Milkyway Tutorial

A quick tutorial on how to capture the Milkyway 

 

I get asked how I capture my Milkyway photographs almost everyday, so I decided to add a little tutorial to my website about this matter. In this tutorial I will outline how to shoot the Milkyway, this will include settings of the camera, how to find the Milkyway and then talk about limits of shutter speed and ISO you should keep in mind. 

For me Astrophotography, particularly wide angle astrophotography is one of my favourite aspects of landscape photography. It has such calming aspect to it and I will happily stay up all night for it. Milkyway photography is challenging, especially when you have the know-how of how to capture it, that alone doesn't make up for a good photo. The real challenge for me comes in, when I am trying to find a location that firstly, is dark enough and secondly makes up for a composition that is interesting enough to keep the viewer entertained. Nowadays a lot of people photograph the nightsky, but a lot of these images seem boring. 


 Milkyway over the Dolomites. 15 sec f/1.4 ISO5000

Milkyway over the Dolomites. 15 sec f/1.4 ISO5000


 

What you will need for photographing the Milkyway:

- A DSRL or mirrorless camera, where you have the ability to set manual settings

- A tripod that keeps your camera steady during long exposures.  

- A lens that has a high aperture of at least f/4, better would be f/2.8 or even f/1.4

 - For beginners, I would suggest a lens with 35mm or wider on Full frame, On APS-C (cropped  sensor cameras) 20mm or wider

 

Camera

Photographing the night sky is definitely not one of the hardest tasks, but is also a section of landscape photography where the equipment can make all the difference! Over the last few years the sensor technology has continued to improve and native ISO limits are increasing year by year.  Generally it has to be said though, that Full Frame Cameras have an advantage compared to APS-C cameras, as the they have the ability to let in more light due to larger pixels. 

Lens 

Over all can be said, that the smaller the focal length and the wider aperture is, the better your images will turn out. As mentioned above, I recommend a wide aperture of at least f/4, everything smaller will be hard. (In my beginner years I tired to shoot at f/5.6, and it was a pain). If you don't have anything wider than that you can give it a try, you will definitely see the Milkyway in your photos, but you won't have to many options in post processing without creating too much noise.  If you're looking at purchasing a new lens soon, also in regards of astrophotography, here are some lenses I can recommend: 

For Full Frame:

- Rokinon/Samyang 14mm F2.8

- Rokinon/Samyang 24mm F1.4

Sigma 35 mm f/1,4 DG

For cropped-sensor cameras:

Tokina AT-X 11-16mm f/2,8 Pro DX II

Tokina AT-X 11-20/2.8 Pro DX


 My very first attempt at capturing the Milkyway! 25sec f/4 ISO4000 24mm Full Frame

My very first attempt at capturing the Milkyway! 25sec f/4 ISO4000 24mm Full Frame


 

Planning

Planning is an essential part when it comes to shooting the Milkyway. There is many things to consider!

Moon: You will definitely need to check the moon phases. You either want to be shooting when the moon is not up or even better when it is new moon .

Weather: The weather plays a big part. If it is cloudy, no Milkyway will be visible, so make sure to check forecasts before hand!

Twilight: You definitely want to be shooting in complete darkness. Most photographers are familiar with the phrases “golden hour” and “blue hour”.You can shoot the Milkyway during blue hour, but usually you get more stars and better results when you shoot during astronomical twilight or complete nighttime.

Seasons: It might sound funny, but there is actually different seasons. There is better and worse times to photograph the Milkyway.. For example in Europe, summer is the better time with the Milkyway's galactic core being much higher in the sky than in winter.

To help with the planning there is some very useful apps for iPhone and Android that can help you with finding out the moon phase, finding where the Millyway is located etc. :

Computer:

Stellarium

Android: 

PhotoPillsStellarium Mobile Sky Map

iPhone: 

PhotoPillsSky Walk

Light-pollution: Lightpollution can be a huge problem when photographing the nightsky! To find a dark spot close to you, head over to the Dark Site Finder. This will help you identify a place that will be dark enough to shoot the Milkyway. The darker the better!


 Milkyway in Australia, as you can see it is flipped compared to other shots. 30 sec f/4 ISO400 at 24mm Full Frame 

Milkyway in Australia, as you can see it is flipped compared to other shots. 30 sec f/4 ISO400 at 24mm Full Frame 

 "Winter Milkyway" in Germany. You can't see the Galactic Core!. 25 sec f/4  ISO4000 at 14mm Full Frame 

"Winter Milkyway" in Germany. You can't see the Galactic Core!. 25 sec f/4  ISO4000 at 14mm Full Frame 


Shooting the Milkyway

While shooting the Milkyway there is a few things to take into account! I will know explain how you should set up your camera in aspect of Shutter Speed, Aperture and ISO.

Aperture

Your aperture should be as wide open as possible. Some prime lenses with i.e. f/1.4 are often sharper and have less coma when stopped down a bit! Usually, as already stated, I wouldn't go anything smaller than f/4.

ISO

Usually I would recommend setting the ISO between 3200 and 6400. Usually you always try to use ISO's as low as possible, but Milkyway photography is different. If you were to use low ISO, you wouldn't be able to capture much detail of the dust fields of the Milkyway! I always recommend to try out different ISO settings and see what works best for your location. 

Shutter Speed

Shutter Speed is definitely the most difficult setting, as your exposure time changes with different focal lengths! I.e you can expose on 20mm full frame for about 30 seconds, if you were to expose the same time on 35mm you will start to see startrailing as the earth rotates. When shooting the Milkyway you always want nice sharp stars! Another thing that has to be considered is that full frame and cropped sensor have different exposure times, as 20mm on full frame won't be the equivalent on APS-C . A good rule to find out how long you can expose your shot for, is to divide 500 by your focal length, if you're using full frame. If you are using an APS-C camera you will  have to dived the 500 on top of the focal length by the crop factor (crop factor for nikon APS-c cameras at 1.5, for Canon at 1.6 and for most crop sensor mirrorless cameras at 2). 

Examples: 

  • 500 ÷ 14mm on a full frame sensor = 35 seconds
  • 500 ÷ 24mm = 20 seconds
  • 500 ÷ 18mm ÷ 1.6 for a Canon crop sensor = 17 seconds
  • 500 ÷ 50mm ÷ 2 for a mirrorless sensor = 5 seconds

I often subtract another 3-5 seconds from these calculations to ensure sharp stars when shooting along the horizon, especially when printing large like 85cm x 60cm from a high resolution sensor. For timelapses and star trails a small amount of streaking won’t matter.

Focusing 

Especially when shooting at night, focusing can be tough! Here is how I handle focusing during night time.

- Find a bright star, position it in the corner of the frame, as they tend to be a little less sharper

- Put your camera into manual focusing. 

- Open Live-View on your camera and use digital zoom. 

- Focus on the star till it looks sharp 

If your camera doesn't support Live-View, here is another option. It is called Infinity Focusing. Go and have a look at your lens now. Almost all lenses have an infinity mark on their focus ring [Pictures below]. Just set the camera to infinity. With some lenses the infinity mark is not absolutely correct (i.e. Samyang/Rokinon lenses). What I suggest is to take a shot, see if you are happy with the sharpness, and if not, slightly adjust the focus ring and check again. If you found the sweet spot, I would use a little bit of tape to mark the spot, that you find it easier for the next time. You can also do this at daylight of course, so that you don't have to worry about this at night. 

 Infinity focus mark on a Samyang lens 

Infinity focus mark on a Samyang lens 

 Infinity focus mark on Canon lens 

Infinity focus mark on Canon lens 

Other thoughts 

Shoot RAW: Shoot your images in Raw, this will give you much more opportunities in post processing. When you shoot JPEG you will most likely not be able to recover shadows or highlight as you would have been able to when you shoot RAW. 

LCD Screen: Turn your brightness of the LCD screen all the way down. In complete darkness the picture might look fairly good, but when you put it on the computer the next day you might only see black. This has happened often to me! If you are still not sure, you could also quickly check your histogram, if the shot is properly exposed!

 

NOW GO OUT THERE AND SHOOT THE MILKYWAY, A LOT OF FUN IS GANRANTUEED!!

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Was this helpful to you? Are you still confused? Leave me a comment down below!