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PHOTOGRAPHING THE MILKY WAY QUICK TIPS


Look to the sky. Everyone does it. We're been doing it since we were kids and have wondered if there might be something out there. Even if there isn't, there's still a bit of amazement when looking at the night sky, especially if you happen to live or travel to a place with a good dark sky. And depending on the time of year, that night sky can become even more magical as there are times when the core of the Milky Way is more visible for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere. While bands of the Milky Way can be seen year-round, the most gaseous section is best visiable from mid-April to mid-September. In May, the best time to see the core is early morning and June in the late evening. The core of the Milky Way will appear after sunset and appear more vertical in July and August. In September you'll see part of the dense center just after sunset and it disappears quickly. Even without the dense core, you will still get nice images of the bands coming off the center at different times of the night and other times of the year. But, to get the thickest part with the most stars and gasses you want to go at these times of the year.

No matter the time of year and where you're at, there are several applications that can help you see when and where the Milky Way is going to be located in the night sky. It's best to have numerous both the computer and on a smartphone. These include Stellarium, Dark Sky, Star Walk and Night Sky. Stellarium is a good one to get on your computer as you can put in different locations and dates to track and plan for future trips. Photo Pills is also a great app that costs $9.99 while the others are free.

Cameras today are making Milky Way photography extremely easy. The newer the camera used the better to get the incredible shots seen out there. Im currently using the Canon 5D Mark IV and love the night sky results, even though I'd like to do more than I have been lately. The primary lens used with this for night photography is the 16-35mm f/2.8. Speaking of lenses, when doing the Milky Way you will want one that is at least f/2.8 so lots of light can be allowed in and at least 30mm wide for a full frame body or 20mm for a crop body. Somewhere around 24mm for full frame is a good size to use as it will bring out the core more and make your foreground subjects more prominent.

gentoo penguin jumping out of water
Bristlecone Milky Way - Notice the density of the core shot in early September

MY PREFERRED SETTINGS

There are lots of different places to look for what settings to use for photographing the Milky Way, but the more concise the tips the less needed to be remembered or read through to get to the point. Here are the primary settings I use and suggest on the Milky Way workshops I run.

ISO - With many high ISO capable camera bodies on the markey, don't be afraid to push the ISO up to 6400 with an f/2.8 lens. If you only have f/1.4, don't go higher than 3200 ISO as the noise will start to get too high.

SHUTTER SPEED - To create the best star points instead of star blobs or star streaks, for full frame cameras a good guideline to use is 25 seconds for 16mm, 20 seconds for 24mm and 15 seconds for 35mm. If your lens is set at another focal length, a good thing to use is the 500 Rule. This is where you divide the focal length into 500 to determine the general area for how many seconds to have the shutter open so that you get star points. I always tend to go to the next faster shutter speed setting down using the 500 Rule just to allow for better points. For crop bodies, 20 seconds for a 16mm and 15 seconds for a 22mm. Remember that for Canon bodies there is a 1.6 crop factor while others are at 1.5. This has to be factored in to the focal length calculation.

F/STOP - Wide open. Always. Thge most amount of light is always wanted when shooting at night so the faster the lens available the better. While some only have an f/4, it's much better to have a lens of at least f/2.8 or even faster.

adamm and eve star trails arches
Joshua Tree Milky Way - Just a quick flash of light was used for the foreground

WHITE BALANCE - A good range is somewhere between 3400 and 4500 degrees Kelvin. I tend to use 4000 degrees but some slight adjustments in post processing can always be done. You want to use these cooler settings to help darken or give the sky a bluish cast rather than having it too warm.

FOCUS THE LENS - It's best to get an infinity focus before it gets too dark outside. Use Autofocus and aim at the horizon and then turn the lens to Manual focus. It's best to then put a piece of tape on the lens so the focus is not moved by accident. There's nothing worse than moving this and getting a pile of out of focus images.

ACCESSORIES - Use a cable release or at least use the two-second timer so pressure is not being applied to the camera when the shutter is pressed causing some camera movement. A tripod is a must as no can hand hold a camera still for 15 to 20 seconds. If doing some light painting of something in the foreground there are lots of options out there. I'm currently using a Kodak SL3200 LED light panel that allows for both the color temperature and brightness of the light to be adjusted.

COMPOSITION - Make sure you go out and scout your area to find spots that have a very strong foreground in front of where the Mily Way is going to appear. Find this out with the apps mentioned above. The first shots can be a shot at twilight and then wait for the Milky Way to appear in order to blend the shots but once you move to other locations you will need to light paint if you want the foregrounnd illuminated. If you're just doing the Milky Way, make sure you have numerous spots scouted out for each night. If doing star trail stacking, you won't need as many as you'll be shooting for 30 minutes to an hour at each spot with a little light painting at the beginning and end to get it right. Every setting is going to be different with light painting so you have to practice with this in order to get each scene correct.

rockhopper penguins and crashing waves
The ability to change temperature on the light is very helpful
arches national park balanced rock star trails photography
Move around to get the desired composition