Updated: Jun 7
Milky Way photography is a timeless way to capture the natural beauty of our galaxy. However, a photograph isn't the only way to keep the memory, you can also create a time-lapse video of your evening with a series of photos. Get a real sense of how large and beautiful the band looks as it crosses the night sky in video format. Discover what gear you need, what settings to use for Milky Way time-lapse videos, and tips for how to create a time-lapse.
Get Season 3 of the Galactic Course to learn all about time-lapses and star trails!
About the Milky Way
The Milky Way is a barred spiral galaxy. It is a large object but is not as big as the closest galaxy to us (which is in on a head-on collision with the Milky Way): the Andromeda Galaxy. The Milky Way contains the Solar System where planet Earth can be found and is our home in the universe.
Our galaxy is a dim object, but it can be photographed easily, especially in Summer. However, to see it at its best, the dark-sky quality matters most.
Only in dark enough skies can you truly get a great visual of the Milky Way. Therefore, it is crucial to find a dark location for your time-lapse, as well as other considerations. Learn what those are further below.
Gear for Time-Lapse Videos
First things first, what is a time-lapse? It is a technique that allows you to take a series of photos and put them together sequentially to create a video. The frames are taken with the same settings over a long period of time and when put together show movement from the same perspective in a sped-up fashion.
You can create time-lapses using almost any camera, for example:
A DSLR or mirrorless camera
A recent smartphone
A recent GoPro or another similar camera
Most recent DSLR/mirrorless cameras now have a "time-lapse mode" which allows you to create a time-lapse very easily without any editing. Once activated, you'll just have to point the camera the the Milky Way, focus, and launch it!
We then recommend using:
A wide-angle lens -- This will give you a nice wide field view of the large Milky Way band
An intervalometer -- Needed to control your intervals and exposure times, unless your camera has a built-in intervalometer
A sturdy tripod -- Self-explanatory. A tripod that is not sturdy will not be stable, especially if you're walking around the setup as it will introduce vibrations
A ball head - This will let you angle your camera however you wish
[Optional] A star tracker -- This will allow you to create a time-lapse that follows the Milky Way band and shows the rotation of the Earth
If you don't have a camera or are unsure about qualities that are important for astrophotography, check out our Beginner DSLR Astrophotography Equipment post.
How to Scout for a Dark Site
We wrote in-depth about how to find a dark location for Milky Way photography. The same principle applies to time-lapse videos as they feature the same subject. You need the darkest skies possible and a good location to take your time-lapse from. Be sure to read that post first to learn how to find the optimal spot as well as other considerations to enhance your photography.
The post will also explain how you can use the online resource Dark Site Finder to help you search for optimal dark locations near you.
It is possible that the "best" zones near you are blue or green. Learn more about what the Bortle Scale is and how to use it in our post about scouting dark sky locations.
The post also highlights important considerations for finding a dark location such as the orientation of the subject and finding a good foreground. Part of what makes an impressive time-lapse is seeing the Earth element complemented by the celestial element. Without understanding your orientation or preparing for the evening, you might have a frustrating evening of figuring things out and miss your window of opportunity. It's worth it to plan so you don't waste time, energy, or gas.
Main points for finding dark sky locations:
Escape Light Pollution
Choose a Safe Location & Visit in the Daytime
Find the Perfect Foreground
Prepare for the Evening
Pro Tip: Do not head north for your Milky Way time-lapse, instead, find a spot that is south of your city. Why? Orientation matters. The Milky Way will pan across the southern half of the sky. Also, avoid light pollution caused by bright cities to the south and east that create light domes.
Best Time of Year for Milky Way Time-Lapses
Another crucial piece of information found in the post mentioned above is the best time of year to view the Milky Way. While this object is in the sky most of the year, the summer is when it's most prominent in the evening. For the most interesting time-lapse, collect data during the summer and start as soon as the Milky Way rises.
If you are eager and reading this outside of the summer season, know that you can make a time-lapse video any time of the year. The reason the Milky Way is so desirable is that this object shows a lot of movement throughout the night. Other substitutes include some constellations, clouds, or aurorae, however, nothing beats looking at our galaxy's massive and bright core.
Learn more about Milky Way photography on our Milky Way Tutorials page.
Apps for Milky Way Time-Lapses
Now that you have a location in mind, you need to give yourself the best chance at capturing the movement of this object. Instead of trying to predict the path the Milky Way will go, just use an app! Thankfully, as modern astronomy enthusiasts we have the luxury of using technology, so take advantage of it. Below are a few apps we recommend to help you with Milky Way time-lapses.
You will need a weather app (or two) to find out what the weather is like. The last thing you want is to go out for the evening, set up, and it suddenly starts raining. Remember, you'll be out on the field for a few hours at least and a little rain won't hurt you - but it will harm your gear.
Clear Outside - good or a quick glimpse at cloud coverage, transparency, wind, and more
Astrospheric - More visually pleasing than Clear Outside and shows info for multiple locations
Sun and Moon Apps
For planning purposes, it's good to have an app on hand that tells you when sunset and moonrise are. You want the darkest skies possible for your time-lapse, and they can show you information hours and even days in advance. Consider these apps as they hold more features that could be useful for other astrophotography ventures.
Sundial - sun and moon information, pretty straightforward
Photopills - great for photography and has a feature showing the Milky Way's path
Best Camera Settings for Time-Lapses
Below are the settings we recommend for a DSLR camera, main menu settings, and information about exposure and interval times.
Image Quality: RAW - save images as .RAW
Auto Rotate: OFF - a good idea to turn off the auto-rotation just in case
Long Exposure Noise Reduction: OFF
Main Settings Menu:
Mode: BULB mode
Aperture: f/1.4 -f/4 - This is how fast your lens will collect light, f/4 is a safe number as most lenses will show issues on the edges when opened wider than f/4, but some lenses will be just fine, so be sure to check that first
ISO: Varies - start with an ISO of 1600 and test from there
Picture Style: AUTO
White Balance: Either AUTO or CUSTOM - can lower temperature in Kelvin to around 3,600 or 4,000 if you'd like your sky to appear cooler (=bluer)
Drive Mode: Single Shooting
Image Quality: RAW - This will ensure that the camera will save all files as uncompressed and untouched data.
Exposure Times, Intervals, and Shots
If you are unsure about how many shots to take, the answer is simple - as many as you can get! The more data you have, the longer your time-lapse will be. In terms of intervals, the time between each exposure, you can let your camera rest because photos of the sky don't need to be taken back-to-back. The sky doesn't "move" quickly, so 15 seconds is a good interval for a Milky Way time-lapse.
Untracked Exposure Time
As for exposure time, this can be tricky... but you can use the 500 Rule. It's not 100% accurate but it works for a time-lapse. The 500 Rule is how long you can photograph the night sky untracked until you start seeing star trails. All you need to calculate that number is the focal length of your lens.
As an example, let's say we're using the Rokinon 10mm as our lens, and a cropped sensor camera. We know our focal length, so now we calculate the exposure time using the 500 Rule.
500 / (1.6 * 10mm) = Maximum exposure time in seconds
500 / 16mm = 31.25 seconds
Rounded down: 31 seconds
31 seconds is the sweet spot in this case, but we recommend rounding up a little to about 35 seconds. The extra seconds will help the sky look brighter and the image will look cleaner. You likely won't see any issues with star trails if you go a little over since the timelapse will move too fast.
Tracked Exposure Time
If you are planning to use a star tracker for your Milky Way time-lapse, you won't need to worry about the 500 Rule. Typically, a minute of exposure is fine and will produce a good result, but you can take longer if you prefer. Take a test shot and if it is too bright, lower your exposure time. It's safer to take shorter exposures so the result is not overexposed.
Star Trails Photography
Interested in star trails photography? See examples and find information in this post.
Star trails photographs are taken through long exposure shots and combining all the frames into one cool, artistic shot of the night sky! Typically, images feature the North Star (Polaris) or the closest star to the south pole, Sigma Octantis, because they do not appear to "move." So, as the Earth rotates it creates these hypnotic-looking, circular patterns around the star.
Perhaps the coolest thing about it is that star trails images can be shot any time of year!
The ghostly image to the left was taken in Rhyolite - just outside of Beatty, NV.
Time-Lapse Tips to Remember
1. Focus your lens on the foreground
Before you start, ensure your image is focused. The foreground will be a key element of your time-lapse and if it's out of focus, then the end result will not appear as crisp as you'd like. Get your foreground in the frame and position it the way you want for the whole evening. Then, zoom in all the way on your camera without moving or bumping into it, and adjust the focus of your lens.
2. Take test shots before committing for the evening
Take several test shots! This is important. First, to ensure your framing is still the way you want it, and second, to discover if the exposure time still works. The sky is a lot brighter early on than it is later in the evening. Depending on when you set up, the sky might need a longer exposure time because it got darker than anticipated, or you might have to change your ISO again - so take those test shots!
3. Tracked vs. Untracked
If you are using a star tracker for a Milky Way time-lapse, then you'll have a cool effect that untracked users don't have! Untracked time-lapses are "planted" on the Earth and the Milky Way moves over it. However, tracked users follow the Milky Way as the point of interest, and the Earth is what appears to move!
How to Process a Time-Lapse
Once you have all the data you desire for the time-lapse, you can head back home and upload all of your photos to your computer. You will then use photo editing software to enhance the images and use your preferred tool for editing/creating a video.
Upload and organize your files (delete bad frames)
Take all good frames and put them into photo editing software (we use Lightroom)
Put edited photos into a video editor to create the time-lapse (we use FinalCut Pro - change the duration of each frame to "1" and make a "New compound clip" to put clips as one group, and scale the video to ensure the video looks good)
If you haven't explored software yet, just know there are tons of options to choose from with a quick search online. However, if you have some experience we recommend going with what you know. For example, if you've dabbled in Photoshop over the years, you can use that tool because you're most familiar with navigating it. Chances are, you'll be less frustrated getting your end result. If you want to use what we use, download Lightroom and FinalCut Pro.
Our Premium Online Course about Time-Lapses and Star Trails
If you would like more in-depth explanations about how to do time-lapses and star trails, consider purchasing Season 3 of the Galactic Course.
We provide more details and step-by-step directions on how to set up, photo/video editing, and how to use a star tracker.
You will be able to get fantastic images of both star trails, and any type of time-lapses.
Milky Way photography isn't just static photos, you can also create a Milky Way time-lapse. Get a sense of our place in the universe with a stunning visual of our galaxy's core by the bright band of milky clouds and stars moving across the sky. First, ensure you have the right gear. Then, plan your outing by finding a dark location, setting up your equipment in the best orientation, and double-checking that you have the right settings.
Before you set your series of photos off for the evening, remember to take test shots and reframe if needed. After you have enough data, you can head home and begin organizing and removing bad frames. Upload the good frames into a photo editing software to enhance the look of your images and then import those into a video editor to put it all together, and voila! You've got yourself a Milky Way time-lapse!
Find more tips about Milky Way photography by looking at our other posts on the Milky Way tutorials page, and learn how to take the best photos.