The Milky Way…. For me, there’s always been something about images of the Milky Way that has fascinated me. I don’t know if it’s the idea that something as small as a DSLR camera can capture colors of gasses hundreds of thousand miles away that cannot be seen with the naked eye or the childhood obsession I have with space. For years I have wanted to capture a good shot of the center of our galaxy. And though I haven’t gotten what will be that one magical image that I have chased for so long, I am getting closer and am starting to get the hang of it.
To be up front and honest, I am far from an expert in the realm of Milky Way photography. There are many many photographers that are leaps and bounds beyond my skill level when it comes to this genre so please keep that in mind. This is just my learning experience over the past 2 years, and it is ongoing.
There are a few basic things you are going to need if you want to capture a shot of the Milky Way.
- A camera that has the ability to take a 20 second exposure at an ISO of 3200.
- A lens with a wide aperture capability.
- A good tripod so you don’t get motion blur over the 20second exposure.
- A dark place.
- A Plan.
This is the very first attempt for me shooting the milky way. It was taken in my back yard just north of San Antonio Texas.
First off, the camera; I shoot with a Canon 5D Mark iv which has some amazing dynamic range capability. It isn’t the best for shooting night exposures but it is far from the worst. For the camera settings, as mentioned above, I use an ISO of 3200 with a shutter speed of 20 seconds. This is just a starting point and there are adjustments to be made depending on the darkness of where you are shooting and the aperture range of the lens with which you are shooting. If your camera has “noise reduction”, be sure it is turned on. This will help your final image and reduce the “graininess” that comes with high ISO speeds and also reduce star trails that are caused by the earths rotation.
The lens I use is a Canon 14mm f/2.8 L. I mentioned the importance of the lens aperture, this is one of the factors that is key for allowing those colors you can’t see with the naked eye to be absorbed on the film sensor. Normally I start with the aperture wide open at 2.8, and to be honest that’s normally where it stays. I have had luck with other lenses and smaller apertures up to 4.5 though. This all depends on the darkness that you are shooting in.
For focusing, set your lens to manual focus and focus all the way out to infinity. This is normally indicated with the ∞ symbol. Once I have set my focus, I put a peace of blue painters tape across the focus ring so I don’t unintentionally knock it out of focus. If you do this, use what tape you want. I use painters tape because it doesn’t leave a sticky residue when I take it off. I would also recommend checking your focus from time to time to be sure it hasn’t changes. It is very hard to see how sharp your focus is through the viewfinder or in the preview screen.
The image above was taken just west of Seguin, Texas late October 2016, July 2016 / ISO 3200, 20 Seconds at f/ 2.8
The next thing is the tripod. I use a Manfrotto 190 Aluminium 4-Section Tripod with a Manfrotto XPRO Magnesium Ball Head. Any sturdy tripod that will hold your camera perfectly still will work. As you probably already know if you have been interested in photography for a while, motion while shooting translates to a blurry image. This is amplified many times when you are using long shutter speeds like 20 seconds. Any movement over the course of the shutter being open will show on the final image. This can be as small as a footstep depending on the firmness of the ground your tripod is on so I try to remain as still as possible while the shutter is open.
A Dark Place
Lastly, a dark place. Now I’m not talking about a dark field 20 miles outside of the city. I’m talking about a place that can be rated on the Dark Skies registry. This for me, was and continues to be a challenge. I currently live in New Braunfels, a small town just north of San Antonio and south of Austin Texas. Being sandwiched between two of the brightest cities in Texas, I have to go pretty far to find some truly dark skies. This is where dedication to getting the image comes in. To get a good shot of the Milky Way I have to drive at least 2 hours to find a spot that has both dark skies and a foreground that provides some interest.
Fortunately, there are some tools that can help find your closest dark skies area in the form of apps and the good old world wide web. I use an app on my phone called Dark Sky, which was free to download. You can also go to the Dark Skies website to find an area with minimal light pollution near you, there is a link here.
Seguin Texas late October 2016, July 2016 / ISO 3200, 20 Seconds at f/ 2.8 / Comparing this shot to the ones below taken at Enchanted Rock State Park, you can see how light pollution can change the image making the milky way almost unnoticeable. This was about 40 miles outside of San Antonio but the bright city lights were just too much for the shot to come out how I wanted.
If you have never ventured outside the bright lights of the city you will probably be amazed that once you are in an area with minimal to no light pollution, you can see the Milky Way with the naked eye. It doesn’t appear as you see it in most pictures with all the vibrant colors. It’s more of a cloudy contrast of black and gray that crosses the sky. This may be difficult to find though depending on the time of the year that you are out. The summer is the best time to get shots of the Milky Way in the northern hemisphere, from what I have read at least.
You can still find the Milky Way even if you can see it with the naked eye by using one of several apps. Sky Guide, Sky View, and Star Chart are a few that are available for most smart phones. I use an app called PhotoPills. It isn’t a free app but it will allow you to plan a trip so you aren’t trying to figure out composition at that last minute, it allows you to find where you would like to shoot and then look into the future to see where the Milky Way will be a day, week or even months in the future.
As I mentioned above, I use a 20 second exposure, ISO 3200, and an aperture of f/2.8 as a starting point. This is something I set my camera to in manual mode before the sun even goes down. Depending on the darkness of where you are shooting, your first images can be over exposed. If this happens I adjust the ISO before anything else. As you may already know, the higher the ISO, the more “noise” you get in an image. Lowering the ISO when at all possible will help in the final image.
This is one of the most important parts in my opinion. If you just want to take a picture of the milky way to see that you can do it as I did from my back yard, there isn’t much planning at all needed. But if you want to capture an image that you can show off and hang on a wall, you’re going to need a plan. Below are the things I consider before I head out the door to capture any night shots, and most of this I do a month or more ahead of time.
- Location: For me, its not enough to just take a picture of the stars. I like to have a foreground that is going to make the starry night stand out. I am a big fan of the Texas State Parks so I start by finding those on the Dark Sky map to find one that is within my driving distance and will allow some interest in the shot. I also pre-scout the location. I visited Enchanted Rock State Park 2 times before my trip to find the spot I liked and plan a route to get there and back in the dark.
- Timing: Its important to know when the Milky Way will be viable when planning your trip. Its best to go during the New Moon cycle. This is when there is no to little moonlight that can contaminate your shot, the beginning of the month. Also, summer is better for catching the Galactic Center of the Milky Way. This is the brightest and most colorful part that really stands out in pictures. As I mentioned earlier, I use PhotoPills to locate where the Milky Way will be on a given date so I can compose my image prior to the trip.
- Weather: Keep an eye on the weather leading up to the trip. Of course you want to know if there will be bad weather so you don’t get in a bad situation out in the middle of nowhere, but this also goes for clouds. Driving for a few hours just to sit under cloudy skies can be a big downer so knowing what you’re getting into can save wasted time.
- Gear: There is nothing worse than getting to where you’re going just to find that you have forgotten something. Normally I will get everything I need laid out, checked and rechecked the day before to be sure I have everything I need. It goes without saying that the camera, lenses, and tripod are all important, but that isn’t what I have forgotten in the past. Extra batteries, flashlight, water, chair, snacks… Depending on where you are going you may be there a while and its best to consider not just the equipment you will need, but your comfort while you are there and what you will need to get there. For instance, one night I got eaten alive by mosquitoes. I now take insect repellent with me every time.
The image above was taken just west of Seguin, Texas late October 2016, July 2016 / ISO 3200, 20 Seconds at f/ 2.8
There are a few other things that are really nice to have when shooting at night, but not essential.
- A cable or remote shutter release. I use a Vello FreeWave Wireless Shutter Release that was purchased from Amazon.com. It allows both corded and wireless shutter release capability and I have not had any issues with it to date. Above I mentioned how important a good tripod is to have to avoid camera shake. This is in the same category but there is a workaround if you don’t have one. When the shutter is open for 20 seconds, even the smallest bump to the camera will cause a blur. That can be a slight as your finger pressing the shutter release. If you don’t have the option of a cable or remote shutter release, simply use the cameras 2 or 10 second timer. This will allow any shake that your finger can cause to reduce before the shutter opens.
- A good LED flashlight, red is best. I use a Princeton Tec Vizz Headlamp that I purchased from REI. When you start your shoot in the black of night, you will probably want to re-position or move for a different shot. Obviously a flashlight is important for this. Most phones have a flashlight that will work for this. I use a head torch with a Red LED option, listed above. The red light will help you to retain your night vision so your eves don’t have to re-adjust every time the light comes on.
- As silly as it sounds, something comfortable to sit on is really nice. The first time I went to the middle of nowhere under dark skies the entire shoot was about 3 hours. Waiting for the Milky Way to get in the right spot, recomposing the shot… this was 3 hours of kneeling or sitting in a sticker patch, and I surely felt it the next day. Now I take a light weight backpacking chair, the Alite Monarch Butterfly Chair that I got from REI. It ins’t the most comfortable thing but does do the job. You can use whatever you can carry to where you plan to shoot from a lawn chair to just a throw blanket to avoid dirt and thorns.
Camera Settings to Remember
- ISO 3200
- Shutter Speed 20 Seconds
- Aperture f/2.8
- Focus to infinity
- Noise Reduction on
Again, the camera settings above are just a guide and you will need to make adjustments depending on the conditions and your lens. The image to the right is a shot of the back of my camera just after taking the picture. It is unedited and shows what your camera can capture under dark skies. The image was taken at Enchanted Rock State Park in Texas, below is the image after it was processed in Adobe Lightroom along with another that was taken the same night.
Both images above taken at Enchanted Rock State Park, July 2016 / ISO 3200, 20 Seconds at f/ 3.5
For post-processing, I use Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshot. As a disclaimer, I am not an Adobe or post-processing expert. This is an area that I am still learning and fine-tuning my skills so you may want to refer to other sources as well. I can tell from my experience, the darker the conditions were that the image was taken under, the easier the post-processing is. I have listed a few links below to YouTube tutorials that I have found helpful.
- How to Process the Milky Way using Adobe Lightroom CC, Michael Shainblum
- Boosting the Milky Way Lightroom Tutorial, Michael Shainblum
- How to Process the Milky Way in Lightroom, Patrick Phelan
If you are considering getting into Milky Way photography I hope you have found this helpful. As I mentioned, I am still learning myself. If you are interested in learning more there are a lot of resources on the internet that can be very helpful. You may also want to find an expert in the field and ask about taking classes. My favorite camera store in Austin, Precision Camera & Video, has regular classes in many different areas of photography from beginner to advanced. If you have a camera store in your area you may reach out to them for educational opportunities.
Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions or comments. Photography has been a passion for many years and I love talking, learning and helping all thing that are involved. Have a great day and get out there with your camera. You will never get that magical image without taking the first step.