Night and Astrophotography Time-Lapse Tips

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It's no secret that photographing the night sky and everything astrophotography related has been a big part of my life for many years now. Staring up at the sky on a dark night is so inspiring. It's a time where I can relax, but at the same time find that creative spark that keeps me moving forward in my career as an action / adventure photographer. It just never gets old.

Every year, I set a new goal. Moving forward and keeping things new and always learning has been my basic philosophy during this walk in the creative arts. This year, 2019, has been all about the art of time-lapse photography and though I have experimented with it for some time, I never took it as seriously as I have this year. With my “less is more” approach to travel photography, I've geared my setup to a few easy, small rigs that can keep astro time-lapse photography simple and fun to do. 

Before I get started on the gear that I have found most useful for astro time-lapse photography, let's touch on some settings to give you sharp stars and a great exposed image to edit in post. I highly recommend using full-frame cameras such as an a7S IIa7 III, or the a7R III, and a fast wide-angle lens that ranges from about 16-35mm. These systems make it quite easy to achieve perfect focus with the use of "bright monitoring.” For Sony cameras that I use, assigning this command to a function button is like making instant magic! You can immediately see your composition and all the twinkling stars in the night sky. This makes it extremely easy to find perfect focus, giving you sharp stars and also the ability to compose your shot without the use of a head lamp. 

Let's talk about the 500 rule, as well. It’s a simple rule that allows you to get into the ballpark of where you need your shutter time value to be. Basically, you take 500 and divide that by your focal length. This will give you a maximum exposure time, allowing you to get sharp stars with the least amount of trailing.  

Stan Moniz Preparing Camera

If you are using a crop-sensor camera, multiply the camera crop factor by your focal length first to get the equivalent focal length of the lens. Another thing to consider is resolution. If you're shooting with an a7S II, which is 12MP, and look very closely at your image, you will probably not see any trailing of stars at that maximum exposure time given by the 500 rule. On a 42MP camera, you will see slight trailing due to the increased detail of the image.  If this bothers you, speed up your shutter time until you achieve a pin-point star.

Another setting to keep in mind includes setting your lens to the widest open aperture. If it's an f/2.8 lens, start there. After finding your focus, check out the far corners of the image. If you see the stars looking like comets or they seem a little stretched out due to the "blooming effect," stop down your lens to tighten up those stars in the corners. This will generally not happen on a lens starting at f/2.8 or higher. Faster lens starting f/1.4 or even faster tend to have this issue but stopping the lens down will give you sharper stars in the corners. Your ISO should be set from 800-6400. This is dependent upon how open your aperture is and your exposure time. This is where you will test things, finding the perfect exposure that works best for you and your post-production process.

Recommendations

Here's the current setup that I have found to be the most backpack friendly and simple to use. Combing these recommendations with some clever and thought-provoking editing can produce endless results on your final project.

Syrp Genie Mini In Use

1. Syrp Genie Mini

By far one of the smallest and absolutely adventure-proof devices on the market is the Syrp Genie Mini (there’s even a version II). It's been out on the road with me for years now. I won't say it’s completely weatherproof, but it hasn’t let me down yet. If you’re in need of a basic left to right or right to left rotation, this little gadget is the one for you. Download the Syrp Genie app to your phone and you will be up and rolling in no time. 

Once you’ve mastered the exposure/shutter value rule, set that duration on the app, but be sure to add an additional five seconds for the shoot move shoot to take effect. For example, the Genie will trigger you camera, it will then take a 20-second exposure. The camera will close, but those added five seconds would be used up in the move of the Genie. This will allow for a safe “shoot move shoot” exposure. Without the five-second delay, the Genie's micro movements during an open exposure could cause that image to be blurry. I've made this mistake before. It's never a nice thing to wake up after a four-hour time-lapse shoot to find every photo slightly blurry. Yikes! 

Rhino ROV Pro Slider

2. Rhino ROV Pro Everyday Slider

I found out about the ROV Pro Everyday 8" Slider just a few months ago, and it’s another piece of gear that has never left my side. Other than using it for time-lapse photography, it comes in handy for video production, as well. The ROV Pro is a travel-friendly simple slider and even comes with its own camera ball head. This setup is attached to the outside of my Atlas camera bag for quick access.

Like the Syrp Genie Mini, the ROV Pro is run by a phone app that is quite intuitive and basically dummy proof. With the Rhino app, you can dial-in the exact exposure time during which you want your camera’s shutter to be open. The app will take care of the delay between shots, making a “shoot move shoot” left to right slide effortless. There is also another app by Rhino, called Light Lapse, which works with the ROV Pro and can evaluate the next exposure, helping you achieve a day-to-night or night-to-day sliding time lapse with minimal effort. This opens the door to so much creativity.  

3. Sony Interval Shooting Update

Yes! Sony has finally made it happen. One awesome thing that I like about Sony is that the company listens to its users. This is a function I use almost every day. With the newest firmware update, you are now able to create a static time-lapse right off your camera and it’s fully functional, even with a 99-minute shooting start time delay. For example: the Milky Way will be rising in an hour but you want to head back to your car for a quick meal or a rest. You can now set this function for 60 minutes. The camera will start the time-lapse according to the set time. 

Shooting interval is also a breeze. I recommend using a one-second delay because this will allow for the stars to move forward smoothly throughout the sky. The number of shots taken can go up to 9,999! (Not that you will ever need that many, but it’s there as an option.) The most I usually set mine for is 240. At 24 frames per second, it will give me a time-lapse of 10 seconds. If I have an entire night of shooting, I personally like to switch up the compositions two or three times to give me 30 seconds of footage. Again, with clever thinking and editing, 30 seconds can go a long way. 

Night with Luxli Viola LED Light

4. Luxli Viola 5" LED Light

Oh man, the Luxli Viola is one of my favorite pieces of gear in 2019. It comes in handy so often! It’s so lightweight with a battery that can last a week with one charge! I'm not kidding about that. Setting the light value to 1% is all you need to light up your scene at night. Leaving it at this power level meant I was able to leave its charger at home, keeping space in my adventure pack open for other needs. As seen in these time lapses, all lighting was generated by the Luxli. I personally like to light a scene from the sides and not straight on. This will give the composition a much more dynamic effect. Casting shadows evokes emotion and drama; a perfect combo to a night scene. 

Using the Cokin Clearsky Filter

5. Cokin Clearsky Filter

I can't stress how much of an important element these filters bring to my astrophotography, in general. Basically, the Cokin Clearsky Filter helps eliminate unwanted light pollution, suppressing sodium vapor that city lights produce and creating a much cleaner image to edit in the post process. 

Photo Pills App

6. Planning and Apps to Make the Moves Happen

A motion time-lapse is never that engaging if a foreground element is not present. My advice would be to get to your shoot location much earlier than expected, even during daylight hours. Using applications such a Photo Pills, you can take a Night AR (Augmented reality) shot during the day to see where the Milky Way, etc. will be at the particular hour you wish to start your time lapse. Using this insight with some helpful foreground elements, you can pre plan a slide or rotation to help reveal the best composition. This is where all the fun happens! 

I hope you enjoyed my take on night time-lapsing. The gear I use, the general settings and some insight into getting off and running on your next astro adventure. Please do visit me on Instagram to follow along on my many adventures. 

To read more about time-lapse tips and tools, click here.

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