YK Photography | How to Photograph the Milky Way?

The Milky WayThe Milky Way (03:52 AM)16mm on Full-frame, ISO3200, 25sec., f/2.8 HOW TO PHOTOGRAPH THE MILKY WAY?

With today's digital SLR or SLT cameras we don't have to leave the sky to the full-time astronomers. Anyone can photograph the universe or let's say part of it. You need only basic photographic skills with a few things to consider. So in the next lines I'm going to explain how to take a good photo of the Milky Way, the easiest and most impressive part of our sky.

1. The equipment you need.

  • A good digital camera with high ISO capabilities
  • Wide-angle lens with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 (f/3.5 works also)
  • A stable tripod

2. Know where to find a dark sky.

This is probably the most important and most difficult task. Normally you won't find a dark sky just next to your house, you have to go far from any city. Otherwise you will have the orange city-lights on the horizon and in your photo. The best places to take photos from the Milky Way are on the southern hemisphere or deep in the mountains. So take a look at the following map about light pollution:

3. Know when to take your photo.

It is very important to wait at least 2 hours after sunset before you start taking pictures. The best time is in the middle of the night, when the sun is on the other side of the earth. Another hindrance for a clear picture is the moon. Try to take the photo during new Moon. Check out the following two images:

4. Know how to set up your camera.

This step is up to you. Just make sure that the camera is stable enough for long exposure time.

5. Compose your shot.

Composing an image is always subjective and there is no wrong or right. But just because it’s dark outside doesn’t mean that you can forget about the foreground, you can add interest to your photo by including mountains or trees, even a rock or a person gives your photo a better look.

6. Camera settings.

First go to the manual mode (called "M"), set off the image stabilizer and autofocus in the camera menu and perhaps also the automatically noise reduction. And for more margin in the post-processing use RAW instead of JPG.
  • ISO: A high ISO is essential to get enough light on the sensor to render a bright image of the Milky Way. Start with ISO 3200 and based on how well this plays with the other camera settings, you can go higher or maybe lower if there is too much noise.
  • Shutter Speed: As you will be aware that our world is always turning there is a huge problem with a long shutter speed, if you want to have the stars as points and not as lines. No worry, with a bit of maths you will manage this. All you have to know is the size of your sensor and the "500/focal length rule" which is used to get pinpoint stars. For example, if you have a 16mm lens on a full-frame camera, you will set your shutter speed to 30 sec. (500/16 = 31.25). If you’re working with a crop sensor camera be sure to account for the crop factor (typically 1.5 for Sony and Nikon, 1.6 for Canon). This means you have to multiply the focal length of the lens your using with the crop-factor 1.5 or 1.6. So your new formula is (500/24 = 20.083) and your new shutter speed should be lower than 20.083 sec.
  • Aperture: To catch as much light as possible set a small F-number and use a wide aperture. Best is to use a lens with f/2.8 or lower that you still can stop a bit down for more image quality. But don't try to stop down over f/3.5, otherwise you will lose to much light.

7. Focus and press the trigger.

Use a remote control or use the built-in selftimer to prevent any concussion.

8. Process your photo.

The out of camera picture is not that special, you have to play with the withe balance, contrast, light dynamic and lots more. Use the RAW converter from your camera-software or similar programs like Lightroom to get a better result.