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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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!