One of my favorite things to shoot is the night sky and the Milky Way. So when February rolls around here in the northern hemisphere, the excitement starts. This is when the galactic core of the Milky Way makes its appearance for the next 8 months. Have you ever wanted to capture something like this? If the answer is yes, keep reading!
Planning & Prep
There are so many guides and tutorials on the Internet about planning and shooting the Milky Way. I'm not going to pretend to be better than any of them. Hopefully, however, I can make it easier to understand.
Before you go out on your first excursion, there are some basic items you need.
- Camera: any modern DSLR should suffice, but ultimately you need a camera that you can shoot in manual mode.
- Lens: A fast lens ideally with an aperture of f/2.8 or faster (lower number). Keep in mind, the wider focal length of your lens, the more forgiving it will be in terms of star trails.
- Tripod: A sturdy tripod will minimize the amount of shaking that happens.
And really that's all you need for equipment!
Planning is probably the most important part of shooting the Milky Way (or really anything). For Milky Way, at minimum, you need to plan around
- time frame
- moon phase
- location alignment
- and weather
Time frame: While the core is visible from February until November, the time and position of visibility varies as the season progresses. Early in the season, the core rises just before sunrise and disappears as dawn approaches. Towards the end of the season, we can catch the Milky Way just as it is setting after dusk. Late spring to early fall are going to provide the longest viewing times and most comfortable temperature. Of course, you'll have to deal with the bugs and the humidity!
Moon phase: The other major factor to consider is the phase of the moon. Generally, the best time to shoot is when the moon's illumination is less than 25%. This will prevent the stars from being washed out. Additionally, depending on the time of year, you'll need to pay attention to whether the moon is in a waxing or waning phase.
Location alignment: Throughout the season, the Milky Way core moves. Early on, it starts of just south of east in pre-dawn sky. Throughout the season, it moves east to west in the southern azimuth direction, ending in the western sky just after dusk. Keep this in mind when planning your shoot.
Weather: Of course, weather will make or break you. It's more than just cloudy vs. clear skies. High humidity, dew points, frost, and wind can make a big difference in how your images come out.
Ready to shoot? Here are some basic settings to start with. For a VERY rough estimate on shutter speed, use the equation (300/ (focal length x crop factor)). Will it get you pin point stars? Not exactly, but it'll get you close enough without being super technical.
On a full frame camera, you can generally start with ISO 6400 at f/2.8. Your shutter speed, again, will depend on your focal length, but your crop factor is 1. With a 24mm lens, 300/24 = 12.5s. That's your starting point.
On a crop sensor camera, multiply it by the crop factor. For example, Canon crop sensors have a 1.6x crop factor. So your shutter speed would be 300/(24x1.6) = 7.8s (approximately 8s). If you want an equivalent shutter speed to that of a full-frame, you would have to go to a wider lens.
Always Shoot RAW
This should go without saying, but always shoot RAW. Cameras have internal processing engines that process an image for you when you shoot JPEG. It's what you see on the back of your digital screen after you take a shot. The RAW format is just straight, unprocessed data. This will give you the most latitude when editing your images. I'll have a post on that soon.
The Most Important Part
Finally, the most important part in all this is to go shoot and have some fun. The thrill of capturing the night sky is the same, from the very first time to the 500th time. Seeing what shows up on the back of your camera is just a thrill. And once you've processed (will discuss in a future post), that becomes even more amplified.
So, have fun, be safe, and look up!
Early season Milky Way has a more horizontal orientation and faces east. This was taken off the coast of New Hampshire.
Late summer Milky Way has a nearly vertical orientation and faces just west of south. This was taken in northeast Pennsylvania.
Feel free to shoot me a message!