Creative Field Techniques - Shooting the Milky Way

It is no wonder that Milky Way photographs are very popular. The Milky Way elicits wonder and curiosity for our vast and mysterious universe and it can be photographed most anywhere in the world. Above all, the Milky Way is just amazingly beautiful.

Seeing a shot of the Milky Way can make any photographer want to photograph it. But, to do so, it requires certain equipment and some research. No doubt, there are prime locations for Milky Way viewing and these sites are typically dark sky locations. However, unless you are traveling most of the time, it is likely you will begin your Milky Way photography near your home. Let’s start there.

Here are four steps to point you in the right direction before you venture into the night looking for the Milky Way.

Have the right equipment. You'll need a tripod, fast wide-angle lens and a headlamp. A tripod is needed because the shutter speed is very slow, typically 20-30 seconds for Milky Way shots. A wide-angle lens will capture the vastness of the Milky Way sky. If you have a full frame camera, 16-24 mm should work. If you have a APS-C (cropped sensor) camera, 11-16 mm is equivalent to 16-24 mm on a full frame. A fast lens (f2.8, for example) is ideal because it allows you to open the aperture wide to avoid excessive ISO (too much noise!) and long shutter speeds (greater than 30 sec) that can create star streaking. A headlamp (not a flashlight) is also necessary because you'll be shooting in pitch dark. And a headlamp frees up your hands.

Visualize the shoot. Examine Milky Way images, read photographer’s blogs, talk to other photographers and watch videos of photographers shooting the Milky Way. Basically, visualize a photograph, and learn how to prepare and set up for the shoot, especially since it will be done in complete darkness.

Purchase an App for your phone. You don’t need to be an astronomer to know when and where to photograph the Milky Way, you just need an app (or a photographer friend) to show you. There are plenty of apps available, but I use Sun Surveyor. It provides a satellite map that illustrates the position of the Milky Way from a chosen location at any specific time. And you can see how the Milky Way changes position with time during its period of visibility. The app also provides a list of dates and times when the Milky Way center is visible for any specific location. This way, I can pick out specific dates to shoot the Milky Way.

Determine the location. If someone experienced is taking you with them, good for you! If you know an identified dark sky location and you can get to it, also good for you! But what if you have another favorite location where you have visualized photographing the Milky Way? Knowing what the sky is going to look like in the dark is very useful because the direction and amount of light pollution will affect the Milky Way’s visibility. Light pollution from a city can render the Milky Way invisible. There are apps and websites that can help you identify dark sky locations, but this does not mean these are the only good locations. Indeed, there are many places where you can photograph the Milky Way. Your knowledge of an area is the best information you have to help you determine a location.

Once you have nailed down a time and place, you must now look at the weather forecast, usually within a few days or so from the shoot. It should make sense that visibility will depend on clear skies. Clouds may be present without covering the Milky Way center and this could make the sky more interesting if you’re lucky. But if there are a lot of clouds, there is a good chance you will not see the Milky Way.

If the weather is looking right, you can prepare the day before the shoot. You are likely going to be out late at night or during the wee hours of the morning, so prepare yourself for lack of sleep. Here’s what you want to do before you go out at night.

Get the camera ready. Put a fresh battery in the camera, have a full memory card ready, attach the quick release plate and attach the wide-angle lens. If you have it, attach the cable release. If you don’t have a cable release or a remote control, set the timer for 2 sec. Other settings that you may want to set ahead of time are steady shot (off) manual focus (on), long exposure noise reduction (I prefer it off) and live view(on). And get the tripod ready to go. Basically, you want to minimize fumbling around in the dark with your equipment.

Get the headlamp ready. Put fresh batteries in it and have a back-up (flashlight or headlamp) ready with more batteries.

Set appropriate aperture and ISO. You’ll want to set the aperture at its widest, like f2.8. You can pre-set your ISO as well. Start with 3200 and then make adjustments as needed after you start shooting.

Determine an appropriate shutter speed. Many photographers use the 500 rule, which is to take 500 and divide by the focal length (i.e., 16  mm). That number (i.e., 31) represents the shutter speed (in this case, 30 sec). If you use a APS-C camera, multiply the focal length by the crop factor first. For example, if your crop factor is 1.5 and the focal length is 16, this would be equivalent to 24 mm (1.5 x 16). Now divide 500 by 24, to get a shutter speed of 20 seconds.

Finally, you have arrived at your location and a clear sky unfolds before you. And it is pitch dark out there. Now what happens?

Find the Milky Way. Sometimes, you can see a very faint light that is the Milky Way’s center with your own eyes, but don’t rely on that all the time. You also want to know how the Milky Way’s position will change over the next few hours if you plan to be out there for that length of time. Your phone app should provide you a “Live View” option in which you can see the Milky Way’s location in the sky. Point your phone toward the sky and orient your location with the Milky Way. You should be able to scroll through the clock and see how its position will change over the next few hours.

Set up the tripod and camera. Get your camera on the tripod head and firmly place the tripod where you want to shoot. Make sure the lens is at its shortest focal length. If you are including any foreground or landscape horizon, you’ll want to get that as level as possible. Use your headlamp to help you see the tripod or camera level if you have one. If you don’t have a level, you may need to shine your light on something in front of the camera to help you with your composition. Sometimes, it is a matter of trial and error to get it right.

Get the stars in focus. Your primary goal is to get the Milky Way as sharp as possible. With Live View on, you can view the sky through the back panel. Find the brightest star on the screen and zoom in on it. From there, adjust focus manually until the star looks as small as possible. Auto focus will not work for this! If you do not have Live View, adjust the focus ring on the lens so it is set to infinity as you view the sky through the viewfinder.

Take a shot. Shut your headlamp off and with appropriate exposure settings, take your shot and wait. Afterwards, review the image and before the next shot, make your adjustments (ISO, shutter speed, leveling) accordingly. If the sky appears too bright, lucky you because you can either reduce the ISO and reduce the noise, or you can use a slightly faster shutter speed. If it appears too dark, you may have to increase the ISO or reduce the shutter speed. Remember, you don’t want to see star streaks so stay at 30 sec or less.

You can get more creative with a foreground interest as well. You may or may not need to use light painting, but that is an option. Light painting is basically using your headlamp or some other light source to light up your foreground. Here are some tips.

Very little light needed. The closer the object, the less light needed to make it appear bright. For the mangrove shot above, the little tree was only a few feet away from me. I used my headlamp at the dimmest setting and covered it completely with my hand. During the 25-sec exposure, I uncovered the headlamp only for a split second while pointing it toward the tree from an angle.

Sharp foreground. The lit object should appear sharp. This means that you need to manually focus on the object. Shine your light on it while attempting to focus so you can see it through the back panel and adjust for sharpness. For the entire Milky Way image to be sharp, you'll need a shot for in-focus stars and another shot for in-focus foreground. See the shot below of the tent? I ran over to the opposite side of the tent during the exposure and shined a light into it for a split second and then ran off. You can’t see me in the image because of the long exposure. But I made the mistake of not remembering to focus on the tent, so it is not as sharp as I want it to be.

Trials and Errors. Light painting sometimes requires several attempts before you get it right. Once you know you have a sharp image of the Milky Way, you can focus on your foreground object and work on painting it.  Sometimes, you may need to combine more than one of those shots to even out the lighting. For example, the second image below is three shots in one; one for the sky and two for the little mangrove trees. Because I could not light them both evenly with one shot, I had to aim at the closest one for one shot and aim at the other for the other shot.

Milky Way position. While you are working with light painting, the Milky Way’s position is changing. Ten minutes can make a difference, so be mindful as you are attempting to get that foreground shot because you may have to re-position your tripod to keep the Milky Way in position.

Wow, that’s a lot of work that goes into getting a Milky Way image! Yes, it is, but the preparation and research and being out there taking the shot are well worth it! Remember, you are not taking a Milky Way shot, you are creating a Milky Way image and that takes skill, time and patience. The only downside is you do need to have the right equipment to make it work well. If you can invest in a fast lens, a camera that provides Live View and a sturdy tripod, you are half way to the stars. The remaining journey only requires you.

If you are interested in learning more about camera techniques or editing techniques, I offer individualized workshops in the field as well as in Photoshop. Please visit my website to learn more about these workshops or contact me at bigcypress214@yahoo.com with any questions you may have.