Our night sky is beautiful, mysterious and still far from being completely understood. It’s for this reason that it’s such a great photography subject, as made obvious by the thousands of existing amazing photographs of the milky way.
Taking a great shot of the Milky Way isn’t as simple as it may seem. I remember when I took my first shot of it, many years ago. I thought it would be as easy as pointing my camera to the sky and hitting that shutter release button but, oh boy, how wrong I was!
I quickly learned that getting great shots of the Milky Way, or night sky in general, comes with one big difficulty, overcoming low light! Secondary to that, working with longer exposures is also a little tricky for some, depending on their photographic background.
The Best Time Of Year To Photograph The Milky Way
Unfortunately, because our Earth is a sphere and constantly rotating, you won’t be able to see, or photograph, the Milky Way all year round in any part of the world. In saying this, it is still possible that you may be able to see remnants of the Milky Way band at any point in the year, however, the Galactic Center, the part you will want to be photographing, will only be visible during certain months.
Northern Hemisphere: For those located in the Northern Hemisphere, the best time of the year to photograph the Milky Way is between March and October with the most optimal months being June through to August.
Southern Hemisphere: For those of us located in Southern Hemisphere, we are treated with two benefits surrounding the Milky Way that the Northern Hemisphere does miss out on. Firstly, we get an extra month of photographic opportunity. The best time of the year to capture the Milky Way here, including the Galactic Center, is February through to October, with May through to September being the optimal times. Additionally, it’s during these months that the Southern Hemisphere experiences Winter which offers the benefit of shorter days and longer nights.
How To Find The Milky Way
Although there are a few applications available, I highly recommend Sky Guide, which can be found in the iTunes store for a couple of dollars. Sky Guide, which works via GPS, allows you to point your phone to any part of the sky before displaying a virtual copy of exactly what is present there, even if you can’t see it with the naked eye. By pointing your phone towards the sky and moving it around, you can easily find the exact location of the Milky Way’s Galactic Center, which is prominently in the app.
Additionally, the Sky Guide app also allows you to input a future time and date which will then present you with a virtual copy of the night sky at that point in time. This makes it easy to plan your shoot in advance, by knowing exactly what time you need to be set up and what section of the sky you should be pointing your camera at to get the perfect shot.
Sky Guide is not currently available for Android devices, however, an alternate option is Stellarium, a port of the popular desktop application. Stellarium operates in exactly the same manner as Sky Guide, and is also available for Apple devices.
Choosing A Location
To start with, you should plan ahead by finding a location that is going to offer you a clear, unobstructed view of the sky that is, ideally, clear of any light pollution. This may mean traveling out a few hours from any major city you live in or around and finding something isolated such as a National Park or camping ground.
Additionally, you should be planning your shoot around the moon phase and ensuring to choose a time when the moon will be emitting the least amount of light which, in other words, this means you should stay away from a new or full moon. The following website can be used to view the current and future moon phases – Moon Phase Calander
How To Photograph The Milky Way
By now you should know exactly when, and where, you’re going to be taking your photographs, so now it is time to work out exactly how you’re going to do it.
1. Focus On Infinity
Most modern cameras are capable of autofocusing in relatively dark conditions but, when you’re out in a remote location with no artificial light and, sometimes no moon, the sky could be as dark as -10 Exposure Value. In these situations, you will have to rely on manual focus to ensure your image is as sharp as it can be. If you haven’t had much experience with manual focus, now is the time to start practicing, it should be a strong part of your skill set for many forms of photography.
The best way to get the sharpest possible Milky Way photograph is to aim for infinity focus which, for those unaccustomed to this, means capturing an image, an infinite distance away from the subject, which is formed at the focal point of the lens.
Fortunately, most lenses feature an infinity mark, you’ll see it near your focus ring, that you can set your focus to. Keep in mind, this isn’t always a perfect or 100% accurate option, but it offers a great start nonetheless.
2. Use Live View
The viewfinder of your camera is not greatly suited to night sky photography because it’s usually far too dark to see through, especially while trying to get a sharp focus. If your camera features an LCD screen with a live view feature, turn it on and use it to your advantage. Live View will make it far easier to frame your shot and, if you’ve already set focus, save you the potential error of bumping your camera and moving it out of focus via looking through the viewfinder.
If you’re shooting with an older generation DSLR or camera that does not offer Live View, it’s still extremely possible to get a perfect shot, but it’s all going to come down to some trial-and-error in order to get the right focus and framing. One tip I would offer in this instance, from my own experience, is to, where possible, raise your tripod to your own height, or higher, in order to allow for easier access to the viewfinder to avoid as much of the potential of bumping or moving your camera as possible.
3. Collect As Much Light As Possible
When photographing the Milky Way, it’s important to let as much light reach your sensor as possible, so as to limit your exposure time, which is especially important if you want a crisp shot without any star trails.
There are 2 ways of successfully achieving this. First up, open your aperture as wide as possible, f/1.4 to f/2.8 would be the most optimal choices. Keep in mind, if your lens has a maximum aperture of f/2 but you know that it’s super soft at this point, close it down to f/2.8 to keep things sharp.
Secondly, your camera should be capable of achieving at least 3200 ISO. This is because you want to be shooting at this point, or higher if needed, to make sure your sensor is exposed to as much light as possible. Start out with 3200 and, if your image simply isn’t bright enough at a 30-second exposure with a wide aperture, bump it up a little more until satisfied.
4. Setting The Right Shutter Speed
I generally shoot all of my Milky Way photographs at an exposure time of 30 seconds or less, and I find it works as a good sweet spot to start with when setting ISO to 3200 and an aperture of f/2.8. Of course, depending on your environment and the light available, you may need to drop that shutter speed right down or raise it slightly. Keep in mind, a longer exposure time will begin to lead to, albeit slight, star streaks due to the rotation of the earth.
Although I recommend 30 seconds as a maximum exposure time, you can use the 500 rule to determine the perfect exposure time based on the focal length of your lens and to avoid star trails.
This rule works by dividing your focal length by 500. For example, if you’re taking a shot with an 18mm lens on a full frame camera – 500 / 18 = 27.7, which you would round down to 27. Your maximum exposure time with the 18mm lens would be 27 seconds before star streaks begin to occur.
The rule is a little different for cropped sensor cameras in that you need to include a crop factor of 1.6 for a Canon or 1.5 for a Nikon DSLR. For example, with an 18mm lens on a cropped Canon, 500 / (18*1.6) = 17.3, rounded down to a 17-second exposure. And for an 18mm lens on a cropped Nikon, 500 / (18*1.5) = 18.5, rounded down to an 18-second exposure.
5. Don’t Forget The Foreground
The composition of your photograph is important and, just like all forms of photography, it’s essential to spend some time planning and composing your shot of the Milky Way before releasing the shutter. Extending your tripod and pointing the camera towards the sky will likely result in a relatively dull photograph.
Take a look around the area you’re shooting from and look for trees, natural and man-made structures or anything of interest that you could capture in your foreground, without taking the main focus away from the Milky Way.
Keep in mind, depending on how close you are to the object in your foreground, you may need to artificially light it up with an off camera flash, torch or headlight. If you do this, make sure you move the light source around throughout the entire exposure to avoid any hot spots in the final image.
6. Use The Right Gear
With that being said, the following are my gear recommendations as a good starting point.
It is possible to photograph the Milky Way with a zoom lens, however, in order to capture as much of the sky in a single shot, a wide-angle lens really is the preferred option.
There is no single “best lens” for capturing the Milky Way but, rather, there are multiple specifications that are present amongst multiple good lens options.
For Milky Way photography, or any form of astrophotography for that matter, you want to be using a wide-angle lens, such as an 8mm, 14mm, or 24mm lens, that, where possible, offers a wide aperture (smaller F number) such as a 2.8, 2.0, or 1.4.
Here are a few lenses that I highly recommend.
If I had to choose the single most important piece of equipment for this type of photography, a solid tripod with a strong weight rating would be my pick, since you’ll often be working with long exposures requiring a perfectly still and stable camera.
Remote Shutter Release: When you press the shutter release button on your camera, no matter how softly you try, there is always going to be a slight vibration or movement. For photography at fast shutter speeds, this is not an issue but, when shooting at 30-second exposures, the movement will result in a blurry image. Using a remote shutter release, wired or wireless, will allow you to take the image without touching the camera, erasing any potential camera shake.
Spare Battery: A spare battery, fully charged, is always a good idea when heading out to capture the night sky, since you’ll be shooting at longer exposures than normal. I’ve been caught out before, experiencing the fun of my main battery going flat, mid-way through an exposure, without a spare available. I wouldn’t want the same happening to you.
There are other pieces of gear that can be helpful for Milky Way photography, but the above would be what I consider to be must-haves. Oh, and one last thing, your camera should be capable of shooting in RAW and allow at least 3200 ISO.
7. Post Processing
As with all styles of photography, there really isn’t a right or a wrong way of post processing your Milky Way shot and, honestly, there will be a large variation for everyone based on how much light was available and how precise your exposure was at the time of taking the photograph. However, the following are a few of my tips and suggestions when you get to this stage:
1. You likely will need to apply some additional sharpness to get those stars looking nice and crisp, don’t be afraid of being a little heavy-handed here.
2. Depending on how high your ISO was, and how much sharpness you add, you may need to apply noise reduction. This is particularly important if you’re planning on printing the photograph, but be careful not to soften the image up too much.
3. Don’t be afraid of increasing contrast, you will almost definitely need to do this to get the stars to pop.
4. Experiment with your white balance to create a neutral scene if you’ve found that the milky way has too much of a yellow tint to it.
5. And, although obvious, if you took multiple exposures, be sure to experiment with stacking.
And that is it. Get on out there and start taking some amazing Milky Way photographs. As with anything, practice makes perfect, don’t be afraid of experimenting or taking multiple shots.
Don’t forget to share your results in the comments below, I’d love to see them.