How to photograph the Milky Way

Part II in my astrophotography series.

Matt Quinn
Jan 17, 2015 · 16 min read

If you live in a remote area with dark skies, you are one of the lucky ones; the lucky ones that get to look up on a clear dark night and see a thick band of glowing light stretch across the sky. As a kid I grew up in the countryside of south-eastern Ontario, Canada. On one side I had a corn field and on the other I had a pig pasture. Nights were free from the orange glow of the city and what little light I did see was from the Moon and stars. Being out on those nights and looking up is something I remember fondly. As I got older I was pulled to the energy and activity of city life. In that life I forgot what it was like to have that blanket of stars in the sky at night. Over time I stopped looking upward and more often looked downward into my iPhone. I would read about adventure photographers in remote locations taking the most mind blowing images of the night sky I had ever seen. It made me remember the skies I grew up under. Over time this ignited my passion for being outside at night and exploring. These amazing photographers fuelled my desire to stop looking down and instead look up at the real world that was around me. With this article, I hope to pass on some of what I’ve learned and inspire you to get outside and experience first hand the awesomeness of a crisp, clear, dark night sky near you.

Part I — The Moon

What you will need

DSLR Camera

Lenses

The Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 in front and the Canon 24–105mm f/4L lens in back

When choosing a lens, I would recommend a very wide angle lens; something that will allow you to capture a huge portion of the sky. The main reason is because the Milky Way is massive! It will stretch across the entire sky and to get it in your composition can be challenging. The wider your lens the more you will see — by wide I mean small focal length. As you get more comfortable shooting the Milky Way you can move in closer with a larger focal length to capture the galactic core and so on. To start out look at something in the 14mm — 24mm range.

The lower the lens’ aperture the better, as you will be able to let in more light with a faster lens. A personal recommendation would be the Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 lens. It’s a “budget” lens but it can produce some of the most outstanding images of the night sky. The bang for the buck is unmatched. My only gripe about it would be the vignetting it produces. Keep in mind, the 18–55mm f/3.5–5.6 kit lens that comes with most entry level DSLRs will definitely work for the Milky Way, so don’t feel you need a special lens to get started.

A Good Tripod

When shooting the Milky Way your camera is going to be facing upward in a lot of cases. I would suggest getting a tripod that has a head that gives you the versatility to shoot right into the sky as well as along the horizon. I personally use a 3 way pan/tilt head that gives me the degrees of freedom I need to shoot all sorts of compositions. Ball heads can work as well, but they might be harder to do specific types of things like panoramics or in some cases straight up into the sky.

Remote Shutter

My Rig

Canon 6D Body
Rokinon 14mm Ultra Wide-Angle f/2.8 IF ED UMC Lens
Manfrotto 190XPROB with 804RC2 Basic Pan Tilt Head
Nexus 7 Tablet w/ the DLSR Controller app as my Remote Shutter


14mm, f/2.8, 30s, ISO3200 in a green zone

Prep Work

Where

An example of a light pollution map that shows heavily light polluted areas in white.

What you’re looking at on these maps is light intensity. White areas are the brightest and black areas are the darkest; with a rainbow gradient that runs between them. This gradient visualizes the Bortle Scale. In my experience you can get images of the Milky Way in an Orange area, but it will be very very dim and the horizons will be bright orange. Getting into Yellow regions will result in a much better show and what I would recommend as a minimum. Making your way into Green and Blue will yield incredible results and getting yourself into a Black zone will be an absolute feast for the eyes. Additionally, in Blue and Black zones, you’ll get to see other interesting atmospheric phenomena like Zodiacal Light, Airglow and Gegenschein which will make for an added drop of colour in your images.

Beyond finding dark skies, I typically try and find nice natural areas that would make a good overall composition with the Milky Way like still lakes, isolated trees, rock faces or lighthouses. If you’re lucky enough to live near mountains, those are always a treat to use as a silhouette in the foreground. Using Google Maps’ satellite view and street view will help you see if the location you’re after will work for the picture you want to create.

When

Using the Sky View app, I can see that the Milky Way core is best viewed in July vs. January.

There are prime times to photograph the Milky Way and there are off times. No matter what though, you will see a part of it in a given night no matter what time of year. For example, in the Northern hemisphere where I am, the galactic core — the brightest part of the Milky Way — isn’t visible at night in the winter months, but come April the core is high enough in the night sky to be captured. Consult your starry night app to determine when the best time to view the Milky Way will be near you.

The last thing to consider when shooting the Milky Way is what phase the Moon is in and its position in the sky. Ideally you want to shoot with no Moon or very little of it showing. It will wash out the Milky Way and lead to a less than stellar result. Use the Sky View app to plan your photo shoot around when the Moon isn’t going to disrupt your composition.

Weather

An example of an astronomer’s forecast for Yosemite National Park

The above image shows various rows with each column corresponding to an hour of the day. The site gives you a legend showing the meaning of each row. The most important rows I refer to are the top row, cloud cover, and the 4th one, darkness. Cloud cover tells you how clear the sky is; blue is clear, white is cloudy. Darkness shows you how dark the sky will be. Dark blue is the darkest and light blue means the Moon’s effect will brighten the night sky; white of course is daylight.


14mm, f/2.8, 30s, ISO3200 in a yellow zone

Taking the shot

Shutter

A screenshot of the Dark Skies app that calculates the 500,600 rule for us. The image shows a full frame vs. cropped frame with the same 14mm lens. Big difference in exposure time.

Aperture and ISO

Focusing

Composition


24mm, f/4, 21s, 6400ISO taken in a green zone. Less light pollution but it’s still visible. Caught some green airglow.

The Captured Image

Here is what an unprocessed Milky Way image looks like right off the camera. So much detail waiting to be revealed.

Post processing will allow you to bring out the detail you want in your image and hide the detail you don’t want. It will also allow you to correct some of the imperfections like vignetting, chromatic aberration and distortion in your lens’ optics. Lastly it will help you polish your composition by correcting the white balance, crop, rotation and perspective.

Some believe post processing is cheating or somehow ‘faking it’. It is true that post processing can be taken way to far and create more of a fantasy image rather than an image one might deem as reality. Keep in mind that long exposure photography won’t represent what your eye can see, it will reveal what your eye isn’t capable of seeing. So, no matter what, it might be judged harshly as not looking ‘real’. Knowing this, how far you choose to take your post processing depends on you, the photographer. If you want your images to represent what’s naturally there, I would heed the less-is-more approach when it comes to enhancing the colour in your images. When it comes to shaping the light in the image, the more hidden details you’re able to reveal the better photographer I believe you are.

Some Other Examples

14mm, f/2.8, 42s, ISO3200 in a black zone. No light pollution around the horizon.
14mm, f/2.8, 41s, ISO3200 in a black zone. Airglow visible in green and yellow.
14mm, f/2.8, 30s, ISO3200 in a black zone. Some airglow around the horizon.
14mm, f/2.8, 30s, ISO3200 in a yellow zone. This is a composite image from the Perseid Meteor Shower.
14mm, f/2.8, 31s, ISO3200 in a dark yellow zone
14mm, f/2.8, 30s, ISO3200 in a yellow zone

What’s Next?

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For more landscape and astrophotography feel free to follow me on Instagram and Tumblr. Thanks!

Get Outside

An exploration of our natural world through photography and…

Matt Quinn

Written by

Building Design Systems & Digital Products. Exploring and photographing nature. mattquinn.ca, mattquinnphotography.com, @IAmMattQ

Get Outside

An exploration of our natural world through photography and writing.

Matt Quinn

Written by

Building Design Systems & Digital Products. Exploring and photographing nature. mattquinn.ca, mattquinnphotography.com, @IAmMattQ

Get Outside

An exploration of our natural world through photography and writing.

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