What Is Milky Way Photography?
Milky Way photography is the exciting art of capturing the unparalleled beauty of the stars, constellations, and incredible wonders that make up our Milky Way.
If you have never seen the Milky Way, don’t stress. Most people have never seen our actual galaxy. It is basically impossible to view when living in a city or in any lighted area. You really need to be in the middle of the wilderness with zero light pollution to see the splendor in the night sky that is the Milky Way Galaxy.
And once you see it, you’re going to want to photograph it. The sight of it is truly breathtaking, like a big colorful schism in the universe itself, sprinkled with reds and purples, the blues and oranges of a billion twinkling stars. You might not be able to see all these details with your unassisted eyes, but it is possible to capture these details with a camera.
To make the most out of your experience photographing the Milky Way, there are a few things you should keep in mind. Milky Way photography falls under the umbrella of astrophotography. If you wish to get the best photographs when out in the countryside snapping shots of all the stars in the Milky Way, you will need a solid camera, a few pieces of knowledge, and a little bit of patience.
While it certainly helps to have an extremely expensive camera with all kinds of advanced gear, you can still take some pretty good photos with your normal camera. You should know in advance that your smartphone camera is probably not going to cut it.
What Do I Need For Milky Way Photography?
Like other forms of astrophotography, snapping beautiful pictures of the Milky Way is going to require some special ingredients. You will need a usable camera, a good wide aperture lens, a strong tripod, a sky map, and a flashlight. You might even consider getting a remote camera trigger to help shooting, particularly in cold weather.
When it comes to the best camera for Milky Way photography, it is all about control. Your camera should allow you to have complete manual control over your ISO, your shutter speed, and of course your aperture.
Even if your camera has a great autofocus system, you should be able to manually focus because at night the entire business of focusing can become a problem. You also want high ISO capabilities while still being able to handle the noise that comes with it. That means an advanced mirrorless camera or full-frame DSLR camera. These two types of cameras are made for handling more advanced photography situations.
There are plenty of great astrophotography cameras that are going to do wonders for taking pictures of the Milky Way. But if you don’t want an expensive camera that’s particularly suited to astrophotography, and you just want to take pretty good photos of the galaxy in the sky next time you are out in the woods with some friends, a higher-end digital camera will probably work fine. Without the taint of light pollution, you will see the milky way extremely bright in the sky, although you might end up missing some details
I highly suggest using a quality wide-angle lens that has a fast aperture. What I mean by fast is anything in the range of f/1.4 to f/2.8. This will allow you to have superb night sky/astrophotography capabilities. What you don’t want is a slow lens that requires you to put the ISO up super high, because this can lead to grainy photos. Your lens should give maximum sharpness.
Almost every quality camera, especially those from Nikon or Canon, is going to have loads of optional lenses. Make sure you choose the one with the fastest aperture. Without the right lens, your camera will not capture the night sky properly. Keep in mind that if your current camera has difficulties on a normal night taking photos of the stars, it’s probably not going to take very good photos of the Milky Way.
Tripods are important for long exposure. Shooting the Milky Way means you will be holding your camera completely still for anywhere between 15 and 30 seconds to take a picture. Unless you have the most stable grip in the entire world, you are going to need a tripod.
Surprisingly, tripods are actually super affordable. And there are actually not very many poor-quality tripods out there. Almost any tripod you purchase online is going to be stable on just about any terrain. Even just spending $20 or $30 on a budget tripod will make a large difference in your photographs of the Milky Way.
4. Sky Map
Photo by In-The-Sky.org
This is a totally optional but extremely useful tool when doing any kind of astrophotography. Having a sky map application on your phone is the ultimate way to plan when and where to take your photographs. The Milky Way is not always visible, and having a sky map will make sure you are not wasting your time.
As a plus, you will also see where exactly the constellations are, and what exactly it is you are looking at in the night sky.
Even if you don’t need it, take a high-powered flashlight with you. You’ll probably need it anyway for navigating the wilderness at night, and you can also use it for light painting, which basically helps to customize your nighttime photos of the sky and stars.
6. Remote Trigger
A remote trigger will help with your long exposures. If you are taking photographs with exposure times 15 seconds or longer, especially in cold weather, a remote trigger + your tripod will make life a lot easier.
Where Can I Take Photos Of The Milky Way?
Like I said at the beginning of the article, there is no way you’re going to see the Milky Way if you live in a big city. Even a small town is going to give off a startling amount of light pollution, which means you will never get a clear and proper shot of the Milky Way. It’s just not going to happen.
If you want to take photos of the galaxy, of the twinkling stars in their billions and the pulsing nebulas of outer space, you need to seek out the countryside. The best areas for this are in the mountains, in national parks, and out in the sticks. The next time you are driving down a long and lonely stretch of highway, stop and look at the sky for a minute. As long as you’re not near a town or city, you’ll definitely be able to see the difference.
To make the most of your excursion, I suggest planning a weekend trip to somewhere far away with no light pollution to take the best photos of the Milky Way. Camping in the summer is definitely my favorite time for any astrophotography projects.
How Do I Take Photos Of The Milky Way?
To maximize the quality of your photos, we need to look at how to properly focus, which camera settings to have, and what mode to keep your camera in.
1. Camera Mode
Chances are your camera comes with different modes. When doing night photography or astrophotography, you want to shoot in manual mode. This is because there is not enough light for your camera to properly calculate the needed exposure.
To do this, you must turn off the automatic ISO. You must then set the aperture to maximum, set your shutter speed to between 20 and 30 seconds, and set your ISO to 1600 (it can be moved as necessary).
This is the best mode to have your camera in. Try a few test shots. If you cannot see the Milky Way in your photos like you can with your eyes, simply raise the ISO. Try going all the way up to 3200.
You also want to shoot in RAW mode. Shooting in JPEG is for inexperienced photographers and won’t allow you to capture the true glory of the Milky Way. When doing any kind of astrophotography, always shoot in RAW mode, Milky Way photography included.
Autofocus is basically useless for taking photos of the Milky Way. Instead, you will have to compose the shot yourself. You’ll need to set a single focal length and acquire the perfect focus manually. Make sure you do not touch the zoom or focus until you are 100% finished. All of your focusing must be done manually in live view.
This is something you will learn through practice. It will also make you a better photographer in general. You will need to learn how to properly utilize the zoom and focus of your camera to get the best photos. The whole point is to be zoomed at 100% while still having 100% clear focus.
You can experiment at home in the backyard by focusing on the moon or any bright stars in the sky, then put it into action on your excursion to find the Milky Way.
3. Exposure Settings
Finding the exact exposure time is difficult. Either you have a photograph that is black or a photograph that is streaked with blurry white lines. You don’t want that. Your exposure time needs to be perfect to give you the best possible shot of the Milky Way.
A common practice is to take the number 500 and divide it by the focal length of your lens. For example, if you are using a 20-millimeter lens, you would divide 500 by 20 to get an exposure time of 25 seconds.
This is an extremely smart and effective rule of thumb to calibrate your exposure time beforehand. Always try this rule first, and if it doesn’t work then you can tweak the settings as needed.
Post-Processing My Milky Way Photographs
I hate to break it to you, but all the beautiful and vivid photographs you see online of not only the Milky Way but basically everything, have gone through some sort of post-processing.
While your photograph itself is amazing, it isn’t as amazing as it can be. After you take your shots of the galaxy home, you will need to process them properly to increase the photos’ natural colors, boost their natural contrasts, and heighten all of their intricate details.
The good news is that processing your photos is as simple as pushing a button. With the impressive technology coming out each year on our smartphones, you can easily upload a RAW image and tweak the white balance, levels, and contrasts until your image is perfect.
Taking a masterful photo of the Milky Way, our home galaxy, is not as tough as people think. The only problem is that it’s so hard to see because most of us live in concrete jungles and haven’t seen stars in forever
With an acceptable camera, a standard lens, and a little bit of know-how, you can take a journey into the wilderness and be amazed by the spectacular images your camera will capture.
By the way, if you are looking for details on the best camera for astrophotography, we have helpful resources available for you to help you pick a great camera.
Ultimately, what’s important is to just remember to have fun while taking pictures of the stars and to enjoy your time spent in the wilderness.