How To Photograph The Milky Way
Below you will find a complete guide on how to photograph the Milky Way. Photographing the Milky Way can be very rewarding. Allowing us to be very creative shooting, and light our scenes as conditions rarely change at night. This tutorial is meant as a guide, and will get you well on your way to shooting the Milky Way. We will cover:
- Planning Your Shoot
- Equipment Required
- Camera Settings
- Shooting Panoramas
The most important thing to be aware of when shooting the Milky Way or stars is light pollution. Excess light in the sky will wash out your sky and prevent your camera from seeing all of the stars. The two most common forms of light pollution will be light from the moon and city lights. That doesn’t mean that you cannot photograph when the moon is in the sky. You will just not have as many visible stars, but there is the added bonus of light for your landscape. Which, will be detailed in the lighting section.
The three most important aspects to planning a Milky Way shoot are:
- knowing when, where and how bright the moon is going to be.
- the distance you are from artificial light sources such as cities.
- knowing when and where in the sky the Milky Way is going to be.
For the moon, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to wait for a new moon in order to shoot. But, you should plan on shooting the stars when the moon are no longer in the sky. Note: I cover foreground lighting later in this document. If the moon is up before or after your shoot you can use the light to light your foreground. This gives an added eerie effect to the image. If the moon is 15-25% you can achieve both, lighting the landscape and shooting the stars in a single image.
The Photographers Ephemris
The photographers ephemeris is a tool that’s available online for free and is a very valuable tool in determining where and when the moon will be in a certain position in the sky. Note this is also available as an app on smart phones, at a small fee.
To use the Photographers Ephemeris all you need to do is:
1. enter the date that you plan to shoot.
2. enter where you plan to shoot.
The Photographers Ephemeris will tell you when the moon will rise and set. The direction it will rise and set from and also how bright the moon will be. It will tell you this as either a:
- % waning moon. This means that the moon is getting less bright (less revealed) and eventually moving to a new moon.
- % waxing moon. This means that the moon is getting brighter (more revealed) and eventually moving to a full moon.
Note that you may have a bright moon, but it may not rise until late in the night. Or, may set early in the evening. You can use this information to help determine if you will go out and shoot. You don’t have to wait for a new moon to shoot the Milky Way. Just avoid a bright moon in the sky while you are shooting the stars, it will wash them out.
The Photographers Ephemeris can be found online at: http://photoephemeris.com
Light Pollution (City Lights)
In order to minimise the impact of city lights on your night photography. You’ll want to be as far away from a city as practical. The direction you are shooting in will also play a part. If you are shooting in the direction of a city you will get a slight glow on the horizon. This will occur even if you are a couple hundred kilometres away (as shown in this image). But, if you are shooting in any other direction this effect will be minimised or nil. I have found approximately 200km works for me, but this is not a rule set in stone.
This image shown here was shot at Guilderton in West Australia (about 100km’s from Perth). You can clearly see the glow from Perth on the horizon. It’s actually added some nice colour on the horizon and hasn’t had a massive impact on the stars. If this shot was taken in any other direction. The effect of the city lights would have been minimal. This should be something to consider when selecting a location to shoot. The closer you are to the city, the larger the impact city lights will have on the entire sky.
Now that you have determined a location for your shoot. The next thing to figure out is the optimal time to be there to capture the Milky Way. The Milky Way core rises in different locations in the sky and rises at different times of year. Sometimes it will run across the sky and other times will rise straight up into the sky.
The best way to determine where and when the Milky Way will be in the sky is to use an app. There are manual devices that can be used, and would be useful if you’re out without pre-planning. I typically plan my shoots using a program called “Stellarium”. There are many different software applications that can do the same thing. I have found Stellarium to be reasonably simple to use and accurate.
Stellarium is a free software for your PC. Simply by entering the Longitude and Latitude of the location you plan to shoot. You can then scroll through the dates and times to see where the stars will be throughout the night.
A few things to consider are
- The position of the Milky Way in the sky. If the Milky Way is diretly overhead, getting any foreground interest in your shot will be difficult without doing panoramas. If possible plan for the Milky Way to be nearer the horizon. Or, have the core closer to the horizon, rather then directly overhead.
- The Milky Way is not always visible in the skies. It’s position in the sky will shift throughout the year between the Northern and Southern hemispheres.
You can find Stellarium online at: http://stellarium.org
The Stellarium app is available for your smart phones for a small fee. Another popular app for planning your star photography on your smart phone is Photo Pills.
There are many debates around about the type of equipment that’s best for astro photography. I won’t be discussing this, instead I will be focussing on the attributes of the equipment required. I can always offer my opinion, but that’s all it would be, an opinion. The equipment suggested is based on using a DSLR, this doesn’t mean that other types of cameras cannot be used.
There are no specific requirements for the type of DSLR camera that you can use. The more modern DSLR’s will produce better results as the ISO performance of modern cameras is improving significantly. The following are the attributes you will need:
- The night sky is typically shoat at ISO’s of 1600 or greater. It will be essential that your camera has the ability to shoot at higher ISO’s (1600 – 6400).
- Ability to shoot at 30 seconds or greater (bulb). Note this will be dependent on the lens used. Most cameras should be able to achieve a 30 second exposure.
- Full frame cameras are preferred as their ISO performance is typically better and also you will be able to hold your shutter open for longer (described in settings) to capture more light. This is not a necessity though. Great photos can be taken with crop sensor cameras. Some of the best astro photographers use crop sensor cameras.
To get the best results for Milky Way (star) photography you will want lenses with the following attributes:
- The faster the lens the better. Ideally you will want a lens that has a maximum aperture of f2.8 or greater. But, you can get away with f4 or even f5.6, but this is not preferred. This differs from other types of landscape photography. Star don’t emit much you, so you’ll want to gather as much light as possible in the shortest time possible. Depth of field is not a concern due to the distance the stars are away.
- Also important is the focal length of the lens you use. I will describe in the settings section why you want a wide angle lens. You will typically want to use a focal length of 24mm or preferably wider. Especially, when shooting single frames and possibly panoramas.
- If you are interested in shooting panoramas on a regular basis, I recommend purchasing a 35mm f1.4 lens. This will allow you to shoot at much faster shutter speeds. You will be able to open your aperture up much larger. Allowing you to pan the scene much quicker and minimise the distortion caused by using wide angle lenses.
- Tripod: this is a necessity due to the long exposures, and the sturdier the better.
- Remote Shutter Release: you want to avoid having to touch your camera when taking your shots. This will help to minimise blur caused by your camera moving. Also, a requirement if you are shooting in bulb mode.
- Spare Batteries: always carry spare batteries for your camera and shutter release. It would be a shame to arrive at a location and find out your battery has died.
- Flashlight: wherever you end up shooting, I imagine it will be very dark. They are also a valuable tool if you want to light foreground subjects.
- Warm Clothing: this is entirely up to you. I recommend that you bring warm clothing as the temperatures at night can drop significantly.
- Chair: bring a comfortable outdoor chair, it beats sitting on the ground or standing around.
We’re almost there!! We have planned our trip, we have all of our equipment in order. Now all we need to do is set up and start shooting.
Before I dive into the ISO, Aperture and Shutter Speeds. There are a couple of things I would like to run through first.
- Turning off the Long Exposure Noise Reduction in your camera. Although this isn’t necessary. If it is turned on, your camera will take a second black exposure to assist in the noise reduction. This will work very well in most cameras, but doubles your time shooting and chews up battery life. I prefer to reduce noise in post processing.
- Turning off the High ISO Noise Reduction. This works similarly to the Long Exposure Noise reduction.
- White Balance, I turn this to Auto as I always shoot in RAW format. It can adjust this in post processing. If you shoot in JPG you, do some test shots to get the white balance you desire. You can get some interesting colour effects in all of your white balance settings.
- Switch your cameras into Manual Mode, you will be entering all of the settings and focussing yourself. You don’t want your camera trying to choose these settings.
- Turn off any auto focussing, this should be in manual as you will be setting the focus point yourself.
- If you have Image Stabilisation or Vibration Reduction on your lenses or inside your cameras, turn it off. Some cameras somehow can recognise that you are on a tripod, but I prefer to have it turned off regardless. You want to minimise any minor vibrations that can be created to ensure sharp images.
- If you have a mirror up function on your camera, utilise it. This is just another function of cameras that can introduce shake/blur to your images from the movement of the mirror. Note if you are in Live View your mirror is already up. So, you don’t need to worry about locking the mirror up.
Shutter Speed, ISO & Aperture
Although in remote location we can see a lot of stars, they are not actually puttng out a lot of light. In order to capture those stars in an image we need to make our cameras very sensitive to light and allow as much light to reach our sensors as we can. This means:
- Increasing our ISO’s to make our camera sensor very sensitive to light.
- Opening up our apertures, to allow as much light as possible to reach our sensors.
- Longer shutter speeds to expose our sensors to light for a longer period of time.
I will quickly explain how to determine your shutter speed and why, noting I have created a quick cheat table below for quick reference.
Shutter Speed Rule
There is a rule that has been developed for determining the shutter speed to give the appearance of sharp stars (no movement in the stars). Note that I have said “give the appearance”, the earth is always rotating relative to the stars or vice versa, and there will be movement on these longer exposures. This formula will give you an optimal shutter speed to capture enough light and give the appearance of no movement.
I use the formula (500 / focal length), some people will say that (600 / focal length) is appropriate. I don’t particularly want to debate this, and encourage you to experiment and see what works for you. The table provided below is using (500 / focal length). Note: the focal length is based on a full frame sensor if you are using a crop sensor camera you will need to multiply that focal length by either 1.5 (Nikon) or 1.6 (Canon), again this is debated by some and I would encourage you to try it without the mutiplication factor and determine what works best for you.
I have created a table below, which are my recommended settings for your camera based on my experience. I highly suggest that you use these as a base and experiment from there. These settings are not hard and fast, but they will provide pleasing results. I will do some adjustments from time to time in the field, but these are what I typically start with.
Note the figures shown in the table are a guide and a starting point, experiment from here to determine what works best for your camera and lens combination. I cover settings for 35mm prime lenses in the panorama section.
Focussing on the stars is difficult and in many cases impossible. Therefore we typically use a technique of focussing on infinity, as the stars are very far away.
The last setting that you need to concern yourself with before shooting is getting your focus correct. The simplest way is to turn the focus ring on your lens to infinity (∞). Now each lens may be slightly different in how you set your focus distance on infinity. I would first try setting the focus in the middle of the infinity symbol (∞) and then adjust from there. Many lenses can focus past infinity, don’t ask me why, so in most cases you don’t want to turn your focus ring as far as it will go. Again, this is something you will want to try with each of your lenses and determine what works best for them.
In the field the best way to determine if you are getting sharp images is to preview the image taken on your LCD screen and zoom into the stars. You want the stars to appear as a sharp point of light. If they don’t appear as a sharp point adjust your focus and take another shot, continue this until you achieve that sharp point. Once you have found it, this will be where you want to set your focus with that particular lens each time you shoot, saving you time setting up in future shoots.
Panoramic photography is done to capture a wide vista / scene that cannot typically be seen by standard lenses. A panorama can also be a cropped image taken with a wide angle lens, but the wide angle lens often has issues with distortion and a loss of perspective (things that appear large by eye will appear much smaller with wide angle lenses) and the impact of the scene or objects in the scene are lost.
Panoramic images are typically taken using focal lengths of 35-50mm with prime (fixed focal length) lenses, which give a perspective similar to the natural eye and also have far less distortion. Although 35-50mm is a typical focal length used to take a panoramic image, any focal length can be used. Be aware that at wider focal lengths such 14-24mm you will have a reasonable amount of distortion, especially in the corners of your images which can make stitching the images together quite difficult as a result of distortion. Note the example below is shot with an Ultra Wide Angle Lens.
Most often panoramas are shot with the lens in the portrait orientation as shown in the images below. The reason for this is to allow a greater amount of room on the top and bottom of the finished image for two reasons:
- When stitching panoramas you often loose some of the image on all side, and this will give you some additional room to crop your finished image.
- In the landscape orientation the final product can often been to narrow (i.e. not tall enough from top to bottom) and the impact of the scene is lost.
A tripod isn’t a necessity in taking a panorama, but they do make stitching the final image much simpler with more consistent results. When using a tripod to take the images ensure that your tripod is level, most tripods will come with a small bubble level built into them.
Note that this is different to the level in your camera.
Panorama Tripod Heads
Panorama Tripod Heads have many advantages but are not necessary for most panoramic images you will take. Some of those advantages are:
- They have incremental bases allowing you to rotate your camera for perfect overlap of your images every time (as they click into each position). But note that most ball heads have an angle of rotation at their bases and you can use this to get a consistent degree of rotation for each image.
- They move the optical centre (or nodal point) of your lens back, removing the effect of Parallax in your image (see Parallax below).
- Stitching images taken with a panorama head is often easier with less loss of the image on all edges.
The biggest advantage of using a panorama head is avoiding Parallax. This is an issue that you get when you have objects in the foreground of your images. If you try to take a panorama photograph with an object in the near foreground without a panorama head, that object will not stay aligned with the background subjects as you rotate your camera. If you move your camera back, so the Nodal Point (optical centre) of your lens is over the rotation point of your tripod these objects will stay aligned. As mentioned previously, the further away from your camera the subjects are, the less you are effected by Parallax, mostly negating the need for a dedicated Panorama Tripod Head.
Shooting a Panorama
Step 1: Level your tripod
Before you think about shooting, it’s important that your tripod is as level as you can get it. As you are rotating your camera you want all of your shots to stay on the same level. If your tripod isn’t levelled you will lose a larger amount of your image in post processing, and possibly have greater issues with alignment in post processing.
Step 2: Level your horizon in camera
With your tripod now levelled, use the virtual horizon or a bubble level mounted to your hot shoe to get your camera level. Again if your camera is not level you will have issues in the stitching process as objects will not be properly aligned, resulting in a loss of more of the scene then you may like as each of the images will have to be straightened.
Step 3: Determine your starting and ending point
Determine where you want your final image to start and end. With your final image in mind ensure that you allow an image on either side of your starting and ending points. As mentioned previously you will loose some of your image on all 4 sides in post processing when you stitch and crop.
Step 4: Get the correct exposure & focus
When you are shooting, you do not want the exposure to change between images otherwise you will have noticeable lines appearing where the images stitch together. So get your exposure and focus correct before starting, and do not touch any of these settings throughout your shots.
Shoot in manual exposure to maintain consistency of exposure across the frames.
Pre-focus then ensure your camera / lens is set to manual focus so that your camera isn’t reacquiring focus between frames.
Step 5: Shoot your panorama (30-50% overlap between images)
When rotating you camera between shots allow approximately 30-50% overlap between your images, this will give the stitching software plenty of points to align between the images. In most cases you will shoot your panoramas starting from left to right, but there is no hard and fast rule.
If you are shooting in multiple rows, start with the bottom row then raise your camera angle again allowing for 30-50% overlap and start panning across again.
Note when we are shooting with a prime lens, such as a 35mm f1.4 lens, we can actually open our aperture wider then we can with most zoom lenses.
We can shoot with much faster shutter speeds, this is because we are using very wide apertures, which we don’t typically have available to us on wide angle zoom lenses. This is also allows us to complete our panoramas much quicker, minimising the effect of the movement in the stars as we are panning.
There are many types of software that can be used to stitch photos together, and there are varied opinions on which provide the best results. Most will give reasonably good results if the images were taken correctly. There are a few free software packages available if you don’t have Photoshop or PTGUI (which tend to be the best, especially if you have tricky images).
Some of the available software packages are:
- Microsoft ICE – Free Software
- Hugin – Free Software
We have a video tutorial available showing the edit of the Milky Way at ADP Pro. This tutorial uses luminosity masks, and you can download the RAW file and video to practice and follow along.
View Video Editing Tutorial: http://www.adppro.com/edit-milky-way/
Taking photographs of the stars will become quite intuitive with time and practice. It’s probably one of the only things you can photograph where you will be able to use the same settings every time and get consistent results. Where most other types of photography are more difficult as the lighting conditions change and you need to adjust your settings to compensate.
In order to create interesting images, those images that pop out, you will need to consider how you incorporate and light your foreground or landscapes. This is where things can get much more complicated.
There are many ways that we can light our foreground subjects, some will be easier then others. The most common methods are:
- Using a flashlight to light our foregrounds, used for a small amount of our exposure time.
- Using a very dim light source that stays on during our full exposure time.
- We can use the moon to illuminate the landscape, either during our exposure for the stars, or taking a second image when the moon has risen and blending our images in post production.
- Taking an image just before dawn or just after dusk and then blending it in post production with a shot of the stars.
Using a Flashlight
A single exposure using a flashlight while taking a photo of the stars.
This method can be quite tricky but can also be quite effective if you get it right. The trick to using this method is making sure that you limit the amount of time you illuminate your foreground subject with the flashlight. Remember you are using a really high ISO’s, wide open apertures and long shutter speeds, so our cameras are extremely sensitive to light.
What this means is any light you put on a foreground subject will be picked up really quickly by our light sensitive camera settings. Therefore when using this type of lighting our light source does not need to be on our foreground subjects for very long. There is a lot of trial and error when using this method, but a starting point would be to illuminate your subject for 3-5 seconds.
The best method is to move the light around (i.e. paint with the light), don’t leave it pointed directly at the subject for the full 3-5 seconds. Also, the closer your subject is to the light source the brighter it will be.
Another option to consider, is moving away from your subject a considerable distance, 100 metres or more. At this distance your flashlight will act more like the moon, casting softer light and longer shadows and can be very effective. Using this method you’ll need to experiment with the amount of time the light is on, and move the light around to not create hot spots.
Take multiple images, one for the stars and a series of images with light painted foregrounds.
In the sample image above I have taken an image of the stars, then I have changed my settings in my camera, reducing it’s sensitivity to light (f8, ISO 400, 4-5s shutter speeds). I have then taken a series of images using a torch to light my foreground (8-10 images in total), then in post processing I overlayed these images and blended the light from each shot to give me the final result.
This method can be quite effective, also very time consuming, but will often give more pleasing results.
Dimly Lit Light Sources
This is another good method for getting the entire scene lit in a single exposure.
Because the light is so dim, you are far less likely to get blown out light in your images. There is some trial and error required to get the lighting right, but a very effective method. These can usually be purchased at dollar stores.
The moon is another effective method to light your scene. As we discussed earlier the moon can be detrimental to seeing the stars, so you need to be smart in planning if you are going to use the moon as a light source.
Moon in the sky as we are shooting the starsIn this example the moon was in the sky and was quite bright, probably a 75% moon. The stars were still visible, but were severely washed out by the bright moon. This is a single exposure (approximately 8 minutes) at f8 and ISO 400. This allowed enough light for the moon to light the foreground while shooting the stars.
If you plan to shoot at a 15-25% moon you will still be able to photograph the milky way while lighting your foreground in a single image, using the settings you would use to shoot the stars.
Shoot for the stars, then wait for the moon to rise. Or shoot the landscape with the moon lighting it and wait for the moon to set to shoot the milky way.
Settings are difficult when using the moon to light your landscape as a different brightness of moon will result in different settings.
The best method to use to determine the optimum shutter speeds is to shoot the landscape at a high ISO (i.e. 6400) and the aperture you want to use (say f8). Test several shutter speeds at these settings until you have the amount of light on the landscape you are after. Then reduce your ISO and increase your shutter speed in the same amount of stops. You do this to reduce the amount of noise while shooting the landscape.
Example: You get a good exposure at f8, ISO6400, 30s. Now you want to reduce your ISO to 800 which is 3 stops, you now need to increase your shutter speed by 3 stops to 4 minutes.
Dusk & Dawn
This method is very similar to shooting using the moonlight in multiple exposures. Basically the methodology is to either:
1. Get set up in your location at dusk and photograph the sky, which will also light your foreground (typically 30 minutes after sunset).
2. Wait for the sky to go completely dark, then change your setting to take another photo of the stars.
3. In post processing, blend those two images together.
The same methodology applies in reverse at sunrise. Instead you will be taking your shots of the stars first, then waiting for the dawn light to illuminate the sky and landscape (again typically 30 minutes prior to dawn).
So as you can see there are many options available for lighting our foreground, and each option has it’s merits and pitfalls. The whole idea is to experiment, find what you enjoy and works for you.