Despite the fact that Arkansas’ River Valley has had a dry year, it seemed that every time I planned a star photography outing – there were clouds.
And, this trend included our Night Photography Workshop in August. We tried 3 times, before we finally had a marvelously clear night to see and photograph the Milky Way.
Same location – Shores Lake – but no significant clouds! 🙂 To add a little foreground interest, I set up my film camera to photograph the stars streaking across the sky, aka “star trails.”
If you live in an area with little light pollution, you may wonder what’s the big deal. However, for those of us who live in an urban area, it is a rare treat! Some of the photographers in our workshop had not seen the Milky Way since childhood. Seeing it and making photographs was very exciting!
Would you like to photograph the Milky Way? Here are 5 things I think you need:
- A DSLR camera, because shooting in manual exposure mode and manual focus mode, and at a high ISO is necessary. Very few compact cameras have all those functions.
- A wide angle lens. How wide? My preference is a 24mm for a “full-frame” sensor, but up to a 35mm will work. If you have an APS-C sensor, sometimes called a “crop-sensor,” 18mm to 24mm is the equivalent. That does not mean that we cannot use even wider! Many photographers use a 14mm, 16mm or an 18mm, and sometimes a fish-eye.
- A Good tripod. Shutter speeds will be measured in seconds, and no one I know can hold a camera steady for that long. Your tripod will need to be solid, and easy to adjust in the dark. I recommend a carbon fiber or aluminum tripod, with a ball head.
- A remote control for firing your camera. Pressing the shutter button will cause your camera to move, so use a remote cable or wireless remote.
- A headlamp or flashlight with a red lens. Without the red lens, your night vision will be compromised each time you turn on the light.
Also helpful: an app on your phone. “Photo Pills” and “The Photographers’ Ephemeris” will provide photographers where and when information – I like and use both. I also like “Star Guide” which does just what it says – displays on screen where and when the stars are.
Once you have the equipment, the techniques we use are different from most other types of photography:
- Locate an area with a probable good view of the Milky Way. Helpful web sites: www.cleardarksky.com, www.darksitefinder.com, and Google Maps www.google.com/maps.
- Check the moon phases – a full moon is so bright you cannot see the Milky Way. A crescent moon is also bright enough to interfere, although if it sets early, the light – coming from the opposite direction of the Milky Way – can be helpful by lighting up the foreground.
- Camera settings: Start at ISO 3200, a shutter speed of 15 seconds, and your aperture at its widest. Make a test shot, check your image exposure, and adjust as necessary. It is not uncommon to set ISO at 4000 or higher. (Note: to calculate the longest usable shutter speed, divide 500 by your lens focal length. Example: with a 24mm lens, 500 divided by 24 = 20.83, so you would keep your shutter open no longer than 20 seconds.) A too-long shutter speed results in trailing stars, not points of light.
- Focusing can be difficult. We tried to use autofocus before dark, then switched to manual focus. We also applied gaffer tape to the focus ring to avoid accidentally bumping and moving it. If you need to focus after dark, try using “live view” and magnify the display. (Practice this before dark!) The good thing about digital photography, of course, is we can see what we shot, then adjust and reshoot if necessary.
The end result can be very rewarding photos. And, watching the Milky Way – and other stars and constellations – begin to appear after the sun goes down is exciting and breathtaking! Especially the first time…
The “season” is about done for this year; during the winter months, the Milky Way is not visible. When it is most visible is late spring to late summer. (I can hardly wait!) The apps I referenced earlier are great for helping us plan. Feel free to contact me if you have questions – or search the internet for more information.
Wishing you good light!