A Beginner’s Guide To Photographing The Milky Way

I’m more of a street photographer, because the barrier to entry is lower. I can simply walk out of my apartment, and I’m ready to click. Last week I was out in San Francisco for a work trip, and decided to use the opportunity to try to get a photo of the Milky Way. Now, like most budding photographers I had no idea where to even begin with this. I have a nice camera (Sony A7Riii) and a tripod. I’ve also taken pictures with a tripod before, but the Milky Way presents more challenges. For starters, I had a lot of questions:

  • Where should I go to get enough ambient darkness? It needs to be far from a city, but where exactly?
  • Where in the sky would the Milky Way be on a given night?
  • What would the weather be like on that night at that location? What if it’s cloudy?
  • What camera settings should I use? What lens?

That’s a lot to figure out. But, I did figure it out, and got this photo on Friday night:

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I figured I should write about this to help others who are trying to nail that perfect shot of the sky. I’ll start from the basics, and walk you all the way to the final result.

Camera, lenses and equipment

First of all, you’ll need a camera with a good resolution. “Good” is a relative term here – it really depends on how big you want to blow up the final photo. In my case, I wanted to print it and hang it on a wall in my apartment, so I needed over 4000×3000 pixels. If you have any SLR camera, or generally, any interchangeable lens camera, you’ll likely be fine. I use a Sony A7Riii, and I love it.

Focal Length: You need a lens that has a big field of view, something around 24mm. This is because the Milky Way is huge and stretches across the sky. You’ll likely want to showcase the size in your photograph, so pick a lens that gives you that field of view. You could try to use a wide angle lens here, but I went with my 24-70 Sony GM.

Aperture: The Milky Way is pretty faint compared to brighter objects like the moon. To the naked eye, it appears as a band of stars and haze that stretches across the sky. To photograph it, you need your lens aperture to be as wide open as possible. My 24-70 Sony GM tops out at f/2.8, so that’s what I set it to.

ISO: Again, you’re trying to photograph a very faint object so you need high ISO sensitivity. However, you can’t go too high because then you risk introducing noise. I went with ISO 3200. Anything around 3200-4000 should be fine, but you’ll have to experiment with that on the spot.

Shutter speed: You want a lot of detail and therefore need to give your sensor time to collect more photons. However, if you keep the shutter open too long, stars will move in the sky and your photo will contain streaks instead of dots. A good rule of thumb is to divide 500 by your focal length in mm — so for a 24mm focal length, your exposure time should not be more than 21 seconds. This should make intuitive sense – if your focal length is huge, then your lens is able to track small movements, and therefore should not be kept at a low shutter speed. I ended up using a 20 second exposure, but again, experiment with it!

Tripod: You cannot take a long-exposure shot without a tripod, or at the very least a stable surface. Your hands won’t cut it. Get a tripod, or rent one for the night.

Location, date and time

Photographing nature requires patience, research, and a willingness to accept failure. You might have seen fantastic photos of the Milky Way on the internet, but the chances of you getting something like that on your first try are miniscule. You need to accept that chances of failure are high and adjust expectations accordingly. Think of it as a learning opportunity :).

Location: You need to be somewhere far from city lights. You’ll also want a place that is reasonably accessible and where you’re willing to get yourself to. I did a bit of googling, and decided to go to Davenport Beach, California.

Date and Time: It’s 2018, so the first question you need to ask is – is there an app for it? Turns out, there is! It’s an app called “PhotoPills” – it’s not free, and costs around $10. However, it’s a really great app and comes with tons of features, including one that tells you the position of any stellar object on any date at any time. All this data, on your phone. What a time to be alive. They also have fantastic tutorials on their website. Once you’ve downloaded the app, use their 2D Map-Centric planner to figure out the best date and time. The tutorial for that is here. Ideally, you’d want the moon to be closer to the new-moon phase so that it doesn’t dominate the night sky in terms of brightness.

Weather: This is a big variable. You might have perfect sky in terms of the Milky Way’s position, moon-phase etc, but clouds can ruin everything. I used Accuweather to get an estimate of what the weather would be like on my target date and time. Keep an eye on this, and adjust your plans accordingly. Definitely check the weather before you start moving towards your planned location.

Alright, I have the equipment, I have a location, everything looks good! What now?

Get to the location. You’ll probably have to be outside for an hour or so late at night, so make sure to pack warm clothes, a banana, some water etc. Keep a Swiss knife as well – it’s useful for everything from tightening screws, to uncorking champagne after you’ve taken a winning photograph.

Set up your tripod, and mount the camera. Tighten all the knobs and make sure your tripod is stable. This is important – you don’t want your expensive camera and lenses to get damaged by falling over mid-shoot. That’ll be a downer for sure, so triple check the stability of your setup before anything else.

Now, set your camera to manual mode. I used f/2.8, 24mm focal length, 20s shutter speed, 3200 ISO. I then switched the camera to manual focus. Next, I focused on the people in front of me, so a focus distance of about 5m. Set your focus distance according to the scene in front of you. If you’re trying to photograph just the sky, then set the focus distance to infinity.

Finally, set your camera to a timer-release, press the button and step back. Do not touch the camera or tripod until the shutter has closed. Once you’ve gotten a photo, adjust the tripod, camera angle, composition, and then re-take until you’re satisfied. I’d recommend experimenting with shutter speed, ISO settings etc. until you’re happy with what you have. I even applied an automatic white balance to give the photo a slightly warmer feel.

I have a winner!!

FANTASTIC! Head back indoors, and fire up Photoshop. Adjust brightness, contrast, or whatever else you wish to tweak. Remove any unwanted artifacts/objects. Here’s a great tutorial to help you with that.

You’re all set, my friend. Now sit back, crack open a beer, and celebrate your first foray into night-sky photography. I’ll leave you with another (#noFilter) photo that I took while on the beach:

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