How to Shoot Star Time-Lapses: A Trip to the Desert in California


Want to learn how to shoot some amazing star time-lapses? Then follow us to Red Rock Canyon State Park in California, where we learned how it’s done from three Pond5 artists (NaoTharp, LoveMushroom and MountAiryFilms) who are working on their documentary “California Timelapse”. Get your gears ready: it’s time to warp to the desert!

Step 1: Pick your dates

The best time to shoot a milky way time lapse is around the new moon (+/- 3 days) night during summer, because there is less moonlight to affect your shots. Also, make sure you check the weather, because things like puffy white clouds (and rain) can be a big problem if they cover up too much of the sky.

Step 2: Pick your location

Make sure your location actually has visible stars. Stars are hard to see in cities and other bright areas, so pick a location far away from any possible conflicting light sources. Once you reach your location, get started before sunset so you have enough time and light to get situated. Higher elevations and more dry conditions also aid in a more vivid time-lapse, due to less atmosphere to compete with. Pick a spot for your scene that has a foreground or background object, like a tree, a rock or an old house, which gives your shot more depth and makes the star movements more obvious. It also makes your movements more dramatic, and who doesn’t love drama? Avoid the vicinity of a city or any bright area. Foreground or background objects can make all the difference. Go find them!

Screen Shot 2014-11-24 at 10.05.11 PM

Screen Shot 2014-11-24 at 10.38.19 PM

Screen Shot 2014-11-25 at 1.36.22 AM

Step 3: Pick your gear

Many cameras can do the job, but most important is manual control on your camera. Good low-light performance and a fast wide-angle lens give you the best image quality as well. Another hugely important piece of gear is your intervalometer to, you know, take pictures at different intervals. Some are built-in to the camera, but if yours isn’t, you can find them online for cheap. A large memory card to store all the images (especially if you’re shooting in RAW), and a strong, stable tripod will round out your necessary equipment for quality time-lapses.

One other thing you can add, which is optional, is a motion control or dolly or track system. Adding even just a little bit of motion significantly increases the value of your footage. It also just looks WAY cooler.

Screen Shot 2014-11-24 at 10.02.52 PM

Screen Shot 2014-11-24 at 10.03.57 PM

Step 4: Setup your camera

Now that you’ve locked those sticks down, it’s time to dial in your camera settings. Turn off all unnecessary features like noise reduction, vignette removal, live view display and auto lighting optimiser to cut down the camera’s processing time and save battery life. Set both your camera and focus to manual, then crank that focus ring all the way to the sideways 8. Wait, we mean infinity.

Focus: Use the brightest star in the sky to help you set your focus. A magnifying monitor can help you to get more accurate focusing.

Aperture: Open your aperture as wide as possible — f2.8 or faster is ideal — to get the most light into your camera.

ISO: Set it as high as it can be without adding any noise to the image. For Pond5 contributors, 3200 is best for high-end cameras and 1600 for mid-range cameras. If it’s too noisy, lower your ISO and check our article about noise reduction tips from Pond5 photo curators.

White Balance: Set your white balance to “Incandescent” or “Fluorescent” or manually set your color temperature between 2500K to 4200K to capture that blue night sky.

Screen Shot 2014-11-24 at 10.02.35 PM

Screen Shot 2014-11-24 at 10.04.50 PM

Step 5: Set Your Shutter Speed

Your shutter needs to let in enough light, but you also need to keep your exposures short enough to eliminate any star trails, which happens when your exposure is too long. The 500 rule says that you take 500 and divide it by your lens’s focal length. A full frame camera with a 16 mm lens would be 500 divided by 16, which is… hmm… this is a tough one… okay, a 31 second exposure time. Setting it to this length or shorter keeps the stars dots and not streaks. If you hate math and don’t know your camera’s crop factor, however, 20 seconds is a good place start. Or maybe reading your camera’s manual is the best place to start…

Screen Shot 2014-11-24 at 10.10.51 PM

Screen Shot 2014-11-24 at 10.11

Step 6: Get ready to shoot

Depending on your camera, you’ll need to either access your interval timer in the menu or grab your intervalometer from step 1 and set your interval to exposure time + camera buffer time. This buffer time should be at least 3 seconds to give your camera enough time to process and save the data to the memory card.

Now calculate the number of photos you want to take. A good base is 300, since 300 frames equals 10 seconds of footage at 30 frames per second, and 12.5 seconds of video at 24 frames per second, or something completely different if you use PAL, which our mind can’t possibly comprehend. Now take all the frames and exposure time and add it up to see how long it will take overall, which in our example is something close to 3 hours.

Screen Shot 2014-11-24 at 10.13.22 PM

Screen Shot 2014-11-24 at 10.13

Finally, re-check your frame and focus, and then start the madness. Put on some tunes, a pot of coffee, then enjoy the beautiful night sky as you document the rest of the galaxy above! Don’t forget to also check the clips from NaoTharpLoveMushroom and MountAiryFilms on Pond5. Good luck and see you on the site!

Screen Shot 2014-11-24 at 10.14.10 PM