Photographing the Milky Way is a fascinating endeavour, whether or not you’re an astronomer. By taking pictures of the Milky Way you can capture the essence of our vast and mysterious universe. Because astrophotography is a complex and specialised genre of photography, in this post we will look at some of the fundamental approaches to Milky Way photography for beginners, including Milky Way photography techniques and what Milky Way photography equipment you should be using.
1. Milky Way photography lens and camera
For Milky Way photography, you will need a full-frame camera. This is because you need a camera with a sensor that won’t crop the image and can let in a lot of light in a short amount of time.
In terms of camera lenses, you should use a wide-angle lens to capture the Milky Way in its entirety. To accommodate a full-frame camera, you will need a lens that is 35mm or wider.
The lens’ low-light performance is something else to take into consideration, as you will be photographing at night.
2. Use a light pollution filter
Although it is best to photograph the Milky Way in a rural area to avoid light pollution, we understand that that option may not be possible for everyone. Using a light pollution filter on your camera, such as the Hoya Starscape Light Pollution Cut Filter can help to improve the contrast and visibility of the Milky Way in your photos.
3. Consider the location
One of our most important Milky Way photography tips is to consider the location of the shoot. Cities are not suitable for Milky Way photography due to the air and light pollution, which make it difficult for stars to shine through. We would recommend travelling to a more rural area, or preferably a remote natural area such as a national park which have no lights and pollution obscuring the night sky.
4. Plan for the weather
In addition to light and air pollution, the weather is another hurdle to Milky Way photography that can be easily forgotten. To capture the Milky Way properly, you will need to photograph on a clear night, so be sure to check the weather forecast in advance. If you turn up on a cloudy evening, you won’t be able to take pictures of the Milky Way, so make sure you plan for the right weather.
5. Plan for the moon cycle
An even more common oversight than forgetting the weather is not planning for the moon cycle. The moonlight can greatly affect how your Milky Way photography turns out. Shooting on a night of the full moon is not ideal as the full moon, though beautiful, produces a very strong light that will quite literally outshine the stars in the Milky Way.
Therefore, it is best to shoot around the time of a new moon where moonlight is minimal. A new moon is optimal for Milky Way photography, but you can shoot up until the waxing crescent moon phase. Photopills is a great app that will show you both the lunar phase as well as where the Milky Way is on a map.
6. Use your camera’s widest aperture
Using your camera’s widest aperture is usually avoided during the daytime as it will greatly compromise the exposure triangle. When you’re photographing the Milky Way, however, you want to let as much light in as possible in the shortest amount of time to capture the stars well. When you’re using a fast camera lens at f/2.8 or below you might need to reduce the number of stops to make the stars pop on camera.
7. Use a longer exposure than usual
While long exposure photography is a genre unto itself, that you may not be familiar with using, shooting with longer exposures is beneficial for capturing the Milky Way. Many astrophotographers use long exposures to photograph star trails, but we recommend shooting with 30-second exposures (or more) to take advantage of the light in your frames. The stars might trail slightly depending on the focal length of your lens, but the exposure is not long enough to create this effect.
8. Use a remote shutter release
To help reduce motion blur to capture your stars clearly, you should use a remote shutter release. Camera shake can blur the stars as make them appear elongated. You should also make sure your camera is securely attached to your tripod. If you are concerned about motion blur, you can even change your camera’s drive mode to a 2-second delay.
9. Increase your ISO
To shoot the Milky Way, you will need to adjust your ISO according. We would suggest increasing your ISO as night photography differs greatly from daytime photography. It will also have to change according to the light pollution, so try various ISOs to see which ISO value shows enough light while not showing too much noise. However, noise can be rectified in post-processing.
10. Milky Way photography post-processing
Photo editing plays a big part in Milky Way photography, so it is important to use good photo-editing software such as Adobe Photoshop. It is advantageous to Milky Way photography to do a few post-processing edits such as noise reduction to correct the noise from the high ISO, and also to improve the brightness, colour and contrast of your image to make your Milky Way photos stand out.
We hope you found our top 10 ideas for Milky Way photography useful! For some more Milky Way photography examples and inspiration, look at our Milky Way photography album.
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