Top 5 Tips for Shooting the Milky Way - Slik USA
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Top 5 Tips for Shooting the Milky Way

January 24, 2017

TIP 1: LOCATION & HOW TO FIND THE MILKY WAY

The location is pretty easy to find, but more than 90% of the population can’t see the Milky Way. It’s not because they’re naive, the sky is just not dark enough in most of our areas to see it. Light pollution is the night sky photographer’s worst enemy. The further you travel from a major city, the greater chance you’ll see the Milky Way. The Milky Way which is between 100,000 – 120,000 light years in diameter and contains over 200 million stars. Crazy! Right?

The core of the Milky Way is visible only from the months of March to November. It is easier and brighter to see during the summer months. As we orbit around the sun from November till late February the Milky Way is behind the sun showing only during the daylight hours.

If you’re an eager beaver like me and miss seeing the Milky Way core during the off-season, you can see it as early as the last week of February at about 30 minutes to 1 hour before dawn. Yep, you might freeze your butt off depending on where you live in the world but hey it’s like seeing an old friend that you haven’t seen in a long time. Here is a helpful site that I find extremely useful when searching out a dark sky location. www.darksky.org

Make things easy for yourself (especially if you’re a first time night shooter) by downloading one of these two applications available on your mobile phone called “Stellarium” or “Star Walk.” You can’t go wrong with either one. I use them both on a daily basis, to not only predict the time the Milky Way will rise and set but to also see the future predictions. 

TIP 2: GET A RELIABLE TRIPOD

Using a tripod is essential, especially if your shooting somewhere where the winds are moderately high. I’ve recently acquired a brand new tripod that is extremely light in weight and made specifically for the astrophotographer in mind.  I use the Slik Lite AL-420S. This is the smallest tripod in the Lite series. Slik does have a few in different sizes ranging from small to large in aluminum and carbon fiber. I travel a ton and love to adventure light and compact. This tripod also has a detachable light source that you can turn on and off. These days I place my backpack right under the tripod and use the attached light source to turn on the lights when I need to search around in my bag for something.

TIP 3: NEW MOON VS. SOME MOON

I love finding out what works best in different scenarios depending on the natural light available. I sometimes plan on capturing a scene with two exposures, then blending both of them in Photoshop. This involves taking one image with the moon rising or setting casting natural light and one taken of the night sky at complete darkness. I find myself shooting more often on a night that has some moon to achieve this effect.

My recommendation for a first time shooter of the Milky Way or somebody that’s just jumping into the would of astrophotography is to shoot during the new moon cycle. Technically it’s a much easier image to capture because once you have your setting wired you can set it and forget it. If the moon is rising or setting you may have to make some minor adjustments.  Either way it’s both awesome and a treat to be out under the blanket of the night.

TIP 4: TECHNIQUE & THE 500 RULE

I’m going to cover a few nuts and bolts of what every night sky photographer should know. First, make sure you’re shooting in manual mode and in RAW. Shooting in RAW and not in JPEG will save you tons of time down the road and make it easier to change you color balance etc.

I find pretty much any DSLR and mirrorless camera I’ve used can handle higher ISO’s pretty well. Every camera is different of course. I personally use the Sony A7rII for my astrophotography and sometimes push it all the way up to 12,800 ISO in certain situations with little to no noise at all. Not all cameras can do this. But what most cameras can do is between 3200 – 6400 ISO. I use between 3200 -6400 85% of the time.

Second, experiment with exposure time. Take the time to get it right before you start getting that unwanted star trail.

You want to capture sharp stars, not trails. By using “THE 500 RULE” you can achieve this with no problem. You take 500 and you divide that by the focal length of your lens. This will give you an exposure time with no star trailing. (EXAMPLE) 500 / 24 = 20.8333 seconds. Round down which will give you an exposure time of 20 seconds.

NOTE! THIS IS IMPORTANT. This calculation works perfect if you have a full frame camera. If you shoot with a crop sensor camera or smaller such as a Sony A6300, you need first to multiply your crop factor by your focal length then run the formula. (EXAMPLE) 24 X 1.5 = 36. Now you take 500 / 36 = 13.8888 seconds and of course you can round it down to the nearest number. If you want to read more about the “500 Rule” please visit my website: www.stanmoniz.com to get a more detailed explanation.

Third, set your aperture and white balance. For the most part set your aperture to your most open setting or fastest setting. If your lens is an f/2.8 set it to that or start there first and experiment. Having your aperture wide open will let in the most light, causing for a well exposed Milky Way. I myself find slowing it down one stop will increase clarity of the stars especially at the corners of the image. Example: I have a lens that is a F/2.0. I will stop it down to F2.8. Of course, all lenses are made differently and some are sharper than others wide open. This is where the fun takes place experimenting and pushing the limits of what your gear can do. You will certainly figure out what works best for you.

Considering white balance, I never leave it on Auto and always set my camera to incandescent or a cooler temperature. In my opinion, this looks the most natural right out of the camera each and every time. At the end of the day I play around with the white balance in Adobe Light Room to achieve a feel that suits the mood of the image. This is where shooting in RAW comes in handy.

With all that said, if you take all of these pointers into account and play around with your ISO and aperture while following the rule of 500 you’ll be scoring images of the Milky Way in no time!

TIP 5: THE HOYA INTENSIFIER

The last tip, but certainly not the least is the intensifier. What is an intensifier? Well, it’s been my little secret weapon in capturing the Milky Way or any nightscape image for that matter for a while now. I first found out about this simple filter that Hoya makes while I was nerding out online learning about how people photograph interstellar space. A few mentioned this filter and how useful it was to cut through light pollution while really making those Nebula’s, and deep space images pop. It dawned on me, if their using it why can’t I use it on shooting astrophotography at a much wider field. I have a few intensifiers and I never leave home without them.

Hoya INTENSIFIER Filter
Hoya INTENSIFIER Filter

What they were basically made for was to pump red and orange colors, especially for the changing of the season particularly in fall when leaves change or even used during the golden hour which I do on a regular basis. The intensifier is also known as a Didymium filter. These filters cut out the yellow – orange portion of the spectrum. Much of our light pollution is from sodium vapor lamps which our city street lamps use giving off the same spectrum of light the intensifier cuts out. Using these filters creates an almost light pollution free image, making it much easier to edit in post-production. It’s a tool I recommend every photographer add to his/her bag of tricks. Trust me on this one. It’ll seriously blow your mind how much better it will make your images.

Staring up at the stars and Milky Way is a captivating experience to say the least. Capturing beautiful imagery to share with the world will only help spread the word of how important it is to protect the little amount of dark skies we have left, and to maintain them for the future youth to enjoy. I hope you can take these general tips to create and expand a discipline in photography that will bring you countless memories and places to explore with your family and friends.

Happy shooting everyone!

About Stan

As a child growing up in Hawaii I fell in love with both the sea and the sky above. I am a surf and night sky photographer dedicated to capturing both the chaotic and beautiful energy of the ocean and the peace and tranquilly of the night sky.

I dove deep into the art of astrophotography when I moved to Southern California, visiting national parks like Joshua tree and Yosemite where the natural beauty is just overwhelming. My heart yearned to capture that beauty and share it through my photography shows and Instagram account. I’ve learned a lot and perfected my techniques along the way. I love being in the water at sunrise capturing the beauty of a curling wave then later driving to the desert to view the Milky Way rising in the East. It’s my idea of the perfect day!

I’ve made a lot of mistakes perfecting the art of capturing the Milky Way. But I’ve learned through those mistakes and perfected a full proof method in achieving the image you’ve only dreamed of.

I work with people one-on-one doing workshops, sharing my knowledge with fellow photographers that have a desire to sharpen their skills. Below are a few tips and tricks that can help you with your journey as photographer of the night sky. Hope you enjoy!