1-3 seconds between frames with a 50mm or telephoto lens and around 5 seconds for a wide-angle.
  • Sunset and Sunrise: When photographing the sun or sunset/sunrise scene, it goes slowly until the moments before sunrise or sunset when the light suddenly starts changing quickly. With wide-angle and standard lenses, I use 10 seconds between frames prior to sunset or sunrise. When the sun is close to the horizon, I use 1-3 seconds with a long telephoto lens or 5-10 seconds for wide-angle lenses.
  • Day to Night: I like 3-5 seconds between frames for wide-angle lenses however you might like the look for 30 seconds.
  • Clouds: For fast-moving clouds, try 2 or 3 seconds and for slow-moving ones, around 3-5 seconds. Longer intervals with a wide-angle lens can produce a video of clouds that are choppy looking.

FRAME RATE

The length of a time-lapse video is determined by how many photographs you shot and the frame rate at which you want to play them back at. These still images are called “frames” in your time-lapse video. Common frame rates are 24 for cinema, 25 in Europe or other PAL countries, or 30 (or more accurately 29.97) in the US and other countries. I often use 30fps because video playback is smooth looking.

HOW TO DETERMINE VIDEO LENGTH

To determine how long you must photograph a scene, decide on how long you want your video to last. Several videos can be strung together into a movie so it doesn’t need to be long. I often use 4 or 5 second videos but my videos are basically from 3-15 seconds. I like to keep the video length short to keep the viewer’s interest. You don’t need to shoot for 5 hours and try to stay awake if you are only going to use a 10 second clip that takes only 2 hours to shoot. There are many apps available for figuring this out but you can do this yourself.

Determining Shooting Time Required Example Video Length
Decide on Video Length Desired 10 seconds
Decide on Frames Per Second 30fps
Number of Frames Needed (video length x fps) 10 x 30 = 300
Determine Exposure Time + Time Between Frames 20 + 2 = 22 Seconds
Number of Frames x Exposure/Shooting Time 300 x 22 = 6,600 seconds
Total Time photographing 6,600 / 60 sec = 1 hr, 50 min
Jennifer Wu Canon Timelapse Video My'vatn Aurora video thumbnail

Aurora Time-LapsePhotographed at Lake Myvatn in Iceland, this curtain aurora slowly disappeared through the night. In this 4-second video, I used 108 images. I used only a small portion of the images because of very strong winds causing camera movement. I used a faster shutter speed of 6 seconds to stop the motion of the auroras and this meant I could photograph for less time in the field than with a 20-30 second exposure. I only photographed for 15 minutes with a two second interval between frames at f/2.8, 6 seconds, ISO 1600, EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM, Canon EOS 5D Mark III.

TIME-LAPSE SETTINGS CHECKLIST

Follow the checklists in the Photographing the Milky Way article and also include:

  • Set white balance to preset or custom setting. Tungsten white balance will make the night sky blue.
  • Turn off Long Exposure Noise Reduction.
  • Turn off self-timer.
  • Set the drive mode to Low or High-Speed Continuous shooting when using a wired remote controller.
  • Make sure your sensor is clean so that you don’t have dust spots on hundreds of images.
  • Take test shots to get good composition, exposure and focus and adjust as needed.

STARTING THE TIME-LAPSE SEQUENCE

There are several options for how to photograph a continuous sequence of images.

Interval Timer: Some Canon cameras have the ability to do time-lapse with the Interval Timer menu option built into the camera including models EOS 5DS R, EOS 5DS, EOS 5D Mark IV, EOS R, EOS 6D Mark II, EOS 80D, EOS 77D, EOS Rebel T7i, EOS Rebel SL2, EOS M5, EOS M6, PowerShot G1 X Mark III and PowerShot G7 X Mark II. See your camera manual instructions.

Wired Remote Controller: This is also called a cable release, and works by taking continuous photographs. Set your drive mode to Low or High-Speed Continuous. Press the start button and slide up to lock it in place. This will cause it to continuously take photographs. To stop shooting, press the button and slide down to release it. This method works with intervalmoters too. I use the Canon Remote Switch RS-80N3.

Intervalometer: This plugs into your camera to control exposure and how often to take photographs over a set amount of time. It can be used for star trails and time-lapse. Tip: To have the intervalometer take continuous photographs for an unlimited amount of time, turn the thumb dial to set the number of exposures, called Frames, to 0. The Timer Remote Controller TC-80N3 was used for all the videos in this article (the interval feature was not yet available when photographing these sequences).

When using the Remote Controller, be sure to set the interval time. To do this, add your exposure time plus your interval time together. For example, for a 20 second exposure plus 2 seconds between frames, I will set the interval time on the intervolameter for 22 seconds. Check that this remote controller is compatible with your camera. It works with 7D, 5D, 6D, 1D series cameras. It is not compatible with 80D series, 70D series, 60D series, Rebel T series, SL1 and M6 cameras however you can use it with the Remote Control Adapter RA-E3.

Please continue reading to Part 2 to learn about file types, equipment choices and processing for time-lapse photography.

All Canon contributors are compensated and actual users of Canon products promoted