Photographing The Milky Way Galaxy

Photographing The Milky Way Galaxy

by Adam Dorn June 26, 2018

The gear you will need?

Photographing the Milky Way Galaxy is a unique experience.  It is hard to describe the emotions that rush through you as you stare back at billions of stars in the night sky.  So what will you need to photograph the Milky Way.

A DSLR camera and you will want to photograph in manual mode.  A stable tripod because you will be using a long exposure.  You can use a timer on the camera but I highly suggest using a remote shutter release.

It is easier to capture higher quality photos of the night with a full frame camera due to the sensor size, however it can be done with a crop APS-C sensor.

Suggested settings can vary between what you have for equipment, but this is a good starting point.

ISO 800-2500

Shutter Speed 20-25 seconds

F Stop 1.4 - 2.8

Tungsten White Balance

Focusing At Night

You are going to have to manually focus your camera.  This can be a challenge in the dark.  What has worked for me is to focus on a tower or the brightest star in the distance.  You can always set your camera on a tripod, focus, and snap a photo then go into your review and zoom in to check focus.  Play around with the focus and check review until you find what looks best.

Same can be done for foreground if you are choosing to focus stack and composite your foreground with your night sky photo.

How to find the galaxy in the night sky?

I am currently located in Wisconsin and can describe to you how the Milky Way acts in throughout the year.  Our Milky Way season begins in late January and ends in November.  Early in the year it will rise just before sunrise and it will be located in the south eastern sky. 

As spring approaches the Milky Way will rise earlier and earlier.  It will begin just before sunrise transitioning to early morning hours just after midnight.  In the spring of the year is when you will be provided the opportunity to photography the milky way as an arch.  The core will begin to rise south south east as the opposite arch begins to be located in the north east direction.  Again this is for the northern part of North America.  Anywhere else in the world you will have to study the movement.  Below I will provide a few apps to use to study the movement of the Milky Way through out the year.

In the summer and fall the Milky Way will be visible right after sunset.  It will be located to the south and begin to move south west in the night sky as time advances towards midnight.  Eventually later on in the fall the core will disappear before sunrise.

Apps

There are a few apps that I like to use and a few apps I know of that I haven't used that work well for tracking the Milky Way.

Stellarium

Stellarium is a great app.  It is free, you can input your location and it will adapt the night sky to your location.  You can adjust the brightness of the Milky Way galaxy in the settings to make it easier to track the movement throughout the year.  I love this app for getting a good pre visual of what the galaxy will be doing in the night sky and it will help me identify when the moon will be or will not be in the way.

PlanIt Pro

PlanIt Pro is my go to app.  I am an android user and out of all the apps I have seen for android this one is the best.  There is a small fee for using this app but I have found the investment to be worth the cost.  This is an advanced app that will help you plan your photo.  It tracks everything from sunrise to sunset, tide times on the coasts, blue hour, twilight (which you need for photographing Milky Way), and the position of the Milky Way in the night sky.

PhotoPills

This is an IPhone app and it works very similar to PlanIt Pro.  For IPhone users I highly suggest this app.

Where to find a dark sky?

Another important key to photographing the Milky Way is to find a good dark sky to photograph in.  I use a website which I will link below.  This website data is also featured into PlanIt Pro and can be swiped over to reveal that layer and the heat map provided.

DarkSiteFinder

This is a heat map that identifies light pollution.  There is a legend in the upper left hand corner.  This legend indicates a darker sky vs a sky that is full of light pollution.  You want to find the a dark sky between yellow and anything darker down to what looks like light grey to dark grey.  So blue and green would be good as well since that falls between yellow and dark grey.

What to look out for.  For viewing the Milky Way and photographing it you will want to make sure that you do not set up with a massive amount of light pollution in your way.  Lets say you live in Minneapolis and you want to photograph the Milky Way.  You would want to position yourself either to the east, souteast, or southern area outside of the city.  If you were to go in the direction of say St. Cloud which is northwest and you set up to photograph the Milky Way you would have all that light pollution ruining your view.

Single Exposure Technique

 This technique is pretty straightforward.  Depending on the dynamic range of your camera and your exposure you can get a decent night time photo with the ability to see the foreground.  However, there are better techniques which I will cover in the next section.  The trouble with single exposure is it can be difficult to control noise and get enough detail for the foreground.  You can use a flashlight but it tends to look unnatural.

 

Composite Technique

Compositing has several techniques that tend to work really well.  The best way to do this is to capture the night sky and then take another exposure to capture the foreground.  You can also use a sky tracker to track the night sky to prevent stars from blurring.  A really great wide field star tracker that is easy to use is the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer.  You can also stack photos to reduce noise.  This can be done for the foreground and the night sky.

Techniques For Capturing Foreground

There are several ways you can capture a good foreground for your nightscapes.  One way to capture a good foreground for your nightscape is to capture your foreground while it is cloudy out.  You can also focus stack to really get a crisp foreground.  After your capture, you can edit it in Lightroom or Photoshop to make it appear as if it was taken at night.

The other way you can do this is to take a long 2 min exposure or longer at night.  There will be more noise but the way you can reduce this is by stacking.  I also highly suggest focus stacking as well, focusing at night will be a little more difficult and you will want to check your focus on the back of your camera after you have made your exposure.  You can take several exposures at each focus point and stack those in Photoshop to reduce noise.  Then blend those focus stacked photos together to create a crisp clean foreground in Photoshop.  You can then proceed to edit that focused stacked foreground in Photoshop or Lightroom.

The other way is to find a single focus point on the foreground and take a 2 min exposure or longer and then take your photo for the night sky.

Techniques For Capturing Night Sky

There are several ways to capture your night sky photo.  The non tracked method can work great.  You can take a single image and composite with your foreground you captured.

You can also manually stack multiple untracked photos together.  Lonely Speck has a Youtube video that covers this in more detail.  This method is time-consuming but works great for reducing noise and getting more detail out of your Milky Way photo.

The third technique is to use a star tracker.  I use the Sky Watcher Star Adventurer.  There are a lot of great techniques on how to use one of these sky trackers.  It sounds complicated but I promise it is much easier than it is made out to be.  By using a star tracker you can create a longer exposure without using a very high iso.  Also, you can stack those exposures to reduce noise even more and it helps to reveal more detail in your night sky photo.

To use the tracker you have to level your tripod.  I have found the easiest way to do this is to use a leveling tripod head.  Some tripods have this option.  That way you can level the tripod the best you can but then level the base for the tripod head seperate.  This makes leveling easier and quicker. 

Once leveled you will want to point the unit North.  You will be looking through the device at an illuminated reticle and you will determine where to place the North Star in that reticle.  This aligns your tracker with the night sky and will turn your camera with the movement of the sky so you have no stars blurring.  Best way to do this is by using an app.  You wont have to worry about what the manual says about the date and time, all you need to do is look up where to place the star in the reticle on the app.  

I like to use the dec bracket so I can polar align with the camera attached to the mount.  With the camera mounted I like to set my focus and adjust my framing.  Then I like to check my polar alignment and take my exposure.  I do suggest still using a remote shutter release for this so you do not bump the camera.  Then carefully check your focus and your alignment by zooming in on the back of your camera.  If it looks good continue capturing photos being careful not to touch your camera to much as it could accidentally throw off your polar alignment.  If it doesnt look good and you still have star trails continue to adjust focus and alignment until you get what you are looking for.

You can then take these photos and stack them in Photoshop or Pixinsight.  Then you can composite it with your foreground in photoshop.  This can easily be done by using layers and masks in Photoshop.

If you have any questions feel free to contact me I would be happy to help you the best I can!




Adam Dorn
Adam Dorn

Author




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