How to do Milky Way Photography Ė A Comprehensive Tutorial

How to Photograph the Milky Way

Youíre spinning through our solar system on a gorgeous blue marble which offers jaw dropping views of an astronomical phenomenon we call The Milky Way. Wait for our marble to line up just right, and youíll have a perfect opportunity to create awe inspiring images that harness that galactic chandelier hovering over your head.

My students are often delighted to learn that capturing spectacular images of The Milky Way is easy, once you know a few essential tips. Planning when and where to do†Milky Way photography is just as important as the techniques and equipment youíll be using.

If you want to get truly majestic shots of The Milky Way youíve really got to consider your location and timing. Iíll tackle that first, before we move on to the shooting technique.

1 Ė Where and when to see the galactic core

How to Shoot the Milky Way

The full galactic core is only visible during certain months, at certain locations. You can see the rest of The Milky Way throughout the year, but for truly eye-popping results itís the galactic core that youíll be hunting for, so letís discuss the best times of year to see it in all its glory.

Northern Hemisphere

The Big 'C' of the Galactic Core

Parts of The Milky Way are visible all year round but the galactic core is present only from late April to late July and can be seen in the southeastern to southwestern sky. Thatís when youíll get to see what I call The BIG C. As the summer progresses, youíll see the core move west so that by the end of summer it appears to rise in the southwestern sky.

You have no chance of seeing the galactic core in winter.

Southern Hemisphere

Photographers who live in the southern hemisphere are lucky because they get to see the core from February right through to October, with peak visibility being in June and July. Iím rather jealous.

Donít forget lunar phase

For super clear Milky Way photography youíll need minimal light pollution, which†means youíll want to avoid a bright moon. However, Iíve actually captured good shots of The Milky Way even with a first quarter moon in the sky (so donít feel like itís not worth shooting when the moon is present) but obviously a full moon is to be avoided.

Milky Way Photography Tutorial

The other thing to consider is the position of the moon in relation to The Milky Way. For example , a first quarter moon isnít such a problem if itís way off in the west while your Milky Way appears in the southeast. But, if the moon lines up dead centre in the Milky Way, it could be too bright, right where you donít want it.

How do you know where The Milky Way is going to be?

There are a multitude of phone and desktop apps that can help you to plan your Milky Way shoot but my favourite is the free app called Stellarium. Thereís a phone and desktop version, I prefer the latter†to plan my shoots.

Milky Way Photography Tutorial - Stellarium

You can enter a location and time to see when and where things are going to line up. Youíre mainly looking to see where the galactic core is present during a darker lunar phase. Stellarium will show you a picture of The Milky Way, and its position, at the times you specify. You can also see where and how bright the moon will be.

Check out some of the other popular apps like; The Photographers Ephemeris and Starwalk.

2 Ė Find a dark location

Purists will say that you MUST be in a dark sky area and of course that will give you a much clearer shot, but donít let a little bit of distant light pollution stop you from shooting The Milky Way. If you can see it, you can shoot it. The image I shot below in Death Valley shows light pollution from two large cities and I honestly think it adds to the contrast in the image. That glow on the horizon adds a†great separation of earth and sky.

Milky Way Photography Tutorial - Death Valley

If you want to discover the best dark sky locations, the International Dark Sky Places site is a great resource.

3 Ė Wait for clear weather

Most landscape shooters love clouds and hate blue skies. Once you get into shooting nightscapes, youíll quickly reverse that thinking.

Astrophotography Tutorial - Gavin Hardcastle

In this shot of Mono Lake the small clouds actually added a little interest to the shot, without obscuring too much of the galactic core.

A blanket of cloud is bad news if you want to get clear shots of The Milky Way, but donít be put off by the presence of light cloud cover. Sometimes a few clouds can add drama and framing to a Milky Way shot so itís still worth shooting if the clouds arenít completely blanketing the entire sky.

4 Ė The Milky Way is only half the shot

For me, the most awe inspiring Milky Way images are those that show the galactic core in relation to earthly locations and objects. Something as mundane as a person on a camp chair can look really dramatic when framed by the phenomenon of The Milky Way.

Photographing the Milky Way - Tutorial with Gavin Hardcastle

Think hard about what youíd like to put in the foreground of your Milky Way shot. If you get perfect conditions and execute perfect technique youíll still get a boring shot if you donít put something else in your frame to ground the viewer. Pick an interesting foreground feature and maybe try a little light painting to make your Milky Way shots truly awesome.

That could be anything from an interesting rock formation like a sea stack or arch, right through to a derelict shed, or an interesting tree. Think about locations that feature a point of interest and then consider how that place lines up with The Milky Way.

5 Ė Using the right gear

Lens choice

While thereís something to be said for using the gear youíve already got, night photography is something of a challenge because of the absence of light. Youíll need a fast lens that ideally has a maximum aperture of f/2.8, or even brighter like an f/1.4.

Super wide angle lenses are ideal for shooting nightscapes because they donít usually produce much bokeh. By that, I mean that even when set to maximum apertures of f/1.4 youíll still be able to get a great deal of your image in focus Ė if you focus correctly. The last thing you want is a sharply focused Milky Way with a foreground that is completely blurred in soft, creamy bokeh, so leave the lovely Sigma 85mm f/1.4 at home.

The other great thing about super wide lenses is that you can fit a lot of The Milky Way into your frame, and thereís less magnification which allows for longer shutter speeds before the stars in your shot begin to trail.

Itís not the end of the world if youíve got a standard, all-purpose, kit lens that isnít very fast. Youíll still get some decent Milky Way shots because youíll be using long exposures and high ISO settings to maximize your cameraís sensitivity to light.

Astrophotography Lens Choices

On the left we have the Rokinon/Samyang 24mm f/1.4†($549) which costs a third of the price of the Canon 24 mm f/1.4†($1549).

If you really get into shooting nightscapes youíll be glad to learn that some of the most popular wide angle lenses for nigh photography are actually quite affordable.

Rokinon (AKA Samyang/Bower) offer two lenses that have something of a cult following among night shooters with their 14mm f/2.8 and their 24mm f/1.4 lenses. The build quality is atrocious but as long as you treat them with kid gloves (carefully), they usually perform well.

These are popular because they offer sharpness, speed, a wide field of view, and much less coma than other more costly lenses. Coma is the amount of elliptical aberration around stars in the corners of the frame. Some more expensive lenses, like the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8, have really bad coma on stars in the corner of the frame, which isnít the end of the world, but itís not ideal.

6 Ė Camera choice

With night photography youíll be forced to use high ISO settings during your long exposures so itís vital to have a camera that can operate at ISO 3200 and above, but more importantly still produce good image quality. No matter what camera you use, the image quality will take a major hit when you start to crank up the ISO numbers, thatís unavoidable.

Camera sensors have come a long way in the last couple of years so even if your camera isnít top of the range you might be pleasantly surprised at the image quality of your high ISO images.

The Sony A7S for Astrophotography

The Sony A7S has become something of a legend among astrophotographers but it isnít cheap.

Some of the best performers of the last couple of years have been the Sony A7R, Nikon D810 and the absolutely brilliant Sony A7S, which is known for its amazing low light capability. These are all full frame cameras, and will deliver the best image quality as they typically offer better noise performance. But if youíre rocking a MFT (mirrorless four thirds) or APS-C sensor, donít let that stop you from going out and getting some Milky Way action.

Donít feel that you absolutely MUST have the most expensive gear. Work with what youíve got, then upgrade when you become addicted, and canít resist the temptation to splurge.

The one thing youíre going to really need your camera to have is a good Live View screen or an EVF (electronic viewfinder). You will use this to focus and compose your shots.

7 Ė You need a tripod

Itís dark, youíre going to be doing long exposures, and that means you have to use a tripod. Read my article on the reasons why a good tripod is essential for any kind of outdoor photography. For night photography a tripod is obligatory.

Shooting technique

Ok, youíve planned everything right, The Milky Way is looming large above you, and youíve framed up a lovely composition of it†with some fascinating foreground object. Itís time to set up your camera for Milky Way shooting. Hereís where I start:

NOTE: For now youíll want to turn off your in-camera noise reduction, as this will just slow down your test shots.

Shooting in Manual Mode8 Ė Shoot in M (Milky Way Mode) and Shoot RAW

You want full control over every aspect of your shot so set your camera to Manual mode. This allows you to control the ISO, the shutter speed, the aperture and white balance. Always shoot in RAW.

9 Ė Use†Live View or the EVF (if you have one)

This is where weíll set our focus. Make sure you switch auto-focus OFF as weíll be focusing manually. Before we do this you need to crank your ISO up to something like 5000 to make your sensor really sensitive to light.

10 Ė Set your focus on a star

Set your aperture to the widest, fastest setting it can achieve (smallest number such as f/2.8). This wide aperture will expose your sensor to the maximum amount of light.

Using your cameraís Live View or EVF, point it†at the brightest star you can see until a small dot of light appears in the centre of your view. Zoom in (magnify the view NOT zoom the lens) so that you see that tiny little dot as large as possible.†Now turn the focus wheel on your lens until the star becomes a sharp, tiny pin-point of light. Try turning the focus wheel passed that point until the star blurs again and youíll have gone too far, so just back it up until youíre able to get the star as sharp and small as possible. Donít rush this, take your time and get it right.

If your camera has a feature called Focus Peaking or Focus Assist, that can sometimes help you to determine perfect focus on a star.†If youíre into calculating hyperfocal distance, you could do that too, but I prefer this method.

Whatever you do, donít blindly set your focus to infinity by cranking your focus wheel until it reads Infinity (?), youíll just end up with blurred images.

11 Ė Compose your shot

Now that youíve focused your lens on the brightest star, itís time to compose your shot. Use your headlamp to illuminate the scene so that you can see what youíre looking at in your Live View. If your camera has a digital level for perfect horizon lines use that Ė if not, you might want to invest in a bubble level for your hot shoe attachment.

Set your shutter speed to about 10 seconds (at ISO 5000 if you have it), and take a test shot. At this point all youíre doing are some rough test shots to get your composition sorted, so thereís no point in shooting a full 30 second exposure and waiting around while you take a whole bunch of test shots.

Once youíve finished taking test shots and made your final tripod adjustments for the perfect composition, itís time to dial in your camera settings.

13 Ė White Balance

When shooting The Milky Way I prefer to shoot with my White Balance set to Incandescent (aka Tungsten) which I believe is Sonyís version of Tungsten. I like the blue hue and it also displays a lot of contrast in my cameraís EVF so that I can clearly see The Milky Way. When I process my images later I often reset the White Balance back to Auto (AWB) mode for a more realistic neutral color temperature.

White Balance Settings for Milky Way Photography

This RAW file was shot with Incandescent White Balance. You can see how it looks in Adobe Camera RAW when set to Auto.

I advise you to experiment with different WB settings to get the colour temperature you like best. Shooting with the Incandescent/Tungsten prest will almost always produce good, neutral results, which you can change later in Lightroom or Adobe Camera RAW.

14 Ė Set your ISO

You used ISO 5000 for the test shots so that you could compose your shot quickly. But, for your actual Milky Way shot you want to use the lowest ISO setting you can get away with so dial it down to ISO 2000 and see if that gives you good results. You can always increase it to ISO 3200 after a few more test shots.†I personally rarely go above ISO 3200 as my RAW files tend to degrade significantly at that point.

15 Ė Shutter speed versus ISO

From this point on youíre going to be juggling your shutter speed and ISO setting to get the most light sensitivity, while still having a shutter speed fast enough to avoid getting star trails. Star trails are great if youíre going for the that†effect (read my star trails photography tutorial here) but even a very small star trail just results in a Milky Way shot that lacks clarity. That may just be okay for web images, but for prints youíll want more sharpness.

Try to limit your shutter speed to a maximum of 15 seconds so that you can keep the stars in your image sharp and trail free.

Shutter Speeds for Milky Way Photography

As you can see, the 30 second exposure on the left has a motion trail on each star. The 15 second exposure on the right has sharper stars, although it is darker.

With a shutter speed of 15 seconds, take a look at your cameraís light meter reading. If itís telling you that the†image is overexposed you might be able to dial your ISO number down a bit, or shorten your shutter speed to 10 seconds.

Sometimes I like to overexpose the image and ignore my light meter reading entirely. When shooting the Milky Way Iím guided more by what I see in my test shots than what my light meter is telling me to do. With my Sony cameras I use Multi metering mode, for what itís worth.

After your shot is complete and youíre reviewing it, be sure to zoom in and check the details.

16 Ė Try a 30 second exposure

Milky Way Photography Tutorial - Alabama Hills, Gavin Hardcastle

I know I just said to†keep your shutter speed to a maximum of 15 seonds but I always like to take an additional shot with a 30 second exposure to capture a much brighter Milky Way. I do this if Iím planning on publishing a web-only (low resolution) image because the slight star trail caused by the longer exposure wonít be very evident in a low-res web image. The stars will still look sharp enough but will have a much brighter appearance than a 15 second exposure. For prints, Iíll almost always use the 15 second exposure version for the extra sharpness.

In-camera Noise Reduction

Some cameras do a great job of processing and reducing noise reduction. But, this will double the amount of time it takes to complete your shot, so itís always a good idea to switch this function off, at least temporarily. If you like the results of your in-camera noise reduction you can always switch this function back on once youíve finished all of your test shots.

I personally prefer to do my own noise reduction in Adobe Camera Raw and Photoshop which gives me more control and allows me to shoot faster while on location.

Now itís your turn

Okay, so now you know how to get gorgeous clear photos of The Milky Way. I hope you get some great results and have as much fun as I do when shooting this awe inspiring sight. If youíd like to learn how I process my Milky Way shots please post a request in the comments and if thereís enough interest Iíd be delighted to share my techniques.

Source Article from http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/DigitalPhotographySchool/~3/5P8uNZUGs8g/

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