North Coast Night Lights: A Milky Way Time-Lapse Medley


  • David Wilson
One can sit beneath the stars and watch them as they slowly traverse the skies; it merely requires your patience. But are we actually sensing them move? Or is it that our glance from time to time notes only that that the stars have changed position? Our perception moment by moment is that they are still, but the infrequent glance will note their slow progress across the sky.

Were one to stay out on a clear night for hours on end, one would still never catch the stars' movement — only that their positions had changed between looks. The human eye needs relatively rapid changes in a scene to detect differences from moment to moment. One might look every ten minutes and note that the stars have moved relative to a tree branch or other earthly object. Ten minutes later and they’ve moved noticeably more. Yet each time you look they seem to be standing still.

Imagine you had an entire evening to spend out there under the sky and you looked up at the stars once every 30 seconds. Each time, they are still. But between looks they have moved just a little. If you stayed out there for several hours and peeked at the stars every thirty seconds, you’d see a lot of snapshots of the sky, each one just a little different from the last as the stars moved across. It would require a lot of patience, and you would still never actually sense any movement. But if we were to string all the glances together like a flip-book, we’d be able to see that motion. Did you ever make a flip-book animation as a kid on a pad of paper? Some of you did. A time-lapse animation is similar to the flip-book.
Time-lapse is a technique that gives the appearance of speeding up extremely slow-moving things, and it works on the same principle as the flip-book. In a time-lapse, the camera takes photographs at regular intervals, each photo recording the scene’s changes since the last photo. After shooting a series of these still images, one can string the stills together just like the frames of a movie — indeed, they then become the frames of a movie. Each frame of the scene shows the slightly changed positions of objects in it. If we play the frames rapidly enough one after another our eyes and brain will record the changed position of objects from one frame to the next as motion.

Each scene in this time-lapse medley was from a different night. During each of those nights I set the camera to take photographs regularly, approximately one new photograph every thirty seconds. Thus over an hour of two photographs per minute it would take 120 photographs.

When the frames are put together into the form of a movie and played back rapidly at 24 frames/second we can see the motion of all of the stars, planets, meteors, airplanes, and satellites sped up dramatically. The motion is increased so much that the distance something traveled in an hour now only takes about five seconds – now we can see the stars move!

The video here comprises scenes from seven different nights under the Humboldt skies, but the following story is only an account of the first section of it. It was photographed up the Alderpoint Road, overlooking the South Fork Eel River south of Garberville during the night of September 2-3, 2016. The rest of the scenes were from various places in Humboldt. The music is by my son Jerren Wilson.

I stood on the great ridge line separating the watersheds of the South Fork Eel River from the Main Fork Eel River, the former stretching before me and the latter at my back as the sun set over southern Humboldt. My hope was to create a time-lapse that successfully spanned the sunset-to-night transition and catch the star-lit valley filling with fog as the Milky Way and starfield slid across the sky. I had been at this spot a week before, and I had seen it do this then, but that night my camera wasn’t positioned to catch much of the fog itself. This time there was no sign of fog when I began, but I was not to be disappointed.

I began shooting the still photographs for this time-lapse at 7:24 p.m. on September 2, 2016 to catch the sunset light disappearing. The fog first came into the view far down the valley at around 9:30 p.m. It rolled up both river valleys simultaneously, the South Fork before me and the Main Fork behind. It flowed like a fluid, billowing, advancing, and retreating as it filled the valleys and washed over the hills. It spotted like a wildfire, with puffs appearing here and there ahead of it. The Milky Way made its way across the sky. The camera took photographs at regular intervals. Humans turned on their lights, some zipping busily about below. The fog danced in the valley, up and down, forward and back, always gaining, filling the spaces it found, approaching my position. At one point the fog reached me, rolled over me, but then it withdrew once more.

As the fog before me retreated, from behind the mists from the Main Fork’s valley rose up and began streaming past me and into the South Fork’s drainage. I could watch both fog banks from where I stood, and saw them rising to meet each other precisely where I stood upon the ridge top. Soon the two seas of fog met beneath the glowing antennae of Pratt Mountain, a nipple on the ridge to my right, leaving the peak floating above it. Moments later the peak was lost. I took the final shot at 02:34 AM, as the fog gained total dominance and I could no longer keep the camera dry.

While I am not really more than a time-lapse enthusiast, I do have a few more Timelapse Trips on my YouTube channel here.

To keep abreast of David Wilson’s most current photography or peer into its past, visit or contact him at his website or follow him on Instagram at @david_wilson_mfx .

Add a comment