Mini Tutorials

How to create a time-lapse video of the Milky Way


This tutorial will illustrate to you, step by step, how to a make time-lapse video of the sky, easily.

Let’s get started!

There is something you should know: we’ve just released a brand new one on this topic, focused more on Star time-lapse with motion control added using Syrp Genie plus the whole workflow, from Lightroom to LRTimelapse post-processing.
That’s why w believe you’ll like also the Time-Lapse Photography Made Simple: A Step-by-Step Guide by award winning photographer Mark Gee.

Video Tutorial 2015: How to Process the Milky Way using Adobe Lightroom CC

Updating this great guide with this video tutorial on How to Process the Milky Way, done by professional time-lapser Michael Shainblum:

How to create a Milky Way timelapse video?

There are a lot of time-lapse videos on the internet which show you the sky rotating, maybe together with the Milky Way which enriches the whole picture.

These types of video clips can be produced by any of us if we have the right equipment.  However, this technique does differ from shooting a time-lapse during the day time, so here are a few guidelines to assist you.

In this article, I will show you how to create something like this, using a similar process to the one that I used for a time-lapse video recently.

To begin, let’s focus on the astronomical aspects of the video:

Milky Way time-lapse: What do you need?

First of all, let’s take a look at the sort of equipment needed in order to proceed.  You will require:

  • a stable tripod
  • intervallometer
  • digital camera that can shoot in BULB mode
  • short focal length lens (from 14mm to 30mm)
  • long lasting battery for the camera
  • a good clear sky 🙂

Let’s focus now on the main differences with respect to the equipment used to make a “normal” day time-lapse and a night-time video.

The ability to shoot in BULB mode means that the camera can remain open without any time limit, which is very important to gather as much light as possible, hence highlighting very low-lit subjects (such as the Milky Way).

Last generation DSLRs, especially high-end ones, do not have problems with short poses, as long as you raise the ISO sensitivity. However, the BULB mode is always the best choice.

It’s important that you have enough power to snap a few hundred photos using long exposures. Long exposure consumes much more electricity compared to daytime shots, so before leaving for a night excursion it is best to do a test at home with a lens cap on, simulating the duration of the entire shooting session.  If you can, think about having an external power supply for the camera with you too.

The lens to be used should allow you to frame a large area of the sky, preferably with some details of the terrestrial landscape. Do not forget that the sky is huge, and travels FAST. If the framing is too tight you will lose much of the charm of the shooting.

My advice is to not use lenses with a closer focal length than 30mm, on APS-C sensor cameras, which are the most common. The sample movie above was made with a 24mm fixed focus lens.

If you want to create stunningly gorgeous sequences, you can use 10mm fish-eye lenses, which would allow you to frame the whole starry sky, at the cost of some distortion of the image.

Moreover, it is important to take pictures only during clear nights, with no haze. Passing clouds (if not too many) can add richness to the sequence instead, although I prefer a nice clean sky, possibly without the moon.

Choosing the subject

First of all you need a good clear sky, obviously!  But do not think that you can just point and shoot upwards. To get something decent, you need to know where north is located, so that you can choose what to frame.

Polaris is found in the north, the star around which the entire sky appears to rotate, so if we frame this area will get a movie in which there will be a “fixed” star, with all the others “circling around it”.

If we turn to the south, on the opposite side to the north, we can obtain a sequence where the sky seems to flow from left to right and if the frame is large enough we will see some stars rising and setting from the horizon.

Summer is also the best time to view the Milky Way: pointing in this direction we have available to us the richest sky of stars and our galaxy in the foreground.

Do not underestimate the terrestrial landscape: it must always be a part of the picture in order to provide a fixed point;  you could use perhaps a profile of a tree, a mountain, or even a building, etc.

A final consideration with regards to the framing: you should avoid the moon, especially when full.
The brightness  is so intense that it will prevent the sensor from capturing the soft glow of the stars.

Astrophotography: How To Shoot stars

The creation of an astronomical time-lapse is carried out using the manual settings of the camera, so you must disable any automatic mechanism which could be active (autofocus , AutoISO , exposure time, aperture etc.)  You need to have complete control over your camera, so set the ISO sensitivity to 800, 1600 or higher ISO speeds, choose JPEG format, set the shutter speed to BULB and get to the maximum lens aperture.

Now let’s see how to deal with focusing, which is a delicate operation to perform. We cannot use the autofocus during night shots as is not sensitive enough and accurate, so we have to proceed with some tentative guesses at what will work well.

Usually I set the focus to infinity, then go “a little” back. Then, let’s take a photo of the sky for about 30” and see the result on the screen, zooming the picture to the max.

Do not worry if stars are stretched, it is normal and the trails will not be noticeable during the execution of the movie.

Let’s now do some tests, moving the focus point until you are happy with the size of the stars: the smaller they are, the better.

Be careful not to consider the little star trail as a symptom of bad focus! It is important that a tiny trail appears, as long as it is tiny. If your camera is equipped with live view, this can help you with that.

Once you have a good focused picture, do not touch the lens anymore. The stars will be all in focus in the same way, no matter where they are in each frame.

After this step we can choose the exposure time, which is perhaps the most important parameter to be set for a good result.

The sky begins to darken immediately after sun set, however, it reaches the minimum brightness approximately a couple of hours later, so if we want to have a real dark night time-lapse, then we have to wait for a short time.

Finding the best exposure time can take a few tries at different times: let’s start with a 15 second exposure, then try 20, 30, 45 and 60.  Depending on the “quality” of the sky, light pollution and the ISO sensitivity of the camera you will get a different result:  there is no exact rule to follow, unfortunately.

When you are satisfied, and you have found a good compromise between the brightness of the sky background (not too excessive) and the amount of detail and noise, you can begin to shoot: exposure times must be controlled by the intervalometer, using a 5 second interval between one shot and another, no more, and taking as many pictures as you can (for at least a couple of hours, possibly more).

If we were to start shooting just after sunset, we should have already performed some tests during a dark night, so as to precisely know what exposure times to use. Our result would be overexposed, or even burned at the beginning of the movie, and then get darker as the hours pass.

How to Post Process your night shots?

The most complicated part of the tutorial is now completed, including the effort to stay awake all night.
Now you can proceed with the creation of the movie, which I am not going to deal with here as there are already plenty of excellent tutorials on the Time Lapse Network and the procedure is the same no matter your subject.

I personally use Avidemux, choosing a 15 fps rendering. The frame rate must be calibrated according to the exposure time of the individual shots, so that a smooth and slow sequence is created.
The longer the exposure time, the lower frame rate should be used: I usually create 3 or 4 sequences between 10 and 25 fps, then I choose the ones that  I prefer.

Below are the details required in order to create the sample movie:

  • Camera: Canon 350D
  • Lenses: Nikon 24mm f/2.8 D Nikkor
  • 274 shots, 25” exposure time at 800 ISO, 5” interval between shots
  • 15 fps sequence rendered using Avidemux

I am sure that this short tutorial will be a great help to you and I look forward to seeing your results within  the Time Lapse Network forum!


Learn more: get Shooting Stars by Phil Hart

Want to know much more on how to shoot:

  • Twilight landscapes
  • Night sky scenes (short exposures)
  • Star trails (long exposures)
  • The Moon
  • Night sky timelapse videos

Then you must be purchasing a copy of (probably) the best book dedicated to this photography technique: Shooting Stars by Phil Hart.


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