02-Nov-14: How to Photograph The Milky Way
Just about every time I see a photograph of the Milky Way posted in a photography group or in other social media pages they receive many congratulatory comments and many questions and comments such as:
- How was this achieved?
- What were the settings you used?
- How do you take photographs like this?
- I need to learn how to do this one day.
I do agree that photographs of the stars can look very appealing and have a wow factor to them, that can make you think that it must be very complicated and deter the average person from attempting it.
I’m here to tell you, contrary to how difficult they look, photographing the Milky Way or stars in general is one of the simplest photographs that you can take. It’s one of the only types of photography where your settings are consistent from shot to shot and if someone were to ask what settings you used, you can actually tell them and they can achieve the same or similar result, which isn’t the case with almost every other type of photography.
I will run through all aspects of shooting the Milky Way or stars with the exception of lighting the foreground and star trails, both of which I will cover in separate write ups. I will cover planning (timing and location) and what to look out for, equipment required, and settings required to achieve that perfect shot.
The most important thing that you want to be aware of when shooting the Milky Way or stars in order to get the best images is to avoid light pollution. Excess light in the sky will wash out your sky and prevent your camera from seeing all of the stars. The two most common forms of light pollution will be light from the moon and city lights.
- For the moon, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to wait for a new moon in order to shoot, but you should plan on shooting the stars when the moon is no longer in the sky. Note: I will cover foreground lighting in a different write up, but if the moon is up before of after you shoot the stars you can use the light from the moon to light your foreground giving an added eerie effect to the image.
- There is a free program that you can use called “The Photographer’s Ephemeris“. This or a similar software is a must have for anyone who does star photography. All you need to do is enter the location and date you plan to shoot and it will tell you sunrise and sunset times, moonrise and moonset times, where they will rise and set, as well as the shape of the moon. The other main consideration for light pollution are city lights. You will notice when you are near a city and looking up at the night sky that you see very few stars. Although your camera will see more stars then the human eye, the amount of stars will be drastically reduced due to light from the city.
City Light (Location):
- In order to minimise the impact of city lights on your night photography, you’ll want to be as far away from a city as practical. The direction you are shooting in will also play a part. If you are shooting in the direction of a city you will get a slight glow on the horizon even if you are a couple hundred kilometres away (as shown in this image), if you are shooting in any other direction this effect will be minimised or nil. I have found approximately 200km works for me, but this is not a rule set in stone.
- Another consideration when shooting the Milky Way is to include some foreground interest in your shot. Although not the main subject of your photograph it adds interest to the photo and helps drawer the viewer in.
- Now that you have determined a location for your shoot the next thing you will need to figure out is the optimal time of the night to be there to capture the Milky Way. The core of the Milky Way (the core is the very colourful and star filled portion) rises in different locations in the sky and rises at different times throughout the year. Sometimes it will run across the sky and other times will rise straight up into the sky.
- The best way to determine where and when the Milky Way will be in the sky is to use an app or software. There are manual devices that can be used, and would be useful if you’re out without pre-planning, but I typically plan my shoots and use a program called “Stellarium“. Stellarium is a free software for your PC. By entering the Longitude and Latitude of the location you plan to shoot, you can then scroll through the time of day and see where the stars or Milky Way will be located throughout the night.
I don’t intend to get into a debate about the best equipment and brands to use, instead I will be focussing on the attributes of the equipment required. I can always offer my opinion, but that’s all it would be, an opinion. The equipment suggested is based on using a DSLR, this doesn’t mean that other types of cameras cannot be used, I just don’t have the experience with them.
There are no specific requirements for the type of DSLR camera that you can use. The more modern DSLR’s will produce better results as the ISO performance of modern cameras is improving significantly. The following are the attributes you will need:
- As the night sky is typically shot at ISO’s of 1600 or greater, it will be essential that your camera has the ability to shoot at higher ISO’s (1600 – 6400).
- Ability to shoot at 30 seconds or greater (bulb). Note this will be dependant on the lens used, but most cameras should be able to achieve a 30 second exposure.
- Full frame cameras are preferred as there ISO performance is typically better and also you will be able to hold your shutter open for longer (described in settings) to capture more light. This is not a necessity though, great photos can be taken with crop sensor cameras.
To get the best results for Milky Way (Star) photography you will want a lens with the following attributes:
- The faster the lens the better, ideally you will want a lens that has a maximum aperture of 2.8 or greater, but you can get away with f4 or even f5.6, but this is not preferred. This differs from other types of landscape photography. As you are shooting stars, which don’t put out much light, you’ll want to gather as much light as possible in the shortest time possible. Depth of field is not a concern due to the distance the stars are away.
- Also important is the focal length of the lens you use. I will describe in the settings section why you want a wide angle lens. You will want to use a focal length of 24mm or wider.
- Tripod: this is a necessity due to the long exposures, and the sturdier the better.
- Remote Shutter Release or Intervalometer: you want to avoid having to touch your camera when taking you shots to minimise blur caused by your camera moving, also a requirement if you are shooting in bulb mode.
- Spare Batteries: always carry spare batteries for your camera and shutter release, it would be a shame to go to the effort to take the shots only to find out your batteries died.
- Flashlight (Torch): wherever you end up shooting, I imagine it will be very dark and almost impossible to see where you are going.
- Warm Clothing: this is entirely up to you, but I recommend that you bring along warm clothing as the temperature can drop off significantly at night.
Allright we’re almost there!! We have planned our trip, we have all of our equipment in order now all we need to do is set up and start shooting.
Before I dive into the ISO, Aperture and Shutter Speeds, there are a couple of things I would like to run through first.
- Turning off the Long Exposure Noise Reduction in your camera. Although this isn’t necessary, if it is turned on your camera will take a second black exposure to assist in the noise reduction. This will work very well in most cameras, but doubles your time shooting and chews up battery life. I prefer to reduce noise in post processing.
- Turning off the High ISO Noise Reduction. This works similarly to the Long Exposure Noise reduction.
- White Balance, I turn this to Auto as I always shoot in RAW format and can adjust this in post processing. If you shoot in JPG you can do some test shots in several different white balance settings to get the effect you desire. You can get some interesting colour effects in all of your white balance settings.
- Switch your cameras into Manual Mode, you will be entering all of the settings and focussing yourself. You don’t want your camera trying to choose these settings itself.
- Turn off any Auto Focussing, this should be in manual as you will be setting the focus yourself.
- If you have Image Stabilisation or Vibration Reduction on your lenses or inside your cameras, turn it off. Some cameras somehow can recognise that you are on a tripod, but I prefer to have it turned off regardless. You want to minimise any minor vibrations that can be created to ensure sharp images.
- If you have a mirror up function on your camera, utilise it. This is just another function of cameras that can introduce shake/blur to your images from the movement of the mirror.
I will quickly explain how to determine your shutter speed and why, noting I have created a quick cheat table below for quick reference. There is a rule that has been developed for determining the shutter speed to give the appearance of sharp stars (no movement in the stars). Note that I have said “give the appearance”, the earth is always rotating relative to the stars or vice versa, and there will be movement on these longer exposures. This formula will give you an optimal shutter speed to capture enough light and give the appearance of no movement.
I use the formula 500 / focal length, some people will say that 600 / focal length is appropriate. I don’t particularly want to debate this, and encourage you to experiment and see what works for you. The table provided below is using 500 / focal length. Note: the focal length is based on a full frame sensor if you are using a crop sensor camera you will need to multiply that focal length by either 1.5 (Nikon) or 1.6 (Canon).
I have created a table below, which are my recommended settings for your camera based on my experience. I highly suggest that you use these as a base and experiment from there. These settings are not hard and fast, but they will provide pleasing results. I will do some adjustments from time to time in the field, but these are what I typically start with.
The last setting that you need to concern yourself with before shooting, is getting your focus correct. The simplest way is to turn the focus ring on your lens to infinity (∞) as shown in the image below. Now each lens may be slightly different in how you set your focus distance on infinity, I would first try setting the focus in the middle of the infinity symbol (∞) and then adjust from there. Many lenses can focus past infinity, so in most cases you don’t want to turn your focus ring as far as it will go. Again, this is something you will want to try with each of your lenses and determine what works best for them.
You can also use hyper focal distance for the aperture and focal length chosen for your shot. This is slightly more complicated, and again I encourage you to give it a try and see if it works for you. I will not be getting into describing hyper focal distance in this blog, but there are many good articles on the net, and definitely worth a read.
I hope that this quick “how to” helps you achieve that shot that you are looking for. I look forward to seeing more great images of the night sky and any feedback you may have in relation to this guide.