Milky Way Photography – How To Get Started

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What is Milky Way?

Milky Way is a galaxy that our planet Earth is located in. It gets its name from the milky appearance as it stretches across the sky. The ancient Greeks were the first ones to give it a name. They called it galaxias kyklos which translates to “milky circle”. According to Greek mythology, Hera, the goddess of marriage, women, and family and Zeus’ sister-wife spilled a few drops of milk into the sky that gave our galaxy its appearance. But in reality, we are looking at a concentration of billions of stars emanating light that presents itself as a glowing arc.

When is the best time to see it?

Milky Way’s viewing season begins in March and ends in October. But the best time of the year to enjoy this sky wonder is between late April and late August. If you happen to live in the Southern Hemisphere then you can have an enhanced experience since the core of the galaxy shows up higher in the sky. Another factor to take into account is the phase of the moon. Moonlight is not your friend when trying to see the sky clearly. Actually, you want the sky to be as dark as possible which happens on New Moon day or a few days around it. Depending on what type of Milky Way positioning in the sky is your favorite, you should consider different months as ideal unless you are indifferent to staying up all night or waking up a couple of hours before dawn. For example, in May/June the Milky Way does not position vertically above horizon until 4-5am. But in August, you only have to wait until midnight.

Where are the best places to see Milky Way?

As I mentioned above, the darker the sky, the better your experience will be. Some of the best viewing locations are far from light pollution which is mainly created by large cities. Such pollution can spread over long distances so ideally you want to be at least a couple of hours away from the source. Even better if you come to a national park such as Death Valley or Joshua Tree. There you can find yourself in total darkness with an exception of occasional cars driving by. It’s where we took majority of our Milky Way photos last year and the experience was absolutely amazing.

What gear do I need to shoot Milky Way?

Shooting Milky Way is a very satisfying experience. It allows you to capture a lot more detail than you can see with your naked eye, even after a period of adjustment. In order to get desired results, it is best to have camera gear that allows you to capture as much light as possible without introducing too much noise or star trails (as the sky is moving constantly, it only takes a short while to notice the movement in the photos). Basically, a larger sensor and faster camera lenses equal better outcomes. You will also need a sturdy tripod as you will be shooting multiple second exposures and need your camera as steady as possible. Additionally, it’s recommended to have a wide-angle lens so you can capture as much of the Milky Way as possible. Another advantage of a wider lens is that it takes more time for the star trails to become visible and more annoying. Lastly, a headlight emitting red light will be very handy to maintain your night vision. To dive deeper into the subject, check out the section below on the basics of how to shoot the Milky Way to get a result that you can show off to your friends 🙂

Wondering what camera lens is the best for you? Read Focal Length Comparison.

How do I set up the camera for that magical shot of the sky?

Imagine you are in a dark sky area, away from all the light pollution and the Moon is taking a break from illuminating the sky. You turn off your car and start immersing yourself in complete darkness. After a few minutes your eyes start adjusting and you quickly identify where the core of the Milky Way is positioned. Now it’s time to start setting up your camera gear. Turn on the red light to preserve your night vision and once you found the ideal shooting spot, place the camera on a tripod.

Next, change the ISO value (sensor’s sensitivity to light) to something like 25600 or higher. Then point your camera at the brightest part of the sky, switch to manual focus and start making adjustments. On my camera, subjects in focus are colored red so once I start seeing a lot of sharp red dots, I know I am done focusing.

As a next step, adjust your composition to what you want to capture. Getting it right on a first try can be tricky but once the first photo pops up, it is easy to make changes. If one wants to include some interesting foreground in the composition not just the sky, then it is advised to take two separate photos with specific focus and blend them. This way the whole composition will be sharp. But if your foreground ends up being just a silhouette then I think you can achieve a great effect in just one capture.

Now, make sure that camera is set in manual mode. Select the fastest aperture that your lens allows. We shoot with Tamron 17-28mm F2.8 and Sigma 24mm F1.4 so we would set the aperture to 2.8 and 1.4 respectively. Now it is time to calculate maximum exposure time for your lens that will avoid visible trailing stars. There is a rule of thumb called 500 rule that you can use as a guide. Basically to arrive at exposure time in seconds, one has to divide 500 by the focal length of the lens. For example, when shooting with our Sigma we can get away with a little over 20 seconds of exposure. A lot of photographers, especially the experienced ones use a more conservative rule called NPF. It is a pretty complicated formula but there are apps out there like the awesome PhotoPills that will give you a quick result. Roughly speaking, you would cut the exposure time by half or more as compared to the 500 rule.

Finally we go back to the ISO setting and bring it down to a value between 2500 and 6400. At the bottom of the range you will achieve less noise but the image might be too dark. 6400 is the maximum I would choose in order to control the noise for single shot images. If your image is still too dark at ISO 6400, you will have to compromise on trailing stars (you can get away with a lot more for web based images), get a faster lens, a camera with bigger sensor or one specially targeting low light photography like Sony A7S series.

There are more advanced techniques for taking dreamy Milky Way photos that are sharp and noiseless. One of them is photo stacking to average out the noise and another involves purchasing a star tracker which will slightly move your camera on a tripod to follow the sky during extended exposures. But these are advanced subjects that deserve a separate post.

How do I post-process my Milky Way images?

To keep it simple, let’s assume that we are only dealing with a single image. We kept the noise under control and avoided trailing stars so the raw image is a perfect starting point. My favorite tools for polishing photos are Lightroom and Photoshop. There are many different ways one can post-process a Milky Way image. When I first got into astrophotography, I read a few blog posts to learn how others approach it but I ultimately achieved the look that I found the most attractive by doing a lot of tinkering with Lightroom settings. So without further ado, here is how I like to adjust my Milky Way photos. I usually bump Exposure and Contrast a little bit. Next, I take down the Highlights and recover the Shadows. White Tones also get a bump and Black Tones are usually adjusted slightly down.

Under Presence settings, Clarity, Dehaze, Vibrance and Saturation all get a boost, with Clarity usually getting the biggest change. Now, let’s move to the Tone Curve. Here I fine tune the Highlights adjustment and take up the Lights pretty significantly. Darks and Shadows are usually left untouched. Under HSL section, only Saturation gets affected. Green and Aqua are usually decreased a few notches. In Split Toning, a touch of Highlights adjustment allows me to achieve desired look. Finally, don’t forget to play around Luminance under Noise Reduction to get an even more pleasant looking image. So that’s it for my workflow in Lightroom. Let me know if this is what you would imagine your Milky Way photos to look like.

Even though Lightroom post processing is usually enough for a single Milky Way image, there is one cool trick in Photoshop that I sometimes like to utilize to make the Milky Way pop. It involves removing/reducing the stars in the image. To begin, make sure you have your main image layer selected. Then go to Select > Color Range in the Photoshop menu. A box will pop up. Under Select option choose Highlights. Play around with Range and Fuzziness settings so you can include as many stars as possible without affecting the Milky Way. Once you are fine with your selection, click OK. As a next step, we have to make sure that each star is captured completely. To do that we can take advantage of the Expand command. It can be found under Select > Modify > Expand. For my images, I choose a value of 2 and it works perfectly. Now to complete the process and get rid of the stars all we have to do is press Delete. This will bring up Fill dialogue box. You don’t need to make any changes here as it should be set to Content-Aware by default. You click OK, then go to Select > Deselect to get rid of the “marching ants” and you are done! Take a look below to find out how this process worked on one of my images. Do you think it was worth it?

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2 Comments

  1. Mark B
    March 21, 2022 / 7:54 pm

    very useful information and beautiful photos. it makes me wanna try astrophotography

    • March 21, 2022 / 8:01 pm

      So happy to hear you found this post inspirational. Taking shots of Milky Way isn’t easy but it definitely is very satisfying. Good luck to you!

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