9 Easy Tips To Get You Going.
I’ve been wanting to do this shoot for over a year now. In this post, I’m going to give you nine easy tips on “How to photograph the Milky Way”.
Let me first say, I’m no expert on this subject but I do know enough to get you going and help you on your path to Milky Way or night sky photography.
For this shoot, I traveled back to Mount Magazine State Park, one of my favorite locations in Arkansas…. I tell you all about it here, so go over and check it out to learn more about it.
Let’s get on with the tips, after all, that is why you stopped by right?
Tip Number 1
Why is location so important? Dark skies, you have to have them. Find a spot out in the country far away from cities and artificial light. The darker the sky, the better your results will be! There are several “Dark Sky” apps available on IOS and Android to help you find the closest location.
Tip Number 2
This is important, try to plan your Milky Way trip around the “New Moon” for a 0% Illumination. This goes right along with tip #1, the point is to have the darkest sky possible. On this trip, I missed the new moon by one day and showed up on the Waxing Crescent at 2% Illumination. This is still very good for dark skies and to be honest, the moon phase shoot-ability depends on where the Milky Way is in the sky compared to where the moon is and which direction you are composing the shot. For instance, if it’s the waxing crescent at 33% Illumination but the Milky Way and your composition is opposite the direction of the moon, you can still pull the Milky Way out with the right settings. It’s much harder and not ideal but it can still be done.
Tip Number 3
Tripod. This might be a no brainer but I’m throwing it in anyways. The stronger your tripod the better. On this shoot, I used this tripod here and its works great for the photographer on a budget like this guy. Almost any tripod will work as long as it’s good and steady so use what you have and go shoot some stars.
Tip Number 4
PhotoPills App. This app works great for locating the Milky Way. Just aim it at the sky and move your phone around until you find it. You can save a lot of time composing your shot if you know exactly where the Milky Way is located. This app also does a ton of other things to help make a photographers job easier so check it out! I downloaded it on the App store for FREE.
Tip Number 5
Composition. Pretty sure I talk about this in every blog post I write. UGGG.
But…. It’s important. For a Milky Way shot, it’s going to look a lot better composing your photo with something in the foreground.
Like a tree for instance.
Now look at the difference with nothing in the foreground.
Still cool but not “AS COOL”
So if possible, always try to have some kind of object in the foreground.
This could be an old car, a landscape such as a mountain scene, a cool tree, a tripod or an old church or tower. Just pop on over to Instagram and under the search, type in #milkyway and you’ll get all kinds of ideas! While you’re on Instagram, look me up here and let’s connect!
Tip Number 6
This is going to sound stupid but just hear me out.
Bring snacks, drinks and bug spray. Trust me on this. I was out on this shoot for over four hours. Most of the time, shooting the Milky Way, you are out in the middle of nowhere “ALONE” for hours and hours.
Having some drinks, snacks if you get hungry or just bored and some bug spray can save your life. In Arkansas, and most of the Northern Hemisphere, you will be shooting the Milky Way during the summer months which means, mosquitoes and everything else that lurks in the night.
Also…Bring a flashlight. I have a head lamp that I always leave in my camera bag. Make sure it has good batteries. Just sayin. You can also get creative with that head lamp and do some light painting like I did here.
More light painting tips on another post down the road.
Grab that head lamp and point it towards the Milky Way for another creative shot. Then, post it on Instagram and tag me so I can see it!
Tip Number 7
Settings are everything. First things first, shoot in Raw. Second, set your aperture to wide open. I was shooting on my 24-70 at 24mm and F2.8 wide open. This is as wide as this lens will go. If you are shooting with a F1.4 or a F3.4, just go as wide as you can. The next thing you want to do is set your shutter speed.
There is a scientific formula for this called the “500 Rule” I don’t know how scientific it is actually, more like simple math. It works like this…whatever focal length you are shooting, in my case, 24mm, take 500 and divide it by 24…the result is your shutter speed. So, I had a shutter speed of 20 seconds. This is where I started, I play with the shutter speed until I find what I really like and in this case, I ended up going with 15 seconds and on some photos I even dropped it down to 8.
This is only a starting point. It’s a general guideline to get you going. Try different shutter speeds and see what you like.
Set your ISO to 2,000 starting out. This is a good place to start. Shoot a couple of photos with this setting and go from there. Do not shoot over a 20 second exposure. If the photos are too dark, increase your ISO to get the desired look you are trying to achieve.
Drive: Set your drive to 2 or 10 seconds delay to avoid camera shake. You can also use a shutter release or an app on your phone if you have wifi on your camera.
Pro Tip: Except I’m really not a “pro”… unless you are running and jumping in front of the camera and need the extra time on a 10 second delay, just use the 2 second delay and it should be plenty to avoid shake.
Kelvin: I shot around 3,500-4,000. This is honestly personal preference but for the Milky Way, its a pretty good setting. Also if you’re not really a Kelvin person, just set your white balance on auto and be done with it.
Tip Number 8
How to focus is very important, you want to get this right and here is how I do it.
Find a bright star in the direction that you will be shooting, zoom all the way in on it. In my case, a focal length of 70mm, then on the side of your LCD screen, you should have a small magnifying button, push that a couple times to magnify the star. Then, manually turn your focus ring to make the star as small as possible. This will be infinity and should give you a crisp Milky Way. Once you get this focus set, lock it if you can, tape it or put a mark on your lens with a white sharpie to mark your lens so you can line it back up in the event your focus ring gets moved somehow.
This method has worked really well for me and it should work for you too!
Tip Number 9
Be careful out there.
Photographers get hurt all the time. I was shooting the Milky Way on the edge of cliffs at night. At night. Cliffs. Dangerous.
You get me. Be careful please. I always learn my area really good before I ever shoot a photo. I had a very bright headlamp and took no risks whatsoever. I never put myself in a place to where if I slipped, I would be a goner. I always keep back several feet from any edges and never risk my life for the sake of a photo. It’s not worth it. Don’t do it. Ok.
Take a friend. I did this photo shoot alone but if you have a friend that is into photography and wants to hang out in the middle of nowhere for hours and hours in the middle of the night, bring them!
Also, make sure your phone is charged! On this trip I shot a Milky Way time lapse and that takes a while so I was literally just sitting there playing on my phone for 30 minutes until it got done. Also, tell someone where you are going just in case you don’t show up later they can come looking for you!
Have fun, good luck and I hope my tips on “How to photograph the Milky Way” help you get going on some fun new photo shoots!
Let me know what you want me to write about next and I’ll try my best to make it happen.