03 Aug Tutorial: A Beginners Guide to Shooting the Milky Way
TUTORIAL: A BEGINNERS GUIDE TO SHOOTING THE MILKY WAY
So, you wanna shoot the Milky Way? The most important thing about creating any images, is to have fun doing it. There is a “Milky Way” season. Here in the Northern Hemisphere, the Galactic Core is visible between the months of March through October. The Milky Way is visible year round, but it is the Galactic Core is what you are after! You need a night when the moon is not visible in the sky. Shooting as close to a New Moon (no moon) is the best. You need to be in an area where there is minimum Light Pollution, especially in the Southern Sky (here in North America). Grab a few friends, your gear, and head out to the darkest place you know…
CAMERA – You can use just about any camera that has full manual controls. The better the camera, the better the images, but you do not need top of the line gear to create some bad ass images!!!
LENS – Wider is better. Faster is better. However; you can still get some decent images with your 18-55 kit lens! Don’t stay home, because you haven’t invested in glass yet! Get out there!!!
TRIPOD – You need a tripod…a GOOD tripod.
FLASHLIGHT – You’re in the dark, you don’t wanna trip and break your gear! A red lens is helpful, so the light will not hurt your light sensitivity.
REMOTE CONTROL – There are rather inexpensive ones available for most DLSR’s. Don’t have one, then use the Self-Timer option on your camera.
SETTINGS – I get asked often…what are your settings when you shoot the Milky Way. So, here they are, as a STARTING POINT. Put your camera in Manual (M) mode. Turn off your Autofocus. Turn off your Image Stabilization (IS) or Vibration Reduction (VR).
Aperture: as FAST as your lens will let you go (smallest number) ie f/2.8
Shutter Speed: Anywhere between 20-30 seconds. If you use 30 seconds or longer (using BLUB mode), due to the rotation of the earth, your stars will start being small lines instead.
White Balance: This is a personal choice…I prefer my Milky Way shots warmer, so I set my WB to 6000 K. I recommend shooting in RAW format, so you can tweak your WB later to what you like.
You have the bare basic info to capture images of the Milky Way. But, how do you FIND the Milky Way? Trust me, your eyes will not see it, the same as a long exposure will!
There are dozens of available apps for your phone. There are tons of books, charts, etc. I’m not going to go into detail on this, because it can get out of scope of this tutorial. Once you are in a dark location, and you have allowed several minutes to allow your eyes to adjust to the dark (put away that cell phone!), look towards the Southern Horizon. You will see a band of clouds that spans the entire length of the sky. This is not a cloud, but it is the Milky Way. Fire off a few test exposures, and you will see for yourself!
Spend some time searching for interesting FOREGROUND objects. They will make your images a lot better! Just as any image, use composition of your foreground objects to make the image feel right. Balance the image through composition.
Focusing can be difficult, your camera will not autofocus on the stars…so you must switch to Manual Focus. You can use LIVE VIEW and zoom in on a star, then focus manually. Some people will then tape their focus ring in place, so that you will not lose focus. A trick I do, I focus lens to infinity, then back it off slightly.
Earlier, I said to switch off Vibration Reduction (VR). You are shooting from a tripod, you don’t need it, and your lens may “shift” causing blurring. Turning off VR or Image Stabilization (IS) will stop the lens from doing this.
Just pressing your shutter button for a long exposure, you risk camera shake. You will need a method of triggering your shutter remotely. There are apps to do this. Or there are inexpensive shutter remotes. They are well worth it! If you do not have one, just use the Countdown Timer on your camera. Just set it for two seconds. Another trick to reduce vibration, is shoot in Mirror Up Mode, if your camera supports this function.
As I am trying to get my compensation correct sometimes I bump a button on my camera, and the LED info will turn on inside my viewfinder. It is very bright when your eyes have adjusted to the dark. When I am focusing and composing for the Milky Way, I turn my camera OFF.
Bring an assortment of lights….and have fun painting the landscape with light as your camera is capturing the Milky Way!
Get out, have fun, and create some great images.