It is one of the most mesmerising sights the universe has to offer. But just how do you make sure your photos do this galaxy justice? Jamie Carter gives his top tips on how to get those shots just right.
The rich star-fields of our galaxy, arcing across the night sky and streaming down to the horizon. It’s surely the definitive photo of the night sky. This mass of 400 billion stars, of which our Sun is one, is a sought-after shot among night photographers, but while it’s not technically difficult, photographing the Milky Way can often be baffling to beginners.
Here are some of our top tips to get you started…
1 Get your seasons sorted
The Milky Way is always visible, but you need to change your expectations according to when you try to capture it. For example, if you want to shoot the brightest, most impressive part of our galaxy – its bright core – then you’re going to need to point your camera to the south between May and September. In May it rises around midnight in the southeastern sky, it’s directly overhead at a similar time of night during August, and it’s beginning to sink towards the horizon after sunset by September. It also helps if you’re in the southern hemisphere, or at least in equatorial regions.
Favoured destinations in the southern hemisphere include Namibia, Chile and Australia. From these you’ll see more and the bright core will be higher in the sky.
Either side of those months the Milky Way is lost in the haze of the horizon, though it is possible to photograph the winter Milky Way on the other side of the night sky between December and February. It’s far less bright, but crisp, cold conditions on a clear winter’s night in the northern hemisphere can make it look like glitter, so don’t ignore it.
Astrophotographers in Western Europe often head to the Canary Islands to shoot the Milky Way in summer. At a latitude of 28º North, the islands of Tenerife, La Palma, Fuerteventura and Gran Canaria see much more of the brighter core of the Milky Way than mainland Europe. For reference, London, Amsterdam and Berlin are at around 51/52º N. As well as seeing more of the Milky Way, these islands also have the advantage of having no light pollution to the south (which is why Lanzarote, another Canary Island, isn’t favoured).
2 Find a dark and moonless sky
While moonlight can illuminate a landscape in beautiful ways, it doesn’t play nicely with the Milky Way. Nor does urban light pollution. So as well as planning a trip during ‘Milky Way season’, always choose nights close to a New Moon in a destination with no light pollution.
It also helps if there are no towns or cities to the south of where you decide to shoot from. If there are, a bright halo will interfere with the Milky Way’s visibility. Having dark, moonless skies – preferably around midnight or later when the sky is at its darkest – means the Milky Way will stand-out a lot more and be easier to capture.
The period between Last Quarter Moon and New Moon sees the Moon rise late at night, though that may not be ideal if you’re planning to shoot the Milky Way in May when it’s visible just before dawn. So before you plan a trip always find out the exact times of moonrise and moonset times for your destination on the dates you are planning to shoot.
3 Equipment you need
Taking images of the Milky Way means long exposures. We’re talking 25 seconds as a basic (after which the Earth’s rotation makes stars trail), but some shots can be as long as several minutes.
Either way you’re going to need to put your camera on a sturdy tripod. Any manual camera is fine, though a full-frame DSLR or mirrorless camera will get you the cleanest and brightest images. Equipped with large sensors, these cameras can be used on high ISO settings without producing noise. You’ll also need a wide-angle lens; 14mm is ideal, but when you’re starting out just use whatever kit lens you have to hand.
If you get really into Milky Way photography, or astrophotography in general, then think about getting a star-tracker. Currently dropping in price and miniaturising, these platforms slip between camera and tripod and move your camera in-sync with the galaxy’s movement across the night sky. It makes longer exposures possible and avoids star trails.
The alternative is to invest in a higher quality wide-angle lens with as low an f stop as you can find – about f1.8 is around the current limit – which will let in more light and make longer exposures less important.
4 Settings and image processing
Milky Way photography is all about the sharpness of stars and the brightness of the galaxy core. If you can use live-view on your camera to get the stars in sharp focus, all the better, but you can also set your lens dial manually to infinity (∞) for a best-guess focus.
Always shoot in a raw format, which will make the all-important post-processing possible. With the f-number as low as possible and ISO 800 dialled-in, experiment with a 25-second shutter speed.
A shutter-release cable will help you avoid camera shake. Given the likely dark shot on your camera’s LCD screen, it may be tempting to go to ISO 1600 or ISO 3200, but use them with care; ISO 800 will always give you a much cleaner shot. Whatever you do, always resist going over ISO 6400, which will over-exposure those 400 billion stars!
The real wow factor comes in Photoshop, Lightroom or similar, when you can tease-out some incredible colours and brightness in our galaxy’s core from your raw images that your eyes cannot see.
The levels are subjective, but pay attention to colour temperature (around 3700K), blacks (reduce), whites (increase), contrast (increase), exposure (slight boost), dehaze (increase), highlights (increase), clarity (increase) and luminance (increase to soften image).
5 Composing your image
It might seem hard to believe if you’re desperate to capture the Milky Way for the first time, but our galaxy without context doesn’t look very interesting.
If you want to create something memorable then be sure to use the Milky Way as a backdrop to an attention-grabbing foreground subject. An unusual public sculpture, an old building or a boat work well, as does any drop-dead gorgeous landscape.
If the latter – and, crucially, the horizon is relatively flat – consider using the technique of exposure blending. It entails taking an image of the Milky Way followed by a much longer exposure for the landscape at night. You can then use Photoshop to blend the two across the middle.
If you can find a place with no light or light pollution at all then you can add your own to illuminate your subject. However, don’t simply shine a torch at, say, a tree. Instead, side-light it and, if you can, use an old fashioned Xenon bulb torch, which emits a much warmer light than modern LED torches.
Simply open the shutter on your camera and run off-camera to the left or right of your subject and flash the torch on for one second. If your subject still isn’t not bright enough, experiment with two seconds, etc. until you have the perfect shot.