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 camera I asked the same question. Turns out that it isn’t that hard after all. But it did take a lot of research, preparation, and two failed attempts before I got something close to the photo I wanted. The final image isn’t perfect by any means but I’d like to share what I did and what I learned.
Over this series of posts, I am going to talk you through a couple of things. We’ll cover the equipment I used, the location I took the photograph 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.
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 capable of shooting in RAW format. Shooting in JPEG will limit your ability to bring the detail out of the Milky Way
- A 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)
- A sturdy tripod. This is a must as we are going to be shooting long exposures over 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 seconds 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 makes a good one which has a night vision mode which I’d 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, but a faster and wider lens will give better results. We’ll get to why that is when we discuss the actual process of shooting the photos themselves.
With gear 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.
- 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 big problem in most cities. It is difficult to get the right conditions without making the effort to drive somewhere. To find a dark location there are websites you can use such as Darkskydiscovery. This shows all 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 you can find. It also has a fantastic observatory that does talks and astrophotography sessions. I went here earlier in the year and can’t recommend it enough.
- Day Length – Shooting astrophotography during 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 photograph 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.
- Moon cycle – This is something I didn’t even think of when I went on my first trip to photograph the Milky Way. Moonlight has a negative effect on our ability to see the stars, let alone the Milky Way. I visited the darkest sky in the UK in Kielder earlier this year and turned up during a full moon. This made it impossible to photograph the Milky Way. There are several websites you can use to check the moon cycle, but 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 that shows lots of details not only for the moon phase but also for cloud cover, humidity, and different objects in the sky.
- 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, location, the right weather conditions, and little to no moonlight, you are ready to begin photographing 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 in creating the final image.
I hope you found this post useful. If you have any questions or comments please leave them below.
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