Photographing the Milky Way

Updated on December 6, 2017
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Chris is a photography enthusiast and blog writer. He enjoys learning new photography techniques and practicing old ones.

Night Sky Photography

Today's modern cameras, from a full frame to a micro 4/3, are all capable of capturing spectacular images of the night sky. Professionals would suggest that a full frame camera would be the best choice for gulping large amounts of low light imagery onto the sensor. However as long as the camera is capable of taking RAW images and has a manual shooting mode, it will likely be perfectly suitable for all but the most professional images. A fast lens is at least half the equation in getting good star photos.

Astrophotography has never been more accessible to the average person who wants to take photos of heavenly bodies. The Milky Way is a favorite astronomical phenomenon that is seemingly difficult to photograph yet in reality is quite easy given the correct technique and a few pieces of necessary equipment.

Astrophotography Gear

My gear for photographing the starry night is not much different than any other time I might be doing creative nighttime photography. My kit includes:

  1. Digital camera capable of manual mode.
  2. A fast lens. I use an f/2.8 to collect as much light as possible.
  3. Tripod. Not an option. A carbon fiber model is best on a cold nights.
  4. Remote trigger to avoid camera shake.
  5. A flashlight is handy. I use either a blue or red filter to keep my night vision in tact.

It is difficult enough trying to pull in enough star light given the inconvenience of dark locations. Not using a fast lens can make it even more of a challenge. You can certainly give it a go with your all-purpose kit lens but the results will not be as spectacular as it could be with a fast lens.

I suggest using at least an f/2.8. The wider the angle of the lens the better as well. Obviously there are dedicated astrophotography lenses. Some will drain your wallet and others from thrid party lens manufacturers are fairly affordable. Look to Rokinon for affordability. Regardless, using the fastest wide angle lens that your budget can afford is the best option.

I have used a 50mm f/1.4 on a crop sensor frame with fairly decent results. You are not going to fit a huge expanse of the milky way into the frame but it will produce some nice results nonetheless.

If I find myself in a particularly dark sky location, which is not typical in the eastern portion of the United States unfortunately, I have no issue using a micro 4/3 camera with a 35mm equivalent lens of 24-70mm.

Milky Way Composition

The darker the sky the better. It will be incredibly difficult to take an average camera to a downtown park and expect to get sensational images of the Milky Way. There is just too much light pollution. Distant light pollution on the horizon can actually be interesting. It can provide a separation of earth and sky in the image. However, in your immediate vicinity it is best t have as much darkness as possible. Basically, if you can see the Milky Way from your location then you can photograph it.

If possible it a truly spectacular photo will have something of interesting in the foreground of the photo with the Milky Way in the background. This can be a mountain range, trees or old cars. Imagination is the only limiter in this equation.

Camera Set Up for Shooting the Milky Way

Twist the knob on the camera to Manual. Control of ISO, shutter speed and aperture are going to be necessary.

Unlike other low light photography projects like photographing lightning, or light painting, etc., the 'Bulb' mode will not be used for sharp Milky Way photos.

Turn off auto focus. Start with the ISO setting at least 6400. Set the aperture to its smallest value, i.e. f/2.8.

Look through the view finder and find a bright start to focus on. Zoom in, not the lens barrel but the camera's magnification and really dial in the sharpness. One thing to keep in mind is that infinity on your lens will not give the result expected. The images will likely be blurred. Taking the time to really focus on that pin point of light will ultimately provide the best results.

I like to use my in camera level to ensure the image is lined up with the horizon. I then set the shutter speed to 15 seconds and take a test shot. If things are looking good I then start dialing back the ISO. I try to get it back down to 3200 or below. Anything above that is fairly grainy, at least with the camera at my current disposal.

A shutter speed of 15 seconds is about as fast as the image can be taken without introducing star trails. A 30 second shutter speed will look slightly blurred. There are really outstanding photos that encourage star trails but if the goal is to take a sharp image of the Milky Way 15 seconds exposure is about all you can do and collect the light onto the sensor that is necessary.

RAW is better than JPG. This format provides far more information in the photo file. This is important to allow for greater flexibility when you pull the images into a post-processing program. I use Lightroom and Photoshop to correct the white balance, dehaze the image and add noise reduction, among other controls.

Conclusion

There is little magic in taking spectacular images of the Milky Way. It is a fun photography project that can be practiced with any camera with manual controls. Get outside, find a dark location and take point your camera to the heavenly bodies. The images you take will certainly be worth the effort of learning this exciting photography technique.

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