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  • Writer's pictureGary Holpin

A beginner's guide to Milky Way photography!

Although night sky photography can get highly technical very quickly, there is no reason that you can't make a pretty good attempt with any half decent camera, and a bit of knowledge! So here is a step by step guide to getting started.....

When is the Milky Way visible?

The first thing to understand is that the best time to capture the Milky Way (in the northern hemisphere) is between March and September each year, as this is when the core of the Milky Way (the galactic centre which has the biggest concentration of stars) is visible above the horizon. Between October and February, the galactic centre is always below the horizon, so all you will see is the band of stars that make up the arms of our galaxy, but not the more impressive core.

What's the best time to capture it?

So, now we know that it's best to capture the Milky Way between March and September what else do we need to know before we head out with our cameras?

Find somewhere dark!

With so much modern light pollution, sadly it's becoming harder and harder to see the Milky Way with the naked eye in large parts of the world. Having said that, it is still possible to find places that are dark enough to see it with the naked eye and to take great photos. Essentially you need to get away from major towns and cities. There is a map here that shows where to go for dark skies (the blue and green areas are where light pollution is lower and therefore skies are darker).

The moon matters

The moon may not seem very bright, but when it's visible in the sky, the light is enough to block out the Milky Way (especially when the moon is full). So having an understanding of the phase of the moon, and when it rises and sets is also important. I use a free app called SunMoonTimes which shows all of the details you need for any future date.

Top tip!

You can take some of the hard work out of finding the best nights for seeing the Milky Way by using a Milky Way calendar, such as the ones available on this website. You'll need to sign up to download it, but it's free.

You need a clear sky!

Perhaps unsurprisingly, you won't see the Milky Way if it's cloudy, so choosing a cloud free night is also critical.

Understanding when and where the Milky Way core will be visible

  • A bit like the moon, the Milky Way core rises and sets in the sky so you will need to understand when it will be visible. It's worth knowing that early in the season (March) the Milky Way rises in the south eastern sky late in the night (around 3am). During the summer, the core rises more towards the south around the middle of the night, and by September it rises more towards the south west earlier in the night (currently around 9pm).

  • The best way to visualise when and where the Milky Way will be in the sky is to download the free 'Stellarium' app. This allows you to set a location, and wind forward through time to see when and where the Milky Way (core) will rise in the sky and how it will move through the night.

The Milky Way rising over the clocktower above Jacob's Ladder Beach, Sidmouth by Devon photographer Gary Holpin Photography
Milky Way over Sidmouth

How to capture the Milky Way

So, you've found a suitable location, and chosen a dark cloud free night, and you're standing there in the dark ready to capture the Milky Way, but how do you do it? As I said earlier, it can be a very technical type of photography, and a huge amount of technical skill can be needed to take some of the most amazing Milky Way captures you might see on social media. However, with a bit of knowledge you can have a good go! Here is my step by step guide to taking your first Milky Way shot....

Kit requirements

  • A tripod is a must have, since you will be doing long shutter speeds

  • A lens with a wide maximum aperture (f2.8 or larger) is highly preferable. A wide angle lens is also preferable so you can capture as much of the Milky Way arch as possible.

  • A camera with Manual control capabilities

Compose your image

With your camera securely on a tripod, you now need to compose your image. All the usual rules apply to creating an interesting image - see this blog for some tips.

Set your camera settings

  • Switch to 'Manual' mode (see my beginner's guide for getting off auto here)

  • Set the Aperture to the largest it will go (to let in as much light as possible) - I have an f1.4 lens, but just use the largest you have.

  • As our planet is moving, we can't just use a long shutter speed to capture lots of light (or else we end up with star trails rather than points of light in the sky). So we need to calculate the longest shutter speed we can get away with without producing notable star trails. The easiest way is to use a Milky Way shutter time calculator such as the free one here. Enter the type of camera sensor you have, the number of megapixels and the focal length of the lens you are using (you can safely ignore the other boxes). This then gives a maximum shutter speed you should use ( my most recent shoot, it gave me a maximum of 8.4 seconds, so I used the nearest available which is 10 seconds).

  • After dialling in the shutter speed calculated above, you now need to increase the ISO until your camera light meter suggests a well exposed image; it is likely that this will need to be anything up to ISO 6,000 or more.

Focus on the stars

You now want to focus on the Milky Way. However, focussing can be pretty tricky at night, since there is not enough light or contrast for your autofocus system to work effectively. It's worth a try, but if autofocus doesn't achieve focus lock on the stars, then you will need to switch to manual focus mode. See this blog about focus modes, including manual focus.

Note that although the stars are effectively at infinity, simply moving your lens focus ring to infinity won't work, since crisp focus is usually NOT at the infinity point on the lens. So, this is how I focus for Milky Way photos (you may not have all of the features mentioned, so see your camera manual for how to best use manual focus on your camera):

  • Set focus to Manual

  • Engage manual focus zoom, which automatically zooms into a small portion of the scene when the focus ring on the lens is engaged (helps to make sure you can see when crisp focus is achieved)

  • Turn the lens focus ring until the stars appear as crisp dots, rather than un-focussed blobs!

  • On manual focus, this focal plane will now not change until you again move the lens focus ring, so you can now take multiple photos without needing to re-focus.

Take the photo!

As you are doing a fairly long shutter speed, I would suggest setting your drive mode to 2-second timer (so you don't jiggle the camera when you press the shutter) - now simply press the shutter and take the photo!

Below is a photo that I took recently, using exactly the technique explained above. There was too much wispy cloud around for a great photo, but you can definitely see the Milky Way! This has been post-processed to enhance the Milky Way, but even on the raw unprocessed photo, the Milky Way was visible.

Milky Way rising over beach huts at Charmouth, by Devon Photographer Gary Holpin Photography
Milky Way over beach huts

Want a learn more?

If you're a beginner photographer who is local to East Devon and want to learn the art of landscape photography, check out my range of local photography courses. Alternatively why not make a weekend break of it and attend one of my residential photography workshops - either my beginners landscape photography masterclass for those starting out in photography, or my intermediate photography masterclass for those who already understand the basics and want more practical help progressing their landscape photography.

A student learning photography on a Devon beach, with Devon Photographer Gary Holpin Photography

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