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How to Photograph the Milky Way: The Galaxy not the Candy Bar

Posted by Jacob Hawthorne on

The Milky Way is the galaxy that contains our solar system. From the earth, it will look like a band of light stretching across the sky. It’s only visible at night.

If you Google ‘Milky Way’, besides the many pictures of the candy bar, you will see that several photographers have captured this astrological phenomenon. So how is it done? Read on to find out.

Photograph at Night

First you will need to find the Milky Way. Since the Milky Way is only visible at night, you will need a dark sky that is almost free of pollution. It’s best to go for a remote location.

Also, a full moon may wash out your image. It’s best to take photos during a new moon.

How to Find It

The Milky Way is not visible in all locations at all times of the year. People in the Northern Hemisphere will see it best from February through September and will find it in the Southern part of the sky rising from the east.

People in the Southern Hemisphere will have better visibility year-round and the Milky Way will appear directly overhead.

There are apps you can use to help you locate the Milky Way and this may be the best way to find it.

Use a Camera with Good ISO Capabilities

Good ISO capabilities will allow the camera to get good images at night with minimal noise or grain. A full frame camera will work best.

Use a Fast, Wide Angle Lens

Use a lens with an aperture of at least f/2.8. Slower cameras may not let in enough light. You’ll also be best off with a wide-angle lens that will capture the entire Milky Way… or at least a good portion of it.

Use a Tripod

A tripod isn’t completely necessary, but it will help to reduce camera shake.

Start with a High ISO

A high ISO will let in enough light to make the Milky Way appear bright. It’s advisable to start with an ISO of 3200 and then adjust as needed.

Set a Long Shutter Speed

A long shutter speed will help you capture an optimal amount of light. However, the planet will continue rotating as you are shooting which may result in light trails. Light trails can be cool in some instances, but they may not be what you are going for here.

To reduce light trails, use the 500 rule which calls for dividing 500 by the focal length of your lens.. So if you are working with a 24mm lens, you would divide 500 by 24 to yield 20.83 making for a 20 second shutter speed.

Set Your Aperture Wide Open

If you set your aperture wide open, you will collect more light. Depth of field isn’t as important as light value. If your photos are not coming out crisp enough, turn your f/stop up to improve the look.

Compose the Shot

The Milky Way is challenging to shoot, but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been tons of photographers that came before you. The composition of your shot can make your photo stand out. Consider including elements like surrounding landscapes and buildings to give your image something unique.

Check Your Exposure

You’ll want to take a few shots to check your exposure before beginning your shoot. If there is too much noise or if the shot is overexposed, decrease your ISO. If it’s underexposed, make sure you are using your widest aperture and increase the shutter speed and ISO.

Process Your Shot

There really is no wrong or right way to process your shot. Shooting in RAW will give you more freedom when processing. You’ll want to increase sharpness and reduce noise. Curve adjustments will make your photo look more precise. If you are finding too much of a yellow/orange tone, adjust the white balance.

The Milky Way makes for a lovely photography subject. Now that you know how to shoot it, you are ready to get some impressive pictures. How will you be making your photos stand out?

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