How to Photograph the Milky Way Galaxy (Beginners Guide)
The Milky Way galaxy is seen here from Anglesey, an island off the North Wales coast in the UK. This image shows what you can do with a mid-range camera and lens with a tripod.
There are many spectacular shots of the Milky Way, but nothing compares to being able to make your own shots, bringing back memories of the moment. When I look at this picture, it brings back the sound of the sea, the encompassing darkness, the cool of the night air and the salt laden breeze, not to mention the awesome sight of so many stars.
This particular image has had the minimum of post-processing. I wanted it to look as I'd seen it. You can, of course do much more, adding colour, removing stars to emphasize the milky way itself and removing noise.
So how can you make an image of the Milky Way Galaxy?
Read on for a step-by-step guide to capturing this awe inspiring view.
Choose the Right Day
The most important aspect in determining the right day for photographing the Milky Way Galaxy is the presence of the moon. The light of the moon washes the sky with unwanted light, reducing visibility of the Milky Way. So wherever you are, look up the day of the new moon. On that day, the moon is hidden from the Sun by the shadow cast from the Earth.
Obviously, you'll also need a clear sky, so keep an eye out for the weather.
In the Southern Hemisphere, the Milky Way is visible almost all year round, but in the Northern Hemisphere it can only be viewed between February and October, with the best opportunities between March and September (known as the Milky Way season).
The best time of day is between 11pm and 5am for the darkest skies. The picture above was taken at about 11pm in the middle of August in the UK. At more northerly locations the light will linger longer at night and start earlier the following morning for most of the Milky Way season. Having tried to shoot the Milky Way galaxy in July in the north of England, I found the ambient light was still too high even at 1am.
There is a great Milky Way Calendar available for all areas of the globe, with the best viewing days highlighted.
Find a Great Location
Most of us can't simply step into the back yard and hope to see the Milky Way. Light pollution is an Astrophotographers biggest enemy. However, certain organisations are making headway in mapping out, and getting protection for Dark Sky areas. These are places that are minimally affected by light sources so that we can truly see our star filled skies. The feeling when you first see the number of stars visible with the naked eye is astonishing. Some areas, such as Bardsey Island off the Welsh coast, have the highest status - International Dark Sky Sanctuary. This means that no new structures affecting the darkness of the night sky can be introduced.
It's important to scout out the area you plan to shoot from during daylight hours so that you know where you are heading once it's dark. You don't want to be negotiating unexpected obstacles with just a head torch and the feeling of being surrounded by darkness in an unfamiliar place can be disorientating.
Set up for Winning Shots
To get the best shots your equipment can make, take note of the following tips.
Use a tripod. You'll be needing a long exposure so you won't be able to keep your camera steady enough.
Remote or timed release. Pressing the shutter introduces wobble even with a tripod so use a remote release or set your camera for a delayed shutter release.
Set Focus to Infinity. Choose a star to focus on then switch to manual focus so it doesn't change.
Manual is a Must. Set your camera to Manual mode but don't worry, I'll let you know the settings to start off with.
Use a Wide Angle lens. I used a 14mm lens but up to 24mm is OK, you just see less of the Milky way in your shot.
ISO, Aperture and Speed
OK, this is the technical bit. We've switched off all the help from the camera, because your camera is stupid. It wants to take the shot to get a certain level of overall lightness.
But that's not what you want, afterall it is dark.
So here is a basic starting point.
Set your aperture to the widest your lens will allow, around f2.0 is good
Set the speed to a 20 second exposure.
Set the ISO to 3000
It's worth setting these before you are out in the dark. If you are at all unsure about how to do this, it's worth getting to know how before you set out, because you are most likely going to need to tweak them.
When you are all set, with your camera directed at the Milky Way, take your first shot.
It will take a few seconds for your camera to process, but once it's finished, take a look at your monitor.
If your shot looks too bright, tweak the ISO down. In my shots I used an ISO of 2500.
If it's too dark tweak the ISO up.
If your shot continues to look dark and you've reached an ISO of 5000, you have a little latitude in the speed up to 25 seconds. Any more and your stars will become trails.
Bag your Shot of the Milky Way
Now it's your turn. Go find your own Dark Sky and have fun shooting the stars.