To Photograph the Milky Way

by Steven Smith | Jul 28, 2021 | 0 comments

The foundational element in achieving spectacular night photographs is the proper equipment. Most lenses will capture stars, but many do not capture them well. You want a lens that will shoot wide open at f/2.8 or lower to let in as much light as possible. Two lenses I’ve used for shooting stars are the Rokinon 14 mm f/2.8, and the Tokina 11-16 mm f/2.8. Both DSLR and mirrorless cameras work if you can shoot in manual mode for 30-second exposures.

Milky Way over Salt Fork Lake, Ohio. Photo © Steven Russell Smith.

How long you can leave your shutter open before stars trail will depend on the focal length of your lens. At 14 mm, 30 seconds works great. If you are shooting with a 28mm lens, you will have to go with a shorter time. Experiment with different shutter speeds.

You will also need a sturdy tripod.

When it comes to night photography, preparation is key…and some of that is achieved in the daytime! Your lens auto focus will struggle after dark. So, during the day, find out where infinity is on your lens, tape the focus ring to that spot, and switch the lens to manual.
I set my camera to manual mode with the two-second timer engaged, ISO 5000, and a shutter speed of 30 seconds. I set the white balance to Kelvin 3800. The only adjustment I may need to make at night is changing the ISO if necessary. I do not even need a light to do this, as I know how to adjust it by feel.

I take a camera bag with a couple of small white towels and another lens. I have an LED flashlight with either a piece of red or white cloth rubber banded to it. Red diffuses the light without hindering night vision, while the white is used for light painting.
When planning, my first question is “where is the moon?” By shooting when the moon is not up, a maximum number of stars will be visible.

Next I check “Stellarium,” a free planetarium software, to learn when the Milky Way will rise.
Let’s head out to Salt Fork Lake, Ohio. It’s about 10:00 PM, and the sky looks amazing!
After setting up my tripod, I take a test shot facing southeast to see where and how the Milky Way is positioned. After learning the results, I look around to see what’s in the foreground and how I can best position my tripod for the most pleasing composition.

My imagination kicks into gear as I contemplate making the long dock a leading line pointing to the Milky Way. After a few more test shots in different places in relation to the dock, I finally settle on an angle I really like. A few rocks and the dock are in the foreground, with the dock pointing to the galactic core of the Milky Way. A few clouds make reflections.

The exposure of the picture looks good to me. If it looked too light or dark, I would adjust my ISO to compensate. I always capture my night shots a little on the bright side, then darken them in post processing, because an underexposed picture has more noise.

I always shoot the largest size, and in RAW. I press the shutter button. The two-second delay eliminates camera shake during the exposure. I repeat for nine more shots. Then I place the lens cap on and take three additional dark shots, but several more wouldn’t hurt if your camera is particularly noisy.

Noise is removed by stacking. Light frames (pictures) have random noise among the stars. The dark frames and light frames are averaged together during stacking. The consistent light from the stars remains on all photos. The random noise is erased by the dark frames.

Had the dock looked too small in the frame while shooting the Milky Way with my 14 mm lens, I would have put on the 28 mm lens and shot the foreground, then combined it with the 14mm sky shot in post.

Had I felt the foreground needed a little color, I would have done some light painting on it during the exposure with my white-cloth-covered flashlight.

Remember the two white towels? They’re white so I can see them in the dark. One is to lay my spare lens on while changing lenses, and the other is to wipe off condensation, if necessary.
Night photos take a lot of editing, so don’t be disheartened when you see your unedited version straight out of the camera looking somewhat poor, because that’s how they always look.

To process, the first thing I do is change the photos from RAW to Tiff. I then use Sequator (free program) to stack the photos into one noise-free picture. Sequator also removes aircraft—a huge benefit.

Generally, you will need to selectively add a substantial amount of contrast to the Milky Way itself, while not adding a lot to the foreground. The stars outside the Milky Way will need some added contrast, but not too much. Adjust your exposure until you are satisfied.

As far as overall color goes, that is simply a matter of personal taste. The core of the Milky Way contains some brown and magenta, so it is good to represent that. As far as the overall hue of the picture, some like it blue, some like it rather dark, and some like it in shades of gray. I have seen it done attractively in many shades and colors.

Study other photographers’ Milky Way shots, and figure out what you like and dislike about them. You will need an editing program that allows you to layer photos. Paint.Net is a free software program for Windows you can use.

If you are like me, photographing the night sky will add a wide new dimension to photographing God’s creation.

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