How I Photographed the Milky Way (Part 1)

Have you ever seen those amazing photos of the Milky Way and thought “how would you photograph something like that?”. As soon as I got my first DSLR I asked the same question. Turns out that it isn’t that hard after all. It did take some serious research up, preparation, and two failed attempts before I finally got something close to the photo I was looking for. The final image isn’t perfect by any means but I’d like to share with you what I have learned so far. 

Over this series of posts, I will talk you through what I have learned so far about astrophotography, the equipment and resources I used, the location I took the photographs from, as well as the post processing methods I used to make the final photo. This first post will talk about the equipment and resources you should consider. Part 2 and Part 3 will talk about the actual shoot and the post processing steps I went through.

Hardware

So, first and foremost, what kind of gear do you need to begin taking photos of the Milky Way?

  • A camera with manual mode so you can control the ISO, shutter speed, and aperture (I am using a Nikon D3400)
  • A camera which is ideally capable of shooting RAW (shooting in JPEG will really limit your ability to bring the detail out of the Milky Way)
  • wide angle and ‘fast’ lens. A typical kit lens (f3.5) shooting at 18mm will work but you may need to raise the ISO higher than if you used a faster lens. (I am using a Sigma 17-50 f2.8)
  • sturdy tripod is an absolute must as we are going to be shooting long exposures in excess of 20 seconds (I am using a Manfrotto Element Tripod)
  • Remote shutter release isn’t required but helps avoid camera shake. If you do not have one you can set a delayed timer of 2 second on your camera instead.
  • A torch or headlamp would also be useful. I’d suggest getting one with a red light so you don’t blind yourself or other people. You will need this to be able to see your camera and surroundings throughout the night so don’t forget it. Energiser make a good one which has a night vision mode which I’d highly recommend.

This isn’t a definitive list of things you could use, but it is enough to begin taking photos of the Milky Way. Like I mentioned above, a kit lens will work fine, however image quality may suffer due to the need to use a slightly higher ISO. We’ll get to why that is when we discuss the actual process of shooting the photos themselves.

Other Considerations

Now we have gotten the hardware out of the way, there are several other things that you need to consider to give yourself the best chance of getting a great photo of the Milky Way.

  1. Find a dark sky – I can’t stress how important this is. It’s not a case of going out into your back garden and taking incredible pictures of the Milky Way. In the UK light pollution is a real problem in most cities. It is very difficult to get the right conditions without having to make the effort to drive somewhere. Thankfully there are websites you can use such as Darkskydiscovery which shows all of the certified dark skies in the UK. Kielder in the North of England has the darkest skies in the UK but there are other Milky Way grade dark skies that you can find (but are not quite as good).  It also has a fantastic observatory that does talks and astrophotography sessions. I went earlier here earlier in the year and can’t recommend it enough.
  2. Day Length – Shooting astrophotography during in the Summer month’s can be quite difficult. This is because the nights are short, and the sun does not go as far below the horizon as it does at other times of the year. Having said that, the shot this article is based on was taken in July, so it is possible. Aim to be taking your photos up to the end of May and from July onwards.
  3. Moon cycle – Something I didn’t even think of when I went on my first trip to photograph the Milky Way. The moon cycle has a massive effect on your ability to take images. I visited the darkest skies in the UK in Kielder earlier this year and turned up during a full moon which made it impossible to photograph the Milky Way. There are several websites you can use to check the moon cycle, but ideally you want a new moon, or very little moon in the sky. I use the time and date website which has moon phases as well as an app called Sky Live which is on the Apple app store. This app is fantastic as it shows lots of details not only for the moon phase, but also for cloud cover, humidity, as well as different objects in the sky.
  4. Weather conditions – Weather conditions also play an important role in your ability to photograph the stars and the Milky Way. You need to have clear skies with little to no cloud to take great shots. I use the same Sky Live app on my iPhone to get details on cloud cover at different locations. From here I can decide when will be a good time to go out and shoot.

Once you have the right equipment, found the perfect location, have the right weather conditions and little to no moon light you are ready to begin taking photos of the Milky Way. In part 2 of this guide I will talk you through the shoot itself, the location I chose, the types of photographs I took, and how they were all important to creating the final image.

I hope you found this post useful. If you did please share on social media and sign up to my mailing list so I can let you know when new posts are published.

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