The Milky Way is one of the more fascinating sights in the night sky, especially for those of us who live in urban cities. It’s entirely foreign to us that this many stars actually exist. The Milky Way is the denser concentration of stars, space dust and gasses that shoot off the horizon and into the night sky. This concentration of dust and gas is what gives the Milky Way its name because it appears somewhat milky against the black night sky. It’s this area that you see most people photographing of the night sky.
Living in the city my entire teenage and adult years I never really knew how or what the Milky Way even looked like to the naked eye. I always caught pictures online of it and eventually decided I wanted to try to capture it for myself. My first time out shooting the Milky Way was up at the Grand Traverse Lighthouse in Northport, Michigan. One of the Darkest locations in Lower Michigan. It was under a moonless sky and I was in awe of its beauty and couldn’t believe I was looking at it. As my eyes adjusted to the night sky I saw more and more of it, it was incredible. I was however a little disappointed because it looks nothing like the pictures you see online. It wasn’t what I expected. After getting home and looking at the files on my computer I was even more disappointed. Now this was my first time, and knowing what I know now, I would have done things a lot different but even still, with all the shot’s I’ve taken of the Milky Way, it still doesn’t look like the pictures you see. I stared to search online about photographing the Milky Way and found the reason to be that most of it is heavily modified digitally. Yes the camera helps you capture and see more light than the eye’s can pick up. So the camera will yield better results than your eyes, but I want to set the expectation, don’t think your shots are going to look like those super extravagant Milky Way photos without some post processing.
With that said, lets learn how to shoot it.
- DSLR – This can be a DSLR or one of them new fancy mirrorless cameras but it must be a camera with a large sensor. APS-C or larger. Ideally this would also be a newer model Full Frame DSLR.
- Lens – Here you want a fast, wide angle lens. f/4 will work, f/2.8 or larger is preferred. You want a wide angle because it allows you to increase your shutter speed, therefore keeping your ISO down (explained later), as well, with a faster lens you can keep the ISO lower.
- Tripod – I say it all the time and I can’t stress it enough, a good sturdy tripod is worth it’s weight in gold, especially for night photography. With that said any tripod can work, just be aware of the possible consequences.
When and Where Can You See It
Get Somewhere Dark – I’m not talking driving a couple of miles outside of the city. Do some research and find out where International Dark Sky locations are, where Observatories are or do your own research and find out where a dark sky location is near you. In the last link, it is my experience that you need to be in at LEAST the yellow area to have a chance of getting the milky in the Milky Way, and this is on a moonless night. I’ve had pretty good success in the blue and grey areas. Ideally, if you can get into a dark grey area, that would be best.
Where is the Milky Way? – If you’ve never seen the Milky Way or don’t know what you are looking for, then finding the Milky Way can be difficult, especially if you are not in a real dark area. there are plenty of apps for your phone which can show you the location, and even more detailed information such as where it will be at whatever time, on whatever day of whatever month. The one I use all the time is SkySafari 3. It is a great little app for only 3 dollars. Typically you will want to shoot for the southern portion of the Milky Way as that is the brightest section, so when you’re going somewhere dark, try to line the Milky Way up with a location that doesn’t have a large city to the south if possible as it will hamper your attempts to capture the brightest portion.
When Can You See It – The Milky Way is always there, but there are times when viewing is best. For starters, weather conditions need to be clear, if not you end up with these splotches of clouds in your night shot that really stick out against a starry sky. Secondly, you can’t have any moon. Just as you are driving to a dark location to get away from the city lights, you need to get out when there is no moon. Now this doesn’t mean you can only shoot the milky way during the new moon, sometimes the moon doesn’t rise until midnight and sometimes it sets at midnight. So you have blocks of time during the course of the night you can get your shots in, but these blocks of time need to coincide with when the Milky Way will be in the best position for your shot. The Milky Way will move across the night sky just like the rest of the stars. Your shot might call for it to be shooting straight up off the horizon or it might call for a lower more arching composition. For this you need to do a little scouting and that is where the SkySafari app listed above comes into play. Find out when you have to be there to get the type of shot you want.
Setting Up For Your Shot
Focus – Typically this is as easy as just setting your lens to focus on infinity. Well infinity isn’t infinity on some lenses, so be sure to get a feel for where infinity is on your lens before going out in the dark. Your other option is if your camera is equipped with Live View zooming, you just find a really bright star, zoom in using 10x magnification and focus from there. Be sure you are on manual focus as autofocus will do you little to no good at night. This works great for getting the milky way in crisp focus. If you have a compelling foreground or composition, you want to ensure that is in focus as well, for this I recommend looking into hyperfocal distance focusing but this is outside the scope of this article.
Camera Settings – This can and will be different for just about everyone. It will all depend on your camera, lens, ambient conditions, locations, etc but there is a starting point. First and foremost, you need to figure out how long of an exposure you can take before you start to get noticeable trailing in your stars. For this there is calculation called the 500 Rule. Visit this article here read up on how figure out what your maximum shutter speed will be. After you get this, take your lens and set it to its widest settings such as f/2.8 or f/4. Those two settings are essentially static settings in your exposure, you shouldn’t change them, the only number we have left to play with is ISO. A good starting point is ISO6400. It will be up to you where you end up but that is a good starting point and will let you see which way you need to dial the ISO to get the proper exposure. So as an example. I shoot with a Canon 60D and a Tokina 12-24 f/4 lens. My Milky Way settings I use are 26 seconds, f/4, ISO6400.
- Don’t use a flashlight or if you do, use a red one or cover it with a red gel. Sure you want to be able to see what you are doing in the middle of the night but you also want to keep your eyes adjusted to the light of the night.
- Shoot in RAW file format. This allows you the most flexibility in recovering and processing parts of your Milky Way. Absolutely important.
- Don’t trust the output on your LCD. It can and will lie to you and make your Milky Way appear much brighter than the RAW file really is. Drop that LCD brightness to below half way. As well, turn any picture styles(Canon) to neutral.
- When in doubt, shoot at a higher ISO. There is always less noise in the highlights of a high ISO shot than in the shadows. If you find that in post processing you need to bring up the exposure on a shot that was under exposed, you will only reveal additional noise. Where as you can always bring down the exposure in post processing and that won’t add any noise to the image.
There you have it, my super easy tips for shooting the Milky Way. Now go out, find yourself some dark sky and start practicing. 🙂