How to photograph the Milky Way
March 1, 2019
The night sky is one of the most mysterious and mesmerizing things out there for photographers. The twinkling blanket of stars can create fascinating fine art landscape photography. Since it’s so big and difficult to comprehend, capturing a photograph of the Milky Way can be a challenge, unless you know how!
This is especially true if you live in a crowded city where you can’t even see the stars due to so much light pollution. However, with my step-by-step guide, you’ll have the knowledge to capture a breathtaking photograph of the Milky Way.
Get a Good Location to photograph the milky way
To begin with, you need to know that the Milky Way isn’t entirely visible, and the part of it that is is not visible throughout the entire year. If you live in the Northern Hemisphere, it’ll be hard to get a good view of the Milky Way, since it is positioned towards the south of the sky. Nonetheless, opt for a time between February and September, and you may be able to capture it.
In the Southern Hemisphere, it’s much easier (and possibly better) because you’re able to see the centre of it overhead. In places like the Australian Outback, where I love taking astrophotographs, there is very little to no artificial light, allowing you to see the sky very clearly! You can see the milky way even with your naked eye in really clear and dark locations, however, it never looks like it does in real life compared to a longer exposure on a camera.
So remember, that you’ll need to get out of the city and find yourself an ideal dark site location to photograph the Milky Way. If you’re the camping type, you can take great pictures while in the bush because these areas have lesser light pollution, just make sure you are in a clearing where there are no trees or mountains that will block your view. Urban centres and areas close to towns and cities have great amounts of light pollution from street lights, buildings and houses, making it difficult to see the nighttime sky, and thus the Milky Way.
Pick a Good Time
Just as you’re picking a place with less light pollution, you need to select a time of the month when the moon won’t be as bright, or preferably not visible at all. If you want a picture of a clear milky way against a black sky, opt for new moon timings.
Depending on the foreground, I prefer to have some lighting at the scene because a little natural light helps enhance other details of the surrounding area. If there isn’t any light then I will sometimes use the light from my iPhone or a torch.
My image, Lone Tree Vortex was a 30-minute single exposure. The moon hadn’t risen yet, but if it had, it may have been way too much light for such a long exposure.
There are plenty of websites out there where you can easily look up details of the rising and setting times of the stars, moon, etc, so some planning beforehand is really important.
Map the Milky Way
If you arrive as its getting dark, you may find it a bit difficult to just wander around trying to find the best vantage point, but if you arrive earlier you can use technology to help you plan. Something like Plan It for Photographers and Photopills (my preference) will work well.
These applications for your smartphone allow you to map the Milky Way according to your location as to where you’re standing from, and simulate the sky at your chosen time of day. So you can plan with a virtual guide. This gives you a good idea of your angle and stance. If you find your preferred location earlier in the day, you can see where the milky way will be when you are there at night, mark it on the map and take the guesswork out. When you arrive you can then just focus on setting up and capturing the milky way.
Know Your Camera
It’s important that you understand your camera settings so that you don’t need to waste time scrolling through multiple options in the dark. Even though smartphone cameras are capable of capturing high-quality images, you’ll need a camera with better performance and ISO range so it can capture pictures in low-light conditions, and it will need to be mounted on a steady tripod.
Personally, I use a 12mm f2.8 Laowa lens on my Canon 5DMKIV. The 12mm lens allows for a massive wide angle so you can capture the night sky but also because it has a wide aperture of f2.8 it will allow a larger amount of light in.
Normally when taking a landscape photograph during the day, you will try to have a low ISO to ensure you avoid noise. But when taking photographs at night time, you need to bump up the ISO to ensure you can let enough light in.
When taking pictures like these, it’s required that you take pictures usually at an ISO level of over 3,200 – maybe even as high as 6,400 depending on your lens. This allows your camera’s sensors to pick up even the faintest light that’s coming from the stars above. Since high ISO levels are proportionate to noise, you can’t afford to take the perfect shot without a tripod so don’t forget to use one. You can expect the shutter speed to be between 15-30 seconds.
Use a Tripod
For pictures in these types of conditions, you’ll need longer shutter times, which could result in blurry photos if you don’t keep the camera fairly still. This is especially true if you intend to capture the Milky Way, including the stars.
Even the most subtle of movement can lead to a distorted image, especially as you are photographing stars, and because the earth is rotating will appear to be blurry. Hence, place your camera on a tripod, and keep your tripod on an even land.
Bulb modes are frequently recommended for astrophotography so this means you’ll have higher shutter speeds of no more than 30 seconds. Even though this can result in particularly awesome photos, don’t forget to pack a shutter release cable. However, this may only be required if you intend to capture a picture of star trails.
If not, using a maximum exposure time of 30 seconds will be adequate. If you don’t have a cable release, set your shutter button to have a delay of 2 seconds, so that there is no movement after you have pushed the shutter of the camera.
Go In the Right Weather
When capturing a picture of the night sky, weather conditions become very important since even you really don’t want any cloud cover blocking your view of the stars beyond. Wind is also another important factor, because if it’s really windy and the long exposure is required, you may find it hard to keep the camera steady.
And as you will probably be standing for a long time in the open, at night, always be aware of your surroundings to stay safe, wear warm clothes and take a torch so you can see where you are walking.
Photographs of the Milky Way are great by themselves, but to really elevate your composition it is best if you have some element of foreground interest such as a tree, rocks or some other landmark (Uluru / Ayers Rock is a great example!) It also helps to give scale to the size of the sky which is endless.
Better Focus of the Milky Way
To ensure your image of the Milky Way is in focus, make sure you set your lens to manual focus as there is no way your lens will be able to autofocus in the dark.
As you want the sky to be in focus you will be setting it at the infinity setting, however, you may need to fine tune it based on your exact lens. When I go to photograph the milky way or any star type photo, I will select the brightest star and focus on that.
Take a few test shots and use the LCD screen to zoom in to make sure you have it pin sharp. If you have an element in the foreground it may be out of focus, so just be aware of this. It may not be critical as it will most likely be a silhouette. When using a wide-angle lens, you can move back from your foreground if you are too close.
Of course, no fine art landscape photograph is complete without the right post-production. Since you heavily relied on high ISO levels, you may need to tweak some settings in your preferred photo editing software to ensure your noise is reduced, colour balances are right and other adjustments such as ensuring the sharpness levels are to taste. It is best to consider how you will edit all of the foreground and various settings when you photograph the milky way when you are taking the photo, to ensure you can do most of the work in camera, by your selection of settings, lens and composition.
Just be careful not to overdo it as it will quickly look terrible. Most people know what the Milky Way looks like, however, usually, this is from seeing images of it as its not usually that clear to the naked eye.