I’ll preface this post by saying that the key to taking good photographs is to know your subject. Photographing the Milky Way is no different. I’ve always been fascinated by science and astronomy, so when I learned I might finally see the Milky Way for the first time, I made it a point to re-learn what I thought I knew, and learn the things I didn’t know.
Before I get into how to actually take the picture, I’ve included some basic information on what the Milky Way is and how and when to see it in the night’s sky. Of course, I recommend researching it even further on your own. The Milky Way is an amazing sight to see in person, but when you know the true extent of what you are looking at, it’s even more spectacular.
To put it simply, a galaxy is a massive, gravitationally bound group of stars, dust, and gases, and other stellar remnants. The Milky Way happens to be our home galaxy. Our galactic neighborhood is about 2/3 out from the galactic center of the Milky Way within the Orion–Cygnus Arm; one of many arms that gives our galaxy its spiraled shape.
The Milky Way is impressively large, spanning some 100,000 light years across. That’s a mind-blowingly long distance! To put this in perspective, light travels 5,865,696,000,000 miles in ONE year. That’s 5.9 trillion miles. Multiply that by 100,000 and you come up with a number too big for any calculator I know of to display in full on the screen. But not too big for Google! The Milky Way is 587,849,981,000,000,000 miles wide. Huge.
At current estimates, our Milky Way contains between 200 and 400 billion stars…depending on which astronomer you ask. A tiny fraction of which are visible to the naked eye, even on the most clear, light pollution-less nights. It’s is extremely old, too. Current estimates peg our galactic home at nearly 13.2 billion years old.
By the way, scientists think there may be up to 170 billion galaxies in the observable universe. And while we sit here on this tiny pale blue dot called Earth, the universe is constantly expanding around us, growing larger and larger. Crazy, isn’t it?
Technically, you can always see the Milky Way since we live in it, but when I refer to the Milky Way in terms of photographing it, I’m describing photographing the galactic plane; the white, milky band that streaks across the southern sky. As I said earlier, the Milky Way itself is a disc-shaped spiral, and given our position in the galaxy, our view of the galactic plane is head on. Just as if you were looking at the edge of a frisbee. What you are actually seeing in this white, milky band, are all of the densely packed stars, gas, nebulae, and dust that form this disc we call the Milky Way
Ok, so now that we know what it is, how can we best see it?
1. Find a dark place:The first, and most obvious answer is that you must be in a very dark place. As the human race continues to spread across the Earth, the amount of light-pollution at night grows. In every urban and metropolitan area the stray lights of our cities propagating through our atmosphere can easily drown out even the most prominent features of the Milky Way. To get an idea of the light pollution where you live, and more importantly, where you can find dark skies, head on over to the International Dark Skies Association. (click on the link under the map of the U.S.)
The Moon also plays a huge factor. No matter where you are, or how dark that location usually is, a bright moon reflects enough sun light to put a damper on your dark sky experience. Here’s a handy link to find the moon phases on any particular day. The new moon (moon is never is visible day or night) is the preferred time to view the Milky Way. That said, you can still get a good view of the Milky Way for all but a handful of days each month before and after the full moon. Depending on when it rises and sets, of course.
2. Time of year matters:For all intents and purposes we assume the stars are in a fixed position in the sky. The Earth however, is not. Our planet spins on its axis, at the same time it orbits the sun. Because of this, the star field looks vastly different in the summer than it does in the winter. That said, the Milky Way is visible during all parts of the year, but the most prominent features of the galactic plane, specifically the galactic core (pictured just above the horizon in my photo), are best viewed in the Northern hemisphere during the summer months of May through September.
I highly recommend the “Planets” app if you’re an iPhone, or iPad user for determining the Milky Way’s position in the sky relative to the time of year. First of all, it’s free. Secondly, you can input your location, adjust the time of year, and time of day to see when and where the Milky Way is visible in great detail. It’s a great app that will help you pinpoint the best time of year for where you live to view the most prominent parts of the galactic plane. It’s very helpful out in the field as well.
3. Check the forecast: Weather can also be a limiting factor in viewing the Milky Way. Obviously clouds and storms can completely block the night sky. High humidity & haze during the summer months can also hamper your view of the galactic plane. The end of August and beginning of September is a great time weather-wise because the humidity will start to drop during the night hours. But by that time of the year the galactic core will start dropping closer to the horizon, and ultimately under it, as winter approaches.
Ok, ok, you know what it is, and where and when you can see it, so now we’re on to the good stuff! The goal of this tutorial is to teach you how to photograph the Milky Way in all it’s glory while making sure the visible stars exhibit little, if any star trails without the use of a motorized mount.
1. DSLR Camera with wide-angle lens
2. Sturdy tripod – a must
3. Remote shutter release – preferable but not necessary
About the photo:I snapped this photo on July 24 at approximately 11:07pm while up in the Northwoods of Wisconsin. Minocqua to be exact. Facing due South. According to the moon phase chart for that date, the moon was currently in the last quarter, or a waning crescent. At the time I snapped this photo the moon had not yet risen but was still a few degrees below the Eastern horizon (left side of photo). I am near certain that the light dome in this area of the photograph is from the moonlight refracting within the atmosphere. The light dome directly below the Milky Way is most likely from the city of Rhinelander. The bulbous portion of the Milky Way in this photo is the galactic core as noted by it’s proximity to the constellation of Sagittarius (Thanks Planets app!). The Great Rift, is also visible above the galactic core.
My settings:Manual mode shot in RAW. 32 second exposure @ f/3.5, Focal length of 10mm, ISO 2000, manually focused to infinity
Detailed settings explanation:Astrophotography, especially without the aid of a motorized equatorial drive, pushes the limits of what a DSLR can do. So I’ve gone over the finer points of the why’s and how’s of the settings to give you a better understanding of why I ended up at the above settings.
1. Shutter Speed:It would be great if we could leave our shutter open for 2-3 minutes, but unfortunately the Earth is spinning. A shutter speed of 2 minutes would all but guarantee the stars to be visible trails. Since the goal of this tutorial is to freeze the stars we need to speed up our shutter. There is a formula for determining the appropriate shutter speed for any given focal length to ensure the stars exhibit no movement. The accepted formula is 600/focal length for a full-frame sensor. So if you’re shooting with a focal length of 12mm you should be able to get away with a 50 second shutter speed (600/12 = 50). I however, was shooting on a crop sensor. After experimented with multiple shutter speeds, I found that even at a focal length of 10mm, 32-35 seconds was about the maximum shutter speed I could shoot to ensure no star trails. So, for a crop sensor, I recommend starting with formula 300/focal length and experimenting with slightly faster shutter speeds until you find what works best.
Of course, you could experiment with slightly longer exposures to see how far you can push it. With that said, you will more than likely need to shoot in “bulb” mode if you’re experimenting with speeds higher than 30 seconds. For this you will want to use a remote shutter release. It makes things much easier, and ensures you don’t touch the camera. In fact, I recommend using the remote even if you’re not shooting in bulb mode to ensure you don’t transfer any movement to your camera. If you don’t have a remote, set a timer. This will make sure any vibrations you do transfer to the camera/tripod cease before the shutter opens.2. Aperture:The sky is dark, the ground is dark, everything is dark. And since we have a finite period of time the shutter can be open you want to shoot with your aperture as wide open as possible. In the case of the wide-angle lens I was using, f/3.5 was as wide open as I could go. Next time, I’ll either use my mid-range f/2.8 or rent a wide-angle with a larger maximum aperture. As I said earlier, we’re pushing the limits of a DSLR so in order to achieve a good photo of the star field, you will have to fore go the sharpness that you may be used to at smaller apertures.
3. Focal length: The focal length you choose is up to you. It’s really a matter of composition. That said, remember that the shorter your focal length, the longer your maximum shutter speed can be, thus ensuring a more exposed, and prominent, Milky Way.
4. ISO: For all of you that are afraid of using high ISO’s because of the noise, you’re going to have to go well outside of your comfort zone if you want to capture the Milky Way in any detail. We’re limited on shutter speed, and limited on the maximum aperture. The only other option is to bump up the ISO. I found that on my camera ISO 2000, gave me a good balance of exposure while limiting the amount of noise in the shot. Though you should also try higher ISO’s to see what works best for your camera.
5. Focus: Manually set your focus to infinity. At the light levels you will be working in, auto-focus will be all but useless.
6. RAW:Make sure you’re shooting in RAW. If you plan to do any post-processing, which I can almost guarantee you will, you’re going to want the highest quality file to work on.
More tips and tricks: You’ve made it this far, why not learn a few more things?
1. Make sure you put your tripod on a sturdy surface, seems pretty simple but is very important. If your tripod is less than sturdy, you can hang a weight from it for added heft. Beware though, a light breeze can blow the weight and shake the tripod. It’s best to make sure the weight is on the ground and attached with a taught cord or rope.
2. Before you even take a “final” photo, do some test shots. Up your shutter speed to a minute, crank up your ISO way high, etc. The point here is to get an overexposed image on your LCD so you can determine the composition of your scene. It’s near impossible to see the finer details of your vista, or square up your horizon through the viewfinder when it is that dark. Use the over exposed image to help you set-up the best composition for your particular location.
3. Pixel peep. Once you’ve taken your test shots and have moved onto your final photos, make sure you carefully review each image and learn from it. Zoom way in, and check to see if you have star trails. What might look good on your camera’s LCD screen at full-size, might not look so good zoomed in, or worse, on your computer once you are done shooting. Are there star trails? Do they look oblong? Or are they fine points of light? Was there an airplane flying in the distance? Double and triple check your images before you finish shooting for the night.
4. Your LCD is bright, everything else is not. If you can turn the brightness of your LCD down do it. If you can flip it out of the way, do it. Especially if you are trying to use your viewfinder for compositional adjustments.
5. Noise Reduction (update): I had originally suggested Turning off any in-camera ISO or Long Exposure noise reduction (LENR) functions on the camera, because I wanted the instant feedback, however, one of my readers left a great comment about why and when you should leave it on:
“When using noise reduction, an equivalent black frame is being shot. It’s a common misconception that noise reduction works like it does in Photoshop. Black frame noise reduction works by exposing an equivalent shot (using all the same exposure parameters) but with the shutter closed. Then, anything whatsoever that appears in the theoretically black print is noise. This is usually the result of heat in your CMOS or CCD. The camera then subtracts these signal values from your photo.This type of noise reduction is only possible in camera and is far superior to noise reduction using single image algorithms like those found in Photoshop. My advice is to leave the noise reduction on for shooting the Milky Way. If you’re stacking exposures (another form of noise reduction common in astrophotography) then you should leave off in camera noise reduction. Also, if you’re stacking images for longer trails, then also leave it off. But for the most part, leave it on. Your stars, even your faint ones, should be safe.Just my $.22 (adjusted for inflation)”
7. Lastly, please make sure to spend spend some time enjoying the view with your own two eyes! 6. A note on post-processing: Unless you really pushed your ISO, you’ll probably notice you need to bring the photo into your favorite post-processing software to polish it up. A small bump in exposure was necessary in my photo. The higher ISO also lowered the overall contrast of the image. So I upped the contrast as well as manipulated the tone curve. I bumped up the highlights to make the bright stars pop and lightly brought down the darks and shadows to saturate the blacks. Small bumps in color saturation were also made to bring out some of the color present in the galactic plane. Lastly, I performed some digital noise reduction. Though I don’t push it too far. Too much noise reduction on a photo of stars does a funny thing – At high levels of reduction, some of the fainter stars disappear. I can only assume the software thinks these small stars themselves are noise.
Have fun, happy shooting!
Sources & more info:
May 4, 2009
Photograph by Jim Richardson
Photograph courtesy Jim Richardson
Contributing editor Jim Richardson is a photojournalist recognized for his explorations of small-town life. His photos appear frequently in National Geographic magazine.
It was a grand sight to see, the Milky Way stretching across the sky behind Owachomo Bridge. It was a natural subject for the opening spread of "Our Vanishing Night" in the November 2008 National Geographic.
First, let’s get this out of the way. This is a straight shot.
That’s right. No layers in Photoshop. No multi-image, bracketed-exposure HDR computer magic. No telescope-mounted clock-driven hours-long exposure. At National Geographic we really can’t use all those wonder weapons of the digital era. Readers expect reality, and we try to deliver.
This picture involved just a camera on a tripod in front of the right scene. Well, almost. Photographing the Milky Way and not ending up with a big blur requires several elements, one of which has only been available in the past couple of years. Here’s what you need to know. The Milky Way is out there every night. But you need a really, truly dark sky like what they have at Natural Bridges National Monument in southern Utah. You probably can’t do this picture east of the Mississippi. I scouted this location during the day, looking for the right bridge, one that faced the right direction, one that I could get to in the middle of the night. Oh, and if you want a dark sky you can’t have any moon. That’s part of the next step.
You also need to know when and where the Milky Way is going to be “up.” It rises and sets just like the sun and the moon. To find out when it will be visible, where it will rise, and whether or not the moon will be up (not what I wanted) I used a very nice astronomy program called SkyGazer 4 from Carina Software. This allowed me to set my location (southern Utah) and then spin the clock to see where the Milky Way would be at any given time. The answer, in this case, was that the southern Milky Way wouldn’t rise until about 2:15 a.m.
I needed the southern arm of the galaxy because that is the one that looks toward the center of the galaxy and therefore is much bigger and brighter.
Now here is the real trick. In order for the Milky Way to be sharp in the picture, the exposure can’t be any longer than about 90 seconds. (And that’s with a very wide 14mm lens.) Any longer and the stars will start to move so much during the exposure that they will be streaks instead of points of light. In fact, 90 seconds is stretching it. Sixty seconds would be better. So the trick was having a Nikon D3 that would let me shoot at ISO 3200 to ISO 6400 with minimal digital noise. We’ve only had cameras that could begin to do this for the past few years. Right now the D3 (along with the now-available D700) is the high ISO champion. And I needed an f/2.8 lens that would produce sharp images wide open. Fortunately I had the Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8 lens that is just phenomenal. It has very even illumination, and it makes sharp star images right out to the corners. (This is a very, very tough thing for a super-wide-angle lens to do.) Currently, this is about the only lens available that will do this.
Fortunately, the Milky Way is always the same exposure: 90 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 3200 will always get you a nice, bright Milky Way. Or, 60 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 5000 will work. Or 30 seconds, f/1.4, ISO 1600 works well, too. But note that there are no 14mm f/1.4 lenses. There is one 24mm f/1.4 lens and it can produce some fine star images, though with somewhat limited performance in the corners. The problem to be solved with that lens is getting it in focus, which is fiendishly difficult at f/1.4 in total darkness. It must be absolutely in focus. (Hint: Autofocus won’t even come close.)
So by 2 a.m. I’m standing behind my tripod and, just like clockwork, the Milky Way is beginning to rise behind the Owachomo Bridge. It’s just stunning. This spot has been named the International Dark-Sky Association’s first dark sky park and I can see why. My picture is all framed up and my first picture tells me I’ve got the angle and exposure right. (I’ve practiced this stuff before.)
Now I just need two more things. First the Milky Way has to rise high enough in the sky to be dramatic before dawn floods the sky with light. So I figure I’ve got about two and a half hours.
And second, I want to light up the bridge. That’s why I brought along four different flashlights. And that’s why my young friend, a summer ranger at the park, has agreed to my crazy idea of coming out here in the middle of the night. While I run the camera and check exposures, he’s under the arch, hiding behind some trees, painting the bridge with a flashlight during my 90-second exposure. I tell him when the shutter opens and he starts flashing the light, slowly and evenly, along the length of the arch. Too long in one spot and we would get a hot spot. Not long enough and it was too dark.
So for the next two hours we shot frame after frame, getting better and better at making nicely painted scenes of the arch as the Milky Way slowly moved into a great sweeping angle. It was exciting, being out there in the dead silence of the desert night, seeing our images getting better and better until finally I saw the first signs of blue creeping in from the east. But by then we had it. All in one exposure straight out of the camera. Wow!
One last technical tip that you’ll need: The exposures took the requisite 90 seconds. (And I experimented with other exposures and ISO combinations along the way.) But then I had to turn on high ISO noise reduction. It’s buried down in your camera’s menus somewhere. This is essential. The sensor heats up during long exposures, building up unacceptable levels of noise. So the camera does a “null” exposure with the shutter closed, to see where the noise is building up, then digitally reverses that exposure and subtracts it from the real exposure. Voilà—the noise has been nullified, so to speak. Doing this will slow you down, but do not bypass this critical step. All this means you’ll be lucky to do one exposure every five minutes. Use your dark sky time wisely.
Night Photography: After the Sun Sets
by Judd Patterson
The summer Milky Way on the prairie; 45 seconds, ISO 800
The sun has dropped below the horizon and the last colors of dusk have faded from the sky. You could call it a day; pack it in and go grab that meal that your stomach has been grumbling about for the last couple hours. You could…but then you would miss out on the fascinating world of night photography. In describing his discovery of the night sky on the prairie, poet Walt Whitman wrote:
The supper is over, the fire on the ground burns low, The wearied emigrants sleep, wrapt in their blankets; I walk by myself—I stand and look at the stars, which I think now I never realized before … I was thinking the day most splendid, till I saw what the not-day exhibited I was thinking this globe enough till there sprang out so noiseless around me myriads of other globes. ~Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1900)
Whitman’s discovery of the “not-day” parallels my own. Once you see the Milky Way spanning from horizon to horizon, you can’t get enough. Chance upon the Andromeda spiral galaxy and you’ll never look at the night sky quite the same. There are always new treasures to unearth, and the constant challenge to preserve fantastically dim beauty in a photograph. Over the last two years I’ve experimented with night photography and learned a lot in the process. Whether you are interested in capturing a landscape painted in the pale light of the full moon, depicting the stars wheeling overhead, or attempting to pull out details invisible to the naked eye, this article will get you started.
Before You Go
A little planning will go a long way toward putting you in the right place at the right time. My first step is to look up the basics: time of sunset/sunrise, moonset/moonrise, and the phase of the moon. Fortunately this information is readily available from the U.S. Naval Observatory website (http://aa.usno.navy.mil/data/docs/RS_OneDay.php) and many handheld GPS units. Armed with these facts, you’ll be able to plan what is possible. When the moon approaches its full phase, it will mask dim objects with its glow, but you’ll have unique opportunities to use moonlight to light the landscape. When a new moon approaches, it’s time to begin working on star trails or capturing the Milky Way.
The full moon lights the landscape in Myakka River State Park, 4 minutes, ISO 200
The next stage in my planning is to select a site for my night photography. My tool of choice is a Google Earth overlay of estimated North American light pollution. On any computer with the free version of Google Earth installed (http://earth.google.com/), simply open the kmz file available at this link: http://www.umich.edu/~lowbrows/guide/google/269838-ArtificialNightSkyBrightnessforNorthAmerica.kmz. The map uses color to indicate the severity of light pollution. These colors range from transparent for pitch black skies, up through blue, green, yellow, orange, red, and finally white in the most severely impacted urban areas. Using this map as a guide, you can place yourself in the best spot for the type of photography that you choose to pursue.
Keep in mind that extremely dark skies (green or darker) will be useful for dim objects such as the Milky Way. However, even the most light-polluted urban neighborhood holds night photography possibilities using the full moon. On a personal level, I’m saddened by the light pollution that hides the stars from my view, but by thinking creatively it is possible to turn a negative into a positive. Several times I have used the yellow/orange glow of city lights to my advantage as a way to add color to an otherwise monotone sky.
Light pollution from Twenty-nine Palms, CA (top) and Sarasota, FL (bottom) add a bit of color to the sky
Sometimes I use planetarium software to preview the night sky and how it will change through time for a site I may visit. A very capable piece of software named Stellarium is available for free download (http://www.stellarium.org/). This software makes it easy to get a quick idea of where key elements will be in your image, including the moon, planets, stars, and the Milky Way. When you first begin, you may find that this stage of planning provides information overload. If this happens to you, just go outside and work with what you find. It is worthwhile, though, to keep Stellarium in mind as a powerful tool that can help answer questions such as where the moon will rise and what portion of the Milky Way will be visible.
Finally, as the date of my shoot approaches, I want the very best information on weather conditions. I have found that a website for astronomers called Clear Sky Chart (http://www.cleardarksky.com/csk/) is particularly powerful. In conjunction with the Canadian Meteorological Center, it provides some surprisingly accurate maps of hourly cloud cover (and atmospheric transparency, humidity, wind, etc.) for more than 3,500 locations. Simply click on the state or province of your choice and browse for a location near your site of interest. The chart can appear complex at first glance, but it’s just a 48 hour forecast coded visually through a series of colored squares. Clicking on any square will pull up the full forecast map for that particular hour.
In the Field
No more planning. Now you are out in the field with the stars shining overhead. It’s time to get down to the business of night photography. I consider a sturdy tripod, camera remote release, and a headlamp to be essential gear.
How long should you expose a night photo? There really is no easy answer as there are many variables including the type of photograph you are pursuing, equipment capabilities, focal length, aperture, light pollution, moon influence, etc. My best advice is to experiment with exposures from 30 second to 30 minutes or more and take advantage of the instant feedback you will have on the camera’s LCD. While experimenting, do keep in mind that the night sky is not static. As a consequence of the earth spinning on its axis, the night sky rotates above your camera at a fairly rapid pace. Even in wide angle photographs stars will begin to streak after 30-45 seconds. If you seek to minimize streaking, your exposures will be generally be under a minute and you’ll likely need to use a fast lens and high ISO. On the other hand, if you want to showcase the star paths overhead, you’ll probably find that exposures greater than 10 minutes will have the most impact.
To attempt exposures longer than 30 seconds, you’ll want to switch your camera to bulb mode. This is usually accomplished by selecting the “B” or “bulb” shutter speed in full manual mode. In bulb mode the shutter will remain open for as long as the shutter button is depressed. You can avoid the need to directly press the shutter button by using a remote release. In a pinch when caught without a remote release, I’ve done bulb exposures the hard way, by carefully holding down the camera’s shutter button for several minutes. Your finger might cramp, but at least you’ll get some photographs!
A helpful video on bulb mode can be found at http://www.ehow.com/video_2369640_canon-eos-40d-bulb-exposures.html. This video provides instruction for a specific camera model, but the concept is similar for all models.
Canon EOS 40D: Bulb Exposures -- powered by eHow.com
Hint of dawn and the moon in Everglades National Park, 30 seconds, ISO 800
The next thing that I do with my camera is switch to manual focus. Setting the proper focus distance will require some trial and error until you develop a familiarity with your lens. Usually the infinity setting goes too far and will result in out of focus stars and foreground objects. When using a new lens I usually focus closer than infinity in steps and take test photographs. On the LCD it is useful to use maximum magnification to determine when your stars are sharp points (or thin lines on longer exposures). If your lens has markings, try to note the focus setting you use in order to save time on future trips. If there are extremely bright celestial objects in the sky (Moon, Venus, etc.) your camera might actually be able to acquire focus. After autofocusing, return to manual focus and preserve that focus setting throughout the night. I’d also recommend that you occasionally check your focus settings to ensure that nothing has been bumped. Few things are more frustrating than returning to your computer after a long night and discovering that your best photographs are out of focus!
It certainly depends upon the capabilities of your camera, but you’ll probably work most frequently with an ISO setting between ISO 400 and 1600. The ISO that I choose is usually dictated by my subject. When working with the full moon I’m often able to stay quite low and use ISO 400 (sometimes even ISO 200). However, if my goal is to capture dim stars or galaxies, the ISO must be cranked up to 800 or more. Thankfully each new camera generation moves us ahead and allows the use of higher ISO’s with lower noise.
Beyond the night sky; Fireflies in Great Smoky Mountains National Park; 2 minutes, ISO 1600
Many night photographers also enjoy painting their subjects with artificial light to add additional emphasis. You can accomplish this in a variety of ways, from shining a flashlight over a scene to using the test mode on your external flash to pop in a bit of light. Pay attention to the color temperature of the light source that you use or you could get unexpected results. In general, LEDs provide an extremely cool (very blue) light that may hurt the final image. I usually prefer the warm light of my Maglite, or even my flash unit. The use of filter slips on your light allows for some very creative possibilities. At $0.01 for a pack of several dozen, you just have to add this to your next B&H order (http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/45184-REG/Rosco_950SBCNG0103_Cinegel_Swatchbook.html)
Joshua Tree lit by walking through the scene and popping my flash; 2 minutes, ISO 200
Walking with a flashlight, Dry Tortugas National Park; 2 minutes, ISO 640
Many cameras now offer special in-camera noise reduction settings that double the exposure length. This feature operates by taking a second exposure equal in length to the original, but without exposing the sensor to light. The resulting dark frame roughly represents the hot pixels and noise present in the original image. It is then possible to subtract this information from the original and greatly improve image quality. I usually turn this feature off and choose to do it manually in Photoshop. For example, if you experimented with several 60 second exposures during a night shoot, end your session by placing the lens cap on your lens and taking a single image at 60 seconds. In Photoshop you can simply add this dark frame as a layer on top of your night photograph, and switch its blend mode to Difference to apply the effect. The choice is yours, but I greatly prefer to end my night with a few dark frames of varying exposure length rather than waiting for the camera to automatically apply dark frame subtraction to each and every image. Sometimes the time savings in the field can be very significant.
Long exposures greater than 10 minutes are certainly possible with many digital cameras, but sometimes you risk amp glow along image edges or a battery dying before the exposure completes. Recently, I tried a new technique for taking multiple, shorter exposures and stacking them in Photoshop. With a timer release, it was easy to tell the camera to take consecutive 1 minute exposures. After the 75th exposure I stopped the process. Fortunately, it is also easy to combine these files in Photoshop thanks to a free action from Chris Schur (http://www.schursastrophotography.com/software/photoshop/startrails.html). The stacked image can be seen below. It is worth noting that I also applied a single dark frame subtraction on top of the stack. In future experiments, I hope to tweak my settings to find an optimal balance between exposure length and noise.
Joshua Tree under the spinning sky; 75 minutes via 1 minute stacked exposures, ISO 800
As you’ve seen, photography does not need to end when the sun sets. In fact, the night can provide unique opportunities for even the most familiar locations. For me, it has become an addicting pursuit. Next time you see me yawning during the day…you’ll know why.
According to a recent study that I read, Death Valley has some of the darkest skies in the nation. The downside however, is that they get a lot of high winds in the area and there can be a lot of dust and haze in the air which makes photographing the milky way difficult. On my first night, I had these problems with dust and haze but I used the time to learn where and when the milky way would best be visible.
My second night brought hardly any wind and beautifully clear skies. Finding compositions in the dark is difficult so I used my gps to mark specific locations I wanted to come back to after hours which made life so much easier for me. Although this looks like one image, it is actually a four image panorama. Two frames were used for the sky which were exposed for 30 seconds at f/2.8 and iso 4000 with the camera pointed slightly upward. I then pointed the camera downward and focused on the ground and exposed for 90 seconds at f/2.8 and iso 1600. My goal was to showcase the repeating pattern of the salt flats in the foreground with the milky way in the sky. This could only be accomplished by merging two different perspectives together. Questions and comments are welcome!California, Death Valley National Park, Nikon D800E and tagged Death Valley, Milky Way, Night Protography, Salt Flats. Bookmark the permalink. F
What if I told you that you’re more than capable of imagining, planning and shooting Milky Way pictures that will put people into what I call a sharing trance? Would you believe it?
Nowadays, almost everyone can take good photos, even very good ones. We see it every day, social networks are filled up with multiple great photos, published by great photographers hoping that their work will be massively shared. Unfortunately, the truth is that just a few achieve to go viral. Why? One possible answer is: inner remarkability.
“Remarkable things provide social currency because they make the people who talk about them seem, well, more remarkable [...] Sharing extraordinary, novel, or entertaining stories or ads makes people seem more extraordinary, novel, and entertaining [...] Not surprisingly then, remarkable things get brought up more often”
Therefore, how can we make photos so that people will share and talk about? The same inner remarkability principle applies. Taking great photos is not enough, they need to be truly remarkable.
The idea behind this article is to help you better communicate through your photography, and thus better persuade people. In the age when whatsapp, social networks and television are fighting for our attention - and when more photographs than you can possibly view in your whole life are published every day - you must learn how to make truly hypnotic photos so that your friends and followers can’t avoid sharing and talking about.
I’ll cover everything you need to turn your ideas into real images, step by step; from inspiring sources and equipment to camera settings. All of this will become clear as you read through this article.
Are you ready?
“You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him find it within himself” - Galileo
Do you know Mark Gee? Maybe not. He is an extraordinary photographer based in Wellington, New Zealand. Please, let me share his extraordinary story with you.
Mark Gee’s imagination and persistence has no limit. You may not believe it, but this is the simple cause of his successful career in both film and photography industry.
Having worked on movies like The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings or Avatar, the highlight of his photography career happened pretty recently. He not only won two categories in the prestigious competition Astronomy Photographer of the year 2013, but he also won it overall with his unique image Guiding Light To The Stars.Winning image of the Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2013: Guiding Light To The Stars.
Guiding Light To The Stars is a story of fantasy. Every time I look at this contagious image, I can’t avoid immersing myself in an imaginary world… what if the stars owe all their beauty to a little lighthouse lost somewhere in New Zealand? Cool…am I crazy? Maybe a little… don’t blame me for that!
From the composition side, it’s a stunning panorama of the Milky Way arching over New Zealand's North Island coast. Observe the way that the Milky Way appears to flow from the lighthouse, connecting the stars and the landscape. In the middle of the image, you see the Galactic Center, by far the brightest part of our Galaxy.
But the idea that got his work out there and noticed was his viral video Full Moon Silhouettes. Mark explains what happened this way:
“I wanted to video the moon rising and revealing silhouettes up on a lookout in Wellington New Zealand. This idea proved a lot harder than I had anticipated, and there were a lot of failed and frustrating attempts. But finally after a year of trying, I managed to pull off something that exceeded my expectations.
I stayed up until 3am the next morning finding suitable music for my newly captured clip which I put together and uploaded it to Vimeo. I called it Full Moon Silhouettes (even though technically it was captured a day after the full moon) and when I awoke later that day, my email was full of hundreds of emails from people all over the world writing to me and thanking me for making the video.
It had touched the hearts of people in ways I could have never imagined, and here they were sharing those moments with me. This was certainly a very humbling experience for me, and one I will never forget.”
For a detailed explanation on how Mark imagined, planned and shot the Full Moon Silhouettes, have a look at the article To the Moon and Back.
Now, if I told you that Mark started his photography career in 2009, would you believe it? I bet you wouldn't!
Well, it’s true… With a photography career only 4 years long, Mark Gee proved that you don’t need to be a Master with ages of experience to shoot contagious images. The truth is you only need to have a remarkable story to tell... and tons of motivation.
So, believe in yourself… you can do it too!
"Image quality is not the product of a machine, but of the person who directs the machine, and there are no limits to imagination and expression." - Ansel Adams
As it turns out, if you want your photos to become viral, you need people to freak out with them, to fall in love with them. The good news is you have all it needs: your creative side.
Yes, of course you need to master all the photography technique involved but, as Mark Gee proved, creativity makes the difference.
Where should you start? Don’t let the critic that dwells in you, your analytic mind, take over and get in control… Think big, focus and let your imagination fly.
Immerse yourself in the creative process, look for a special location and do your research. Find the story hidden within, the emotion that evokes. Your goal is to come up with a unique story to tell, a deep emotion to convey, a remarkable message you’ll try to get across combining technique, composition and location power.
The sun and the moon are powerful photographic elements you can use in your image to help you get the message across while adding interest and mystery… but the Milky Way multiplies the possibilities, take advantage of it!
The Milky Way moves in the sky following the Earth’s rotation as the stars move. In other words, you will have different compositions at different times of the night. You can get the complete Milky Way arching over the landscape, great for a panorama, or the band in vertical, diagonal and horizontal orientation.
Sure, you’ll come up with multiple ideas of different compositions. Usually, you know the exact position you want the Galactic Center to be in your image, but you don’t know whether the scene is possible or when it occurs. There is no secret; the key to photographing stars is planning.
Thanks to technology, the old times when we had to work out all the calculations by hand or use the trial and error approach are over. Nowadays, we have incredibly powerful tools like PhotoPills at our fingertips that will do all the planning for us.PhotoPills’ 2D Milky Way Planner – The direction of the Galactic Center on July 25th 2014 at 11:12pm is indicated by the white azimuth line.The 2D plan represented in Augmented Reality. PhotoPills’ Night Augmented Reality – The position of the Galactic Center is indicated by the big red dot.
The reason most photographers jealously keep their best locations secret is that an unexploded location, rich of unique photogenic elements, can make you take an award winning image, as simple as that.
A second reason is that location scouting can be very time consuming and expensive. I’ve been living on a little island lost in the Mediterranean Sea for 22 years now and, although I’ve thoughtfully explored most of it, finding pretty unique locations on the way, I feel like the best location is yet to come.
So, what makes a great location for a night shoot?
Unless you’re willing to include artificial city lights in your composition, you’ll need to do some research and find out where the nearby dark sky locations are.NASA Earth Observatory image by Robert Simmon, using Suomi NPP VIIRS data provided courtesy of Chris Elvidge (NOAA National Geophysical Data Center).
Depending on where you live, it can be very challenging to find a location with limited light pollution. These are some resources that can help you find dark sky locations:
Choose a location which has at least one interesting element that inspires you.
Including it in your composition will help you connect landscape and sky in a creative way, which will capture the viewer’s attention.
These are some of my favorite points of interest. Try to experiment with them:
Being some of the most amazing and beautiful pieces of nature, rocks transmit a sense of power, isolation, and challenge.
Rock formations were slowly created by strong elements such as heat, wind, rain, and other erosional forces, over millions of years.
You can find them in many different positions. I personally prefer those that are isolated because they convey a sense of drama.I suppose it’s not difficult to find a nice rock in your area. If that’s not the case, have a look at the list of best rock formations on Wikipedia.
These marvelous giant stone structures, carved by nature, are doors to Heaven… And sometimes doors to Hell as well.
Natural bridges are formed by running water. This makes them even more special and rare than arches, which result from a combination of other erosional forces.
Again, if you’re not lucky to live near one of these natural wonders, do your research on the net. Check the list of longest natural arches on Wikipedia.
Those of you living in the USA can’t miss the Arches National Park (Utah). With over 2,000 classified arches, Anasazi cliff dwellings, pictographs and white sandstone canyons, it’s a dream come true for all night photographers.
Some of the world's most essential buildings are lighthouses. Some of them have been crucial in many wars, suffering dramatic consequences from being in the battlefield.
If you look into their past, you’ll find enigmas and surprising stories hidden behind the walls. Go, discover the mystery around a nearby Lighthouse or check the list of lighthouses on Wikipedia to find one that interests you.
Just two words: captivating organisms. They are powerful structures that add interest to your image and become dominant when photographed on their own.
Look for an isolated tree. It'll help you break the horizon line and give a sense of scale to the shot.
Here is a list of particularly unusual trees; unusual either because of their biology or because humans have changed them in some way: list of trees on Wikipedia.
Some people say these old stone constructions were built by ancient civilizations. Others, more skeptical about men’s technological capabilities, that were built by aliens. I ignore your opinion on these theories but the truth is that all these constructions will make your photos trap everyone's attention. It’s like connecting two worlds: ancient cultures and alien nations.
Among the types of old constructions, I prefer the megalithic ones. A megalith is a large stone that has been used to build a structure or monument, either alone or together with other stones.
The word "megalithic" describes structures made of such large stones, using an interlocking system instead of mortar or cement.
Stonehenge and Naveta d‘Es Tudons are famous examples of megalithic constructions. You can find more examples on the list of the oldest buildings in the world on Wikipedia.
Introducing a model in the mix can be challenging but also very rewarding. Sometimes, the story you want to tell needs the help of a human character to make it complete. Why not bringing a friend and try to shoot a tribute to one of your favorite films... Just brainstorming!
These are just a few ideas to inspire you, but you have many more: windmills, lakes (reflections), abandoned vehicles (machines)...Take advantage of what you have near your home.
Cemeteries, battlefields, ghost towns, volcanos, craters and deserts have a kind of hypnotic atmosphere that attracts the attention of many brave photographers looking for something new to invigorate their photography. Sometimes visiting the same old haunts or taking the same types of photographs can get stale. Why not trying something new?
When doing your research, don’t forget to:
What are you waiting for? Go and find a virgin location.
Meteors will turn a good Milky Way picture into a memorable one. So, when a meteor shower is coming up, make sure you’re ready to take action.
During a meteor shower, meteors are observed to radiate from one point in the night sky. These meteors are caused by streams of cosmic debris entering the Earth's atmosphere at extremely high speeds. Smaller fragments burn in the atmosphere producing a “shooting star”, but the bigger ones can really produce an amazing big fireball.
Produced by comet Swift-Tuttle, the Perseids is one of the best meteor showers that can be observed, with up to 60 meteors per hour. The shower runs annually from mid July to the end of August. In 2015, the peak will happen during the night of August 12th and the morning of August 13th... and with almost no moon! It'll be a great meteor shower, make sure you don't miss it.
If you are lucky enough to capture many meteors, you can use the technique described in this article by David Kingham for image post-processing and to get a stunning effect.
How do I predict meteor showers? I use the app Meteor Shower Guide (iOS), it’s a great tool to figure out when the next meteor shower will happen. In addition to this, you can have a look at websites like Seasky or Amsmeteors.
Let’s say that after having checked many locations, you’ve finally found one that inspires you. You’re ready to let your imagination fly... But hey! Don’t hurry... Before you start brainstorming and planning like crazy, there are five capital facts about the Milky Way that will help you point your creative mind in the right direction.
Knowing the direction where you will find the core of the Milky Way is mandatory. Don’t waste your time designing images that are not possible. These are the general rules depending on the Hemisphere you are:
To conclue, don’t look for the core of the Milky Way in northern directions. When brainstorming, think about different compositions with the galactic center in the southeast, south or southwest.
Another way to find the center (core) of our galaxy and the brightest part of the Milky Way is to look for the constellation Sagittarius.
“For a given location and direction (azimuth), the galactic center will always be at the same altitude in the sky.”
To put it simple, if you go to the same location on two different dates, look towards the same direction and wait until the galactic center is in that direction, you'll see it at the same altitude in the sky.
No matter the date, for a given location, when the galactic center is in one direction, it always has the same altitude.
Thus, given a location, the galactic center always rises in the same direction. Also, it always sets in the same direction.
The practical application of this fact is easy. For example, once you know the azimuth in which the galactic center rises, just choose the shooting spot in a way that the azimuth of the galactic center is just where you want it relative to the main subject of your photo (rock, tree, lighthouse, building, etc).
In other words, when you find a location you like, proceed as follows:
When should you start looking for the core of the Milky Way? When will it be visible? Or even better, when is the best time of the year to shoot the Milky Way?
During part of the year, the core of the Milky Way is not visible because it is blocked by the sun. Why is that? Because the galactic center is only above the horizon during daylight hours.
When planning to shoot the Milky Way, you should find out the period of the year in which the galactic center is visible during nighttime. To narrow the search and get faster results, learn the starting and ending dates of the best period of the year to shoot the Milky Way.
So, when is this?
In the Northern Hemisphere, the core is visible from March to October. However, the best time for viewing it is from late April to late July, because the galactic center is visible for longer during the night. Forget about it from November to February because you won't see it.The Galactic Center is visible from March to October and not visible from November to February.
In late February, the core becomes visible in the pre-dawn hours just before sunrise, and remains above the horizon during daylight hours. As months go by, the core becomes visible for longer and longer each night, being June and July the months with longer visibility. During this time of year, the core will be visible all night.
From July on, core visibility begins to decrease and the best viewing time moves towards after dusk, until it becomes totally invisible again in winter.
In conclusion, if you live in the Northern Hemisphere, late April is a good moment to start planning a shoot of the Milky Way, while June and July are the best months.
In the Southern Hemisphere, the core is visible from February to October, being in the middle of the winter, June and July, when the core is most visible. Again, don’t look for it from November to January.The Galactic Center is visible from February to October and not visible from November to January.
People living in the Southern Hemisphere enjoy a longer visibility because the peak occurs in winter, when days are shorter and nights are longer.
If you live in the Southern Hemisphere, mid-April is a good moment to start planning shooting the Milky Way.
All these visibility facts for the Northern and Southern Hemisphere are just qualitative, not exact figures. If you want to know how the Galactic center visibility time and direction change throughout the year in a determined location, I recommend you to use PhotoPills 2D Milky Way Planner and move time continuously to see how visibility evolves.
To better understand what I mean, watch the following video. It shows how the Galactic Center visibility time and direction change throughout 2015 at Delicate Arch, in the Arches National Park.
Don’t forget that in winter (Northern Hemisphere) and summer (Southern Hemisphere) you can still see the Milky Way, just not the core.
Most times, you’ll want to be in complete darkness when shooting the Milky Way. Therefore, when planning, you have to take into account the phase of the moon. You need to have no moon!
As a result, you must plan Milky Way shots happening during new moon and the 4 days before and after it.
In this case, you need artificial light sources to capture the beauty of the landscape under the Milky Way.
But the presence of the full moon is not always detrimental. You can still use the moonlight (from first quarter to last quarter) to photograph the landscape while capturing the Milky Way at the same time.
Look for the days when the moon falls outside your desired frame, preferably forming an angle between 60° and 90° with the direction you’re pointing to with your camera. The light will fall more on one side, and more shadows will be cast on the opposite side of the landscape elements, in this case, side lighting is ideal to render textures.
Direct, front moonlight shows the pattern of the landscape elements in a flat, uninformative way, but side lighting creates shadows in every little rock. This can give an almost 3D effect to a photograph.
The light is best starting about one to two hours after the moon rises. It's when the moon will completely light the landscape, creating beautiful shadows that give volume to the elements.
“A goal without a plan is just a wish.” - Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
I love the mystery surrounding Es Pont d’En Gil (40.010673°, 3.794610°), a natural bridge located in Menorca, a little island lost in the Mediterranean Sea... My home.
What I like about this natural bridge and makes it special is that behind it, 20 miles (32 km) away, is the crowded island of Mallorca, which heavy light pollution paints in red the arch of the bridge during the nights. It makes my imagination fly...
[Danger – flying mode on]
Imagine the red bridge... It’s like a door to Hell, once you come in you can’t come out, cursed for eternity... I’ve heard stories spoken by the elders... Stories about seamen who sailed never to return again... All vanished but one... There was one who returned... On a new moon day... This is how the legend goes:
“Only in the nights of new moon, when the stars dig deep into the very bowels of Hell, the Brave will find the star way back to the human world”
I’ve always been fascinated by old sea stories and legends. The truth is that too many seamen have been swallowed by the sea leaving their wife and children behind. All these real life dramas have inspired me to look for a spark of hope. This is how I came up with the idea of connecting Hell and Heaven with a stair made of stars... Connecting them with the majestic Milky Way... In a new moon night.
“... Only when the stars dig deep into the very bowels of Hell...” could be decrypted as “only when the Milky Way falls straight into the bridge”... I imagine the Milky Way completely vertical digging into the natural bridge... that’s definitely an hypnotic shot!
[You’re safe now - flying mode off]
So, how did I calculate the exact date and time the Milky Way would be vertical and aligned with the bridge? I used PhotoPills’ 2D Milky Way Planner as follows:
There are only two spots from where you can see the horizon through the bridge, but there is only one that is perfect for a Milky Way shoot.
Once you’ve found your desired shooting spot, turn on PhotoPills’ 2D Milky Way Planner and place the Observer’s pin (red pin) right on the position from where you want to take the photo.PhotoPills’ 2D Milky Way Planner – Scouting the area.Place the Observer’s pin on the desired shooting spot.
Notice the panel that is just above the map. It’s telling you that the Galactic Center will become visible at 11:17pm (on July 6th) at azimuth 163.0° and elevation 19.0°. Also, it’ll become invisible at 4:22am at azimuth 227.9° and elevation 2.8° (on July 7th).
Have a look at the two azimuth lines on the map. The light gray line is showing the direction where the Galactic Center will become visible (azimuth 163.0°) and the dark gray one, where it’ll become invisible (azimuth 227.9°) for the selected date.
As you want to have a perfect dark sky, set the date to next new moon date, in this case July 27th 2014.
Have a look at the second screenshot. The Milky Way is represented by a white dotted arch. The biggest white dot represents the Galactic Center, and marks the crossing point between the Galactic Center azimuth line and the Milky Way arch. This way, you can easily distinguish the Galactic Center on the Milky Way arch.
The top panel tells you that at 10:55pm, the Galactic Center will be at azimuth 176.8° and elevation 21.0°. When the Milky Way arch maximum elevation is 58.3°, the arch will be forming a diagonal in the sky.On July 6th the conditions to shoot the Milky Way are not good enough because of the moon phase. Notice that the quality bar next to the Milky Way picture is not full.Jump to the next new moon date for the best conditions possible. On July 27th, the conditions are great; the quality bar is 100% full.
Remember, you want to have the core of the Milky Way vertical and aligned with the bridge. To find out when it happens, move the time until the maximum elevation of the Milky Way Arch is 90° (read the top panel) and check whether the Milky Way is aligned with the bridge. If it’s not aligned; just re-adjust the position of the Observer’s pin. Also, you can jump to the next new moon day and check it again.
That’s it, the Planner reveals that if you go where the Observer’s pin is placed on July 28th at 1:59am, you’ll get the scene you imagined.The final 2D map plan, the core of the Milky Way will be vertical and aligned with the bridge.The 2D plan represented in Augmented Reality. PhotoPills’ Night Augmented Reality allows you to visualize if you got the desired composition.
Now, after the planning work… Pray for nice weather conditions. This is the name of the game PhotoPillers play: Plan&Pray.The Bard praying with one of the PhotoPills' t-shirts!
This is just a quick explanation on how to plan the Milky Way using PhotoPills. For a complete step by step guide please have a look at the following articles:
I always recommend those of my students who are willing to take photography seriously to start playing hard since the beginning and buy the best equipment possible they can afford, including second hand gear, because, at the end of the day, it’s a way to save money.
If you spend your savings in a basic equipment, you’ll soon find out that it’s far too limited to take the images you want and you’ll finally end investing in a better one, spending twice as much money. Besides, good equipment lasts for many years when treated well and, in case you decide to sell it, you’ll always find a buyer in the secondhand market.
What is the ideal equipment for night photography? In my opinion, these are the general features your camera body should have:
Regarding the lens, for a given exposure time when shooting the Milky Way, you need your lens to collect as much light as possible to capture the maximum number of stars as big bright spots. Also, you’ll want to make sure you capture as much of the Milky Way as you can. Then, you need to use the fastest (f/number) and widest-angle (short focal length) lens you can afford to collect as much light as possible and also frame the larger area of the sky. A 14mm for Full Frame cameras or 11mm for cropped sensors would be ideal.
Lenses that allow these short focal lengths are called ultra wide angle lenses. Unfortunately, due to the complexity of its construction, the wider the lens the more expensive it is.
You obviously don’t need to spend 5,000$ in a professional equipment to capture nice compositions of the Milky Way, it’s all about your imagination. With basic equipment your images won’t look as good as they should to a well trained eyes.
Shhhh... Keep this as a secret… The good news is that most of your friends and social media followers will hardly make out the difference between your image and a professional one… So, why not trying to photograph the Milky Way!
The most common equipment in my beginner’s class ($500-$800) consists of:
These cameras allow full manual exposure and manual white balance (or, at least, choosing a white balance preset).
Unfortunately, basic DSLR cameras are not capable of using ISOs of 3200 and higher without suffering from noise. One possible way to work around these cameras' limitations is to shoot at 800 ISO and use the noise reduction in post processing. Depending on the results you get, try to push your ISO higher and see what happens. However be aware, noise reduction does smooth the fine detail in your images, making them softer to the eye, which can be problematic.
These cameras usually cost around $400-$700 including a basic 18-55mm lens.
The lens makes the image, the camera records it. Therefore, your lens is a crucial part of your equipment. You should definitely invest in quality lenses.
Most DSLRs, like the Nikon D3300 or Canon 1100D, come in a basic kit with an 18-55mm lens. These lenses have been designed to give acceptable results when shooting daytime pictures and using an aperture of f/8. But, of course, do not perform as well as professional zoom lenses (like the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 and Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II) when shooting at night and in low light conditions. In these light conditions, use a focal length of 18mm or less (if your lens is capable) and the widest aperture available, usually f/3.5.
Keep in mind that, due to the cropped sensor of these cameras and that you have to shoot with a focal length of 18mm (equivalent of 27 mm for Nikon and 28.8mm for Canon in 35mm format), your exposure time has to be pretty short to prevent stars from trailing (more or less 17/18 seconds depending on the camera model).
Furthermore, as you are using an aperture of f/3.5 and ISO 800, the amount of light collected will also be very limited, getting an underexposed image. As a result, you’ll end up with noise when post processing the image.
To sum up, this is not the ideal equipment for shooting the Milky Way but, if it’s all you have, make the most of it and work on your post processing to reduce the level of noise.
With this basic equipment, one alternative is to shoot longer exposures (5 minutes or more depending on the moon phase) using the nominal ISO of your camera (usually ISO 100 or 200) to avoid noise. You won’t get stars as big bright spots, but you’ll capture the star trails of the Milky Way, which can make a pretty stunning picture.
Another way to create stunning star trails is by merging a series of short exposure photos into a single image using softwares like StarStaX (Mac, Windows, Linux) or Startrails (Windows). Here, the relative motion of the stars creates structures similar to star trails. The advantage is that you prevent your sensor from overheating… But let's talk about Star Trails in a future article.
Long exposures are the name of the game in night photography. Therefore, when choosing a tripod, weight matters. The last thing you want in your photos is blur caused by tripod vibration due to wind or running water. You need to keep your camera steady and still.
Basic tripods usually don’t weigh too much and are pretty unstable, so you’ll probably have blur problems when shooting long exposures. Add to this, the risk of damaging your photography equipment in the case of a fall.
To prevent vibrations and, thus, reduce blurring, you can load the tripod with extra weight by hanging a bag filled with stones or even your camera bag from it. Also, don’t raise the center column of the tripod if it has one because it’ll make it more unstable. If you raise it, you are also raising the mass center of the system formed by tripod, head, camera and lens, which results into a more unstable system. The lower the mass center the more stable the system will be… It’s all about physics.
Since you’ll be in the dark, a headlamp is pretty much a necessity. But, it’ll not properly work for light painting at night. If you’ve planned to have interesting foreground elements, a good flashlight is compulsory.
A remote shutter release allows you to trigger your camera remotely without needing to touch it. This is particularly nice to prevent vibration resulting into motion blur or streaks in your images.
The problem with remote releases is that they are not programmable, so you cannot shoot at regular intervals automatically. It’s a much better idea to buy a cheap intervalometer. Nowadays you can even find cameras that include it.
An intervalometer is a programmable remote shutter that you can use to set exposure time, time interval between photos, total number of photos to be taken and the time delay of the first picture. If you’re using the Bulb (B) exposure mode, you’ll be able to shoot exposures of 30+ seconds which is very useful when shooting timelapses and star trails.
There are many different types of SD cards (Secure Digital) depending on capacity and data transfer speed.
Depending on the capacity of the card, you can get:
Besides capacity, it’s important to pay attention to transfer speed:
For beginners, 32GB SD cards Class 4 or 6 (from $15) are enough. They are great, cheap and the amount of photos stored is acceptable.
The main drawback is speed. Transfer speed of a camera memory card refers to how quickly data can be written to it. If you’re going to take photography seriously, you’ll need to purchase a memory card with a high transfer rate, because it allows each picture to be saved into the memory card quicker, providing a shorter delay between two consecutive shots.
Finally, I recommend you to use several small capacity cards rather than a few large capacity ones, because, if you lose a card or spoil it, the fewer pictures will be lost. By using several small capacity cards you decrease the risk of losing your photos.
The total budget for a basic equipment should be $500-$800.
If you want to take photos of the Milky Way with an acceptable quality on a budget ($1,500-$3,500), this is the equipment you need:
Depending on your budget and goals, you may be interested in jumping into the Full Frame universe or staying with a camera with a cropped sensor. In both cases, there are cameras with great noise performance.
The Nikon D7000 and D7100, Canon 700D and 7D Mark II, Fuji XT-1, Pentax K-5II or the Sony a6000 are all crop sensor cameras that perform well. The cost should be around $650- $1800, quite cheap compared with Full Frame cameras.
If you already have a Full Frame camera or you want to make the leap, congratulations! Two of the big advantages of using a camera with a full frame sensor is that it produces less noise in the image and enjoys a greater dynamic range than a APS-C with the same megapixels, allowing you to work with higher ISOs, collect more light and, thus, take better Milky Way pictures.
Within the medium range budget, you can also find Full Frame cameras that perform well in low light conditions. The Nikon D610, Canon 6D, Sony a7 and a7R are just a few you can trust. All cost between $1600 - $1900.
All these cameras will allow you to use ISO 1600 or 3200 with acceptable noise performance while getting images properly exposed.
As we’re talking about Milky Way photography, I’m going to focus on wide angle and ultra wide angle lenses, because they allow us to capture the most quantity of stars.
One of the brands with best price/value balance is Rokinon (also known as Samyang, Pro-Optic, Bower, Falcon, Wallimex, etc). They have models available for both Full Frame and APS-C sensors. Another brand that also provide great lenses for night photography is Tokina.
For APS-C cameras, the Rokinon/Samyang 10mm f/2.8 and the Rokinon/Samyang 16mm f/2.0 are great prime lenses. Regarding zoom lenses, I’d like to highlight the Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8. Other options are the Sigma AF 10-20mm f/3.5, Sigma AF 18-35 f/1.8 DC HSM and Sigma 17-70 f/2.8 DC OS HSM.
For Full Frame cameras, the Rokinon/Samyang 14mm f/2.8 and the Rokinon/Samyang 24mm f/1.4 prime lenses are great. Keep in mind that these lenses also work on APS-C but you need to take into account the crop factor. For example, given a camera with a crop factor of 1.6, then the Rokinon 14mm would be equivalent to 22.4mm for a Full Frame camera.
The cost of these lenses should be between $300 and $600.
Besides highlighting the competitive price of these lenses, it’s also noteworthy that, especially the Rokinon/Samyang lenses, practically don’t present coma at their maximum aperture, a fact that you need to consider in night photography.
Coma is an optical aberration that distorts the stars in the corners of the lense. Stars appear in the image as trails instead of appearing as dots.
With the combination of any camera body and lens listed above, you’ll be able to take great pictures of the Milky Way. You might have noise problems when shooting long exposures at ISOs over 1600, but you can minimize them by using the Long Exposure Noise Reduction mode of your camera.
One word on durability… You need to be very careful when working under extreme rain, high humidity, low temperatures or with sand or dust in the air. The sealing of the camera body is not as good as the one of professional cameras. You need to protect it as much as possible.
A good LED headlamp is recommended when you get seriously into night photography. Its light is very powerful, allowing you to see in the dark and to focus at the hyperfocal distance.
If you are shooting in a day with a thin moon or new moon, it’ll be necessary to artificially illuminate the foreground (the ground, a tree, a rock, etc.). To do so, you would ideally complement the headlamp with a LED flashlight, LED panels or Flashes.
The LED flashlight can be used to add volume and texture to certain elements that you want to appear in the photo. Its advantage that it allows you to work with more accuracy. Similar to a brush, you can paint with light the exact areas that interest you. Unfortunately, it covers a little area.
To cover a larger area you can use either LED panels or a flash. LED panels have the advantage of continuous light, so it will be easier to control light. The good thing is that you can find them at a very reasonable price.
The advantage of flashes is their power. They allow you, for example, to take a portrait of a model while capturing the Milky Way with a single exposure.
A gel is a colored plastic sheet that you can place in front of the light source to color its light. Ideally, you should always have in your bag at least a couple of color correction gels. In most sessions, a CTO gel (Color Temperature Orange) and a CTB gel (Color Temperature Blue) will do the job, they are not expensive and last for a long time.
A CTB gel converts tungsten light of 3200K to 'daylight' color (5500K), so it can be used to cool your scene. While a CTO gel performs the reverse, it converts daylight color (5500K) to tungsten (3200K), allowing you to warm the scene.
Gels are available in different intensities. You can find them with an intensity or strength of ¼, ½, ¾, etc. The lower the intensity the less the color temperature is corrected.
In addition to color correction gels, there are the so called color gels. These are used to allow color lighting accents and unnatural effects. There is an huge number of colors available from several manufacturers: red, yellow, green, dark blue, etc.
As I already mentioned in the beginner's section: weight is key. The more the tripod weighs, the better the stability is. Obviously, you're looking for a tripod with a weight that you can comfortably carry without damaging your back.
The most popular tripod brands for advanced amateur photographers are Manfrotto, Benro and Induro, being the tripod Manfrotto 055XPROB probably the best seller tripod in this buget range.
Here, you should look for a tripod that can bear the camera body and the lens, but that also has a good stability against wind for a reasonably price. An aluminium tripod that can bear 11/16 lb (5/7 kg) of weight would be ideal. Again, remember not to raise the center column of the tripod, it’ll make it more unstable.
Besides the tripod, you need to acquire a head suitable for night photography. There are many different heads in the market. The most commonly used in this type of photography are the ball head and the pan/tilt head. The type of head depends on the photographer taste, but make sure that it can bear at least 11/16 lb (5/7 kg) of weight and that includes a removable plate.
Advanced photographers should have an intervalometer. The remote shutter release can do the job in many cases, but if you want to shoot a timelapse, star trails based on photo stacking or simply shoot continuously during a meteor shower, having an intervalometer is compulsory. Furthermore, even when you only want to photograph the Milky Way, continuous shooting will increase the likelihood of capturing a shooting star, which will definitely add interest to the image.
Each brand has its own intervalometers for each family of cameras, like the Canon TC-80N3 Timer Remote Controller or the Nikon MC-36 Multi-Function Remote Cord. Phottix is also a great brand for this type of product, highlighting the TR90.
But If you want a very affordable intervalometer, have a look at the models of Yongnuo. However, keep in mind that these are probably not as robust and durable as the first ones.
Prices can go from $15 to $170.
It might seem this is not that important, but it’s vital when shooting timelapses at night or low light conditions, as you want to take the maximum number of photos possible.
The capacity of the cards can be 32GB, 64GB or more. If you plan to shoot timelapses, I recommend you to get a 64GB card or higher, to make sure you have enough space to store all the photos.
Apart from the SD memory cards, there are cameras (usually Full Frame) that can also work with CompactFlash (CF) cards, usually Type I, which are thinner than Type II ones. These cards are physically larger, more robust and with greater transfer speeds than SD cards, although, it’s worth saying, that you can buy really fast SD cards nowadays. Its main drawback is the price as they are much more expensive than SD cards. I recommend these cards for advanced amateur or semi-professional photographers.
The total budget for an acceptable equipment should be $1,500$-$3,500.
There is almost no limit to how much you can spend on equipment (above $5,000)... But I assure you that with the following equipment your photography won’t have limit either.
When you seek the highest quality standard in your photography a mid/high range Full Frame camera is essential. It should have a sensor with great noise performance in low light conditions and that it doesn’t overheat. Furthermore, it’s also very important that the body is perfectly sealed to withstand bad weather conditions, sand, dust, humidity and water.
The Nikon D810, Nikon D4S, Nikon DF, Canon 5D Mark III, Canon EOS-1D X and Sony A7s are great cameras for professional night photographers. Also, I'd like to highlight the Fuji XT-1 that despite not being a Full Frame is a fantastic camera.
All have a wonderful noise performance when using high ISOs. Furthermore, they include external buttons for every important setting (ISO, WB, etc ) allowing you to easily change them.
The budget lays between $3200 and $7000, depending on the camera model. Of course, it’s necessary to use these bodies with a great lens if you want to make the most of it.
You should look for a sharp, fast, wide angle lense with no coma distortion at the edge nor other chromatic aberrations.
One of the best lenses due to its quality and proven results is the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8. It’s not only used by Nikon photographers, but also by photographers using other camera brands like Canon. In this case, you need to use an adapter ring. It’s an incredibly sharp lense with very little coma and vignetting. Its price is usually around $2,000. If you’d like to find more about it, you can have a look at a great review on David Kingham’s website.
If the price is not an issue for you, another outstanding lens is the Zeiss 15mm f/2.8. This lens is also very sharp and it has not coma. It costs around $3,000.
Otherwise, If you’re looking for a great lens in a lower price scale, try the Tokina 16-28mm f/2.8. It’s very sharp and you will spend around $700. Similarly, the Rokinon/Samyang 14mm f/2.8 gives exceptional results for about $350. Both lenses have little coma.
On the Canon side, you have the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II, with a price of $1,700, but suffers from coma and strong vignetting when shooting at f/2.8. You can read a review of this lens on David Kingham’s website.
A powerful LED headlamp is essential, such as the Led Lenser H14R or H7R. Both are light, small, have a great autonomy and allow you to see and focus in the dark. In addition to the headlamp, it’s advisable to have at least two flashlights from strong brands such as Coast, Led lenser, Maglite or Surefire.
On the one hand, you need a powerful flashlight to illuminate subjects over long distances, such as Coast HP-7 or Led Lenser M7. On the other hand, you need a second less powerful flashlight, such as the Coast TX-10 or the Led Lenser L7 , to illuminate foreground subjects. The Coast TX-10 can provide light in different colors: white, red, blue and green.
In addition to this, you should have at least 2 LED panels. These panels are crucial since they provide continuous light and cover a large area, allowing you to easily illuminate the entire foreground, even in panoramas. Sometimes, you’ll need or want to combine LED with flashlights.
Finally, it’s necessary to own a few flashes. Flashes will provide a light source to shoot portraits, lighting inside buildings, etc. If your intention is to make a portrait, it’s ideal to also use stands/tripods for flashes and softboxes/octoboxes.
Don’t forget to add a few color correction gels to your bag. CTO and CTB gels of different intensities are essential. Colored gels are also necessary if you want to create effects, such as adding red or yellow light inside a building.
A carbon fiber tripod is ideal for both, supporting the weight of the gear and to be carried everywhere you go. These tripods are robust and allow loads from 11 lbs to over 56 lbs (5-25 kg) depending on the model. Obviously, you must choose a tripod that can support the weight of the tripod head, the camera and the heaviest lens you have. But always leave a marge de manoeuvre just in case you decide to buy heavier gear in the future.
Be very careful when working with your carbon fiber tripod during thunderstorms. These tripods can conduct electricity, so they can work as a small lightning rod. Under these weather conditions it's preferably not to use them and to keep them folded in the bag.
In my opinion, the tripod's best friend is a good ball head. The Kirk Enterprise BH-1 is the one I use. Supporting up to 50 lb (23 kg), it bears the weight of my gear with no problem. It allows me to work comfortably and with great precision.
For a good head, be ready to pay more than $300.
Surely, the wired intervalometer that I’ve mentioned in the mid-range budget section is a great tool for night photographers, but I love a wireless one. Why is this such a big deal, you ask? Well, because it allows me to comfortably start and stop the camera while I’m lighting the scene or when the camera is in a difficult-to-access place (on a tree).
I use the Phottix AION, which has the additional advantage of being connected by wire to any type of camera just by changing the connector jack.
Get the best quality cards possible (like SanDisk or Lexar Media) to minimize the risk of losing your photos and to get the maximum transfer speed. Minimizing the delay between photos is very important when shooting consecutive pictures at high speed. Furthermore, it’s advisable to use high capacity cards to avoid running out of memory space right in the middle of a timelapse session or a meteor shower.
You can use the following timelapse calculator to work out the total memory space you need, so you make sure you bring enough memory cards.
Almost all professional cameras are compatible with CompactFlash cards (CF), although they also support SD cards lately. CompactFlash cards are more robust than SD cards, which is an extra guarantee, and also have a higher transfer speed.
If you’re lucky to have a Nikon D4 or D4S camera, you’ll be able to use the XQD cards that provide a fantastic transfer speed perfect for continuous shooting.
I use SanDisk and Lexar cards.
Battery charging is one of the rituals every photographer must go through before a shoot. You need to charge all the batteries of your different cameras and a few more just in case. Depending on the type of photography, this is at least two or three batteries in total.
However, be aware that cold temperatures shorten battery power performance. Therefore, if you plan to run a long session in the cold, it’s advisable to use a grip with extra batteries. You will minimize the chances of running out of battery power in the middle of a cold winter night.
I use a Nikon D700 with a MB-D10 grip, which allows me to shoot long timelapse sessions and meteor showers without any battery problem.
If you don’t have a grip, but you still want to spend several hours shooting a timelapse, you’ll have to replace the battery as quickly as possible. Make sure that you don’t move the camera in the process, it’d be a pity to arrive at home and find out that the whole timelapse has been ruined. At this point, a sturdy tripod and a good head ball come into play more than ever… They will allow you to change the battery without moving the camera.
Before leaving home, don't forget to check that the batteries of flashlights, LED panels, flashes and headlamp are also fully charged.
Finally, it’s a good idea to take an external battery charger for your smartphone or tablet.
You will need these accessories to make a timelapse only.
Dollies and sliders are wonderful tools that provide motion in a timelapse, either by physically moving the camera along a rail, rotating it around one or more axis or a combination of all movements. As a result, the footage is more dynamic compared with a static timelapse.
Depending on your budget, you can purchase sliders that allow different camera movements:
Ibiza Lights III by Jose A. Hervás is a great example of how sliders can be used to create stunning timelapses. Besides, it includes many scenes planned with PhotoPills.
One of the most annoying aspects of night photography is dealing with dew. Moisture in the air can condense on the cold front surface of your lens, and ruin the photos.
These are some of the existing solutions to fight against dew:
Hoods: this is the first element you should use as a protection against dew. The hood is not only great for day use to avoid unwanted reflections of light, it is also very important in night photography. By using a hood, moisture will take longer to condense on the surface of your lens and the lens will be better protected in case it accidentally falls on the ground.
Fan: a simple PC fan can help you keep the lens dry and without moisture condensation thanks to the steady stream of air generated. It’s an ideal solution for nights that are not too wet. Of course, you'll need a power supply that has enough capacity to keep the fan working for the whole night session and a support system to guide the fan towards the lens. The good news is that these fans have a very low power consumption.
I particularly use a small portable rechargeable Li-ion battery 12V 3800mAh with a 5.5mm barrel jack and USB connectors. Here, I had to adapt a 5.5mm barrel jack connector to the wire of the fan. Finally, I put the fan onto a flexible loc-line hose adhered to a clamp so it can be attached to the tripod.
Dew Heaters: the idea behind this tool is to heat the lens to a temperature above the dew point, avoiding moisture condensation. You should look for a heater that is light to avoid carrying more weight than necessary, as, quite often, reaching points with little light pollution involves long walks.
The existing commercial solutions are composed by a heater, a battery and a controller. The controller is responsible for adjusting power in order to keep the temperature of the heater above the dew point. On the one hand, the controller gives you the advantage of managing more efficiently the battery power. But, on the other hand, it’s another gadget you have to charge and carry. Sometimes it just doesn’t pay off to carry so many things.
I opt for a cheaper and lighter solution. I use a heater without a controller connected directly to a portable battery. Yes, I don’t have the option to adjust power, but I've tested that this system can provide power for nearly 5 hours. If you need the battery to last longer or you forecast a cold night, just bring an extra battery with you.
Summing up, all you need is a heater strip, a battery and a cable to connect the heater to the battery.
The total budget for a great professional equipment should be above $5000.
Finally, make sure you also bring with you a comfortable chair, drinks, snacks, your preferred music (Pink Floyd in my case) and a portable battery charger to keep all electronic equipment charged, including the speakers!
Starting a night shoot with “Shine On Crazy Diamond” is priceless.
Above, I’ve explained the different types of equipment (basic, advanced and pro) you can find in the market. Now, I’d like to show you how these equipments perform when you try to shoot the Milky Way.
For the test, I used these cameras:
With the purpose of comparing the quality of these different combinations of cameras and lenses, I shot the following images from the same spot and framing (approximate) getting the results I comment under each picture.
All photographs were shot at a temperature of 3800K or tungsten white balance (WB) in those cases in which the camera didn’t allow to set WB manually. The post-process is exactly the same in all images. To do so, I created a preset in Lightroom which I applied to the images.Sony RX-100 III8.8mm (24mm equivalent) | f/2.8 | 30s | ISO 3200It shows serious problems of luminance and chromatic noise at high ISO. Because the lens is not a wide angle, I got a narrow angle of view. Notice that the Milky Way doesn't fit in the frame. Finally, it suffers from coma.Nikon D3000 + 18-55mm f3.5-5.618mm (27mm equivalent) | f/3.5 | 30s | ISO 1600It presents a lot of luminance, chromatic and thermal noise (top left corner) at ISO 1600. The lens is not luminous and has a narrow angle of view. The Milky Way doesn't fit in the frame. It also presents coma.Nikon D7000 + Tokina 11-16mm f2.811mm (16.5mm equivalent) | f/2.8 | 30s | ISO 3200It presents luminance and chromatic noise at ISO 3200, but considering that I’m using a crop sensor camera, results are acceptable. The lens is luminous enough to capture a nice number of stars. Furthermore, being a wide angle lens, I managed to capture both the tree and the Milky Way. Nikon D600 + Samyang 14mm f2.814mm | f/2.8 | 30s | ISO 3200Luminance and chromatic noise level is quite low at ISO 3200. Also, the performance of the Samyang lens is more than acceptable.Nikon D700 + Nikkor 14-24mm f2.814mm | f/2.8 | 30s | ISO 3200Luminance and chromatic noise level is low at ISO 3200. It's the perfect combination of camera body and lense for night photography. The detail of the stars is impeccable.
To sum up, the best option for photographing the Milky Way regardless of budget is the combination of a Full-Frame camera and a wide angle lens, like the 14mm, as much luminous as you can get it, for example a f/2.8.
You got an idea, planned it, maybe a few months ago, and finally you find yourself in a beautiful outdoor location with dark skies ready to make a photograph.
You might prefer enjoying the scene alone, but why not sharing the adventure with a few colleagues for a change? I believe in associationism as a way of helping others and sharing knowledge, enriching each one's photography.
My students make the shooting both more interesting and challenging. In this case, arriving at the location with enough time in advance is key!
Let’s see how to set up everything for the shoot, step by step.
Place your tripod on a solid surface right on the shooting spot you thoughtfully planned. You can use PhotoPills’ Night Augmented Reality view to double-check you’re on the right spot and that you’ll have the Milky Way where you want.
Then, make sure the tripod is stable and attach the fastest and widest lens you have to your camera. Basically what you want here is a wide-angle lens to maximize your exposure time, and with a wide aperture to capture as much light as possible.
To photograph the Milky Way and the natural bridge, I used my Nikon D700 camera (Full Frame) and a Nikon AF-S 14-24mm f2.8 G lens on my tripod legs Benro A4580T with a Kirk Enterprise BH-1 head.My Nikon D700 with the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 G
Some lenses include a function to stabilize vibrations. Canon calls it Image Stabilization (IS); Nikon, Vibration Reduction (VR); Sigma, Optical Stabilizer (OS). On the other hand, Sony, Olympus and Pentax have been pushing for in-camera stabilization.
This function allows you to shoot handheld in low light conditions at shutter speeds slower than usual without getting a blurred image. This is possible because the lens compensates the vibrations you produce.
When using a tripod, you should deactivate this function. Even without camera vibrations or movement, the image stabilization system (small gyroscopes) might try to correct nonexistent movements, causing vibrations that will surely affect the sharpness of the image negatively, especially when shooting at shutter speeds between 1/15s and 1s.
Therefore, as a measure of precaution, I recommend you to switch the image stabilization off when using a tripod.
If you usually use an ultraviolet (UV) filter to protect your lens, it is essential you remove it when shooting at night. I am not in favor of adding an extra glass on the lens if it’s not intended to better control the light, and in this type of photography it can even ruin your photos. This filter provokes problems of light reflection and refraction, which causes halos, flares and unwanted reflections in highlights during a night session.
RAW image files contain all the image data recorded by the sensor allowing you to produce higher quality images, and correct in post production problems that would be unrecoverable if you shot in JPEG format. This is because when shooting in a format like JPEG, image information is compressed and lost.
One important thing you should know is that the image you see on the LCD is a JPEG copy of the RAW file. Therefore, the histogram displayed by the camera is not exactly the histogram of the RAW file.
If you use your camera’s auto mode you’ll not be able to capture the Milky Way. The manual mode gives you total control over the exposure by setting aperture, shutter speed, ISO and white balance adjustments at your will. You’ll need to use it to collect as much light as possible to capture stars as big bright spots while getting a photo correctly exposed.
Noise is the big enemy of night photography. Whatever camera you use, you’ll suffer from noise problems in the shadows, especially when using high ISOs or in warm temperatures. Try to buy the camera with better noise performance that fits in your budget.
These are the different type of noise that can appear in long exposure images:
Almost all cameras include an option that enables noise reduction in long exposures. This system is based on the concept that two consecutive exposures with the same parameters (shutter speed, ISO and sensor temperature) will present almost the same noise. If enabled, after performing a long exposure photo, the camera will automatically take a second photo with the same parameters but without letting any light to reach the sensor. This way, the camera will only record noise. Finally, the camera will detect the noise of this second picture and will remove it from the first one.
One of the main drawbacks of noise reduction is that it will take twice the exposure time to take a single photo. That is, if you are shooting a 30 seconds exposure, the camera will take another 30 seconds to eliminate the noise. Therefore, when you wish to take as many pictures as possible, for example when shooting a timelapse, a meteor shower or star trails, it is advisable to disable it.
I personally never use it. I prefer having the quick preview to check if the Milky Way is bright enough, the lighting of the foreground is correct or the image is in focus to be able to correct accordingly. I don’t like waiting for another 30 seconds, I prefer to shoot again. I remove hot-pixels and noise in post processing.
An alternative is to activate it when it's time to take the final picture, the good one. That is, you should work without this option when taking the test photos and activate it when you get a photo correctly exposed. I also recommend you to use it if you have a camera with poor noise performance. It’s a way of making the most of your equipment before post processing the image.
Set the shortest focal length you can (14mm, 18mm, 24mm, try to keep it under 35 mm) for two reasons: (i) to maximize the field of view and capture as much sky as you can and (ii) to maximize the exposure time to collect as much light as possible and, eventually capture stars as big bright spots. I’ll explain it better when going deeper into the exposure time, further in this article.
Go as wide as you can to capture the most light. Set the lens to its widest aperture (the smallest f/number) for example f/1.4, f/2.8 or f/3.5 depending on your lens.
Now, before attaching your camera to the tripod, let’s see how to focus for the best sharpness possible. Let’s maximise the depth of field.
When photographing the Milky Way, you want everything sharp from the front to the back of the scene. Since focusing your camera at the hyperfocal distance ensures maximum sharpness from half this distance all the way to infinity, forget about other manual methods like “setting focus to infinity with Live View”. You only need to calculate the hyperfocal distance for the focal length and aperture you want to use. There is only one problem… doing the math!If you love photography but hate math, you’re on my side. Select your camera, focal length and aperture on the following depth of field (DoF) calculator to automatically get the hyperfocal distance.
|Hyperfocal distance||2.32 m|
|Hyperfocal near limit||1.16 m|
|DoF near limit||1.08 m|
|DoF far limit||14.26 m|
|Depth of field||13.19 m|
|Depth of field in front||0.92 m (7.01%)|
|Depth of field behind||12.26 m (92.99%)|
Going back to my Milky Way image, I shot it with my Nikon D700 using a focal length of 14mm and an aperture of f/2.8, then, according to this calculator my hyperfocal distance was 2.32m.
Next thing to do is to use a flashlight to illuminate a spot at the hyperfocal distance of 2.32m, use the autofocus system on your camera to acquire proper focus and then set manual focusing so it won’t move. Put the camera on a tripod, and be careful not to touch the focus setting.
If your lens includes the distance scale, you can mark the focus distance on it. Calculate the hyperfocal distance, set the maximum aperture, focus at the hyperfocal distance and make a mark on the lens. This way, you won’t have to focus before shooting, it’ll be enough to match the mark.
Focusing exactly at the hyperfocal distance is very difficult. Therefore, make sure you’re focusing at a distance that is a bit larger than the hyperfocal. Otherwise, if you focus at a shorter distance, the depth of field far limit will not be at infinite, which will blur the stars.
By focusing at a larger distance, the depth of field near limit will be a bit further from the camera, but the stars will be perfectly in focus.
If you’re going to shoot a timelapse, don’t forget to double check that the camera is in focus before you trigger it. It occurred to me once that I accidentally touched the lens and I spend 3 hours in the cold to finally get a completely blurry timelapse… not funny at all!
That’s it! This is how you’ll make the most of your depth of field, getting a more detailed final print.
Mmmmm... wait a minute... if I have a foreground subject, such as a rock, which is close to my camera, just before the near hyperfocal limit (half the hyperfocal distance). What if I want it to also be in focus?
Roughly speaking… when you focus at the hyperfocal distance, the depth of field near limit lays at the half of the hyperfocal distance. This means that everything that is between your camera and half the hyperfocal distance will be blurred. For example, if the hyperfocal distance is 2.32m, it means that everything between my camera and 1.16m, as happens with the rock, will be blurred in the image. Also, everything from 1.16m to infinity will be in focus, in this case, the landscape and the stars.
The solution to this problem is to shoot a double exposure and apply the focus stacking technique in post processing. In the first image, focus at the hyperfocal distance to get everything that is between half the hyperfocal distance and infinity in focus. In the second image, focus at the foreground subject, in this case, the rock, to shoot a second exposure. Then, In post processing, merge these two images using layer masks, selecting the areas in focus of each photo. Dave Morrow shows us how to do it in his Focus Stacking Video Tutorial for Landscape Photography.
The longer you keep the shutter open the better, with only one limitation: star trails.
You need to collect as much light as possible to capture stars as big bright spots, but you don’t want to get motion blurring due to the Earth’s rotation. In other words, you don’t want to see the arcs traced by the stars.
The simplest way to estimate the maximum exposure time is to use what’s called the 500 rule. Some photographers use the called 600 rule, but I prefer being more conservative with the exposure time.
Basically, to determine the optimal length of exposure, you take 500 (or 600) and divide it by the effective focal length of the lens (Exposure time = 500/[crop-factor × focal length]). Thus, the shorter the focal length the longer the shutter speed, and the better images you’ll get.
On the other hand, photographing the Milky Way using longer focal lengths (like 50mm or 85mm) is more challenging. Its narrow field of view will force you to use shorter exposure times to avoid star trails, due to the rotation of the Earth. If you want to avoid them, you will have to use extremely high ISOs, suffering from noise. The workaround is to use an equatorial mount, which allows you to compensate the rotation of the Earth. In this case, if you wish to include the landscape, you’ll need to shoot a double exposure, one for the sky and another for the foreground.
So, if I’m shooting with my Nikon D700 camera (Full Frame) using a focal length of 14mm, I take 500 and divide it by 14, which is 35s – that’s the longest exposure time I could use before the stars start becoming trails. Again, as I’m a bit conservative, I decided to use an exposure time of 30s.In this animated picture you can check that the longer you keep the shutter open (30", 60", 90", 120", 150", 180"), the longer the star trails.
Let’s go one step further. If you like astronomy and star trails photography, you’ll know that, for the same exposure time, the arcs traced by stars near the celestial equator are longer than those traced by stars near the Polaris. So, depending on the area of the sky you’re shooting at (near or far the celestial equator) you’ll be able to use a shorter or longer exposure time to prevent trails.
In conclusion, you need to take into account the minimum declination of the stars that will be captured in the photo… Are you still there? Don’t panic, I leave you here PhotoPills’ Spot Stars calculator that includes the basic method (500 rule) and the advanced one, and takes into account declination.
|Max. exposure time With rule of 500 (the declination of the stars is not used)||35s|
|Max. exposure time With rule of 600 (taking into account the declination of the stars)||52s|
Since the exposure time is limited to avoid star trails, in order to avoid an underexposed image you have no choice but to raise the ISO. The higher the ISO the brighter the Milky Way. Increasing the ISO amplifies the signal in the photosites (pixels) of the sensor. In other words, you’re increasing the sensitivity of the sensor. The amount of light collected will be the same but it’ll be amplified increasing exposure. So push your camera to the limit.
The ISO you’ll use strongly depends on the noise performance of your camera. Start with the higher ISO available in your camera (6400, 3200, 1600, 1250, 800) and adjust accordingly. Always avoid using ISOs that are amplifications by software instead of hardware, such as H1 and H2 levels.
There are lots of techniques to reduce noise in post processing, so don’t be afraid to use a high ISO. But, at the same time, keep in mind that reducing noise in post processing will soften your image and reduce sharpness. You will need to find the balance that gives you both a clean image and a sharp image. That's why you need to get it right on camera in the first place.
Regarding the white balance, the goal is to set the right color temperature to capture a realistic Milky Way, showing the beauty of nature as pure as possible.
What's the color temperature of the Milky Way? Many photographers mantain that it's around 4840°K (pale yellow). But that will depend on many factors, so be prepared to adjust WB util you get a more natural Milky Way.
Light pollution or moonlight will influence your white balance selection. But don’t worry too much about it, because you’re shooting in RAW, so you can adjust white balance later.
One tip I learned from Christoph Malin, and that will help you get the right color of the Milky Way, is to pay attention on notable stars. Make sure the colors you capture match their individual temperature range. For example, if you capture red giant superstar such as Antares or Mars in blue, you need to adjust your white balance until you get them in red.
Going back to my Milky Way picture and the natural bridge, as I had heavy light pollution in the scene, coming from behind the natural bridge, I decided to use 3400K to get white stars and light pollution with a reddish hue.
I usually set the white balance to 3400K-3900K and adjust from here.
When you are shooting a timelapse is not recommended to use the auto white balance, it’s better to manually set the white balance at 3900K or use the Tungsten preset mode (about 3200K). When shooting in auto white balance, the camera might change the color temperature from one photo to another, modifying the tone of the image. This will produce a very annoying flicker in your clip.
To avoid it, shoot in manual mode, so you ensure that color temperature will remain constant throughout the sequence.
The most difficult part is already done: finding the right shooting spot. You know the image you want, from where to shoot and the position of the Milky Way you’ll have. Once the camera is attached to the tripod, just take a couple of photos to see if you’re getting the framing you want and adjust accordingly.
If you want to give your Milky Way images a sense of place, add depth and shadows, you need to illuminate the foreground. To have a more natural looking images, make sure the added light is subtle and has a low intensity. This is absolutely necessary on new moon or thin moon days. On the contrary, as the phase of the moon is reaching the full moon, the moonlight might be enough to light the landscape.
Pictures made with side lighting usually have harsh shadows and are contrasty. To lighten the shadows and reduce the contrast, you may want to use a fill-in-flash, flashlights or LEDs, whichever is more convenient.
How did we paint the natural bridge?
One last thing before you start taking photos like there’s no tomorrow: check the camera’s histogram.
The histogram allows you to check the exposure of the image on the camera's LCD screen, and to adjust it at our will.
You know that the left side of the histogram represents the maximum dark values that your camera can record and the right side the maximum white values. On the left end of the histogram light is black, being white on the right end. In both cases, light values contain no detail.
To help you understand it better, have a look at the following exposure vs histogram examples:
Most of the time, you’ll want a histogram that gives you a neutral exposure, with both edges of the histogram just touching the edges of the histogram window. But this obviously depends entirely on the colors of your scene.
This is the histogram I got from my Milky Way image:
In night photography, you usually get an histogram with more mid to dark tones, and less light tones... Do not expect a Gauss bell shaped curve!
Why do you think Henri-Cartier Bresson never processed and developed his own film by himself? He just had someone else to do the job. The reason is simple: this allowed him to spend more time doing what he really loved: shooting.
Nowadays, it seems that we are all a bit too much concerned about post processing when we should focus on getting the image right in the camera. If you shoot a bad photo, no amount of “photoshopping” can make it any better.
In my opinion, the best post process is the one you don’t need to do. So, get your image correctly exposed and you won’t have to invest much time post processing in Photoshop, Camera RAW or Lightroom. Besides, pushing exposure too much in post processing increases noise and reduces the quality of your photograph. Try to properly expose your photographs in the camera in the first place.
Having said that, I must admit that post processing will always be part of our workflow. Even the purists will have to use post processing to remove photographic imperfections like dust, scratches, etc. Of course, some of you will surely argue that the creative process doesn’t stop when pressing the shutter, that's just the beginning. Well, this is the beauty of rules, everyone can break them.
Like everything in life, learning from the best is key, so let me suggest you to watch these four free video tutorials created by four Milky Way Masters. With them you’ll be able to learn how to make the most of your Milky Way Raw:
If you're looking for something more advanced, I recommend you these paid awesome resources:
Remember, when editing, make sure the colors of notable stars you capture (Antares, Mars, etc) match their individual temperature range.
As I’ve already said, I don’t use the camera noise reduction mode. I prefer to preview the image immediately rather than waiting for another 30 seconds.
To remove hot-pixels you can use the clone tool in Photoshop/Lightroom, but I personally prefer to use the following workflow in Photoshop:
There are different techniques to reduce the noise level. Typical photo editing software such as Camera Raw (Detail panel) and Lightroom include tools to remove chromatic and luminance noise. But be aware that the use of noise reduction in excess will soften the image and reduce sharpness. In night photography, It can even remove stars from the image.
In addition to photo editing software, there are other noise reduction specialised software which give even better results. Photo Ninja (the noise reduction tool is called Noise Ninja), Nik’s Dfine and Noiseware are the best known software to deal with noise.
I use Nik’s Dfine, but not too much, as I prefer to have a bit of noise and more stars rather than losing sharpness and stars. Then I apply a layer mask to restore areas where the software has unnecessarily removed noise.
Another method you could use is stacking and averaging images in Photoshop. It’s a great way of controlling noise with high ISO images. Here you have a great video tutorial by Ian Norman.
Let’s go back now to the purpose of this article. What I suggest you to do is to open your mind, get inspired and brainstorm for a truly remarkable Milky Way image.
Sure, you’ll find inspiration in Mark Gee’s winning image - Guiding Light to The Stars. In the same way, I expect the following photography ideas to help you boost your creative output after dark.Mark Gee | Canon 5D Mark III | 24mm | f/2.8 | 30s | ISO 3200 | 10 image panoramaFrancesco Gola | Canon 5D Mark III | 21mm | f/2.8 | 25s | ISO 6400 | 3500KJose A. Hervás | Canon 5D Mark III | 16mm | f/2.8 | 30s | ISO 3200 | 3950KAdam Woodworth | Nikon D800E | 14mm | Blend of 8 exposures | 5 stacked exposures for the sky: f/2.8, 10s, ISO 6400 | 3 exposures for the foreground: first and second f/2.8, 10 min, ISO 1600 (different focus distances); third f/5.6, 30s, ISO 1600 with light paintingDave Morrow | Nikon D800 | 14mm | f/2.8 | 30s | ISO 4000Dave Morrow | Nikon D800 | 14mm | f/2.8 | 32s | ISO 5000David Kingham | Nikon D700 | 24mm | f/2 | 20s | ISO 6400 | 16 image panoramaDavid Kingham | Nikon D700 | 24mm | f/1.4 | 20s | ISO 6400 | 9 image panoramaSean Parker | Canon EOS 6D | 35mm | f/2.8 | 13s | ISO 6400Aaron D. Priest | Nikon D700 | 14mm | f/2.8 | ISO 2500 | 2 exposures of 30s for the sky | 1 exposure of 241s for foreground | 13 positions on a Panoneed for a full sphere
Sometimes I feel like a Goonie. I share the same spirit, the need for exploring the unknown, looking for a true adventure. I feel the necessity of living the challenge of chasing a dreamed scene.
Nobody says it’s easy! You'll have to survive to bad weather, accidental falls and equipment failures among many other obstacles that will surely ruin your images. But, if you don't give up and pursuit your goals with all your energy, sooner or later, you'll start shooting truly contagious Milky Way picutures.
So, remember… PhotoPillers never give up… And I am definitely one of them.
If you always wanted your very own selfie in front of the Milky Way – its actually not that hard to do!
Here’s what you need:
Continue reading and I’ll tell you how I took these Milky Way selfies step by step.
I was in the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness Area in New Mexico for these photos. It was dark, but there was still some light pollution from nearby ranches.
If you can see the Milky Way, you’re good.
If you’re not sure where to look, a mobile phone app like the Stellarium Mobile Sky Map is a lot of help (and fun for finding constellations too).
The location of the Milky Way changes depending on the time of the year, as does its location in the sky throughout the night.
If you want a silhouette in front of the Milky Way, like in these photos you will need to find a high point to stand on so that you can shoot up towards yourself and the sky.
Usually, you’ll also get the best photos if there is no moon – or after the moon has set.
You will need a sturdy tripod and a remote shutter release to take photos of the Milky Way.
(I use a Vello Wireless ShutterBoss – its affordable, reliable and you can use it as a time lapse intervalometer too.)
Once you have your camera set up, you will need to focus your lens.
You have two choices – you can focus on yourself, or you can focus on the night sky.
(Depending on how far away you are from your camera and the focal length of the lens you are using, this may or may not matter – because once you are past the hyperfocal distance of your lens, you will be focusing to infinity anyway).
To focus on yourself, stand where you are going to stand for your photo, shine a flashlight on yourself and half press the shutter release to focus normally.
To focus on the night sky, you can either manually focus your lens to infinity – or you can focus on something bright and far away (like the moon, or the horizon earlier in the day).
If it is sufficiently dark to photograph the Milky Way, you won’t be able to focus on something far away at night – so you can always do this earlier in the day.
Once your lens is focused – switch it to manual. You don’t want your camera to try and re-focus after every shot.
I took these Milky Way photos with a Nikon D800 with a Sigma 35mm f/1.4 ART series lens.
My camera was set to ISO 3200, f/1.4 with a 15 second exposure.
For photos of the Milky Way, these settings should get you close. You want to slightly overexpose your Milky Way photos (if your gear will let you do that). Starting from a slightly overexposed Milky Way photo works much better in post processing and results in a lot less noise versus trying to increase the exposure in post.
If the fastest lens you have is a f/2.8 or slower, you will have to increase your ISO and exposure time to compensate.
For f/2.8 I usually use ISO 6400 and 20 seconds (not quite a full two stops of extra light, but close).
Now that you’ve got your camera all set up and ready to go, all you need to do is stand in the right place and take the shot.
If you don’t have someone to help you out, it might take a few tries to stand in the right place, but it shouldn’t be too hard to figure out.
The hardest part is trying to stay perfectly still for the duration of your exposure.
I find it helps to stand in a comfortable pose that’s not off balance or awkward. I also hold my breath for the duration of the shot.
While you’re at it – try some light painting! Just remember, your camera is set to capture a very dim scene – so only a little light is needed (a bright LED flashlight will nuke your scene).
This photo was taken with the home screen on my mobile phone dimmed in energy saving mode.
Post-processing astrophotography can be quite involved – especially if your scene is underexposed and you are trying to get rid of noise after boosting the exposure in post.
However, all of the images in this post were processed from single exposures using Lightroom.
Every image will be different, but here are the Lightroom settings that I used for these images:
Now you should know everything you need to go out and take your own Milky Way selfies – good luck!
If you want to step up your game, check out this amazing Milky Way selfie by Ben Von Wong.
On his facebook page, Ben explains the technical details:
Lit with a combination of headlights and flashlights – yet another shot of our selfie series with the #SonyA7r triggered with the Playmemories App.
2 shots, One for the background and one for the foreground, not because of lighting but because of focus. You can’t have shutter longer than 20-sum seconds without the stars blurring so u need to shoot wide open!2inShare
JP Danko is a commercial photographer based in Toronto, Canada. JP can change a lens mid-rappel, swap a memory card while treading water, or use a camel as a light stand.
JP’s photography is available for licensing at Stocksy United.
If you thought that you need some fancy software to shoot the Milky Way, think again. Photographer Michael Shainblum (previously) shares a Lightroom only tutorial on how to edit a stunning night sky Milky Way Photo.
Now, there are many ways to edit a photo and using Lightroom is just one of them, but what’s nice about it is that it is a single software process and not an expensive one at that.
Here is a quick before/after view of the edit: