Night Sky Photography. How to photograph the Milky Way 23

Every little dot you see when you gaze upon the night sky is part of the Milky Way, our own galaxy. Milky Way is a spiral galaxy, probably more than 100.000 light years in diameter containing at least 200 billion stars. From our point of view, Milky way looks like a faint cloud-like band that arcs across the sky.
All the stars you see at the same time with the unaided eye on a clear moonless night are about 2000. All these stars are part of the Milky Way. Our vision limits us only within a drop, lost in a cosmic sea! It gets even more mind intriguing when you realize that when you look at the center of the galaxy you see an image from the distant past, since the distance from the Earth is about 27.000 light years.

Today, is easier than ever to photograph the Milky Way with a dslr camera. This tutorial is focused on how we can photograph the Milky Way combined with a landscape. Let’s see how we can do this step by step.

Chris Kotsiopoulos Greek Sky Calendar 2014

Milky Way at Ikaria island.

Milky Way at Ikaria island.



  1   Use a free astronomy software like Stellarium or Cartes Du Ciel. There are both free and they provide valuable help in learning the sky, which is essential for this kind of photography. From the northern hemisphere you may enjoy the best views of the Milky Way during the summer. Look at the southern sky to locate the center of the Milky Way.

  2   When is the best time for shooting? Any time of the year, better at summer time at clear cloudless nights. On the moonless nights, the sky is darker and the Milky Way looks better with more depth and contrast. With full Moon? Better forget it! On the other hand if there is a crescent Moon low at the horizon, it may be effective in illuminating the landscape without affecting the sky much.

  3   Equipment. Use a Digital SLR camera with a wide field lens on a tripod. Essentially that’s all you need. The most dedicated astrophotographers use modified DSLRs where the IR filter is removed or replaced with a more sensitive for astrophotography. You may also find useful a dslr shutter release to prevent camera shake at the beginning of the exposure. Also consider a lens hood to keep moisture off the lens. The night sky is a really demanding photography target. Ideally you need a low noise dslr camera at high ISOs and a wide field, fast lens. Prime lenses are generally faster and provide better results compared with zoom lenses at the same price range. I use the Canon 550D coupled with the Canon EF15mm f/2.8 Fisheye lens and I’m pretty happy with the results. If you afford to have a full frame dslr like Canon 5D that’s even better. If you don’t its OK. Remember that the photographer takes the photo, not the camera!

  4   Location. Perhaps the most important issue for capturing a breathtaking Milky Way photo. You need to go as far from the city lights as you can. You may have to travel hundreds of kilometers in order to escape from the light pollution of a metropolitan area. See it as an opportunity to get away from the everyday routine and come a little bit closer to Mother Nature! The Milky Way’s band is a really magnificent sight on it’s own but if you combine it with a beautiful landscape that’s even better.

Milky Way and trees at ikaria island.

Milky Way and trees at ikaria island.

  5   Preparations. For the most of us, shooting the heavens involves a trip to the country side. This may be a few miles away or a few hundred miles away from home or even more! Be informed about the weather on site. Apparently, a cloudy sky and/or intense wind will not allow you to take your dream photo, although a partially cloudy sky or even better, lightning with stars sometimes result to unbelievable photos! Make a list with all the necessities. Some obvious or less obvious suggestions:

  • Camera, lenses, tripod etc.
  • Water.
  • Food.
  • Warm clothes. Even at summer time it gets cold depending on your location especially on high mountains.
  • Extra batteries – memory cards for the camera.
  • A cell phone.
  • A GPS unit. So if you get lost in the mountains, it will be very easy for the rescuers to find you!
  • Mosquito repellent.

  6   Framing your subject. It is always a good idea to include something interesting to accompany the Milky Way in your photo. This may be a long distant foreground like a mountain or a tree, or even yourself standing a few meters away from the camera, gazing at the horizon. A wide field lens is really handy at a situation when your camera is focused to infinity and at the same time your foreground is relatively near. I use a crop 1,6 dslr camera and a 15mm fisheye lens and even if I focus on the stars, objects 3-4 meters away, still look quite sharp. As you can imagine, the most of the action takes place on the sky. This doesn’t mean that you should overlook the foreground. You certainly can have them both. If you use a full frame dslr with a very wide field lens your field of view will be adequate in almost any case. Alternatively you may take a number of photos and stitch them to a panorama with a photo stitching software. This is something I will explain in detail in another tutorial.

Milky Way and trees at Parnassos mountain.

Milky Way and trees at Parnassos mountain.

  7   Settings. How much light you need? As much as you can, as fast as you can! A typical scenario includes: 30 second exposure, aperture wide open (or one stop closed for a sharper results), ISO 1600 (or even more if you have a really low noise DSLR). Why only 30 seconds exposure? Because if you exceed a certain amount of time, stars appears like trails and the Milky Way will be blurry, due to the Earth’s rotation. The 30 second exposure is just and indication that applies to my setup (crop 1,6 camera with a 15mm lens). With a full frame dslr and an 8mm lens you could probably shoot for as long as 1 minute without a problem. You can use your camera’s flash or an artificial light source, like a flash light, to illuminate a dark foreground.

  8   Other Settings. SHOOT IN RAW! One more time. SHOOT IN RAW! Especially for the Milky Way photos shooting in RAW is essential because it will result to a much better image after post processing. White balance: I use Daylight. If your camera support it, set the noise reduction to ON. What it does? Your camera takes a second shot with the shutter closed (dark frame) and then tries to remove digital noise from the original photo based on the dark frame. On the down side, this takes twice as much time so if you want to take many consequent shots to stitch to a panorama this isn’t the best option.

  9   Post processing. This could be the subject of a whole new post or even a book! Just a few quick suggestions. Even the slight light pollution will give to your photo a reddish tone. If you use photoshop this can be fixed adjusting the color balance. Also use Curves, Brightness/Contrast and Saturation to increase the contrast and make the colors more vivid.

  10   Finally and most importantly. Have fun! If you succeed to shoot the photo you have succeeded! If you don’t you have succeeded again in learning something new!

23 thoughts on “Night Sky Photography. How to photograph the Milky Way

  1. Reply Jonathan Feb 8, 2013 1:00 am

    If you are shooting in raw, then the whitebalance doesn’t matter. That can be altered afterwards without losing anything.

    • Reply Chris Feb 8, 2013 6:45 am

      Hi Jonathan. Thanks for your comment! To tell you the truth I always set the white balance to ‘Daylight’ when I shoot the Milky Way. I haven’t tried to set a different white balance and alter it afterwards.

    • Reply Kioan Mar 8, 2013 9:47 am

      That’s true. I don’t care about the whitebalance when shooting in raw (Canon 450D).

      After transferring the photos to my PC, I use RawTherapee for further processing. I’ running it in Linux but it is also available for Windows and Mac.

      If your camera doesn’t have the noise reduction function, you can do it in RawTherapee. All you need to do is take a photo with the lens cap on, using same exposure time, so that the sensor will capture only the noise. Then open this file using the “Dark Frame” option available in RawTherapee.

      • Reply Chris Mar 25, 2013 9:31 pm

        Hi Kioan. That’s interesting! My camera does have noise reduction but I never use it because it doubles the shooting time and when it comes to Milky Way panoramas, every second counts in order to be ahead of the Earth’s rotation. I only use dark frames when I do deep sky photography and then I stack the photos with Deep Sky Stacker. Also when I shoot star trails I process them with Startrails application which also support the use of dark frames. I will definitely try RawTherapee for the next Milky Way shots.
        Thanks!

  2. Reply Leigh Apr 11, 2013 6:05 am

    Tthanks for doing the article. The 30 second example you stated for your lens/APS-C cam is just one example as you say… for avoiding oval-ized stars there is a formula for all lenses, by taking into account focal length. For full-frame 35 mm sensor, divide 600, 500, or even 450 for best circular star shape, by your focal length. commercial-quality, (depending on how good your sensor is at high ISO go toward 450). So for my 35mm Rokinon I use 12-13 sec’s at a higher ISO, and for my 24mm Canon lens, I use 18-20 secs at a lower ISO. I’m still learning, but this is what my mentors have suggested and it’s worked.
    Cheers,
    http://www.leighandersonphotography.com

  3. Reply Anonymous Apr 29, 2013 7:05 am

    Hi Chris,
    I am from Northern India, and planning to visit Himalayas(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Himalayas), next week, can you please tell me, which star/constellation to look for tracking Milky way.

    Thanks and Regards
    LAT and LONG of my position would be N 27.031539,E 88.069464

  4. Reply H May 29, 2013 10:49 am

    Hi chris

    you can also use a motorized tripod (equatorial mount) to compensante the earth rotation and leave the shutter opened as long as you want.

    • Reply Chris Jun 3, 2013 12:01 pm

      Hi!
      You are right about the equatorial mount. The only problem is that if you want to include the landscape in your photo, the motorized tripod will mess up your ‘landscape part’ of your image.
      :-)

  5. Reply Dennis Jun 4, 2013 2:34 am

    Hi Chris,

    I refer to the arching Milky Way photo re: Milky Way and trees at Parnassos mountain. May I know roughly what time it was taken? Is that timing consistent to take a shot where the Milky Way will be arching across the horizon? Thanks!

    • Reply Chris Jun 7, 2013 8:59 pm

      Hi Dennis. You refer to this picture. You will find all the info about the date, time and settings at the lower section of the page. The date was 12 August 2010, time 23:12 – 23:25, local time. (This is a 17 shot panorama. It took me 13 minutes to take the shots).

      You don’t need an exact timing to capture the Milky Way arching. At the image you mention, the highest point of the arc is roughly at 80 degrees altitude. That’s very high, nearly at zenith. At this image it is lower at 45 – 50 degrees.
      The key factors are:
      1) The time of the year. The Milky Way is best viewed at summer. The April and May as you looking south the predawn hours are preferred. From June to August the best time is near midnight and the Milky Way will be visible almost all night. From Mid August through September the best time is soon after the sun has set and the sky has grown dark.
      2) Light pollution. Get as far as you can from the city lights.
      3) Your equipment. If you want to capture the whole arc you need a dslr and a wide field lens.
      4) Post processing. Even with a wide field lens most probably you will have to stitch a number of photos to get the arc in one image. (except perhaps if you use a full frame dslr and a super wide field lens, or if you capture the milky way low at the horizon).

      • Reply Chris Jun 7, 2013 9:08 pm

        If you want to have a detailed view of the Milky Way, constellations, planets and all the celestial objects in interest you may use an astronomical software. There are many. I use Cartes du Ciel. It’s freeware and simple!
        :-)

  6. Reply Gilbert Jul 3, 2013 5:39 am

    Hi, may i ask what is RAW? and my camera is canon 550d and lens 58mm … can i shoot the milky way too ? thanks.

    • Reply Chris Jul 23, 2013 1:04 pm

      Hi Gilbert.
      We have the same camera!
      Your camera can record images in various quality modes.
      RAW is the best quality image mode. The downside is the large size of RAW images and the extra post processing time. You will find it in your camera menu (for Canon 550D is at the first menu tab, first line).
      Regards.

  7. Reply Dennis Jul 9, 2013 5:29 am

    Thanks Chris! I will be visiting a dark sky site in September and hope to take a shot like yours. Yes, I do have a 14mm lens.

  8. Reply Martha Aug 1, 2013 5:43 pm

    Chris,

    I just tried this Saturday night, can you talk about how to focus in the dark? This was challenging; I would call it a learning experience rather than successful. I found a smaller aperture to be more desirable, f11ish. The wider the aperture the less focused the image became.

    • Reply Chris Oct 31, 2013 8:48 am

      It is indeed a challenge to focus on complete darkness. The best way I’m aware of is to use a bahtinov mask. It is a simple mask made of paper or plastic that attaches to your lens and creates a pattern that allows you to easily calibrate your focus manually. There are many web sites that will even build one for you according your focal length. I have successfully used it on my 600mm telescope. I haven’t tested it yet on my wide field lenses.
      Another way is to set your dslr focus to auto, focus on the Moon or a distant light and then set the focus to manual to lock it on the desirable position. If there are not any distant lights or the Moon, you can leave a flashlight open on a distance and focus on that. Even with a wide aperture if you use a wide field lens, this should be OK.
      If your camera has live focus, you can use it on a bright star on the maximum magnification to manually focus easily.
      If nothing of the above is available there is always the try and error. Set the focus to manual and experiment. Take a shot, magnify it and inspect it. If it looks blurry or has the shape of a donut, adjust the focus and try again.

  9. Reply Margaret Aug 12, 2013 9:33 am

    Hi CHris, thanks for these articles. I want to capture beautiful night skit in Kythera so very useful. Any particular tips when photographing shooting stars? Margaret

  10. Reply Helee Oct 31, 2013 4:21 am

    Hey Chris! Thanks for the wonderful insight.
    Your photographs have turned out beautiful!

    I own a Nikon D3200 and recently acquired a Nikkor prime 35mm f/1.8G lens. I am planning to travel to Kutch, Gujarat, India (lat.: Tropic of Cancer 23.27 N; long: 69.67 E) and was hoping to click a few good shots of the night sky from the White Desert. It is going to be a new moon night.

    Are there any particular things I must take care of?
    Thanks!

    • Reply Chris Oct 31, 2013 9:26 am

      Hi Helee.
      Nikon D3200 is a nice camera and the lens is decent and fast. If you plan to include a foreground in your photo (landscape, scenery) you may find useful to have a wider field lens as well. Be informed about what you can shoot at any particular place, season and time. The best way to do it is to use an astronomical software. I use Cartes Du Ciel which is freeware but there are many more out there.

  11. Reply Ann Dec 27, 2013 11:09 am

    Not having a manual camera so my question is if a compact one (Nikon Coolpix L820 Superzoom, 16,0 Megapixel, 30x opt. Zoom) has any chances. Thank you

    • Reply Chris Feb 5, 2014 9:18 pm

      Hi Ann.
      With a compact camera you can go as far as taking nice day time photos, sunrise and sunsets and even some astrophotography afocally (taking photos of the Moon with the compact camera handheld in front of the telescope eyepiece) like this one.

      For startrails, milky way shots etc you really need a dslr camera capable of making long exposures.

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