Milky Way photography is a fascinating thing to someone whether they’re a photographer or not. Nothing is more hypnotizing than going out watching thousands of millions of stars above your head.
As an astrophysics researcher, it is always fascinating for me to photograph the night sky and enjoy the vastness of our universe.
Thanks to the advancement of modern technologies over the past few years, astrophotography has become an interesting topic for any amateur. Astrophotography isn’t really difficult but it’s more tricky than other genres of photography.
In this article, I am going to discuss the technical sides of astrophotography as detailed as possible. Remember, we are going to talk about astrophotography combined with landscape photography, not deep sky astrophotography (for example the images of nebula or other galaxies) which is a completely different topic.
Milky Way Photography
Astrophotography means capturing any astronomical objects but the first thing that comes to mind when talking about astrophotography is our own galaxy, the Milky Way. Since we live inside the Milky Way we can capture only a part of it. Photographing the Milky Way isn’t rocket science but you have to be extremely careful and plan everything properly.
Below we are going to look at how you can plan to photograph the Milky Way.
When to photograph the Milky Way
Though the Milky Way is always out there in the sky, you can only see it during a particular time of the year. So, the first thing you have to research is when it’s visible in your area. In most places, it’s mainly visible during the summer. You can find tons of articles on google about it. The first step is fairly easy.
Find a dark sky
Ok, now you know when the Milky Way is visible. Congratulations! Now what?
If you go out in New York or Los Angeles in a nice night during the summer can you see it? No!
Unfortunately, we have polluted our own world. Building big cities has destroyed nature. The city lights are the first and biggest enemy of it. You have to find the darkest place possible around your area or wherever you go. It’s best to move as far away as possible from the cities.
There are many websites where you can see from home if there’s a dark enough place near you. I personally use Light Pollution Map but there are many other options you can use.
The next step is to research the weather.
You’ll need a clear sky if you want to capture the Milky Way, so you must have a look at the weather forecast before you go out. There’s no point in going to a dark place on a fully cloudy night. There are thousands of apps and websites to check the night sky and learn whether it will be clear or not.
Planning to photograph the Milky Way
This is the most crucial step for me.
The Milky Way doesn’t rise at the same time or in the same direction every day since the earth is moving. So, you have to research not only when it will rise but also from what direction. The sky is vast and if you don’t know in which direction it will rise, you may end up in a situation where you are looking in one direction while the Milky Way is behind you.
There are many applications which will help this process of the planning. Google Earth, Stellarium, Photopills, Google Sky Map and Sky View are some of the most well-known.
My personal favorite for this purpose is Photopills. This makes it easy to follow the time and location of the Milky Way at any time during the night.
The Moon Cycle
Though a full moon night looks extremely beautiful, it’s not ideal for photographing the Milky Way. This is because the moonlight is so bright that you won’t be able to fully see and capture all the stars.
That means that the next step in your planning is to figure out when it’s a new moon. The new moon is the best time to photograph the Milky Way but you’ll be able to capture good images up until 25% crescent moon.
This will depend on the time of the year as sometimes you’ll find a situation when the Milky Way rises at 8 pm and the moonset around 11 pm, which leaves you with the rest of the night to photograph it.
So, follow the moon cycle and plan your shooting accordingly. Photopills or Stellarium will show you the moon cycle but you can also type “moon cycle” plus your location into google and you’ll find many websites with the result.
The moonrise can be a beautiful element to your composition. However, you have to carefully watch where the Milky Way and the moon will be as you need them in a single composition.
Clear, dark and moonless are the keywords for Milky Way photography.
Milky Way with landscape photography
Since we are talking about astrophotography from a landscape photography point of view, the composition is a really important subject. It’s not difficult to capture the Milky Way if you follow the correct steps.
There are thousands of astrophotographers, so what makes you different? Here is the most crucial part: the composition.
Personally, I arrive at the location just before sunset to explore the area and find the best composition as it is difficult to see things during the night. If you arrive before sunset, you’ll also have the opportunity to photograph a beautiful sunset!
Always try to find unique compositions and new places to photograph. This is a challenging job considering the number of photographers nowadays. Still, this will make you stand out from the crowds.
The Milky Way Arch
You have probably seen many images where the Milky Way looks like a “rainbow”. To capture this kind of image, you need to follow the elongation of the Milky Way.
Generally speaking, early summer is the best time to capture the Milky Way’s arch.
To photograph the entire arch you need to take a panorama without changing the settings (we’ll come back to this later).
There are many apps and software to merge the panorama in post-processing. I recommend using Adobe Camera Raw (or Adobe Lightroom) to do this, as the new Adobe Camera Raw has an extremely powerful feature where it generates the output panorama as a raw file, meaning that you can edit it as a raw file later in the process.
The essential gear for Milky Way photography
Even though any digital camera can take images during the night, you need a camera with great low-light performance if you want to be a good astrophotographer. A full-frame camera such as the Nikon D850 is best for astrophotography but nowadays there are several good crop-sensor cameras with great low light performances as well, so you should choose the camera according to your budget.
The next important gear for astrophotography is the lens. To capture the most of the Milky Way you need to have a wide angle lens. However, sometimes you might want to use a zoom lens for some unique techniques, which we will discuss later.
Still, you generally want to use a wide-angle lens such as a 24mm or wider for a crop sensor and a 35 mm or wider for a full-frame camera.
Another piece of equipment you need is a strong tripod since even a small vibration, which you won’t feel, could make the image blurry.
Another must-have gear is a cable release/remote shutter. It is a cheap but extremely important accessory to have. By using a remote shutter you’re not touching the camera, which minimizes the tripod shake.
There are also other useful gadgets such as a star tracker (which we will discuss in details later) but these are the must-haves.
Camera settings for photographing the Milky Way
The basic setting for wide-angle astrophotography is f/2.8, ISO 3200-6400, 25-sec exposure when used at the minimum (widest) focal length of your lens. These are the basic settings that will fit most conditions. You need to change the settings slightly as the weather and conditions change.
Try to overexpose with 1 to 1.5 stops as it brings out more light and details, which is always useful. Set the exposure by using the 500 rule for full-frame cameras. This is relatively easy to understand; your shutter speed should be 500 divided by the focal length. For a crop sensor camera, you can follow a similar calculation but instead of dividing by 500, you should use 300 to get your required exposure time.
The settings I’m mentioning here are to prevent star trails. Star trails are another type of astrophotography that we’ll come back to in a bit.
High ISO Noise Reduction
It’s a debatable issue whether the High ISO Noise Reduction should be on or off. I have seen that the camera sometimes mistakes stars for high iso noise and removes them when turning the function on. An alternative is to turn the high ISO noise reduction off and instead take multiple shots with the same composition and stack them in post-production to reduce noise.
Learn more about this technique in our Night Photography processing course.
I use Adobe Camera Raw (or Adobe Lightroom) for most of my post processing work.
The first step is noise reduction on the RAW file as night photography brings a lot of noise, especially in the darker areas. I spend a lot of time removing this noise and any color noise if any.
Next, I make global changes such as white balance, colors, brightness and contrast etc. Since I always shoot at +1 or +1.5 EV, I bring down the exposure a bit in post processing. By doing so I bring out a lot of details in the Milky Way.
After making the global adjustments, I use the brush tool in Adobe Camera Raw to increase clarity in the Milky Way (note that I don’t apply this clarity to the entire image).
Finally, I open the image in Photoshop to do the rest of the work. I won’t go into much more detail about this since it’s not the purpose of the article. However, there are many workflows in Photoshop available for further information on this topic.
Zoom Lens and Star Tracker
Up until now, I’ve talked about using wide angle lenses for astrophotography but a zoom lens can bring a lot more details than. A 50mm or 85mm lens are really useful in certain conditions and they can bring amazing details to the Milky Way.
In this situation, your camera settings should be different, especially your shutter speed. Due to a narrower field of view, movement of the stars due to the Earths rotation become more apparent. Depending on the lens you use, a 10-15 second shutter speed would be best.
My personal favorite gadget in astrophotography is a star tracker. From the name of it, you can guess what its purpose is: to track a star. Since the Milky Way and the stars are moving due to the earth’s rotation, an image with more than a 30 seconds exposure will begin to blur the stars.
The star tracker gadget will track the stars while you’re photographing, in order for you to expose the image for a longer time. This means that you can bring down the ISO to 800-1600 with an exposure time of 1 minute or more. By doing so, you reduce high ISO noises and bring a lot of details from the sky.
Using a star tracker with a zoom lens is a beast combo for astrophotography and can result in amazing images.
Other forms of astrophotography
In this article, we have only talked about photographing the Milky Way. Still, there are several other astronomical objects as well.
Taking a photo of the full moon in a dark place is always an amazing experience. Another exciting technique is to use the motion of the stars to capture the star trails. So far, we only talked about how to remove the effect of star trails but one can use the motion of the stars due to the earth’s rotation to take star trail images. Though I am personally not a huge fan of star trails, they look amazing sometimes.
The northern lights are probably the most beautiful thing happening over the earth’s atmosphere. Even though this phenomenon only can be observed from a few specific places, photographers now travel the world to witness and photograph these beautiful events.
There are many great photographers out there which can inspire you to create more compelling astrophotography. These are a few of my favorites that I’m inspired by:
- Michael Shainblum
- Yuri Beletsky
- Brad Goldpaint
- Mike Taylor
- Michael Goh
- Arild Heitmann
That’s it! If you need any extra information or if you have any question feel free to contact me by leaving a comment below. I will be happy to answer any question of yours.