The Milky Way. That beautiful, mysterious, spiral galaxy we call home. With over 200 billion stars spread across 120,000 light years, it’s easy to look up at night sky in wonderment. Seeing the Milky Way with the naked eye can be difficult for those who live near metropolitan areas, but if you make your way into more rural parts of the world, the true brilliance of our night’s sky can be seen. With the help of a decent camera, a solid tripod, and a little planning, you can capture an image of the Milky Way that will leave you star struck.
Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada // Photographer: Jason Wilson // Sony a7R II + Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 // ISO 1000, f/1.4, 20"
Capturing photos of the Milky Way is not as difficult as one might think. Though you may not be able to use your smart phone (yet), most DSLR and mirrorless camera bodies with a decent lens attached can be used for astrophotography. First, let’s talk gear.
DSLR cameras have come a long way in helping capture high image quality with relatively low noise in situations requiring a higher ISO (if you are unfamiliar with ISO, I will be adding a write-up on the topic soon). While camera bodies with a full-frame sensor are preferred, such as a Canon 5D MKIII, Nikon D810, or Sony a7R II, bodies that contain a cropped sensor can also be utilized.
If properly taken care of, a high-quality lens should remain in your camera kit longer than any camera body. Whenever possible, it is highly recommended to invest in high-quality glass, as it will outlast and outperform its cheaper counterparts. In the case of astrophotography, especially when photographing the Milky Way, a wide-angle, low-light lens is preferred. With a wider angle lens, you will have the opportunity to capture a large portion of the night sky while including some subject matter in the foreground to give your shot a unique perspective. Low-light lenses refer to the aperture, also known as the "f-stop". Lenses containing an aperture of f/2.8 or faster (smaller number) will work best in low-light conditions. My favorite lens to use is a 24mm f/1.4 prime, as it is wide enough to capture a large portion of the sky without being too wide to cause distortion. It also lets in much more light, which is crucial when photographing dark skies.
No matter which camera and lens you choose, a sturdy tripod is a must-have for the astrophotographer. When shooting with longer shutter speeds, it is critical to have a steady platform for your camera in order to assure no camera shake and sharper images. There are a wide variety of great tripods to choose from, and some of the higher quality options can get quite expensive. Plastic tripods will break on you quickly. Aluminum versions are generally more durable, but can often be quite heavy. Those with carbon fiber build are extremely rugged while maintaining a lighter weight, but come at a cost. Tripod heads come in a number of versions as well, including ball heads, pan/tilt heads, gimbal heads, fluid heads, motorized heads and pistol grip heads. Each version has a specific function, but are generally up to the personal preference of the user. I personally use a Manfrotto 410 Junior Geared Head atop a set of Manfrotto 290 Xtra legs. This setup is rock solid, durable, and fairly lightweight.
When shooting the Milky Way, you will more than likely find yourself far away from home, so it is essential that you plan ahead. It is always a good idea to have an extra battery or two on hand for your camera, as well as a backup memory card. A remote shutter release cable or intervalometer can keep your hands off the camera when taking a photograph, effectively reducing additional camera shake. It can also allow for exposures longer than 30”, which can be helpful in other forms of astrophotography as well as more complex Milky Way shots such as photo stacking. A bright headlamp to help navigate through dark terrain is recommended, and if you have one with a red light feature it will help you adjust camera settings without forcing your eyes to readjust to the dark after every time you turn on your headlamp. Finally, the use of a smartphone app such as PhotoPills can help you track the night sky in real time, and also offers an augmented reality feature to help plan ahead.
Big Sur, California // Photographer: Jason Wilson // Canon 5D MK III + Rokinon 24mm // ISO 5,000, f/1.4, 8"
Big Sur, California // Photographer: Jason Wilson // Canon 5D MK III + Rokinon 24mm // ISO 10,000, f/1.4, 20"
Now that we've got gear sorted out, it's time to figure out how to find the Milky Way and what steps are necessary to capture photos of it. In the Northern Hemisphere, the summer months from May through September offer the best opportunity to see the Milky Way, as this is when the "galactic center" is visible and creates the best opportunity for brilliant images. It is critical that you get away from any nearby city to reduce the ambient light caused by streetlights, shops, traffic and any other forms of light pollution. The farther away, the better, as larger metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles can still be seen from over a hundred miles away. Once you have a place in mind, it's time to look up the lunar calendar. As I'm sure you've experienced before, a full moon with clear skies can light up your night enough that you hardly need any other light source to move about. This bright reflection, unfortunately, detracts from the dark skies we are looking for in order to truly appreciate the beauty of the Milky Way, as a full moon will blow out the exposure of our night sky. Because of this, we must plan our photography excursion around the lunar cycle and do our best to shoot for when the moon is at it's dimmest point, aka "New Moon." With a location in mind away from city lights, during the summer months (in the Northern Hemisphere), and during a new moon, it's time to capture your first image.
Shooting the Milky Way
The time has come. You've done your planning, you've gathered your equipment, and you've driven out into the darkness.. Now what?
When I arrive on location for a Milky Way shot, I like to get there a bit early to plan my compositions. Using a planning app such as PhotoPills will help you get an idea of where the Milky Way will rise in the sky, and I like to find a good place to set up camp while there is still daylight in order to see what my surroundings look like. Perhaps there's a cool tree or rock formation that would look good in the foreground? Maybe there's a mountain in the distance you want to line up with your shot? Getting there during the day will help you prep before the darkness hits and you're left with just a headlamp.
Get your gear set up and set your camera to Manual mode- you want full control of all functionality within your camera's settings. Set your lens' focus to infinity so that the vast majority of your shot is in focus, and turn your autofocus off so that it doesn't attempt to search for the right focus points in the dark. Attach your camera to your tripod and add any accessories you like (such as a shutter release cable). Compose your shot how you see fit. If you arrive during the daytime, this should be fairly simple. If you arrive in darkness, it may be a bit more difficult. You will have to use the trial and error method to get the right composition you are looking for. With your camera on the Manual setting, set your aperture to allow the most light you can through the lens (such as an f/1.4 or f/2.8). Some lenses are more sharp at certain f-stops, so you may want to read up about your specific lens ahead of time. Set your shutter speed to 15", as this is the ideal amount of time to capture a long exposure of the night sky with a wide angle lens without noticing the movement of the stars due to the rotation of the Earth. Any longer and you will start to notice "star trails," and any shorter will not provide adequate lighting in these dark situations. Finally, set your ISO to 2000 and take a test shot. If the light appears too dark, you can adjust the ISO higher, though it will increase the "noise" in your photo, making it appear more grainy. If you do a longer exposure, you will begin to see star trails, yet they will hardly be noticeable at 20" or even 25".
Make adjustments to your composition, shutter speed, aperture, and ISO as you see fit. Part of the adventure is the learning process, so test your camera out to see what it can do! Most importantly, when you're out in the far reaches of this beautiful planet, be sure to practice the "Leave No Trace" mentality and leave it just as you found it when you arrived. Get creative and enjoy!
Columbia Lake, British Columbia, Canada // Photographer: Jason Wilson // Sony a7R II + Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 // ISO 2000, f/1.4, 15"