Under the milky way: a photographer’s guide to capturing the universe

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As we all go about our daily lives, it’s very easy to forget that there’s an entire universe swirling above our heads.

That’s one of the many wonderful things about star gazing—a moment or two of pondering the expanse beyond the earth is enough to jolt you from the minutiae of everyday life. It resonates with us on a primal, subconscious level, waking us up to the profound big picture of the universe, of which we are just a tiny cog in an infinite wheel.

Photo by Mikko Lagerstedt

Writer Jerry Waxman put it beautifully when he said, “There is a fundamental reason why we look at the sky with wonder and longing—for the same reason that we stand, hour after hour, gazing at the distant swell of the open ocean. The spectacular truth is—and this is something that your DNA has known all along—the very atoms of your body—the iron, calcium, phosphorus, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and on and on—were initially forged in long-dead stars. This is why, when you stand outside under a moonless, country sky, you feel some ineffable tugging at your innards. We are star stuff. Keep looking up.”

Photo by Bobby Burch

The more you learn about the universe, the more you realize just how much we don’t know. It is a complex and truly awe-inspiring subject. Looking at the sky on a clear night, you will see a few thousand individual stars with your naked eyes. With even a modest amateur telescope, millions more will come into view.

Stars are not scattered randomly through space; they are gathered together into vast groups known as galaxies. The sun belongs to a galaxy called the Milky Way, and astronomers estimate the Milky Way alone is composed of about 100 thousand million stars. Outside that, there are millions upon millions of other galaxies still.

Photo by Aaron J. Groen

So, how do you go about photographing this marvellous enigma that is the Milky Way?

It’s about having the right equipment and camera settings, great shooting location, post production skills, and a lot of patience. And when you can capture images this exquisite, it is 100% worth it.

Equipment

Photo by Alexander Milo

First thing’s first: If you are committed to taking quality photos of the night sky, it’s worth investing in the correct gear. A standard point and shoot camera just won’t cut it. The list below outlines the minimum requirements.

Tripod: When taking long exposures of the night sky — 15 to 40 seconds — you are going to need a very sturdy platform. It’s worth investing a little more to buy a heavy-duty, well-built tripod. A cheaply-built one will shake slightly over the long exposure time, and your images won’t come out as sharp.

Photo by Goff Kitsawad

Full Frame/35mm Camera: A full-frame sensor provides a larger surface area to “capture” the light of the stars and Milky way. Using a full frame camera will help reduce the amount of noise in high ISO images, in turn providing higher quality RAW files. For the Milky Way, you are going to want to get as much light into your camera as you can before the rotation of the Earth starts to blur your image, so using a camera that can shoot a decent image at 1600 or 3200 ISO is a wise choice.

Photo by Wes Hicks

You might also want to consider purchasing the following (which aren’t 100% necessary but will add to the wow! factor and intricacy of your photos):

Wide-Angle Lens: This one is pretty self-explanatory—the larger the lens, the more of that majestic expanse of Milky Way you can capture. An f/2.8 lens minimum aperture is recommended as the wide opening will allow your camera’s sensor to pick up as much light as possible in the shortest amount of time.

Photo by Casey Horner

Remote Shutter/Intervalometer: Most cameras will take up to a 30-second exposure without a timer or remote shutter. If you would like to capture long exposure images of the night sky (longer than 30 seconds is generally used to capture star trails), you’ll need to purchase a remote shutter. You can hold the remote shutter button in your hand completely independent of the body of your camera, therefore avoiding any shaking. Even better, get a remote shutter with an intervalometer built in, so you can do time lapses.

Camera Settings

This is where the fun begins. In the world of a camera, time piles up upon itself, stacking to create this incredibly detailed image—the longer you let the light spill in, the more hidden details get revealed.

Photo by Mikko Lagerstedt

The human eye doesn’t work this way—it takes in light, storing some of it and forgetting the rest. With a camera, we get to see nature in a completely different perspective; we get to escape the arrow of time for a brief moment.

Photo by Alan Labisch

While the advice varies from photographer to photographer based on personal experience, most seem to agree about the camera settings that nail the shot every time:

  • Exposure: 25 seconds
  • Lens: f/2.8
  • ISO: 1,600

The most important component of these settings is the 25-second exposure. An exposure longer than about 25 seconds will start to show star trails, such as in this photo below.

Photo by Samuele Errico Piccarini

Photographing star trails is a legitimate type of photography on its own, but it isn’t the type of photography you are trying to do here.

Since you are limited to about 15-25 seconds max shutter speed, you still need to let in more light. The largest aperture you can find on a fisheye lens is f/2.8, and still your picture might not be quite bright enough to look stunning, so this is where the ISO comes into play.

Location

Photo by Stefano Vita

You know how whenever you are camping in semi-rural areas, you are blown away by the dense canopy of stars twinkling overhead? It’s like, somehow, the earth has been pulled like a magnet out of its familiar atmosphere, hovering ominously close to its galactic cousins. There’s a reason for that.

Photo by Jairph

Light pollution is excessive, misdirected, or obtrusive artificial light. Often found in large urban metropolises, too much light pollution washes out starlight in the night sky, rendering stars almost invisible in some of the world’s largest cities. So the lesser the noise pollution, the brighter the stars become.

Photo by Benjamin Davies

Consequently, to take photos of the Milky Way, you are going to have to head away from the bright lights of the city and chase those silky opaque skies found in quiet corners of the countryside.

Fortunately, there are great tools to help you do just that. You can check out the Light Pollution Map or download the Dark Sky Finder iPhone app to plot the best location near you.

Weather Conditions

Photo by Mike Mezeul

Your starry photo shoot is also very weather-dependent and, given how unpredictable it is, it’s one of the things that can’t be planned for. Find some handy hints below which will help you determine the best conditions:

  • The time of year and what part of the world you live in will determine which parts of the Milky Way you see. There is an augmented reality iPhone app called Sky View which allows you to search for the Milky Way and, more importantly, change the time and date, so you can see the position of the Milky Way at that given moment.
  • The phases of the moon will affect the clarity of the Milky Way in your photo. Milky Way photography is best on or near the night of the New Moon. In most cases, you can shoot approximately 1 week before, 1 week after, and on the night of the New Moon—this will change slightly depending on where you live on earth and the time of year. You can use Star Date’s Moon Calculator for precise results.
  • The amount of clouds in the sky will dictate how much of the Milky Way shows in your photo. Aiming for nights with 0-50% cloud cover will yield the best results for Milky Way photos. For worldwide weather, try MeteoStar.
Photo by Jonatan Pie

Editing / Post-Production

Don’t be dismayed if your photos aren’t signing off the page straight away. Night sky photography can be a precarious and unpredictable beast, and the photos you see on the internet have usually had a fair amount of editing and post-production done to get them firing with all engines.

Photo by Michael Liao

Below are some post-production tips to amp up that magical, ethereal quality of your Milky Way snaps:

  • Boost the exposure slightly to increase the brightness of the stars
  • Use a noise reduction tool to reduce any unwanted noise (those pesky extra white, red, or blue pixels that show up when you push the ISO too high)
  • Bump up the whites and bring down the blacks to emphasize contrast
  • Boost the saturation to bring out any colors that are in the sky
  • Increase the sharpness so that more detail in the stars can appear
  • Play around with hue to experiment with and get some magical-looking washes of color
Photo by Yunli Song

Now that you’re armed with the knowledge of how to capture our exquisite galaxy, the only thing left to do, really, is to get out there, shoot, and have fun on your starry night adventure!