Photographing the Milky Way

JimFox

Moderator
Staff member
How to shoot the Milky Way.

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Shooting the Milky Way is very similar to shooting stars at night.


Conditions:
1. How big is the moon and what time does it rise or set? The moon will wash out the Milky Way and stars if it is too bright. So looking up on a moon rise/set chart is important so you can time when you shoot when the moon either hasn't risen yet, or it's in a very small phase and puts out very minimal light.

2. Early in the evening the Milky Way is lower in the sky, heading towards sunrise the Milky Way will continue to get higher in the sky until it can make some compositions impractical.


3. The Milky Way will be higher in the sky in the summer when it becomes visible (as the sky gets darker) compared to the winter time when often it can actually be below the horizon when the sun sets. Use this knowledge to help time your trip if you have a particular composition in mind.


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Technical:

1. Focusing. This is probably the very hardest aspect of shooting the Milky Way. Most often we want something in the foreground to compliment the Milky Way. But if the foreground ends up being out of focus and blurry, then it's a distraction and looks poorly. If the Milky Way is out of focus and blurry, it too will come across as badly taken.

So it's best, especially if you are new to shooting the Milky Way, to shoot it in the evening after the sun sets. This will aid you in focusing.

Once the sun has set you will want to open up your Aperture (F stop) to what you will be shooting the Milky Way at. Normally this is wide open. Most lenses range from f2.8 to f4, though there are some lenses that are able to open up to f1.4, f1.8, etc.

What your aperture is set at will affect your focus, so set your lens and then aim to focus a little beyond your foreground objects. Use the technique called Hyper Focal Distance to focus.

2. When shooting the Milky Way, you will not want to be shooting long Shutter Speeds and getting star trails. If you do this, the Milky Way will lose definition and cause a blurry ghost looking white area in the sky.


3. So you want to use Shutter Speeds that are fast enough to freeze the movement of the Milky Way (and stars). This will be dependent on the focal length of the lens you are shooting with. The wider your lens, the longer your shutter speed can be.


A 14mm lens can be shot with a Shutter Speed of 30 seconds and have minimal star movement.

A 20mm lens can use a 25 second Shutter Speed.

A 24mm lens can use a 20 second Shutter Speed.

I discovered this by trial and error, but there is actually a formula to figure it out. It's called the 500 Rule.

Shutter Speed = 500 divided by the Focal Length of your Lens.

There is much discussion about this, so there is no universal consent about this. There are those who perhaps pixel peep a bit too much who will say this formula gives too long of a Shutter Speed. For me, I will say that using this will help you capture the Milky Way (and stars) that have the perception of being sharp when viewed at a normal viewing distance.

But it's a very personal perception. So you can decide for yourself which Shutter Speed works best for taste. This formula at least gets you in the ball park of sharpness. You can increase or decrease the Shutter Speed according to your own taste.

4. Aperture and ISO. As mentioned in focusing, you will be setting your aperture most often as wide open as it will get. Say for example that's f2.8.


You will then set your ISO to give you a proper exposure. Don't trust your LCD display at night to give you an accurate view. Use the Histogram. Ideally your Histogram will be between 1/3 full on the left to 50%.

After the sun has set and it's starting to get darker, it's not uncommon to start shooting at these settings for example.

f2.8
20 Second Shutter Speed
1600 ISO

As the sky keeps getting darker there will be 2 settings you will adjust. The Shutter Speed can be increased, but not more then 30 Seconds. The ISO can also be increased in increments.

So for example, by the end of the night you could be shooting at:

f2.8
30 Second Shutter Speed
3200 ISO

And if the sky gets really dark, it's not uncommon to have to raise the ISO up to 5000 or even 6400. It is critical to continue to watch your Histogram at this point. It's very easy as it gets darker to think that from the LCD display that your image is bright enough, when in reality it may not be. The Histogram is the friend of every photographer, but especially those that photograph at night.

Not all camera's handle the noise as well as others that comes from raising the ISO. You need to know what your own camera can handle in terms of High ISO before the image just gets so noisy that it's not worth continuing to shoot at that point. But typically within the first 2 hours of sunset most of today's modern DSLR's can handle the High ISO you would be at.

Hopefully this helps you to get out and get some great Milky Way shots of your own!

 
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