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How to Photograph the Milky Way
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The Milky Way

The Milky Way as seen from Bridgeport, California, 8:12 PM, 22 October 2013. Canon 5D Mk III, Canon RS-80N3 remote cord, Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 L II at 16mm, f/2.8 at 32 seconds at ISO 6,400 (LV -8), shot as CR2, processed in Aperture 3 and Photoshop CS6. Bigger.

 

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October 2013   Better Pictures   Nikon   Canon    Fuji    LEICA   All Reviews

 

Introduction         top

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The Milky Way is what you see in the picture above. It's a huge, dim, milky-looking firmament that crosses almost the entire sky every night. It's so dim that it's usually only visible away from city lights.

It's so dim that it was nearly impossible to photograph on film, but today it's easy to photograph with just about any digital SLR and a tripod. Compact digital cameras will also work, but iPhones won't work at all; you can't use flash.

 

How to photograph the Milky Way

1.) Get a digital SLR and the fastest, widest lens you can. A 24mm f/1.4 is the best, an f/2.8 ultrawide or zoom is next best, and if all you have is an 18-55mm kit lens, use that.

2,) Turn off the flash.

3.) Use your AF system's center sensor to focus on a distant city light, or a very bright star or planet. It's easy to focus on the moon, but if the moon is up, the Milky Way won't be as visible. It's important to focus on something as far away as possible. If your AF system isn't working, magnified Live View might. Focus on something as far away as possible; if you focus on something 20 feet away, the stars won't be sharp.

4.) Once in focus, set your lens or camera to Manual Focus (MF) so it won't move. (With Nikon manual-focus AI-s lenses, just set the lens to its infinity stop and you're done. Most AF lenses don't have a stop exactly at infinity.)

5.) Put the camera on a tripod, and be careful not to touch the focus setting.

6.) Set Manual exposure mode.

7.) Set 30 seconds exposure time.

8.) Set the lens to its widest aperture (the smallest f/number, like f/1.4, f/2.8 or f/3.5 depending on your lens).

9.) Set this ISO:

Maximum Aperture
ISO
800
1,250
1,600
3,200
6,400
10,000
f/4
12,800
f/4.5
16,000
f/5.6
25,600

10.) (optional) Set Tungsten white balance to keep the sky blue as I did above. Otherwise, it will probably look brown or orange in the camera's default AUTO white balance setting.

11.) Shoot.

 

Discussion

 

Exposure

Look at your LCD after you shoot, and make a different exposure if you like. Cameras will vary in their actual ISO.

Be careful; you're in the dark and underexposed (too dark) images will look best on your LCD at the time. Images that will look the best tomorrow usually look a stop or two too bright on your LCD as you look at them out in the dark.

 

Exposure Time

30 seconds is about the longest exposure we can use with an ultrawide lens and not get motion blurring due to the Earth's rotation. Feel free to use longer exposures, but you'll start to see the arcs traced by the stars. 30 seconds is about right for the best trade-off between high ISO noise and star trail blur with an ultrawide lens.

The wider your lens, the less the star motion will appear and the longer can be your exposure. I used a 16mm lens here; longer lenses, like 35mm, will enlarge the motion. For instance, with a 35mm lens your exposure can only be about 15 seconds before star motion becomes visible.

A reader in Iceland suggests diving 600 by your focal length to get the longest time in secoinds you might want to use. For example, with a 15mm lens, 40 seconds (600/15) is about the longest exposure you'd want before blur becomes obvious.

If you look closely at my sample image above you will see some star motion. Shorter times would reduce this, but demand a higher ISO with more noise, and longer times to use a lower ISO would add much more blur.

 

Long Time NR

Set Long Time NR (Long Exposure NR) if you get fogging at the edges of the image. If you set this, the camera makes a second long dark exposure to remove the edge fogging, but you have to wait an extra 30 seconds after each shot. You don't need this with most DSLRs made since about 2007; I didn't use it above.

 

Cable Release, Self Timer and Mirror Lock-up

Use any of these if you like, but with exposures this long, these aren't needed because any vibration occupies such a tiny fraction of the total exposure that it isn't visible.

 

Clock Drives

If you have a clock drive for a telescope that tracks the Earth's rotation, and mount your camera on it, you can use ISO 200, possibly stop down your lens a little for sharper results, and use these longer exposure times:

Aperture
Time at ISO 200
f/1.4
256 seconds
f/2
8.5 minutes
f/2.8
17 minutes
f/4
34 minutes
f/5.6
68 minutes

 

Location and Foregrounds

Dark areas are best, and a lake is even better because you can have a reflection in the lake.

Your camera will pick up light pollution better than your eye. Don't blame your camera if you get an orange tint to the sky with Tungsten white balance; it's probably distant street lighting that your naked eyes can't detect.

Avoid anything in the foreground like the shadow of a bristlecone pine; you want to show only one strong subject in your image, so if it's the Milky Way, don't get anything in the way.

If you want to show star trails behind bristlecone pines or Delicate Arch, those are clichées and that's another article.

 

Multiple Exposures

Summing multiple exposures does the same thing as simply using a longer exposure. With a longer exposure, the camera automatically averages everything over the entire exposure interval.

Ignore multiple exposures, unless your camera can't make exposures as long as you'd like, and beware: you'll get motion blur as strong as the entire period from beginning to end of your exposure sequence, and there will be little dark spots in the star trails for when your camera was advancing.

Multiple exposures may be useful for periods much longer than a few minutes or if you're on a clock drive, but don't help for photographing the Milky Way or Northern Lights where we don't want more than a 30-second exposure.

 

Thanks

Many thanks to photojournalist Ted Soqui who made us shoot this during a workshop in October 2013.

 

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