How to Find And Shoot The Milky Way (Detailed)
Have you seen those gorgeous images of stars, shot at night? Some magnificent scenery with the frame of the stars and perhaps a mountainous valley with trees. It’s like something out of a science fiction movie.
You might think that these images are entirely created in Photoshop and are fantastical works of art, rather than real photographs. However, you’d be completely wrong!
Welcome to the world of astrophotography with some emphasis on milky way photography. While it’s been the staple of photographers for several years to photograph the stars, it’s only in relatively recent years and the advancement of digital photography and high sensitivity sensors, that we’ve managed to capture these genuinely amazing images.
When I first saw an image of the Milky Way, I was stunned, the picture was SO beautiful. I just had to learn how to do it!
Now, I’m going to make an assumption that; as you’re reading this article, you’re relatively new to milky way photography. Much like all other aspects of photography, this can be a bit of a ‘rabbit hole’… You can buy specialist astrophotography cameras, motorized sliders and all manner of equipment that you’ve almost definitely never seen before!
However, it doesn’t need to be that complex, and, with a bit of practice and the right location, you can get some fantastic pictures of the milky way with most DSLR’s
Table of Contents
Equipment For Milky Way Photography
There’s a few bits and pieces of equipment as well as software you’re going to need. Now there are other options that you can use, but these in my experience are the best for an absolute beginner.
A DSLR Camera
I believe that a camera is ‘just a box with a hole in it.’ Obviously this is a little silly, but in reality, it is where most people spend their money, but it is probably the least important thing you’re going to be using for your photography.
You need a DSLR camera with advanced settings, fully manual for both the shutter and aperture settings. It is also essential you look for the highest ISO range you can too.
The sensor size is essential. The larger the sensor, the better images you’ll get. We’re not talking Megapixels but the physical size of the sensor. Full Frame or larger sensor is the best option by far, so if you can go for a camera with a full frame then buy it! Here are some options –
- Canon EOS 6D Mark II Digital SLR
- Nikon D750 FX-format Digital SLR
- Sony a7 Full-Frame Mirrorless Digital Camera
- Panasonic LUMIX S1 Full Frame Mirrorless Camera
However, this is not to say that smaller sensors will be bad; it’s just a consideration.
A Fast Wide Angle Lens
Now Astrophotography is (obviously) all taken at night. Therefore we need to make sure that we get every single drop of available light we can from all of our equipment.
Using a fast wide angle lens with a max aperture of around f1.4 means you’ll be making the very best of all the light you can. A good wide angle lens can range anywhere from $500 to $2000 or more. Some good options are
- Rokinon FE14M-C 14mm F2.8 Ultra Wide Lens
- Canon EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM
- Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G ED
- Sigma 14mm f/1.8 DG HSM Art Lens
Now, if you can’t afford a fast lens, it’s not a problem, you can dial up the ISO range, but bear in mind this will have a negative effect on the grain you’ll see on the final image, and you’ll need to do more work in post-processing.
An Excellent Tripod
Of all the equipment we’ve discussed in this article, I am going to say that your tripod is probably going to be the most important you should invest in for this type of photography.
There is no point in buying a cheap or flimsy tripod. Every time you walk past it, the wind blows, or even just the camera shutter firing will cause you to get vibrations that will ruin your picture.
Invest a decent amount in a high-quality tripod from a manufacturer such as Manfrotto. Expect to spend $200-300 for a good tripod. If you can’t afford new, go for second hand.
A little tip for making your tripod even more stable is to hang your camera bag off your tripod in the middle of the legs, under your camera.
This additional downwards weight will improve the stability of your tripod and give you a handy place to keep your bag, off of the floor!
It is very (very, very) unlikely that you’ll get amazing shots straight out of the camera. Unless you have all the gods of photography on your side the night you take your images, you will have to do some form of post-processing work on your images.
Ideally, you’ll need Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop for editing your work. However, these are costly software packages, so you can also use the significantly cheaper Adobe Photoshop Elements.
You might even get a copy of this for free when you buy your camera if you’re open to haggling a little with the camera shop.
There are a few extras that you might want to consider:
- A flashlight
- Warm clothing
- A remote trigger
- Hot Chocolate (it’s a necessity for me!)
How To Find The Milky Way?
Once upon a time, if you wanted to have a go at Astrophotography, you really had to know your way around the night sky… Essentially this side of the hobby was pretty much reserved for Astronomers who wanted to take some pictures of the stars they’d found.
Now, thanks to our ever present smartphones, the job of finding the milky way, checking weather conditions or finding dark areas of the country are but a click away.
The following apps can give you the edge when trying to photograph the stars. While there are a plethora of other Apps available for you to try, these are some of our very favorites.
Photopills is probably one of the best all round apps that you can buy to help you with your Astrophotography.
Essentially, Photopills will allow you to visualise the scene you’re trying to create, using ‘augmented reality’
For those of you who don’t play Pokemon Go out there, this will essentially put the sun, moon, milky way or any other celestial body you can think of into the scene you’re trying to photograph, by overlaying images of these onto the scene you’re capturing with your phones camera.
Not only that, this handy app can help you locate and track these bodies, so you know exactly where they’ll appear in your frame and at what time.
This is hands down one of the best tools you can purchase to help you plan your shoot and will give you a really good idea of what your finished image will look like.
Photopills is currently retailing at $9.99 and can be found on their website or on the Apple Store. Here is the link to the app
Dark Sky Finder
As we’ve previously discussed in some of our other blog pieces, finding the right location is probably THE most important thing about Astrophotography.
Light pollution is a major problem for Astrophotography it really can make or break a picture. The biggest issue is you might turn up at a location and it will appear completely dark.
However, if you’re shooting a long exposure with high ISO, you may realize that there is actually some town or city that is giving off a large amount of light, polluting your photo with large yellow blobs in the background
Dark Sky Finder is an app that enables you to examine different locations and see how much light pollution they have.
Dark Sky Finder is available on the Apple store for just $2.99. Here is the link to the app. Here is the link to the app.
The Photographer’s Ephemeris is the simplest app for finding the Milky Way, which is probably the most common thing that Astrophotographers want to photograph.
In addition it will tell you when sunrise and sunset is, as well as showing you the position of the moon as well as other major constellations.
It utilises augmented reality and will allow you to visualise your shoots.
While the sunrise and sunset is pretty obvious, few photographers take into account the position of the moon is just as important for Astrophotography.
The problem we have is that the moon can produce a huge amount of light and this can ruin your Astrophotography shoot.
Photographer’s Ephemeris costs $8.99 and is available from their website. Here is the link to the app.
None of these apps are strictly necessary but they certainly make life significantly easier!
If you’re just starting out in your Astrophotography journey, they are all worth taking a look at… It may mean the difference of a wasted evening and coming back frustrated from a shoot or coming back with some amazing images of the stars.
Location, Location, Location
Location is going to be the biggest hurdle for many people who wish to have a go at Astrophotography.
The big issue is something we call ‘light pollution.’ Light pollution is the amount of light that’s put out by cities. You can’t see it if you live there, but if you look at a city from the outskirts, or even take a picture, the city will appear to give off a glow that will shine many miles into the sky.
If you take a long exposure, as we’ll need to for milky way photography, this gets even worse.
So, what you need to look for is a location in the wilds, many, many miles away from any cities, where light pollution will ruin your images.
If you’re struggling with this, try joining a facebook astrophotography group and asking the members for light-pollution free locations near you to take clear pictures of the milky way.
You’ll probably get the information you need and may make some new friends boot.
Camera Settings For Awesome Shots Of The Milky Way
Ok, let’s get to the nitty-gritty. What settings do you need to get awesome shots of the milky way?
This is a very rough guide; as with all things photography it does depend on the night and where you’re shooting, but this will get you started.
So, when you’re trying to focus at night, with very little light and trying to capture stars that are millions of miles away, focussing your camera can be challenging to say the very least.
First things first, turn your autofocus off. It won’t work. If by some miracle it does latch on to something, there’s a very good chance it won’t focus on what you want.
If you use the viewfinder, it might be worth trying the screen on the back of the camera instead.
Now, what is the brightest point of light in the sky? Fingers crossed the moon will be out, and you can focus on that. If not, then find the very brightest star in the sky and focus on that instead.
Once you’ve done this, leave the focusing ring alone, don’t touch it!
This may take some practice, and it’s worth bearing in mind that on some cameras you can zoom into the screen to get a critical focus on a small section of your LCD viewer.
But what happens if you want the foreground to be in focus as well as the stars? Well, then you have to use what is known as ‘focus stacking.’
While this sounds very technical, it is straightforward… You take a photograph of the stars, while focussed on them, then you refocus on the foreground and take a second picture.
You will then merge the two images in Adobe Photoshop (or another editing program) to create a single image with both foreground and background in focus.
To view the milky way and see that magnificent effect that you’ve seen on other images, we need to gather as much light from the scene as is possible.
To start with, if this is your very first image and you’ve never, ever tried astrophotography before, I recommend the following settings:
Set the ISO between 1600 and 3200 ISO. You can go higher if you need to but bear in mind that the higher the ISO setting, the more grain you’re going to see!
Lens aperture needs to be wide open, which is the smallest number on the aperture that your lens can achieve. If you’ve bought a fast lens, this may be f1.4, 2.8 or similar.
Set the shutter speed to whatever your camera tells you is needed to get a properly exposed image. This may well be somewhere in the region of 10-20 seconds in length. If the shutter speed gets too long, you may see the movement of the earth and the stars will appear as streaks, rather than dots in the sky! If this happens, up to your ISO rating so you can have a faster shutter speed.
If you find that there aren’t many stars the sky and it all looks a bit too black, you’ll need to slow your shutter speed a little. (This will result in you changing your ISO as well)
In essence, this is very similar to traditional photography, except we’re balancing the shutter speed and ISO instead of the shutter speed and aperture.
You’ll need to keep playing with these settings, up and down until you get an image that looks just right.
The 500 rule
Essentially the 500 rule is a way of determining what exposure is required for your focal length to avoid light trails on stars.
Divide 500 by your focal length, and it will give you the optimum exposure setting for that focal length, for astrophotography.
So, if you’re using a 20mm lens you divide this by 500: 500 / 20 = 25 therefore 25 seconds is maximum shutter speed you’d use before getting light trails.
JPEG or RAW?
This is a straightforward question to answer. You’re going to need the post-processing options that.RAW offers for Astrophotography. Don’t even contemplate shooting in.JPG
Post process is almost more important than taking the images in Astrophotography.
Unfortunately, due to the lengths of exposure, the complications with light trails and the high ISO settings you’re going to be using to capture these images, it is VERY likely that the photos you come back with will be a little washed out, with muted colors and high grain.
This is why you really (really, really) need to be shooting in.RAW to capture astrophotography images. You will struggle to get a good image out of the JPG image.
For my images, I use Adobe Lightroom, and I thoroughly suggest that you do too. It is a potent RAW processing tool that will make your pictures shine.
If you’re new to this, then the main points you’ll need to hit are:
Exposure: Drag the slider up and down until you can see plenty of stars against the background. Don’t panic if it looks a little grey or washed out; the next part will sort that out.
Contrast: If your image is looking grey or washed out, you may need to add some contrast. Using this slider will turn the night sky black, and the stars will stand out from the background.
Saturation: If once you’ve adjusted the exposure and contrast the colors on your image are still a little muted, you can add some saturation. This will make your colors pop and give your images some vibrancy.
Now this is a very, very basic rundown of Lightroom and that needs a whole article of its own, but using these simple sliders should give you some pleasing images.
Needless to say, because this is a beginners guide, you’re going to do a lot of practice, some experimentation and generally start using Lightroom more than you ever have before!
However astrophotography will give you some of the most amazing images that you will EVER produce, so it is worth the effort.
Further, we have a post on photographing the northern lights and taking captivating silhouette photos in the daytime with sunsets at the background or in the nighttime with northern lights in the background. I am sure you will find both of these articles interesting. Do check them out!