What if I told you that you’re more than capable of imagining, planning and shooting Milky Way pictures that will put people into what I call a sharing trance? Would you believe it?
Nowadays, almost everyone can take good photos, even very good ones. We see it every day, social networks are filled up with multiple great photos, published by great photographers hoping that their work will be massively shared. Unfortunately, the truth is that just a few achieve to go viral. Why? One possible answer is: inner remarkability.
“Remarkable things provide social currency because they make the people who talk about them seem, well, more remarkable [...] Sharing extraordinary, novel, or entertaining stories or ads makes people seem more extraordinary, novel, and entertaining [...] Not surprisingly then, remarkable things get brought up more often”
Therefore, how can we make photos so that people will share and talk about? The same inner remarkability principle applies. Taking great photos is not enough, they need to be truly remarkable.
The idea behind this article is to help you better communicate through your photography, and thus better persuade people. In the age when whatsapp, social networks and television are fighting for our attention - and when more photographs than you can possibly view in your whole life are published every day - you must learn how to make truly hypnotic photos so that your friends and followers can’t avoid sharing and talking about.
I’ll cover everything you need to turn your ideas into real images, step by step; from inspiring sources and equipment to camera settings. All of this will become clear as you read through this article.
Are you ready?
“You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him find it within himself” - Galileo
- Mark Gee proves everyone can take contagious images
- Believe in the impossible, brainstorm for remarkability
- Add enigma to your composition, include the Milky Way
- Find a powerful location, find inspiration
- The five crucial Milky Way tips you should know before you start brainstorming
- Got an idea? Let’s calculate when it happens
- Use the right equipment
- Making the photo, step by step
- Five great tutorials to help you learn how to post process the Milky Way Raw
- Inspiring Milky Way images
- Don’t give up!
1Mark Gee proves everyone can take contagious images
Do you know Mark Gee? Maybe not. He is an extraordinary photographer based in Wellington, New Zealand. Please, let me share his extraordinary story with you.
Mark Gee’s imagination and persistence has no limit. You may not believe it, but this is the simple cause of his successful career in both film and photography industry.
Having worked on movies like The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings or Avatar, the highlight of his photography career happened pretty recently. He not only won two categories in the prestigious competition Astronomy Photographer of the year 2013, but he also won it overall with his unique image Guiding Light To The Stars.
Guiding Light To The Stars is a story of fantasy. Every time I look at this contagious image, I can’t avoid immersing myself in an imaginary world… what if the stars owe all their beauty to a little lighthouse lost somewhere in New Zealand? Cool…am I crazy? Maybe a little… don’t blame me for that!
From the composition side, it’s a stunning panorama of the Milky Way arching over New Zealand's North Island coast. Observe the way that the Milky Way appears to flow from the lighthouse, connecting the stars and the landscape. In the middle of the image, you see the Galactic Center, by far the brightest part of our Galaxy.
But the idea that got his work out there and noticed was his viral video Full Moon Silhouettes. Mark explains what happened this way:
“I wanted to video the moon rising and revealing silhouettes up on a lookout in Wellington New Zealand. This idea proved a lot harder than I had anticipated, and there were a lot of failed and frustrating attempts. But finally after a year of trying, I managed to pull off something that exceeded my expectations.
I stayed up until 3am the next morning finding suitable music for my newly captured clip which I put together and uploaded it to Vimeo. I called it Full Moon Silhouettes (even though technically it was captured a day after the full moon) and when I awoke later that day, my email was full of hundreds of emails from people all over the world writing to me and thanking me for making the video.
It had touched the hearts of people in ways I could have never imagined, and here they were sharing those moments with me. This was certainly a very humbling experience for me, and one I will never forget.”
For a detailed explanation on how Mark imagined, planned and shot the Full Moon Silhouettes, have a look at the article To the Moon and Back.
Now, if I told you that Mark started his photography career in 2009, would you believe it? I bet you wouldn't!
Well, it’s true… With a photography career only 4 years long, Mark Gee proved that you don’t need to be a Master with ages of experience to shoot contagious images. The truth is you only need to have a remarkable story to tell... and tons of motivation.
So, believe in yourself… you can do it too!
Ah! By the way... if you wish to learn how to shoot the Milky Way face to face with Mark Gee, the PhotoPills team and a selected group of PhotoPills Masters... ¡Take a look at the PhotoPills Camp! ;)
2Believe in the impossible, brainstorm for remarkability
"Image quality is not the product of a machine, but of the person who directs the machine, and there are no limits to imagination and expression." - Ansel Adams
As it turns out, if you want your photos to become viral, you need people to freak out with them, to fall in love with them. The good news is you have all it needs: your creative side.
Yes, of course you need to master all the photography technique involved but, as Mark Gee proved, creativity makes the difference.
Where should you start? Don’t let the critic that dwells in you, your analytic mind, take over and get in control… Think big, focus and let your imagination fly.
Immerse yourself in the creative process, look for a special location and do your research. Find the story hidden within, the emotion that evokes. Your goal is to come up with a unique story to tell, a deep emotion to convey, a remarkable message you’ll try to get across combining technique, composition and location power.
3Add enigma to your composition, include the Milky Way
The sun and the moon are powerful photographic elements you can use in your image to help you get the message across while adding interest and mystery… but the Milky Way multiplies the possibilities, take advantage of it!
The Milky Way moves in the sky following the Earth’s rotation as the stars move. In other words, you will have different compositions at different times of the night. You can get the complete Milky Way arching over the landscape, great for a panorama, or the band in vertical, diagonal and horizontal orientation.
Sure, you’ll come up with multiple ideas of different compositions. Usually, you know the exact position you want the Galactic Center to be in your image, but you don’t know whether the scene is possible or when it occurs. There is no secret; the key to photographing stars is planning.
Thanks to technology, the old times when we had to work out all the calculations by hand or use the trial and error approach are over. Nowadays, we have incredibly powerful tools like PhotoPills at our fingertips that will do all the planning for us.
4Find a powerful location, find inspiration
The reason most photographers jealously keep their best locations secret is that an unexploded location, rich of unique photogenic elements, can make you take an award winning image, as simple as that.
A second reason is that location scouting can be very time consuming and expensive. I’ve been living on a little island lost in the Mediterranean Sea for 22 years now and, although I’ve thoughtfully explored most of it, finding pretty unique locations on the way, I feel like the best location is yet to come.
So, what makes a great location for a night shoot?
Light pollution free
Unless you’re willing to include artificial city lights in your composition, you’ll need to do some research and find out where the nearby dark sky locations are.
Depending on where you live, it can be very challenging to find a location with limited light pollution. These are some resources that can help you find dark sky locations:
- NASA’s Blue Marble: The site uses a Google Maps interface with NASA’s 2012 Night Lights image. You can browse their maximum resolution of four pixels per km², as well as a slightly coarser night-lights map, enhanced by town names and national borders.
- The World At Night (TWAN): It has one of the largest collection of global categorized astronomic landscape images sorted by regions.
- International Dark Sky locations: I love these guys’ movement. The International Dark Sky Association promotes preservation and protection of night skies across the globe for future generations. You’ll find three types of areas in their database: communities, parks, and reserves. These parks and reserves are home to some of the darkest and most pristine skies in the world.
- Wikipedia Observatories list: Observatories are located in completely dark skies. It’s a good idea to check where they are to find black crystal skies.
- Look for Local Astronomy Clubs: There are amateur astronomers everywhere. Make sure you ask them for suggestions. Most of them enjoy sharing their love for astronomy and would be happy to point you in the right direction.
- Dark sky finder app (iOS) : It helps you locate nearby dark skies to take a telescope, watch a meteor shower, or simply relax under the stars. See light pollution maps of the entire world, along with dots that indicate good observing locations.
- Dark sky meter app (iOS): Want to measure what the actual light pollution is at your location? This is a fun app to have and it reports your findings directly to the International Dark Sky Association. It also gives cloud forecasts 3 days out, moon phase, dark sky times, etc.
Do you wonder how does an unspoiled Night Sky look like? Make sure you don’t miss the following Christoph Malin’s work of art. You’ll discover the Dark Sky in the Atacam Desert and the outstanding ESO Observatories... Men’s outpost to space observation.
Includes a point of interest
Choose a location which has at least one interesting element that inspires you.
Including it in your composition will help you connect landscape and sky in a creative way, which will capture the viewer’s attention.
These are some of my favorite points of interest. Try to experiment with them:
Being some of the most amazing and beautiful pieces of nature, rocks transmit a sense of power, isolation, and challenge.
Rock formations were slowly created by strong elements such as heat, wind, rain, and other erosional forces, over millions of years.
You can find them in many different positions. I personally prefer those that are isolated because they convey a sense of drama.
I suppose it’s not difficult to find a nice rock in your area. If that’s not the case, have a look at the list of best rock formations on Wikipedia.
Natural arches and bridges
These marvelous giant stone structures, carved by nature, are doors to Heaven… And sometimes doors to Hell as well.
Natural bridges are formed by running water. This makes them even more special and rare than arches, which result from a combination of other erosional forces.
Again, if you’re not lucky to live near one of these natural wonders, do your research on the net. Check the list of longest natural arches on Wikipedia.
Those of you living in the USA can’t miss the Arches National Park (Utah). With over 2,000 classified arches, Anasazi cliff dwellings, pictographs and white sandstone canyons, it’s a dream come true for all night photographers.
Some of the world's most essential buildings are lighthouses. Some of them have been crucial in many wars, suffering dramatic consequences from being in the battlefield.
If you look into their past, you’ll find enigmas and surprising stories hidden behind the walls. Go, discover the mystery around a nearby Lighthouse or check the list of lighthouses on Wikipedia to find one that interests you.
Just two words: captivating organisms. They are powerful structures that add interest to your image and become dominant when photographed on their own.
Look for an isolated tree. It'll help you break the horizon line and give a sense of scale to the shot.
Here is a list of particularly unusual trees; unusual either because of their biology or because humans have changed them in some way: list of trees on Wikipedia.
Some people say these old stone constructions were built by ancient civilizations. Others, more skeptical about men’s technological capabilities, that were built by aliens. I ignore your opinion on these theories but the truth is that all these constructions will make your photos trap everyone's attention. It’s like connecting two worlds: ancient cultures and alien nations.
Among the types of old constructions, I prefer the megalithic ones. A megalith is a large stone that has been used to build a structure or monument, either alone or together with other stones.
The word "megalithic" describes structures made of such large stones, using an interlocking system instead of mortar or cement.
Stonehenge and Naveta d‘Es Tudons are famous examples of megalithic constructions. You can find more examples on the list of the oldest buildings in the world on Wikipedia.
Introducing a model in the mix can be challenging but also very rewarding. Sometimes, the story you want to tell needs the help of a human character to make it complete. Why not bringing a friend and try to shoot a tribute to one of your favorite films... Just brainstorming!
These are just a few ideas to inspire you, but you have many more: windmills, lakes (reflections), abandoned vehicles (machines)...Take advantage of what you have near your home.
Find a place with a hidden story
Cemeteries, battlefields, ghost towns, volcanos, craters and deserts have a kind of hypnotic atmosphere that attracts the attention of many brave photographers looking for something new to invigorate their photography. Sometimes visiting the same old haunts or taking the same types of photographs can get stale. Why not trying something new?
Use available sources of information
When doing your research, don’t forget to:
- Ask the elder people in your town.
- Look into books on local history and natural biodiversity.
- Find inspiration in photos: 500px and Flickr.
- Look into Wikipedia and the lists of interesting places. For example, if you’re looking for lighthouses, you can type on Google “Lighthouse list Wikipedia”.
- Tourist guides and travel magazines.
- Visit your town's City Hall, particularly the Culture and Tourism areas. People working in these areas will know where to find unique points of interest.
What are you waiting for? Go and find a virgin location.
Add a shooting star
Meteors will turn a good Milky Way picture into a memorable one. So, when a meteor shower is coming up, make sure you’re ready to take action.
Take a look at our guide to the best meteor showers. You'll find information about both the upcoming meteor showers and how to shoot them.
During a meteor shower, meteors are observed to radiate from one point in the night sky. These meteors are caused by streams of cosmic debris entering the Earth's atmosphere at extremely high speeds. Smaller fragments burn in the atmosphere producing a “shooting star”, but the bigger ones can really produce an amazing big fireball.
Produced by comet Swift-Tuttle, the Perseids is one of the best meteor showers that can be observed, with up to 60 meteors per hour. The shower runs annually from mid July to the end of August. But there are many more great meteor showers during the year.
How do I predict meteor showers? Again, check our guide to the best meteor showers.
If you are lucky enough to capture many meteors, you can use the technique described in this article by David Kingham for image post-processing and to get a stunning effect.
5The five crucial Milky Way tips you should know before you start brainstorming
Let’s say that after having checked many locations, you’ve finally found one that inspires you. You’re ready to let your imagination fly... But hey! Don’t hurry... Before you start brainstorming and planning like crazy, there are five capital facts about the Milky Way that will help you point your creative mind in the right direction.
You’ll find the core in the southern skies
Knowing the direction where you will find the core of the Milky Way is mandatory. Don’t waste your time designing images that are not possible. These are the general rules depending on the Hemisphere you are:
- Northern Hemisphere: look towards the southern skies to see the galactic core. The core will start to be visible to the southeast (Spring), to the south (Summer), or to the southwest (Fall).
- Southern Hemisphere: also look towards the southern skies to see the galactic core. In this case, the core will start to be visible to the southwest (Spring) or to the southeast (Fall and Winter).
To conclue, don’t look for the core of the Milky Way in northern directions. When brainstorming, think about different compositions with the galactic center in the southeast, south or southwest.
Another way to find the center (core) of our galaxy and the brightest part of the Milky Way is to look for the constellation Sagittarius.
Same location, same direction, same altitude
“For a given location and direction (azimuth), the galactic center will always be at the same altitude in the sky.”
To put it simple, if you go to the same location on two different dates, look towards the same direction and wait until the galactic center is in that direction, you'll see it at the same altitude in the sky.
No matter the date, for a given location, when the galactic center is in one direction, it always has the same altitude.
Thus, given a location, the galactic center always rises in the same direction. Also, it always sets in the same direction.
The practical application of this fact is easy. For example, once you know the azimuth in which the galactic center rises, just choose the shooting spot in a way that the azimuth of the galactic center is just where you want it relative to the main subject of your photo (rock, tree, lighthouse, building, etc).
In other words, when you find a location you like, proceed as follows:
- Decide the position of the galactic center in the sky. Most times your initial shooting spot will not be right. You'll have to move.
- Use PhotoPills‘ 2D Milky Way Planner or Night Augmented Reality tool to find out the azimuth in which the galactic center is at the desired altitude and orientation.
- Again, use these tools to choose the shooting spot that gives you the composition you want.
There is a hunting season for the Milky Way
When should you start looking for the core of the Milky Way? When will it be visible? Or even better, when is the best time of the year to shoot the Milky Way?
During part of the year, the core of the Milky Way is not visible because it is blocked by the sun. Why is that? Because the galactic center is only above the horizon during daylight hours.
When planning to shoot the Milky Way, you should find out the period of the year in which the galactic center is visible during nighttime. To narrow the search and get faster results, learn the starting and ending dates of the best period of the year to shoot the Milky Way.
So, when is this?
In the Northern Hemisphere, the core is visible from March to October. However, the best time for viewing it is from late April to late July, because the galactic center is visible for longer during the night. Forget about it from November to February because you won't see it.
In late February, the core becomes visible in the pre-dawn hours just before sunrise, and remains above the horizon during daylight hours. As months go by, the core becomes visible for longer and longer each night, being June and July the months with longer visibility. During this time of year, the core will be visible all night.
From July on, core visibility begins to decrease and the best viewing time moves towards after dusk, until it becomes totally invisible again in winter.
In conclusion, if you live in the Northern Hemisphere, late April is a good moment to start planning a shoot of the Milky Way, while June and July are the best months.
Attention now, this is important! Like the constellation of Sagittarius, the Galactic Center can only be visible from latitudes between +55° and -90°. Those of you living in latitudes above +55° won’t be able to see the Galactic Center. You'll be able to see only part of the core of the Milky Way. The best time to see it is before and after summer. Notice that during the summer the astronomical twilight never ends, so you’ll not have a completely dark sky.
In the Southern Hemisphere, the core is visible from February to October, being in the middle of the winter, June and July, when the core is most visible. Again, don’t look for it from November to January.
People living in the Southern Hemisphere enjoy a longer visibility because the peak occurs in winter, when days are shorter and nights are longer.
If you live in the Southern Hemisphere, mid-April is a good moment to start planning shooting the Milky Way.
All these visibility facts for the Northern and Southern Hemisphere are just qualitative, not exact figures. If you want to know how the Galactic center visibility time and direction change throughout the year in a determined location, I recommend you to use PhotoPills 2D Milky Way Planner and move time continuously to see how visibility evolves.
To better understand what I mean, watch the following video. It shows how the Galactic Center visibility time and direction change throughout 2015 at Delicate Arch, in the Arches National Park.
- Total visibility time: 988.31 hours
- Visibility peak: 5.63 hours, May 27th
- Minimum visibility azimuth: 127.8°
- Maximum visibility azimuth 232.2°
- Hunting season:
The Milky Way arch is visible the whole year
Don’t forget that in winter (Northern Hemisphere) and summer (Southern Hemisphere) you can still see the Milky Way, just not the core.
Most times, you’ll want to be in complete darkness when shooting the Milky Way. Therefore, when planning, you have to take into account the phase of the moon. You need to have no moon!
As a result, you must plan Milky Way shots happening during new moon and the 4 days before and after it.
In this case, you need artificial light sources to capture the beauty of the landscape under the Milky Way.
But the presence of the full moon is not always detrimental. You can still use the moonlight (from first quarter to last quarter) to photograph the landscape while capturing the Milky Way at the same time.
Look for the days when the moon falls outside your desired frame, preferably forming an angle between 60° and 90° with the direction you’re pointing to with your camera. The light will fall more on one side, and more shadows will be cast on the opposite side of the landscape elements, in this case, side lighting is ideal to render textures.
Direct, front moonlight shows the pattern of the landscape elements in a flat, uninformative way, but side lighting creates shadows in every little rock. This can give an almost 3D effect to a photograph.
The light is best starting about one to two hours after the moon rises. It's when the moon will completely light the landscape, creating beautiful shadows that give volume to the elements.
6Got an idea? Let’s calculate when it happens
“A goal without a plan is just a wish.” - Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
I love the mystery surrounding Es Pont d’En Gil (40.010673°, 3.794610°), a natural bridge located in Menorca, a little island lost in the Mediterranean Sea... My home.
What I like about this natural bridge and makes it special is that behind it, 20 miles (32 km) away, is the crowded island of Mallorca, which heavy light pollution paints in red the arch of the bridge during the nights. It makes my imagination fly...
[Danger – flying mode on]
Imagine the red bridge... It’s like a door to Hell, once you come in you can’t come out, cursed for eternity... I’ve heard stories spoken by the elders... Stories about seamen who sailed never to return again... All vanished but one... There was one who returned... On a new moon day... This is how the legend goes:
“Only in the nights of new moon, when the stars dig deep into the very bowels of Hell, the Brave will find the star way back to the human world”
I’ve always been fascinated by old sea stories and legends. The truth is that too many seamen have been swallowed by the sea leaving their wife and children behind. All these real life dramas have inspired me to look for a spark of hope. This is how I came up with the idea of connecting Hell and Heaven with a stair made of stars... Connecting them with the majestic Milky Way... In a new moon night.
“... Only when the stars dig deep into the very bowels of Hell...” could be decrypted as “only when the Milky Way falls straight into the bridge”... I imagine the Milky Way completely vertical digging into the natural bridge... that’s definitely an hypnotic shot!
[You’re safe now - flying mode off]
So, how did I calculate the exact date and time the Milky Way would be vertical and aligned with the bridge?
Yes, you're right... I used PhotoPills!
In the following video, you'll learn how to use PhotoPills to plan any Milky Way photo you imagine in just seconds. It's so powerful!
And this is exactly how I used PhotoPills’ 2D Milky Way Planner to plan the shot:
Place the Observer’s pin on the shooting spot
There are only two spots from where you can see the horizon through the bridge, but there is only one that is perfect for a Milky Way shoot.
Once you’ve found your desired shooting spot, turn on PhotoPills’ 2D Milky Way Planner and place the Observer’s pin (red pin) right on the position from where you want to take the photo.
Notice the panel that is just above the map. It’s telling you that the Galactic Center will become visible at 11:17pm (on July 6th) at azimuth 163.0° and elevation 19.0°. Also, it’ll become invisible at 4:22am at azimuth 227.9° and elevation 2.8° (on July 7th).
Have a look at the two azimuth lines on the map. The light gray line is showing the direction where the Galactic Center will become visible (azimuth 163.0°) and the dark gray one, where it’ll become invisible (azimuth 227.9°) for the selected date.
Set the date to the next new moon
As you want to have a perfect dark sky, set the date to next new moon date, in this case July 27th 2014.
Have a look at the second screenshot. The Milky Way is represented by a white dotted arch. The biggest white dot represents the Galactic Center, and marks the crossing point between the Galactic Center azimuth line and the Milky Way arch. This way, you can easily distinguish the Galactic Center on the Milky Way arch.
The top panel tells you that at 10:55pm, the Galactic Center will be at azimuth 176.8° and elevation 21.0°. When the Milky Way arch maximum elevation is 58.3°, the arch will be forming a diagonal in the sky.
Move time until the maximum elevation of the Milky Way arch is 90°
Remember, you want to have the core of the Milky Way vertical and aligned with the bridge. To find out when it happens, move the time until the maximum elevation of the Milky Way Arch is 90° (read the top panel) and check whether the Milky Way is aligned with the bridge. If it’s not aligned; just re-adjust the position of the Observer’s pin. Also, you can jump to the next new moon day and check it again.
That’s it, the Planner reveals that if you go where the Observer’s pin is placed on July 28th at 1:59am, you’ll get the scene you imagined.
Now, after the planning work… Pray for nice weather conditions. This is the name of the game PhotoPillers play: Plan&Pray.
This is just a quick explanation on how to plan the Milky Way using PhotoPills. For a complete step by step guide please have a look at the following articles:
- How to plan the Milky Way using the Augmented Reality
- How To Plan The Milky Way Using The 2D Map-Centric Planner
7Use the right equipment
I always recommend those of my students who are willing to take photography seriously to start playing hard since the beginning and buy the best equipment possible they can afford, including second hand gear, because, at the end of the day, it’s a way to save money.
If you spend your savings in a basic equipment, you’ll soon find out that it’s far too limited to take the images you want and you’ll finally end investing in a better one, spending twice as much money. Besides, good equipment lasts for many years when treated well and, in case you decide to sell it, you’ll always find a buyer in the secondhand market.
What is the ideal equipment for night photography? In my opinion, these are the general features your camera body should have:
- A DSLR camera that allows full manual exposure controls of aperture, shutter speed, ISO and focus.
- Full Frame sensor... One of the advantages of using a Full Frame camera is that, typically, noise performance is much better than in APS-C cameras, allowing you to use higher ISO values, collect more light and, thus, take better Milky Way pictures. This is due to the fact that the larger sensor of a Full Frame camera has larger photosites (pixels). Larger photosites can collect more light per unit of time allowing the camera not to have to amplify the signal that much, reducing noise, achieving a greater dynamic range and minimizing heat in the sensor. To sum up, for a given number of megapixels, Full Frame cameras generally produce less noise in the image than APS-C cameras.
- Good noise performance when pushing up the ISO to 3200 or higher.
- Allows to set White Balance manually.
- Most of the settings (ISO, White Balance, etc) are directly accessible through external buttons, without having to dig into the camera menu.
- Allows to shoot in RAW.
- A perfectly sealed camera body with optimal construction to withstand the effects of wind, water, rain, humidity, sand, dust, etc.
- Good heat dissipation system to prevent the sensor to heat up and, thus, avoid thermal noise in the picture. Besides the noise, if the sensor temperature is too high, the sensor might start vignetting with a magenta color.
- Has a built-in intervalometer. It comes very handy when you forget to bring the external intervalometer or when it runs out of battery.
- Allows to use non-CPU lenses.
Regarding the lens, for a given exposure time when shooting the Milky Way, you need your lens to collect as much light as possible to capture the maximum number of stars as big bright spots. Also, you’ll want to make sure you capture as much of the Milky Way as you can. Then, you need to use the fastest (f/number) and widest-angle (short focal length) lens you can afford to collect as much light as possible and also frame the larger area of the sky. A 14mm for Full Frame cameras or 11mm for cropped sensors would be ideal.
Lenses that allow these short focal lengths are called ultra wide angle lenses. Unfortunately, due to the complexity of its construction, the wider the lens the more expensive it is.
Pros and cons of the beginner’s equipment… and workarounds!
You obviously don’t need to spend 5,000$ in a professional equipment to capture nice compositions of the Milky Way, it’s all about your imagination. With basic equipment your images won’t look as good as they should to a well trained eyes.
Shhhh... Keep this as a secret… The good news is that most of your friends and social media followers will hardly make out the difference between your image and a professional one… So, why not trying to photograph the Milky Way!
The most common equipment in my beginner’s class ($500-$800) consists of:
Camera body ($400-$700)
- Camera with APS-C sensor: Nikon D3300, D5300; Canon 1100D, 1200D; Sony a3000, SLT-A37, SLT-A58; Pentax K-5
- Camera with Four Thirds System: Olympus E-PL5
- Compact cameras (1’’ sensor): Sony DSC-RX100III
These cameras allow full manual exposure and manual white balance (or, at least, choosing a white balance preset).
Unfortunately, basic DSLR cameras are not capable of using ISOs of 3200 and higher without suffering from noise. One possible way to work around these cameras' limitations is to shoot at 800 ISO and use the noise reduction in post processing. Depending on the results you get, try to push your ISO higher and see what happens. However be aware, noise reduction does smooth the fine detail in your images, making them softer to the eye, which can be problematic.
These cameras usually cost around $400-$700 including a basic 18-55mm lens.
18-55 mm lens ($100)
The lens makes the image, the camera records it. Therefore, your lens is a crucial part of your equipment. You should definitely invest in quality lenses.
Most DSLRs, like the Nikon D3300 or Canon 1100D, come in a basic kit with an 18-55mm lens. These lenses have been designed to give acceptable results when shooting daytime pictures and using an aperture of f/8. But, of course, do not perform as well as professional zoom lenses (like the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 and Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II) when shooting at night and in low light conditions. In these light conditions, use a focal length of 18mm or less (if your lens is capable) and the widest aperture available, usually f/3.5.
Keep in mind that, due to the cropped sensor of these cameras and that you have to shoot with a focal length of 18mm (equivalent of 27 mm for Nikon and 28.8mm for Canon in 35mm format), your exposure time has to be pretty short to prevent stars from trailing (more or less 17/18 seconds depending on the camera model).
Furthermore, as you are using an aperture of f/3.5 and ISO 800, the amount of light collected will also be very limited, getting an underexposed image. As a result, you’ll end up with noise when post processing the image.
To sum up, this is not the ideal equipment for shooting the Milky Way but, if it’s all you have, make the most of it and work on your post processing to reduce the level of noise.
With this basic equipment, one alternative is to shoot longer exposures (5 minutes or more depending on the moon phase) using the nominal ISO of your camera (usually ISO 100 or 200) to avoid noise. You won’t get stars as big bright spots, but you’ll capture the star trails of the Milky Way, which can make a pretty stunning picture.
Another way to create stunning star trails is by merging a series of short exposure photos into a single image using softwares like StarStaX (Mac, Windows, Linux) or Startrails (Windows). Here, the relative motion of the stars creates structures similar to star trails. The advantage is that you prevent your sensor from overheating… But let's talk about Star Trails in a future article.
Basic travel tripod ($40)
Long exposures are the name of the game in night photography. Therefore, when choosing a tripod, weight matters. The last thing you want in your photos is blur caused by tripod vibration due to wind or running water. You need to keep your camera steady and still.
Basic tripods usually don’t weigh too much and are pretty unstable, so you’ll probably have blur problems when shooting long exposures. Add to this, the risk of damaging your photography equipment in the case of a fall.
To prevent vibrations and, thus, reduce blurring, you can load the tripod with extra weight by hanging a bag filled with stones or even your camera bag from it. Also, don’t raise the center column of the tripod if it has one because it’ll make it more unstable. If you raise it, you are also raising the mass center of the system formed by tripod, head, camera and lens, which results into a more unstable system. The lower the mass center the more stable the system will be… It’s all about physics.
Basic headlamp ($10)
Since you’ll be in the dark, a headlamp is pretty much a necessity. But, it’ll not properly work for light painting at night. If you’ve planned to have interesting foreground elements, a good flashlight is compulsory.
Remote shutter release or basic intervalometer ($25)
A remote shutter release allows you to trigger your camera remotely without needing to touch it. This is particularly nice to prevent vibration resulting into motion blur or streaks in your images.
The problem with remote releases is that they are not programmable, so you cannot shoot at regular intervals automatically. It’s a much better idea to buy a cheap intervalometer. Nowadays you can even find cameras that include it.
An intervalometer is a programmable remote shutter that you can use to set exposure time, time interval between photos, total number of photos to be taken and the time delay of the first picture. If you’re using the Bulb (B) exposure mode, you’ll be able to shoot exposures of 30+ seconds which is very useful when shooting timelapses and star trails.
Memory card ($15)
There are many different types of SD cards (Secure Digital) depending on capacity and data transfer speed.
Depending on the capacity of the card, you can get:
- SD cards: capacity up to 2GB
- SDHC cards (SD High Capacity): capacity between 2GB and 32GB
- SDXC cards (SD Extended Capacity): capacity between 32GB and 2TB
Besides capacity, it’s important to pay attention to transfer speed:
- Speed class 2: 2MB/s
- Speed class 4: 4MB/s
- Speed class 6: 6MB/s
- Speed class 10: 10MB/s
- U1: speed between 10MB/S and 104MB/s
- U3: speed between 30MB/S and 312MB/s
For beginners, 32GB SD cards Class 4 or 6 (from $15) are enough. They are great, cheap and the amount of photos stored is acceptable.
The main drawback is speed. Transfer speed of a camera memory card refers to how quickly data can be written to it. If you’re going to take photography seriously, you’ll need to purchase a memory card with a high transfer rate, because it allows each picture to be saved into the memory card quicker, providing a shorter delay between two consecutive shots.
Finally, I recommend you to use several small capacity cards rather than a few large capacity ones, because, if you lose a card or spoil it, the fewer pictures will be lost. By using several small capacity cards you decrease the risk of losing your photos.
The total budget for a basic equipment should be $500-$800.
Minimum equipment for admissible image quality (medium range budget)
If you want to take photos of the Milky Way with an acceptable quality on a budget ($1,500-$3,500), this is the equipment you need:
Depending on your budget and goals, you may be interested in jumping into the Full Frame universe or staying with a camera with a cropped sensor. In both cases, there are cameras with great noise performance.
The Nikon D7000 and D7100, Canon 700D and 7D Mark II, Fuji XT-1, Pentax K-5II or the Sony a6000 are all crop sensor cameras that perform well. The cost should be around $650- $1800, quite cheap compared with Full Frame cameras.
If you already have a Full Frame camera or you want to make the leap, congratulations! Two of the big advantages of using a camera with a full frame sensor is that it produces less noise in the image and enjoys a greater dynamic range than a APS-C with the same megapixels, allowing you to work with higher ISOs, collect more light and, thus, take better Milky Way pictures.
Within the medium range budget, you can also find Full Frame cameras that perform well in low light conditions. The Nikon D610 and D600, Canon 6D, Sony a7 and a7R are just a few you can trust. All cost between $1600 - $1900.
All these cameras will allow you to use ISO 1600 or 3200 with acceptable noise performance while getting images properly exposed.
Wide angle lens ($300-$600)
As we’re talking about Milky Way photography, I’m going to focus on wide angle and ultra wide angle lenses, because they allow us to capture the most quantity of stars.
One of the brands with best price/value balance is Rokinon (also known as Samyang, Pro-Optic, Bower, Falcon, Wallimex, etc). They have models available for both Full Frame and APS-C sensors. Another brand that also provide great lenses for night photography is Tokina.
For APS-C cameras, the Rokinon/Samyang 10mm f/2.8 and the Rokinon/Samyang 16mm f/2.0 are great prime lenses. Regarding zoom lenses, I’d like to highlight the Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8. Other options are the Sigma AF 10-20mm f/3.5, Sigma AF 18-35 f/1.8 DC HSM and Sigma 17-70 f/2.8 DC OS HSM.
For Full Frame cameras, the Rokinon/Samyang 14mm f/2.8 and the Rokinon/Samyang 24mm f/1.4 prime lenses are great. Keep in mind that these lenses also work on APS-C but you need to take into account the crop factor. For example, given a camera with a crop factor of 1.6, then the Rokinon 14mm would be equivalent to 22.4mm for a Full Frame camera.
The cost of these lenses should be between $300 and $600.
Besides highlighting the competitive price of these lenses, it’s also noteworthy that, especially the Rokinon/Samyang lenses, practically don’t present coma at their maximum aperture, a fact that you need to consider in night photography.
Coma is an optical aberration that distorts the stars in the corners of the lense. Stars appear in the image as trails instead of appearing as dots.
As explained in the Nikon website: the visible phenomenon is a point image on the picture trailing toward the exterior or the center of the image, like a comet, which is where the name comes from. Coma spreading radially from the optical axis forms a teardrop-shaped flare, usually called a meridional coma flare. A sagittal coma flare occurs concentrically, often for flying birds, forming a diamond-shaped flare. Coma can be reduced by stopping down the lens.
With the combination of any camera body and lens listed above, you’ll be able to take great pictures of the Milky Way. You might have noise problems when shooting long exposures at ISOs over 1600, but you can minimize them by using the Long Exposure Noise Reduction mode of your camera.
One word on durability… You need to be very careful when working under extreme rain, high humidity, low temperatures or with sand or dust in the air. The sealing of the camera body is not as good as the one of professional cameras. You need to protect it as much as possible.
Lightning equipment ($200 - $1,000)
A good LED headlamp is recommended when you get seriously into night photography. Its light is very powerful, allowing you to see in the dark and to focus at the hyperfocal distance.
If you are shooting in a day with a thin moon or new moon, it’ll be necessary to artificially illuminate the foreground (the ground, a tree, a rock, etc.). To do so, you would ideally complement the headlamp with a LED flashlight, LED panels or Flashes.
The LED flashlight can be used to add volume and texture to certain elements that you want to appear in the photo. Its advantage that it allows you to work with more accuracy. Similar to a brush, you can paint with light the exact areas that interest you. Unfortunately, it covers a little area.
To cover a larger area you can use either LED panels or a flash. LED panels have the advantage of continuous light, so it will be easier to control light. The good thing is that you can find them at a very reasonable price.
The advantage of flashes is their power. They allow you, for example, to take a portrait of a model while capturing the Milky Way with a single exposure.
A gel is a colored plastic sheet that you can place in front of the light source to color its light. Ideally, you should always have in your bag at least a couple of color correction gels. In most sessions, a CTO gel (Color Temperature Orange) and a CTB gel (Color Temperature Blue) will do the job, they are not expensive and last for a long time.
A CTB gel converts tungsten light of 3200K to 'daylight' color (5500K), so it can be used to cool your scene. While a CTO gel performs the reverse, it converts daylight color (5500K) to tungsten (3200K), allowing you to warm the scene.
Gels are available in different intensities. You can find them with an intensity or strength of ¼, ½, ¾, etc. The lower the intensity the less the color temperature is corrected.
In addition to color correction gels, there are the so called color gels. These are used to allow color lighting accents and unnatural effects. There is an huge number of colors available from several manufacturers: red, yellow, green, dark blue, etc.
Tripod and head ($250-$350)
As I already mentioned in the beginner's section: weight is key. The more the tripod weighs, the better the stability is. Obviously, you're looking for a tripod with a weight that you can comfortably carry without damaging your back.
The most popular tripod brands for advanced amateur photographers are Manfrotto, Benro and Induro, being the tripod Manfrotto 055XPROB probably the best seller tripod in this buget range.
Here, you should look for a tripod that can bear the camera body and the lens, but that also has a good stability against wind for a reasonably price. An aluminium tripod that can bear 11/16 lb (5/7 kg) of weight would be ideal. Again, remember not to raise the center column of the tripod, it’ll make it more unstable.
Besides the tripod, you need to acquire a head suitable for night photography. There are many different heads in the market. The most commonly used in this type of photography are the ball head and the pan/tilt head. The type of head depends on the photographer taste, but make sure that it can bear at least 11/16 lb (5/7 kg) of weight and that includes a removable plate.
Advanced photographers should have an intervalometer. The remote shutter release can do the job in many cases, but if you want to shoot a timelapse, star trails based on photo stacking or simply shoot continuously during a meteor shower, having an intervalometer is compulsory. Furthermore, even when you only want to photograph the Milky Way, continuous shooting will increase the likelihood of capturing a shooting star, which will definitely add interest to the image.
Each brand has its own intervalometers for each family of cameras, like the Canon TC-80N3 Timer Remote Controller or the Nikon MC-36 Multi-Function Remote Cord. Phottix is also a great brand for this type of product, highlighting the TR90.
But If you want a very affordable intervalometer, have a look at the models of Yongnuo. However, keep in mind that these are probably not as robust and durable as the first ones.
Prices can go from $15 to $170.
Memory card ($30-$270)
It might seem this is not that important, but it’s vital when shooting timelapses at night or low light conditions, as you want to take the maximum number of photos possible.
The capacity of the cards can be 32GB, 64GB or more. If you plan to shoot timelapses, I recommend you to get a 64GB card or higher, to make sure you have enough space to store all the photos.
Apart from the SD memory cards, there are cameras (usually Full Frame) that can also work with CompactFlash (CF) cards, usually Type I, which are thinner than Type II ones. These cards are physically larger, more robust and with greater transfer speeds than SD cards, although, it’s worth saying, that you can buy really fast SD cards nowadays. Its main drawback is the price as they are much more expensive than SD cards. I recommend these cards for advanced amateur or semi-professional photographers.
The total budget for an acceptable equipment should be $1,500$-$3,500.
There is almost no limit to how much you can spend on equipment (above $5,000)... But I assure you that with the following equipment your photography won’t have limit either.
When you seek the highest quality standard in your photography a mid/high range Full Frame camera is essential. It should have a sensor with great noise performance in low light conditions and that it doesn’t overheat. Furthermore, it’s also very important that the body is perfectly sealed to withstand bad weather conditions, sand, dust, humidity and water.
The Nikon D810, Nikon D800, Nikon D4S, Nikon DF, Canon 6D (which outperforms the Canon 5D Mark III on noise, high ISO, etc), Canon EOS-1D X and Sony A7s are great cameras for professional night photographers. Also, I'd like to highlight the Fuji XT-1 that despite not being a Full Frame is a fantastic camera.
All have a wonderful noise performance when using high ISOs. Furthermore, they include external buttons for every important setting (ISO, WB, etc ) allowing you to easily change them.
The budget lays between $3200 and $7000, depending on the camera model. Of course, it’s necessary to use these bodies with a great lens if you want to make the most of it.
Wide angle lense
You should look for a sharp, fast, wide angle lense with no coma distortion at the edge nor other chromatic aberrations.
One of the best lenses due to its quality and proven results is the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8. It’s not only used by Nikon photographers, but also by photographers using other camera brands like Canon. In this case, you need to use a top quality adapter ring like the Novoflex EOS NIK NT. It’s an incredibly sharp lense with very little coma and vignetting. Its price is usually around $2,000. If you’d like to find more about it, you can have a look at a great review on David Kingham’s website.
If the price is not an issue for you, another lens you might consider is the Zeiss 15mm f/2.8 (around $3,000). This lens is also very sharp and it has not coma. But aside its outstanding optical and mechanical quality it has a serious problem: over contrasting glass. Not a big problem at day, but in the night.
Zeiss glass is not good at night, a Nikon 14-24mm set to 15 mm vs the 15 mm Zeiss still shows details in the blacks where they are completely saturated/pitch black with the Zeiss.
Dark Forest in Front of the Milky Way? You can bring back the trees with the Nikon but not with the Zeiss.
If you’re looking for a great lens in a lower price scale, try the Tokina 16-28mm f/2.8. It’s very sharp and you will spend around $700. Similarly, the Rokinon/Samyang 14mm f/2.8 gives exceptional results for about $350. Both lenses have little coma.
On the Canon side, you have the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II, with a price of $1,700, but suffers from coma and strong vignetting when shooting at f/2.8. You can read a review of this lens on David Kingham’s website.
A powerful LED headlamp is essential, such as the Led Lenser H14R or H7R. Both are light, small, have a great autonomy and allow you to see and focus in the dark. In addition to the headlamp, it’s advisable to have at least two flashlights from strong brands such as Coast, Led lenser, Maglite or Surefire.
Headlamps with included RED Night Vision Light are the best choice to avoid white flash lights at night. Proven good headlamps with built in red light option are the PETZL TIKKA XP, PELICAN 2750 and PELICAN 2760.
On the one hand, you need a powerful flashlight to illuminate subjects over long distances, such as Coast HP-7 or Led Lenser M7. On the other hand, you need a second less powerful flashlight, such as the Coast TX-10 or the Led Lenser L7 , to illuminate foreground subjects. The Coast TX-10 can provide light in different colors: white, red, blue and green.
In addition to this, you should have at least 2 LED panels. These panels are crucial since they provide continuous light and cover a large area, allowing you to easily illuminate the entire foreground, even in panoramas. Sometimes, you’ll need or want to combine LED with flashlights.
Finally, it’s necessary to own a few flashes. Flashes will provide a light source to shoot portraits, lighting inside buildings, etc. If your intention is to make a portrait, it’s ideal to also use stands/tripods for flashes and softboxes/octoboxes.
Don’t forget to add a few color correction gels to your bag. CTO and CTB gels of different intensities are essential. Colored gels are also necessary if you want to create effects, such as adding red or yellow light inside a building.
Tripod & head ($1,300-$2,000)
A carbon fiber tripod is ideal for both, supporting the weight of the gear and to be carried everywhere you go. These tripods are robust and allow loads from 11 lbs to over 56 lbs (5-25 kg) depending on the model. Obviously, you must choose a tripod that can support the weight of the tripod head, the camera and the heaviest lens you have. But always leave a marge de manoeuvre just in case you decide to buy heavier gear in the future.
Be very careful when working with your carbon fiber tripod during thunderstorms. These tripods can conduct electricity, so they can work as a small lightning rod. Under these weather conditions it's preferably not to use them and to keep them folded in the bag.
In my opinion, the tripod's best friend is a good ball head. The Kirk Enterprise BH-1 is the one I use. Supporting up to 50 lb (23 kg), it bears the weight of my gear with no problem. It allows me to work comfortably and with great precision.
For a good head, be ready to pay more than $300.
Surely, the wired intervalometer that I’ve mentioned in the mid-range budget section is a great tool for night photographers, but I love a wireless one. Why is this such a big deal, you ask? Well, because it allows me to comfortably start and stop the camera while I’m lighting the scene or when the camera is in a difficult-to-access place (on a tree).
I use the Phottix AION, which has the additional advantage of being connected by wire to any type of camera just by changing the connector jack.
Get the best quality cards possible (like SanDisk or Lexar Media) to minimize the risk of losing your photos and to get the maximum transfer speed. Minimizing the delay between photos is very important when shooting consecutive pictures at high speed. Furthermore, it’s advisable to use high capacity cards to avoid running out of memory space right in the middle of a timelapse session or a meteor shower.
You can use the following timelapse calculator to work out the total memory space you need, so you make sure you bring enough memory cards.
Almost all professional cameras are compatible with CompactFlash cards (CF), although they also support SD cards lately. CompactFlash cards are more robust than SD cards, which is an extra guarantee, and also have a higher transfer speed.
If you’re lucky to have a Nikon D4 or D4S camera, you’ll be able to use the XQD cards that provide a fantastic transfer speed perfect for continuous shooting.
I use SanDisk and Lexar cards.
Battery charging is one of the rituals every photographer must go through before a shoot. You need to charge all the batteries of your different cameras and a few more just in case. Depending on the type of photography, this is at least two or three batteries in total.
However, be aware that cold temperatures shorten battery power performance. Therefore, if you plan to run a long session in the cold, it’s advisable to use a grip with extra batteries. You will minimize the chances of running out of battery power in the middle of a cold winter night.
I use a Nikon D700 with a MB-D10 grip, which allows me to shoot long timelapse sessions and meteor showers without any battery problem.
If you don’t have a grip, but you still want to spend several hours shooting a timelapse, you’ll have to replace the battery as quickly as possible. Make sure that you don’t move the camera in the process, it’d be a pity to arrive at home and find out that the whole timelapse has been ruined. At this point, a sturdy tripod and a good head ball come into play more than ever… They will allow you to change the battery without moving the camera.
Before leaving home, don't forget to check that the batteries of flashlights, LED panels, flashes and headlamp are also fully charged.
Finally, it’s a good idea to take an external battery charger for your smartphone or tablet.
Dollies and sliders (timelapsers)
You will need these accessories to make a timelapse only.
Dollies and sliders are wonderful tools that provide motion in a timelapse, either by physically moving the camera along a rail, rotating it around one or more axis or a combination of all movements. As a result, the footage is more dynamic compared with a static timelapse.
Depending on your budget, you can purchase sliders that allow different camera movements:
- 1 Axis: The camera slides along a rail from one end to the other.
- 2 Axis: In addition to slide movement, pan or tilt camera movements are allowed, just one of them, not both.
- 3 Axis: The system allows for pro level pan, tilt and slide camera movements.
Ibiza Lights III by Jose A. Hervás is a great example of how sliders can be used to create stunning timelapses. Besides, it includes many scenes planned with PhotoPills.
Equipment against moisture
One of the most annoying aspects of night photography is dealing with dew. Moisture in the air can condense on the cold front surface of your lens, and ruin the photos.
These are some of the existing solutions to fight against dew:
Hoods: this is the first element you should use as a protection against dew. The hood is not only great for day use to avoid unwanted reflections of light, it is also very important in night photography. By using a hood, moisture will take longer to condense on the surface of your lens and the lens will be better protected in case it accidentally falls on the ground.
Fan: a simple PC fan can help you keep the lens dry and without moisture condensation thanks to the steady stream of air generated. It’s an ideal solution for nights that are not too wet. Of course, you'll need a power supply that has enough capacity to keep the fan working for the whole night session and a support system to guide the fan towards the lens. The good news is that these fans have a very low power consumption.
I particularly use a small portable rechargeable Li-ion battery 12V 3800mAh with a 5.5mm barrel jack and USB connectors. Here, I had to adapt a 5.5mm barrel jack connector to the wire of the fan. Finally, I put the fan onto a flexible loc-line hose adhered to a clamp so it can be attached to the tripod.
Dew Heaters: the idea behind this tool is to heat the lens to a temperature above the dew point, avoiding moisture condensation. You should look for a heater that is light to avoid carrying more weight than necessary, as, quite often, reaching points with little light pollution involves long walks.
The existing commercial solutions are composed by a heater, a battery and a controller. The controller is responsible for adjusting power in order to keep the temperature of the heater above the dew point. On the one hand, the controller gives you the advantage of managing more efficiently the battery power. But, on the other hand, it’s another gadget you have to charge and carry. Sometimes it just doesn’t pay off to carry so many things.
I opt for a cheaper and lighter solution. I use a heater without a controller connected directly to a portable battery. Yes, I don’t have the option to adjust power, but I've tested that this system can provide power for nearly 5 hours. If you need the battery to last longer or you forecast a cold night, just bring an extra battery with you.
Summing up, all you need is a heater strip, a battery and a cable to connect the heater to the battery.
- Heater strip: Perhaps, the two most popular heater strip brands are Dew-Not and Kendrick. I use a Dew-Not 3" DN004, which perfectly fits my Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8. This model has a length of 13" (33cm), enough for the diameter of the lens. Make sure you buy a strip that can go around the entire circumference of the lens.
- Battery: As for the power supply for the heater strip, I use a 12V 3800mAh battery. The same battery I use to power the PC fan described in the previous section serves well. Bringing a spare battery is always a good idea.
- Cable connector: Most heater strips have a male RCA connector, while portable batteries have a 5.5mm barrel jack connector. Therefore, you need to purchase a RCA/Jack 5.5mm adapter. I built mine from a RCA cable and a 5.5mm barrel jack.
Another great type of heaters is the multi-bodywarmer by TheHeatCompany. These heaters are used by Film Teams all over the world, and you never run into battery problems with these. Just tape one on the underside of your lens. That’s it.
The total budget for a great professional equipment should be above $5000.
Finally, make sure you also bring with you a comfortable chair, drinks, snacks, your preferred music (Pink Floyd in my case) and a portable battery charger to keep all electronic equipment charged, including the speakers!
Starting a night shoot with “Shine On Crazy Diamond” is priceless.
Comparing basic, advanced and professional equipment performance
Above, I’ve explained the different types of equipment (basic, advanced and pro) you can find in the market. Now, I’d like to show you how these equipments perform when you try to shoot the Milky Way.
For the test, I used these cameras:
- Sony RX-100 III (compact camera with 1" sensor)
- Nikon D3000 (crop basic) + 18-55mm f3.5-5.6
- Nikon D7000 (crop advanced) + Tokina 11-16mm f2.8
- Nikon D600 (full frame advanced) + Samyang 14mm f2.8
- Nikon D700 (full frame pro) + Nikkor 14-24 f2.8
With the purpose of comparing the quality of these different combinations of cameras and lenses, I shot the following images from the same spot and framing (approximate) getting the results I comment under each picture.
All photographs were shot at a temperature of 3800K or tungsten white balance (WB) in those cases in which the camera didn’t allow to set WB manually. The post-process is exactly the same in all images. To do so, I created a preset in Lightroom which I applied to the images.
To sum up, the best option for photographing the Milky Way regardless of budget is the combination of a Full-Frame camera and a wide angle lens, like the 14mm, as much luminous as you can get it, for example a f/2.8.
8Making the photo, step by step
You got an idea, planned it, maybe a few months ago, and finally you find yourself in a beautiful outdoor location with dark skies ready to make a photograph.
You might prefer enjoying the scene alone, but why not sharing the adventure with a few colleagues for a change? I believe in associationism as a way of helping others and sharing knowledge, enriching each one's photography.
My students make the shooting both more interesting and challenging. In this case, arriving at the location with enough time in advance is key!
Let’s see how to set up everything for the shoot, step by step.
Tripod, camera and lens (focal length and aperture):
Place your tripod on a solid surface right on the shooting spot you thoughtfully planned. You can use PhotoPills’ Night Augmented Reality view to double-check you’re on the right spot and that you’ll have the Milky Way where you want.
Then, make sure the tripod is stable and attach the fastest and widest lens you have to your camera. Basically what you want here is a wide-angle lens to maximize your exposure time, and with a wide aperture to capture as much light as possible.
To photograph the Milky Way and the natural bridge, I used my Nikon D700 camera (Full Frame) and a Nikon AF-S 14-24mm f2.8 G lens on my tripod legs Benro A4580T with a Kirk Enterprise BH-1 head.
Disable Lens Stabilization
Some lenses include a function to stabilize vibrations. Canon calls it Image Stabilization (IS); Nikon, Vibration Reduction (VR); Sigma, Optical Stabilizer (OS). On the other hand, Sony, Olympus and Pentax have been pushing for in-camera stabilization.
This function allows you to shoot handheld in low light conditions at shutter speeds slower than usual without getting a blurred image. This is possible because the lens compensates the vibrations you produce.
When using a tripod, you should deactivate this function. Even without camera vibrations or movement, the image stabilization system (small gyroscopes) might try to correct nonexistent movements, causing vibrations that will surely affect the sharpness of the image negatively, especially when shooting at shutter speeds between 1/15s and 1s.
Therefore, as a measure of precaution, I recommend you to switch the image stabilization off when using a tripod.
Remove the UV filter
If you usually use an ultraviolet (UV) filter to protect your lens, it is essential you remove it when shooting at night. I am not in favor of adding an extra glass on the lens if it’s not intended to better control the light, and in this type of photography it can even ruin your photos. This filter provokes problems of light reflection and refraction, which causes halos, flares and unwanted reflections in highlights during a night session.
Set RAW recording mode
RAW image files contain all the image data recorded by the sensor allowing you to produce higher quality images, and correct in post production problems that would be unrecoverable if you shot in JPEG format. This is because when shooting in a format like JPEG, image information is compressed and lost.
One important thing you should know is that the image you see on the LCD is a JPEG copy of the RAW file. Therefore, the histogram displayed by the camera is not exactly the histogram of the RAW file.
Set the manual mode (exposure)
If you use your camera’s auto mode you’ll not be able to capture the Milky Way. The manual mode gives you total control over the exposure by setting aperture, shutter speed, ISO and white balance adjustments at your will. You’ll need to use it to collect as much light as possible to capture stars as big bright spots while getting a photo correctly exposed.
Long Exposure Noise Reduction: On or Off?
Noise is the big enemy of night photography. Whatever camera you use, you’ll suffer from noise problems in the shadows, especially when using high ISOs or in warm temperatures. Try to buy the camera with better noise performance that fits in your budget.
These are the different type of noise that can appear in long exposure images:
- Luminance noise:It occurs when there is not enough light reaching the sensor. It’s a fixed pattern noise and it’s easier to observe in the darker regions.
- Chromatic noise:This type of noise alters the color of pixels but not its luminance (hence its name). The temperature of the sensor is the one to blame. This kind of noise spreads on the whole image and not only in the shadows, contrary to what happens with luminance noise.
- Thermal noise: It appears in very long exposures due to the heat in the sensor. It can provoke banding and vignetting in a magenta, green, or even blue color in the corners of the frame. The only way to overcome this noise is by framing a larger area, adding to the image the region affected by banding, which we’ll crop in post process. It can also be reduce cooling the sensor (giving the camera a rest for a few minutes) or by limiting the exposure time.
- Hot-pixels: These are red, blue and green spots that appear on the image due to sensor overheating. The advantage here is that these spots always show up in the same position in the image, making it easier to locate and remove using the proper editing software.
Almost all cameras include an option that enables noise reduction in long exposures. This system is based on the concept that two consecutive exposures with the same parameters (shutter speed, ISO and sensor temperature) will present almost the same noise. If enabled, after performing a long exposure photo, the camera will automatically take a second photo with the same parameters but without letting any light to reach the sensor. This way, the camera will only record noise. Finally, the camera will detect the noise of this second picture and will remove it from the first one.
One of the main drawbacks of noise reduction is that it will take twice the exposure time to take a single photo. That is, if you are shooting a 30 seconds exposure, the camera will take another 30 seconds to eliminate the noise. Therefore, when you wish to take as many pictures as possible, for example when shooting a timelapse, a meteor shower or star trails, it is advisable to disable it.
I personally never use it. I prefer having the quick preview to check if the Milky Way is bright enough, the lighting of the foreground is correct or the image is in focus to be able to correct accordingly. I don’t like waiting for another 30 seconds, I prefer to shoot again. I remove hot-pixels and noise in post processing.
An alternative is to activate it when it's time to take the final picture, the good one. That is, you should work without this option when taking the test photos and activate it when you get a photo correctly exposed. I also recommend you to use it if you have a camera with poor noise performance. It’s a way of making the most of your equipment before post processing the image.
Set the shortest focal length you can (14mm, 18mm, 24mm, try to keep it under 35 mm) for two reasons: (i) to maximize the field of view and capture as much sky as you can and (ii) to maximize the exposure time to collect as much light as possible and, eventually capture stars as big bright spots. I’ll explain it better when going deeper into the exposure time, further in this article.
Go as wide as you can to capture the most light. Set the lens to its widest aperture (the smallest f/number) for example f/1.4, f/2.8 or f/3.5 depending on your lens.
Now, before attaching your camera to the tripod, let’s see how to focus for the best sharpness possible. Let’s maximise the depth of field.
Focus at the hyperfocal distance
When photographing the Milky Way, you want everything sharp from the front to the back of the scene. Since focusing your camera at the hyperfocal distance ensures maximum sharpness from half this distance all the way to infinity, forget about other manual methods like “setting focus to infinity with Live View”. You only need to calculate the hyperfocal distance for the focal length and aperture you want to use. There is only one problem… doing the math!
If you love photography but hate math, you’re on my side. Select your camera, focal length and aperture on the following depth of field (DoF) calculator to automatically get the hyperfocal distance.
Once you've calculated the hyperfocal distance, you just need to focus at it. Since it's impossible to focus exactly at the hyperfocal distance, make sure you're focusing at a slightly larger distance. This way, you'll make sure to have the stars in focus in the photo. You can learn everything you need about the hyperfocal distance in section 4 of our detailed DoF guide.
In the following video we show you how to focus at the hyperfocal distance step by step:
Going back to my Milky Way image, I shot it with my Nikon D700 using a focal length of 14mm and an aperture of f/2.8, then, according to this calculator my hyperfocal distance was 2.32m.
Next thing to do is to use a flashlight to illuminate a spot at the hyperfocal distance of 2.32m, use the autofocus system on your camera to acquire proper focus and then set manual focusing so it won’t move. Put the camera on a tripod, and be careful not to touch the focus setting.
If your lens includes the distance scale, you can mark the focus distance on it. Calculate the hyperfocal distance, set the maximum aperture, focus at the hyperfocal distance and make a mark on the lens. This way, you won’t have to focus before shooting, it’ll be enough to match the mark.
Again, focusing exactly at the hyperfocal distance is very difficult. Therefore, make sure you’re focusing at a distance that is a bit larger than the hyperfocal. Otherwise, if you focus at a shorter distance, the depth of field far limit will not be at infinite, which will blur the stars.
By focusing at a larger distance, the depth of field near limit will be a bit further from the camera, but the stars will be perfectly in focus.
If you’re going to shoot a timelapse, don’t forget to double check that the camera is in focus before you trigger it. It occurred to me once that I accidentally touched the lens and I spend 3 hours in the cold to finally get a completely blurry timelapse… not funny at all!
That’s it! This is how you’ll make the most of your depth of field, getting a more detailed final print.
Mmmmm... wait a minute... if I have a foreground subject, such as a rock, which is close to my camera, just before the near hyperfocal limit (half the hyperfocal distance). What if I want it to also be in focus?
Roughly speaking… when you focus at the hyperfocal distance, the depth of field near limit lays at the half of the hyperfocal distance. This means that everything that is between your camera and half the hyperfocal distance will be blurred. For example, if the hyperfocal distance is 2.32m, it means that everything between my camera and 1.16m, as happens with the rock, will be blurred in the image. Also, everything from 1.16m to infinity will be in focus, in this case, the landscape and the stars.
The solution to this problem is to shoot a double exposure and apply the focus stacking technique in post processing. In the first image, focus at the hyperfocal distance to get everything that is between half the hyperfocal distance and infinity in focus. In the second image, focus at the foreground subject, in this case, the rock, to shoot a second exposure. Then, In post processing, merge these two images using layer masks, selecting the areas in focus of each photo. Dave Morrow shows us how to do it in his Focus Stacking Video Tutorial for Landscape Photography.
Exposure time, prevent star trailing with the 500 rule
The longer you keep the shutter open the better, with only one limitation: star trails.
You need to collect as much light as possible to capture stars as big bright spots, but you don’t want to get motion blurring due to the Earth’s rotation. In other words, you don’t want to see the arcs traced by the stars.
The simplest way to estimate the maximum exposure time is to use what’s called the 500 rule. Some photographers use the called 600 rule, but I prefer being more conservative with the exposure time.
Basically, to determine the optimal length of exposure, you take 500 (or 600) and divide it by the effective focal length of the lens (Exposure time = 500/[crop-factor × focal length]). Thus, the shorter the focal length the longer the shutter speed, and the better images you’ll get.
On the other hand, photographing the Milky Way using longer focal lengths (like 50mm or 85mm) is more challenging. Its narrow field of view will force you to use shorter exposure times to avoid star trails, due to the rotation of the Earth. If you want to avoid them, you will have to use extremely high ISOs, suffering from noise. The workaround is to use an equatorial mount, which allows you to compensate the rotation of the Earth. In this case, if you wish to include the landscape, you’ll need to shoot a double exposure, one for the sky and another for the foreground.
But an equatorial mount or star tracker has many more advantages, this is how star photography expert Christoph Malin describes their positive effect on Milky Way photography:
“Tracking a Milky Way shot, using a tracker like the Vixen Polarie, has a lot of advantages, we all have seen nightscape photos of the Milky Way or constellations in the sky, which are full of stars, but many of these images lack one point, which is the dynamic range, natural colors, and natural contrast.
When we are not using the method of longer exposure (provided by a star tracker) and boost to higher ISOs and widest open aperture then the image quality becomes poor and in processing you might end up with a lot of white saturated stars, caused by the high ISO.
That's why many of these high contrast night sky images over a landscape have captured a lot of white stars at almost equal brightness, and this is unfortunately not the natural look of the sky. Stars appear at various brightnesses (magnitude) and in various colors.
To a degree the D700 was able to show this, and the D3s as well due to its large sensor diodes. Unfortunately I can’t use a tracker often for timelapse, but if I can I do. Milky Way images are so much better with a tracker and an exposure of 1 Minute or even a bit more.”
Now, let's go back to the example. If I’m shooting with my Nikon D700 camera (Full Frame) using a focal length of 14mm, I take 500 and divide it by 14, which is 35s – that’s the longest exposure time I could use before the stars start becoming trails. Again, as I’m a bit conservative, I decided to use an exposure time of 30s.
Let’s go one step further. If you like astronomy and star trails photography, you’ll know that, for the same exposure time, the arcs traced by stars near the celestial equator are longer than those traced by stars near the Polaris. So, depending on the area of the sky you’re shooting at (near or far the celestial equator) you’ll be able to use a shorter or longer exposure time to prevent trails.
In conclusion, you need to take into account the minimum declination of the stars that will be captured in the photo… Are you still there? Don’t panic, I leave you here PhotoPills’ Spot Stars calculator that includes the basic method (500 rule) and the advanced one, and takes into account declination.
- The best way to calculate the declination of the stars you need to use in the calculator is by using PhotoPills’ Night Augmented Reality.
- Knowing that the stars at the celestial equator have a declination of 0° and that the parallel lines to the celestial equator you see in the Augmented Reality view are separated by a declination step of 10°, to estimate the declination just count the number of parallel lines to the stars you’ll capture and that are the closest to the celestial equator.
Since the exposure time is limited to avoid star trails, in order to avoid an underexposed image you have no choice but to raise the ISO. The higher the ISO the brighter the Milky Way. Increasing the ISO amplifies the signal in the photosites (pixels) of the sensor. In other words, you’re increasing the sensitivity of the sensor. The amount of light collected will be the same but it’ll be amplified increasing exposure. So push your camera to the limit.
The ISO you’ll use strongly depends on the noise performance of your camera. Start with the higher ISO available in your camera (6400, 3200, 1600, 1250, 800) and adjust accordingly. Always avoid using ISOs that are amplifications by software instead of hardware, such as H1 and H2 levels.
There are lots of techniques to reduce noise in post processing, so don’t be afraid to use a high ISO. But, at the same time, keep in mind that reducing noise in post processing will soften your image and reduce sharpness. You will need to find the balance that gives you both a clean image and a sharp image. That's why you need to get it right on camera in the first place.
Use manual white balance: 3400-3900K
Regarding the white balance, the goal is to set the right color temperature to capture a realistic Milky Way, showing the beauty of nature as pure as possible.
What's the color temperature of the Milky Way? Many photographers mantain that it's around 4840°K (pale yellow). But that will depend on many factors, so be prepared to adjust WB util you get a more natural Milky Way.
Light pollution or moonlight will influence your white balance selection. But don’t worry too much about it, because you’re shooting in RAW, so you can adjust white balance later.
One tip I learned from Christoph Malin, and that will help you get the right color of the Milky Way, is to pay attention on notable stars. Make sure the colors you capture match their individual temperature range. For example, if you capture red giant superstar such as Antares or Mars in blue, you need to adjust your white balance until you get them in red.
Going back to my Milky Way picture and the natural bridge, as I had heavy light pollution in the scene, coming from behind the natural bridge, I decided to use 3400K to get white stars and light pollution with a reddish hue.
I usually set the white balance to 3400K-3900K and adjust from here.
When you are shooting a timelapse is not recommended to use the auto white balance, it’s better to manually set the white balance at 3900K or use the Tungsten preset mode (about 3200K). When shooting in auto white balance, the camera might change the color temperature from one photo to another, modifying the tone of the image. This will produce a very annoying flicker in your clip.
To avoid it, shoot in manual mode, so you ensure that color temperature will remain constant throughout the sequence.
Framing at night
The most difficult part is already done: finding the right shooting spot. You know the image you want, from where to shoot and the position of the Milky Way you’ll have. Once the camera is attached to the tripod, just take a couple of photos to see if you’re getting the framing you want and adjust accordingly.
Light painting the landscape
If you want to give your Milky Way images a sense of place, add depth and shadows, you need to illuminate the foreground. To have a more natural looking images, make sure the added light is subtle and has a low intensity. This is absolutely necessary on new moon or thin moon days. On the contrary, as the phase of the moon is reaching the full moon, the moonlight might be enough to light the landscape.
Pictures made with side lighting usually have harsh shadows and are contrasty. To lighten the shadows and reduce the contrast, you may want to use a fill-in-flash, flashlights or LEDs, whichever is more convenient.
How did we paint the natural bridge?
- Equipment: one LED panel with a CTO gel filter.
- Lighting spot: Germán (aka the Developer) took the LED and walked away from my camera to apply sidelight to the bridge in a way that added visible shadows and depth to the image.
- LED in movement: if you stop moving the LED you’ll overexpose one portion of the landscape. I personally keep the LED moving across the scene. Move it slower when applying light to the further subjects and then speed up when painting the closer ones. Always keep in mind the inverse-square law of light.
- Painting time: after a bit of trial and error, we found out that the painting time to get the right exposure was 10 seconds. Trial and error takes time and consumes battery. So, every time you run a test, make sure you count the seconds to be able to adjust time accordingly.
Check the histogram and adjust exposure
One last thing before you start taking photos like there’s no tomorrow: check the camera’s histogram.
The histogram allows you to check the exposure of the image on the camera's LCD screen, and to adjust it at our will.
You know that the left side of the histogram represents the maximum dark values that your camera can record and the right side the maximum white values. On the left end of the histogram light is black, being white on the right end. In both cases, light values contain no detail.
To help you understand it better, have a look at the following exposure vs histogram examples:
- Underexposed: The histogram shows the peak touching the left side of the graph. It is all the way to the left of the histogram window. You capture only dark tones. Correct it by widening the aperture, increasing exposure time or using a higher ISO.
- Exposed to the left: The histogram shows the peak near the left side of the histogram window, slightly touching the left edge. Results can be acceptable, but you’ll suffer from noise problems when post processing. Again, try to lower the f/number, use a longer exposure time or increase ISO.
- Neutral exposure: The histogram shows peaks toward the center of the graph from left to right. Both edges of the histogram just touch the edges of the histogram window. It shows that the majority of the pixels in the image are mid-tones, and that fewer pixels makeup the shadows and highlights. It’s a great histogram, no need to adjust settings.
- Exposed to the right: The histogram shows the peak near the right side of the histogram window, slightly touching the right edge. Working with this histogram means that we increase the exposure of an image in order to collect the maximum amount of light and thus get the optimum performance out of the digital image sensor. It’ll help us to lower noise, but take care not to overexpose. Do not use a too high ISO to get this histogram because you’ll end up generating noise, and thus, getting a worse image.
- Overexposed: The histogram shows the peak touching the right side of the graph. It’s all the way to the right of the histogram window. You capture only light tones. You might be forced to lower the ISO to get a properly exposed image.
Most of the time, you’ll want a histogram that gives you a neutral exposure, with both edges of the histogram just touching the edges of the histogram window. But this obviously depends entirely on the colors of your scene.
This is the histogram I got from my Milky Way image:
In night photography, you usually get an histogram with more mid to dark tones, and less light tones... Do not expect a Gauss bell shaped curve!
9Five great tutorials to help you learn how to post process the Milky Way Raw
Why do you think Henri-Cartier Bresson never processed and developed his own film by himself? He just had someone else to do the job. The reason is simple: this allowed him to spend more time doing what he really loved: shooting.
Nowadays, it seems that we are all a bit too much concerned about post processing when we should focus on getting the image right in the camera. If you shoot a bad photo, no amount of “photoshopping” can make it any better.
In my opinion, the best post process is the one you don’t need to do. So, get your image correctly exposed and you won’t have to invest much time post processing in Photoshop, Camera RAW or Lightroom. Besides, pushing exposure too much in post processing increases noise and reduces the quality of your photograph. Try to properly expose your photographs in the camera in the first place.
Having said that, I must admit that post processing will always be part of our workflow. Even the purists will have to use post processing to remove photographic imperfections like dust, scratches, etc. Of course, some of you will surely argue that the creative process doesn’t stop when pressing the shutter, that's just the beginning. Well, this is the beauty of rules, everyone can break them.
Like everything in life, learning from the best is key, so let me suggest you to watch these five free video tutorials created by four Milky Way Masters. With them you’ll be able to learn how to make the most of your Milky Way Raw:
- How to edit the Milky Way – Photoshop tutorial by Kenneth Brandon
- How to edit the Milky Way with Photoshop - Michael Woloszynowicz
- How to Photograph the Milky Way in Really Heavy Light Pollution Using ETTR (Expose to the Right) by Ian Norman
- How to Process the Milky Way – Adobe Lightroom CC tutorial by Michael Shainblum
- How to Post Process Milky Was Astrophotography In Adobe Ligthroom by Ian Norman
If you're looking for something more advanced, I recommend you these paid awesome resources:
- Dave Morrow and Michael Shainblum's video tutorial: Star Photography Post Processing Master Class.
- Adam Woodworth's video tutorial: Landscape Astrophotography Editing Workflow Video Tutorial.
- David Kingham's e-book: A Complete Guide to Photographing Under the Night Sky.
Remember, when editing, make sure the colors of notable stars you capture (Antares, Mars, etc) match their individual temperature range.
As I’ve already said, I don’t use the camera noise reduction mode. I prefer to preview the image immediately rather than waiting for another 30 seconds.
To remove hot-pixels you can use the clone tool in Photoshop/Lightroom, but I personally prefer to use the following workflow in Photoshop:
- Use the lasso tool to select the hot-pixels.
- Go to Edit > Fill...
- Select “Content-Aware” in the field “Use”.
- Press OK
There are different techniques to reduce the noise level. Typical photo editing software such as Camera Raw (Detail panel) and Lightroom include tools to remove chromatic and luminance noise. But be aware that the use of noise reduction in excess will soften the image and reduce sharpness. In night photography, It can even remove stars from the image.
In addition to photo editing software, there are other noise reduction specialised software which give even better results. Photo Ninja (the noise reduction tool is called Noise Ninja), Nik’s Dfine and Noiseware are the best known software to deal with noise.
I use Nik’s Dfine, but not too much, as I prefer to have a bit of noise and more stars rather than losing sharpness and stars. Then I apply a layer mask to restore areas where the software has unnecessarily removed noise.
Another method you could use is stacking and averaging images in Photoshop. It’s a great way of controlling noise with high ISO images. Here you have a great video tutorial by Ian Norman.
10Inspiring Milky Way images
Let’s go back now to the purpose of this article. What I suggest you to do is to open your mind, get inspired and brainstorm for a truly remarkable Milky Way image.
Sure, you’ll find inspiration in Mark Gee’s winning image - Guiding Light to The Stars. In the same way, I expect the following photography ideas to help you boost your creative output after dark.
11Don’t give up!
Sometimes I feel like a Goonie. I share the same spirit, the need for exploring the unknown, looking for a true adventure. I feel the necessity of living the challenge of chasing a dreamed scene.
Nobody says it’s easy! You'll have to survive to bad weather, accidental falls and equipment failures among many other obstacles that will surely ruin your images. But, if you don't give up and pursuit your goals with all your energy, sooner or later, you'll start shooting truly contagious Milky Way picutures.
So, remember… PhotoPillers never give up… And I am definitely one of them.
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