Capturing The Milky Way

Going Beyond Auto - Capturing The Milky Way

I know what you are thinking, this post seems a bit advanced for…but it’s not.  Let me ease your mind and help  alleviate your fears of “advanced” photography by helping you capture The Milky Way.

What is The Milky Way?

For those of you that may not know, you live in the Milky Way Galaxy.  Here is my brief amateur astronomy lesson for the day.  Every star that you see when you look up is a part of the Milky Way…unless of course you have a great set of eyes and can spot our neighbor galaxy Andromeda.  The Milky Way, like other galaxies out there, is spinning around its core, or nucleus, and has several arms that make up the galaxy.  Our solar system is way out on one of those arms moving at a ridiculous speed around the center of the Milky Way.  Up here in the Northern Hemisphere, we can see the center of our galaxy mostly during the Summer months during most of the night.  Whenever you hear somebody mention a picture of the Milky Way, they are referring to the center of our galaxy or the visible band that we can see from Earth.  That is about as basic as it gets, and about all we need to know to capture an image of it.

What do I need to capture The Milky Way?

The most important thing you need is a clear dark sky to capture the Milky Way.  However, the next most important factor is the ability to take your SLR camera out of auto and really play with the manual settings.

Depending on where you are located in the United States, this adventure may be very easy or very difficult.  What makes this so difficult is light pollution of big cities.  We shine so much light upward every night that it washes out the darkness of the sky and what is truly up there.  To find out more about this, check out the International Dark-Sky Association.  If you happen to live out in the middle of nowhere, this will be a breeze.  If you live near a big city, like I do, you will need to take a long drive of at least an hour or two depending on the size of the city you are near to get a good dark sky.

For this adventure, you will need an SLR camera that can handle a high ISO, a large aperture lens, a tripod, a clear dark sky and a little know how that you will pick up here.

How to locate The Milky Way

As I mentioned, if you live in the United States, the Summer months are the best time to locate and photograph the visible band of our galaxy.  There are plenty of websites and phone apps that will help you determine the best time and location of the Milky Way in your neck of the woods.  As a general rule of thumb, June – August is the easiest time to find it.  Go outside starting around 10PM and stay away from any light, including that phone in your pocket, for at least 15 minutes to let your eyes adjust to the darkness.  Once you are adjusted, look South and you should see what looks like a huge collection of stars or maybe even a cloud.  If you see that on a clear night, you have found what you are looking for.  Depending on where you live it may be faint or bright, but know that it is there.

When you are trying to locate the Milky Way, you will have the best luck around a new moon.  Since the moon reflects the sun, it has the potential to wash out the Milky Way the closer to full that it is.  Our moon cycle is 28 days, so if it is full today, wait at least one week before you try, two weeks being preferred.

The Gear You Want

I started this off by telling you that this was easy, and it is if you are in the right place with the right equipment.  I know for a fact that it is possible to capture this image with a consumer level, crop-sensor camera and a kit lens.  However, I must tell you now that your photograph might not be as good or clear as it would if you had a professional grade camera and lens setup.  Don’t let that scare you, because you can still get some great pictures, they just won’t look like the one in this post.  Believe me, I and several other people have pulled it off, and I know you can as well.  If you are in the market for a full-frame camera, or want to rent one for this job, I recommend the Canon 6D (sponsored link).

For the lens, you will want as wide angle of a lens as you can get with the biggest aperture you can afford.  If you don’t think you will be doing this very often, rent this lens (sponsored link) for the week instead of buying one.  It is a Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 manual lens and it will help you capture the Milky Way.  If you can afford it, an f/1.4 lens would be even better.  Just know that The Milky Way is huge in the sky and the wider angle you can get, the better.  I would suggest at least 24mm, but 35mm could work also, just know you will only capture part of The Milky Way.

Make sure that you have a good steady tripod.  I won’t even suggest one in particular, just get one that holds your camera still.  If you want to take it one step further, get a remote shutter release for your camera also to avoid any camera shake.

Keep in mind, I have suggested the best gear for the job as of writing this post.  You don’t need that gear, but it does make the job easier.

The Milky Way - Kevin Heffner - Going Beyond Auto

How to Capture The Milky Way

You are outside, it is a very clear and very dark night.  You are away from all light sources, as much as possible, and you are facing South around midnight…you are ready.

Step 1 – Set Up Your Camera

Mount your camera on the tripod, plug in your remote if you have one, and aim your camera South avoiding light and unwanted objects.

Step 2 – Compose Your Shot

Look through the viewfinder (you won’t really see any stars, don’t worry) and compose your shot.  Try to get some kind of foreground object in the shot to add to your composition.  A picture of the Milky Way with just darkness around it looks about the same as anybody else’s…get some trees, mountains, buildings, anything in the shot to make it visually appealing.

Step 3 – Set Your Camera to Manual

To capture this image you will need to use the Manual setting on your camera.  Don’t worry, I will guide you through it and it won’t even scare you one bit.  You can leave your White Balance on Auto, or set it to Flash for a great night shot.

Step 4 – Open Your Aperture All The Way

On my lens, this was f/2.8, but open your lens up as wide as it will go.  For this type of shot you will want to allow the most amount of light in to your sensor as possible.  So dial in the widest aperture, or if you got the lens I suggested, turn the aperture ring to f/2.8.

Step 5 – Set Focus To Infinity

Manual focus is the name of the game for this operation, so turn off automatic and get ready to focus.  The best way to do this is to switch your camera to Live View mode where you can see the image on the LCD screen.  Depending on your camera, there is a way to zoom in (digitally without changing your focal length) and move around to find a point to focus on.  Pick the brightest star and turn the focus ring until it is a sharp dot.  Most lenses have an infinity mark to help you, start with that and turn your focus ring until it looks correct to you.

Step 6 – Set your ISO

Typically you want a low ISO to avoid noise and grain in your photo.  For this image, we need to make the sensor in our camera extra sensitive, so crank up the ISO to what you feel is an acceptable setting.  You want to go as high as you think is possible without adding too much noise into the equation.  Your camera may only go up to ISO 1600, use that.  If it goes further than that, pick one that is around the middle of the range.  I used ISO 6400 on my Canon 6D and it worked perfectly.  The camera is capable of going higher, but that will only add more noise.

Step 7 – Set your Shutter Speed

Your shutter speed will depend on your focal length for this task.  Our goal is to get stars to show up as clear points of light.  Due to the rotation of the Earth, the amount of time you can expose your shot depends on your focal length.  If you have a 35mm, you may only be able to take an exposure of 10 – 15 seconds before you notice the stars streaking across your image.  If you have a 24mm, 15 – 20 seconds works, and if you have a 14mm, you can expose for up to 30 seconds.  The key is to use the longest open shutter speed possible for your lens to allow as much light in as possible.

Step 8 – Take the Picture

If you have a remote, stop touching the camera and fire away.  If you don’t have a remote, set your camera to the self-timer function.  You want at least 2 seconds after touching the camera before the shutter is released to stop all camera shake.  Set the timer, hit the shutter button and let the magic happen.

That’s it!

I told you this was easy.  After you take one picture, I’m sure you may need to recompose your shot, adjust your focus, ISO or shutter speed, but that’s all there is to it.  Many people are afraid of these types of photos because it requires manual settings, but it is really nothing to be afraid of.  If you are Going Beyond Auto for the first time, and want to try Manual, this is a great way to start.

The most important thing with trying to capture an image like this is to have fun.  Don’t let anything discourage you from enjoying taking the best possible picture you can.  If your picture doesn’t look like the professionals, good!  If it doesn’t look like mine, great!  Make the shot your own and capture it the best way that you can.  You will love it and it will keep you inspired to get out there and take more.

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