A quick guide to photographing the Milk Way

After posting the pictures of my recent travels on my other social media sites I got a few questions on how exactly I got the pictures of the Milky Way that I had posted.  So I decided to quickly write up how I do it, hopefully to give some tips on how it is done and, if you do it differently possibly to also learn alternate methods myself.  For the most part I don’t think it is a very difficult thing to do, it just needs the right equipment and right location and just a little bit of technique that can quickly be learned.  I try to keep it simple and I am sure that there are many other ways to get these shots but I am still learning those myself.  I use a DSLR but with the control one can get on compact and even phone cameras nowadays I am sure most of what follows can be transposed to other camera formats.

What you will need:

  1. Camera – A camera that performs well in low light (ISO performance) conditions is a plus when shooting Milky Way photographs.  Better ISO performance means the picture that results will have less camera noise, making the Milky Way stand out. I started shooting these Milky Way pictures with my 550D a few years back and the noise was not too bad.  The 7D mark ii performs better and allows for more crisp shots.  Photoshop will also allow some noise reduction in post editing.
  2. Fast wide angle lens – I use my 10-22mm lens for my shots usually at 10mm and with a wide open aperture.
  3. Tripod – A tripod or a steady surface to lay the camera on for long exposure shots
  4. A headlamp or flashlight – I oftentimes use a headlamp to light up the foreground of my image for a short time or part of the exposure.  Anyone watching would think I probably lost it. It also helps see the camera and your surroundings in the dark.

 Location:

The biggest problem when trying to shoot stars is light pollution.  In the big city, like Johannesburg where I live, it is extremely difficult to make out the Milky Way.  I can tell you where it should be using an app (Starwalk) on my phone but would not be able to see it with the naked eye.  I have attempted to take a few shots of the stars while in the city but the pollution either washes out the Milky Way or leaves the photo overexposed and with a green or brown tint.  The best bet is to attempt these shots when you are out of the city and far from light pollution.  Ideally, you should be able to make out the Milky Way with the naked eye.  I’ve been asked how do I actually locate where the Milky way is rising or setting, but mostly, when you are away from light pollution, you can see it straight away if its above the horizon.  The lunar cycle also plays a role, if the moon is full and out it will also wash the sky out.  The best time to shoot would be near or on the night of the New Moon when the sky is at its darkest.  However timing your shoot for before the moon is up in the early evening or after it has set in the early morning.  To check this I again use Starwalk.  Because you will be shooting in the dark it is also advisable to know the area you will be shooting in as a safety precaution,  ensuring that there are no tripping hazards or sudden drop offs that could cause you or your camera equipment serious harm.  Also make sure that the area is secure from  an personal security perspective wherever possible.

Getting the shot

Like I say, you should already be seeing the Milky Way with the naked eye.  Then here are the next steps:

  1. Set up the camera on the tripod, making sure it is secure and won’t come loose.  Also make sure all the tripod legs have been tightened and the tripod is firmly placed so it wont fall over.
  2. Compose the shot you will want to take.  This could be a rough composition which you can then later adjust once you start seeing the results.  You will have to compose by eye as both the live view and viewfinder will not be much help in the low light.  Some of the newer cameras will work though.
  3. Switch your lens from Autofocus to Manual focus.  Then turn the focus ring all the way to infinity (which should be marked).  Once the focus ring reaches infinity, turn it just a little bit back and you should be focusing at the stars.  Again a test shot will confirm where the focus is and you can adjust accordingly.
  4. Set your camera to shoot in manual mode(among other things this will stop the flash from popping up).
  5. In manual mode set your aperture as wide open as possible – this would be the lowest aperture number your lens allows.  My 10-22mm allows F3.5 and the 24-70mm F2.8.  This will allow the most possible light in, making the stars visible against the night sky.
  6. Increase the ISO setting to as high as you think your camera will allow before causing too much noise in the image.  I generally use ISO of 1600 or 2000 on the 7D mark iii.  Again this is to allow the sensor to be more sensitive to the light landing on it, making the stars stand out.
  7. I then usually set my exposure time to 30 seconds.  Again a test shot will reveal if your foreground is too light for this exposure.  A remote trigger will allow you a longer exposure (bulb mode) if the light in the foreground is very low however I would not go beyond about 90 seconds because the stars begin to leave trails at about this point due to the earth’s rotation.  This could also be a desirable effect but you will need to find the ‘center’ point for the rotation and then expose for quite a long time (greater than a couple hours) to get star trails.  This is something I will hopefully write about soon.
  8. If you are not shooting with a remote trigger set the timer delay to 2 seconds on the camera.  This will allow the camera a short time to settle on the tripod once you have pressed the shutter release.  Its good practice to do the same on long exposure landscape shots as well.
  9. Take your first shot.  Remember the shutter will be open for 30 seconds do press the shutter release and then step away to avoid moving the camera during exposure.
  10. Once you have your test shot you can adjust exposure and composition as required and repeat.
  11. If you wish to, you can try lighting up your foreground with your headlamp or torch.  I do this from behind and above the camera to avoid stray light getting into the lens and causing lens flare.  This also takes some practice as you will have to sweep the foreground  in a consistent manner to evenly light the whole foreground. I like lighting up the foreground as it can give the eye a lead into the photo but a silhouette sometimes also works.

Post Editing

There are a couple YouTube tutorials on how to edit your image after shooting to make the Milky Way really stand out and pop.  The one I use was referred to me by a friend and makes sense for my workflow but you can look around to find what you are comfortable with.  See this link for the video: How to edit Milky Way shots

As an example, here is the same shot straight out of the camera and edited:

 

If you have any questions post a comment and I will respond!

A quick addendum after the initial post.  Here’s a quick article on the correct shutter speed to use for the focal length of lens you are using to ensure that the stars leave no trails.  Petapixel 500 rule By my own trial I was shooting my 10-22mm lens at 10mm for 30 seconds which turns out to be about right (31 seconds for crop sensor).  There must be some science to it but I’m sure the calculation is beyond my mathematic abilities…

 

4 thoughts on “A quick guide to photographing the Milk Way

  1. THABANI NYAWO

    Than you for a helpful blog. I have already identified some mistakes I made. Again, it was my first and not with the best equipment but will try improve with it. I hope June 16-17 will be new moon.

    Like

    1. Great first attempt. June 16-17 looks to be closer to a full moon, and it will be rising in the late afternoon. Best bet might be to go out early, perhaps and hour or so before sunrise.

      Like

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