Shooting the Milky Way
is simpler than you think. What is more challenging is finding the Milky Way in the sky when we want it. Fortunately we have a few apps out there to help us locate the Milky Way in our skies. Once we are sure of the location and the exact timings, shooting the Milky Way becomes very easy with a DSLR. Of course you want a DSLR with a good low light performance or a better ISO performance.
Milky Way and interesting facts:
The Milky Way is a galaxy and is home to planet earth. The galactic centre of the Milky Way, which is also the most favoured during photographing the Milky Way, is 27000 light years from the earth. It has around 100- 400 billion stars in it and also houses a black hole. From earth you can easily spot the cluster of dust and stars with your naked eye depending upon your location on earth and the light pollution around you. The visibility and orientation of the Milky Way in the sky keeps on changing continuously throughout the year, depending upon the axis of rotation of the earth and your location in northern hemisphere/southern hemisphere/near the equator.
Finding the Milky Way in the sky:
Now a days we have apps like stellerium, the photographer’s ephemeris, PhotoPills and many others to help us locate the Milky Way in the sky. What is more interesting is that we can also see the position of the Milky Way in the near future dates so we can plan in advance.
These apps work on augmented reality concepts and are capable of showing you the entire sky on your mobile phone. You just have to point your device to the sky and it shows you every constellation, every star, planets and the Milky Way. Just type the date and time that you want to know the location of the Milky Way and it will show you. You will also get to know the position of the galactic core of the Milky Way which is the brightest visible part of the Milky Way and makes a great composition. Apps also show you the sunrise/sunset and moonrise /moonset timings and also the weather. Make sure you have clear skies when you are planning.
For best results it is advised to choose moonless nights or nights nearing the moonless nights and to locations with less light pollution. There is an app for finding locations with less light pollution as well. With Dark sky Finder you can plan exact locations for shooting the Milky Way. Also start hunting for the Milky Way after the moonset.
Camera Gear for the Milky Way:
Now that the day, location and time are planned the next important thing would be the gear you carry. Here is a list of camera gear that you would require.
- DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflector) / Mirrorless Camera with manual settings for the Milky Way.
A DSLR camera
is a prime requirement mainly because of its ability to control the aperture, shutter speed and ISO manual and also because it can focus manually. Mirrorless cameras are also available with complete manual setting capabilities and can also be used to shoot awesome Milky Way pictures.
Another important aspect for choosing a camera for a Milky Way shoot is to have a camera with a full frame sensor and good ISO performance. Now a days, crop sensors cameras are matching performance with full sensor cameras in terms of ISO performance, but a full frame camera will always have an edge over crop sensors or sensors smaller than that. Below are a few examples of DSLR Cameras for shooting Milky Way.
Fast & wide-angle camera Lenses with low aperture values.
Fast lenses with aperture values like f1.4, f 1.8, f2.8 are very important while shooting the Milky Way. At these aperture values the lenses are wide open and thereby allowing more light to inter through the lens. With wide open aperture you can manage to keep the ISO low and thereby reducing noise. Also wide angle lenses will cover a large sky in your picture resulting in better composition. Some examples of fast & wide lenses are given below.
You cannot shoot the Milky Way by holding the camera in your hands obviously, because you have to shoot at long shutter speeds of 10/20/30 seconds. A Sturdy tripod is a mandatory thing for night photography in general and utmost necessary for shooting the Milky Way. The basic use if the tripod is to keep your camera steady. Also the tripod should be able to keep your camera steady with full extension of its legs. If you opt for a flimsy tripod it will fail to keep the camera steady all the time.
While out on the field your tripod should be strong against windy weather. It should be able to handle long lenses. Multiple exposures should be possible without disturbing the set –up. A flimsy tripod may disappoint you in one way or the other. I am not recommending buying a very expensive tripod unless you really need one, but you should make sure you have a sturdy tripod while shooting the Milky Way.
Wired shutter remote cable
While your camera is on the tripod for shooting the Milky Way, you don’t have to disturb the camera by touching it every time for clicking the pictures and operating the shutter button by your hand. A wired shutter remote saves any manual interaction with your camera once you have set up. You can easily operate your shutter with a wired remote and even lock your wired remote for shooting on bulb mode if required.
Wired remote for Nikon: Nikon MCDC2
Wired remote for Canon: Canon rs 60-e3
The camera settings are pretty simple. It is high ISO (ISO 800 to 3200 depending upon the combination of your DSLR camera and lens) at the widest open aperture of f1.4/f1.8/f2/f2.8 and a long shutter speed (10/20 /30) seconds. A few test shots and you will easily figure out which one is the best.
But there is more. You will have to ensure a few more things before you start shooting. You should have the focus right. For best results set your lens to infinity focus. Every lens has an infinity focus setting where you get everything that you shoot in focus. Another important thing to do is to turn on the Noise reduction in your camera settings. This will reduce the noise as at high ISO. It takes a little more than normal time to write the picture on the card with turning this feature on but it is worth it.
Find a good composition before you start shooting. Find a suitable foreground for your majestic Milky Way background. It won’t get better if you have an equally good foreground for your Milky Way. Do not forget to remove the UV filter on the lens and shoot in RAW.
Composition for the Milky Way:
Use compositions rules like the ‘Rule of Thirds’ and ‘golden ratio’ for composing. For finding best compositions you will have to take test shots in the dark and test them before you finalize your composition. Use live view. Include a foreground and you can take different shots for the foreground and the background and stack them later in post processing. Also you can light paint your foreground with a torch or another light to make your pictures interesting.
Composition is a very important factor to make or break any picture. So give special attention to composition. Since you will be working hard on planning your shoot by finding the location and selecting the day, you don’t want to miss out on getting your best shot. You can carry tents with you and use them as props in your foreground. With infinity focus, you are sure to get everything in focus but my advice would be to shoot one picture for the lit tent and another for the milky way and stack them together later in a software. You can also include your car/ truck /SUV in your foreground and try interesting compositions.
The best part is since you have planned in advance, the Milky Way is not going anywhere for quite some time. It may as well change its orientation but you can easily try a few compositions before it vanishes away.