[Originally published Nov. 14, 2020, minor update Nov. 4, 2022]
Something I’ve wanted to do for years is to create a timelapse video of the night sky star motion. I made it one of my goals for this year to accomplish that. I’ve been spending a lot of time in places that have terrible views of the night sky. Mostly, too much atmospheric haze and/or too much light pollution.
In July, when Comet Neowise was visible, we found a place a short drive away that had a pretty good night sky view, and was above much of the haze. We went there to try to get a good view, and maybe a photo or two, of the Comet.
We found that this location was also good viewing of the Milky Way.
It might have been a good time to try for a star timelapse with the Milky Way included, but it was late and I didn’t take the time to try it.
In September we camped at Red Bridge State Wayside in Oregon. The campground is a great place, but the sky is mostly blocked by beautiful Ponderosa pine trees. It does have a pretty good view of the sky from an area near the parking lot. I took my camera and tripod with the hope of getting some decent sky images.
Toward dark I set up on the grass looking over the parking lot and took several test exposures. I was shooting with my Pentax K-3 (crop-frame) camera with a Tamron 10-24mm lens. The exposure I settled on was 6 seconds at f/3.5, ISO 6400. I set the camera to shoot 500 photos, one every 20 seconds. I turned off in-camera noise reduction, thinking I could save battery and do it in Lightroom later.
The first photo was shot at about 9:20 pm, and the last photo just past midnight. I sat in a chair near the camera for the almost three hours it took, reading a book on my Kindle. Fortunately the night was relatively warm and getting cold wasn’t too much of a problem. I did get out of the chair a few times to do some jumping jacks to stay warm.
OK, now for what I did wrong.
- I judged the exposure by what the image looked like on the back of the camera. Remember, it was almost pitch black when I was doing this. The image looked great! The next morning I looked at the images. I couldn’t believe that all frames were totally black. How could I have done that? Then I realized they were underexposed so badly that I couldn’t see anything in normal light, but, viewed in a darkened room, there was some image there. Don’t judge the image exposure by what your eye sees when its almost totally dark out! Lightroom to the rescue (sort of).
- Turning off in-camera noise reduction was a mistake. the Pentax K-3 does quite well at keeping the noise down, but at ISO 6400, I really needed to let the camera do what it could. Again, Lightroom noise reduction helped (but I wouldn’t say it rescued me).
Once I had 500 RAW images, I imported them all into Lightroom and did what I could to adjust exposure and reduce noise. Then exported them all as JPEG files (a painfully slow process on my ancient laptop computer). Next I fired up Adobe After Effects, brought in all of the JPEG images, and created a 1080p video at 30 frames per second. 500 frames at 30 frames per second results in a video only 16-2/3 seconds long!
The resulting video has lots of noise and color changes due to the extreme exposure adjustments I made. But I think it’s acceptable for my first attempt. Next year (or maybe this winter) I’ll do this again and improve my results.
Here is my video for you to see: