Now that summer is arriving to the northern hemisphere, we are about to enter the best time of year to see and photograph the most beautiful part of our own Milky Way Galaxy. Not only are there millions of stars and some amazing dust lanes in the band of the Milky Way, there are also a host of Messier and NGC objects as well.
What equipment will I need?
- A camera with a large sensor, such as a DSLR or Micro Four Thirds camera. The sensor on most point-and-shoot cameras just isn't big enough to capture enough light at night to make photographing the Milky Way a worthwhile endeavor.
- A wide angle lens with a large aperture. The summer Milky Way encompasses a lot of the night sky, so you will want to shoot with a very wide field of view. I suggest at least 24mm or wider, with an aperture of at least f/2.8. You can still get decent results with smaller aperture lenses, but the goal is to try and get as much light into the camera as possible without too long of an exposure.
- A remote shutter release, or an in-camera timer option. Pressing the shutter with your finger causes camera shake, which can result in blurry images when shooting long exposures. See if there is an available remote shutter control for your camera. If not, most cameras have some kind of timer option. That way you can press the shutter button normally with your finger, but the camera will wait for a period of time before it actually opens the shutter. This allows the camera to stop shaking before taking the photo. A remote shutter release is the preferred option because it will also allow you to take exposures for several minutes in length if you are able to use a tracking device for even longer exposures. You will use the bulb setting on your camera and the remote to open and close the shutter.
- A good sturdy tripod. You don't want the wind to blow your tripod over with your nice camera on it. You also don't want a light breeze to shake your camera during a long exposure and cause blurry images. I would recommend a tripod with a weight rating of at least 5 pounds. Orion sells three tripods that meet this requirement.
- A couple of reliable memory cards with at least 16 gigabytes of storage each. You're probably going to be shooting a lot of images as you will likely have to experiment a good bit initially with your camera settings. I also recommend that you shoot with your camera in RAW mode so that you can have more control over processing them. Shooting in RAW mode comes at a price, however. The individual images will be much larger than if you were shooting in JPG mode.
- A fully charged camera battery and at least one fully charged backup battery. Or, you can use a field battery and adapter, like Orion's Dynamo battery and DSLR adapter (compatible with Canon cameras). It is an awful feeling to be out shooting something really beautiful and having your camera die because of battery power. Get charged up ahead of time!
Now that you have your materials list down, here are some other details you'll want to consider before you set out to shoot the Milky Way:
- You will of course want to find a location with dark skies. Light pollution is your enemy (and that includes the Moon). If you can't see any part of the Milky Way with your naked eye, then photographing it will be quite difficult. Get away from the city lights! Hopefully there is a national or state park with reasonably dark skies within a manageable driving distance.
- Keep an eye on the weather. You will want to consult the Clear Sky Chart website for this.
- Learn the phases of the Moon. The Moon is beautiful, but it interferes with our trying to shoot the Milky Way. Try to plan your shooting as close to the New Moon as possible so it won't interfere.
- Know what time the Milky Way will rise so you can maximize your shooting time. A good piece of free software that can help is Stellarium. This program shows you what will be in the sky at any time you'd like to know about.
- You will have to use both manual focus and manual exposure settings with your lens and camera. Automatic focusing and exposure will simply not give good results for shooting at night.
- For manual focusing, set your lens to infinity focus mode if available. If not, try to focus on the brightest star or planet in the sky. Vega is a really bright star that is right next to the Milky Way. It might take you several test shots to get the focus exactly correct, so be patient and if your camera has a zoom feature which allows you to view your images that can be very helpful for focusing.
Getting Started with Camera Settings
- Use the largest aperture your lens will allow.
- Start with your ISO at 3200.
- Set your exposure time to 20 seconds.
- Review your image in the camera. If it's too bright, then lower the ISO and/or exposure time. If you don't see much detail, try raising them a bit.
- You might find that setting the ISO too high will result in noise (or graininess) in your photos. Some cameras handle high ISO better than others; so take lots of test shots. Some noise can be reduced in post-processing.
- Be careful of star trailing. Because the Earth is rotating, the stars appear to move across the night sky. This will affect your exposure times. The wider your lens is, the longer you can shoot without star trails. This article from David Kingham talks about the "Rule of 500" and how to avoid star trails.
Other Suggestions for Shooting the Milky Way:
- Consider shooting with something interesting in the foreground. Trees, mountains, a lake, or any scenery you choose can add some real visual interest to your photos.
- Once you've gotten comfortable with shooting exposures of no more than 30 seconds, consider purchasing a tracking device that will allow you to take exposures that are several minutes long. The Orion StarBlast AutoTracker Altazimuth Mount will allow you to attach your camera so you can take much longer exposures. This will allow you to take photos with better detail and also reduce your ISO so you will have less noise in your photos.
- Combine several images for a panorama or mosaic. You can use a program like the free Microsoft Image Composite Editor to combine multiple images into one larger one.
- Use an intervalometer to create a time-lapse or extended star trails image. An intervalometer allows you to program your camera to take a series of exposures without your having to do anything. If you have a Canon camera, a free piece of software called Magic Lantern can do this for you without having to purchase a separate piece of hardware.
- Learn from others. There are astrophotography groups on places like Flickr and Google+. Most people will provide assistance and suggestions if you ask nicely.
Image Credit: Stephen Rahn
Stephen is a native of Georgia and works in the field of instructional technology. He has been an educator for the past 24 years and is a lifelong admirer of the night sky. He took up astrophotography in 2012 and is still learning new techniques and how to improve them. Stephen has been a compensated contributor to Orion since January 2014.