Gayle is a retired accountant and a photography enthusiast living on Victoria's beautiful Bass Coast. Gayle is passionate about writing and keen to showcase Aussie culture to a global audience. Gayle loves her family, dogs, sunsets, and chocolate.
Published June 29th 2019
It's Milky Way Season
It's that time of the year in the Southern Hemisphere when amateur and professional photographers alike turn their eyes to the night sky to photograph the beautiful Milky Way. It's not as hard as you think to get started with your own DSLR camera. I was able to get a Milky Way photo the first night I tired. It wasn't a masterpiece, there was a lot of light pollution from street lights, it didn't have an inspiring foreground but it was exciting. I continue to learn and to practice and love to share with others how I started on this journey.
So don't be shy give it a try; it's an amazing experience.
The Milky Way Core Photo Copyright Gayle Beveridge
The Milky Way Core or Galactic Centre is where the Milky Way appears brightest. There is a higher density of stars and gas clouds in the core. The core is the most photogenic section of the Milky Way and is the image most photographers chase. The Milky Way is a barred spiral galaxy and we are able to view the core because the Earth sits on one of the arms of the spiral.
My first ever Milky Way Photo Copyright Gayle Beveridge
In the Southern Hemisphere, Milky Way season runs from February to October but it is in June and July when the core rises earlier in the evening and presents optimum viewing opportunities. It is in these months you will be able to get your photos before bedtime. In January the Milky Way core is only briefly visible on the eastern horizon just before sunrise and by February and March, the enthusiasts will be out of bed in the early hours to catch those first good shots of the season.
The Milky Way Arc - Image by mcbeaner from Pixabay
Come August and September the core appears as a large arc in the western sky in the evening. It is then some amazing panoramic shots can be captured. Come November the core is in the western sky after sunset, just above the horizon and is barely visible and we will be bidding the Milky Way season goodbye for a few months.
Milky Way Photos are best taken when there is no moon or only a quarter moon in the sky.
Beginner's Photos What to Expect
Beginner Photos and What You Get Out of the Camera.
Most Milky Way photos are processed in some way so it's helpful to know what you can expect to see straight out of the camera before any edits have been done. While the optimum Milky Way photo is taken in a dark area free of light pollution, like me you might want to start practising in your own back yard.
An Example of a Beginner's Milky Way Photo - Copyright Gayle Beveridge
Why Do Other People's Milky Way Photos Look Better?
Post processing is heavily used in Milky Way photography to bring out the best in the image. Some of the editing techniques are: Lifting shadows Increasing contrast
Photo stacking for noise reduction
Combining different images for the foreground and sky
The serious enthusiasts may also be using specialist equipment like star tracking mounts, telescope adaptations or specialist astrophotography cameras.
Photo Stacking and Editing
What is Photo Stacking?
Photo stacking is the process of combining multiple Milky Way images taken on the same settings from the same position to reduce noise and bring out detail. A dark frame is also used in the stack. That is an additional shot taken on the same settings from the same position but with the lens cap on. Good stacking programs also enable masking of the foreground from the sky.
A Stacked Milky Way Photo Example Photo Copyright Gayle Beveridge
Photo Stacking Software.
There are a number of options available for stacking Milky Way photos. These are some of them:
Sequator is free for PC and a small fee for phone apps. This software which can track stars on multiple images, align stars and stack them. You can download Sequator here: https://sites.google.com/site/sequatorglobal/download
Deep Sky Stacker is free software that registers, stacks and does some simple post stacking processes. You can download Deep Sky Stacker here: deepskystacker.free.fr/english/index.html This is a slower program which recommends overnight stacking.
Starry Landscape Tracker is a Mac only stacker retailing for around $40 (as at June 2019) You can get it here: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/starry-landscape-stacker/id550326617
Adobe Photoshop has some stacking capabilities but is not dedicated to night sky stacking and is the most expensive of the options.
Free Photo Editing Software.
If you don't already have some software to edit your photos there are many free options. I use Photoscape for no other reason than it was free to download photo editing software that enables you to fix and enhance photos. www.photoscape.org/ps/main/download.php
The following video steps through how to stack Milky Way images in the Sequator program followed by edits in the free PhotoScape program. The video uses PhotoScape X for Windows 10 or Mac. (Older versions do not have all the functions shown.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aZw-BH747U0
Helpful Apps and Websites
Apps and Websites to Help With Night Sky Photography
There are a significant number of apps and websites available to assist the night sky photographer. The following can be accessed without fee.
A Screenshot of the Stellarium App Photo by Gayle Beveridge
Photopills and the Photographer's Ephemeris are also popular night photography planning tools and can be purchased for a reasonable cost.
What Equipment Will You Need
So what do you need to photograph the Milky Way?
A torch or headlamp
Your DSLR or SLR camera with your widest angle lens
Fully charged battery long exposures use a lot of battery power
Your camera manual to help with your settings
A remote control if you have one Use your camera's timer if you don't.
A tripod this is a must for Milky Way photography
If you're heading out in the winter months don't forget warm clothing and good walking shoes.
You don't need specialist equipment - Image by Samson Jay from Pixabay
Calculating an Exposure Time Suitable for Your Lens
You are going to be using a long exposure to photograph the Milky Way. Times of 10 to 30 seconds are commonly used. However too long an exposure can cause the stars to "trail" as the Earth moves in relation to the night sky. Without specialist equipment to track the stars, you will need to limit your exposure time relative to your lens to avoid star trailing. This is done using the rule of 500.
Another Example of a Beginner's Milky Way Photo - Copyright Gayle Beveridge
The rule of 500 is 500 Divided by the Focal Length of Your Lens = The Longest Exposure before Stars Start to Trail. If your lens focal length was 24mm exposure length will be: 500 / 24 = 20 seconds
If you have a crop sensor camera convert the focal length of your lens to a full frame equivalent. E.g. a Nikon 1.5 crop sensor at 18mm is 27mm (18 x 1.5).So the exposure length will be: 500 / 27 = 18 seconds
The smaller the focal length of your lens the longer the exposure you can have before the stars start to trail.
Getting Your Camera Ready
Keeping Your Camera Stable
Always use a tripod for Milky Way Photography, ensure Vibration Reduction/Image Stabilization is OFF and use a shutter remote control or your camera's timer. If you use the camera's timer set it to as low a delay as possible e.g. 2 seconds.
Setting ISO Noise Reduction and Long Exposure Noise Reduction Photo Copyright Gayle Beveridge
ISO for Milky Way Photography
Different cameras will handle high ISO differently. You will need to experiment to find the best option for you. You will need a high ISO for Milky Way Photography due to the low light conditions. Try anything from 1600 to 6400.
Turn OFF Auto ISO and check your camera manual to learn how to manually change your ISO.
If your camera has a High ISO noise reduction feature it should be defaulting to normal. Turn this to Low or High as desired. This will help reduce noise (randomly spaced bright pixels) in photos taken at high ISO values.
Long Exposure Noise Reduction
Long Exposure Noise Reduction (LENR) is a feature on some DSLR cameras which reduces noise (bright spots or fogs) in photos taken at low shutter speeds. This noise occurs as the sensor gets hotter during the long exposure.
When LENR is turned on the camera produces a dark frame image. It takes as long to produce the dark frame image as it does for the original long exposure. A 20 second exposure will therefore take 40 seconds to process.
The camera identifies noise found in the dark frame image and subtracts this from the original image. The use of LENR should improve your image but to use it or not is a personal choice. If you wish to use it, turn LENR on.
Setting ISO Photo Copyright Gayle Beveridge
Choosing White Balance
White Balance (WB) refers to the colour temperature of your image. It is measured in degrees Kelvin and is used to ensure the colour in your photos is realistic. This is odne by rendering white as white in the photo, i.e. not off white, or white with a blue cast or a yellow cast. (If shooting in RAW white balance can be corrected / changed in post-production.)
The white balance you use can be a matter of personal choice. For Milky Way photography I recommend 3200 to 4800. At 3200 expect the sky to be a deep blue colour. (Cool colour) At 4800 expect the sky to be a little muddy. (Warm colour)
If it is too confusing try Auto White Balance. Check your camera manual to find out how to manually adjust the white balance on your camera.
White Balance and Manual Exposure Settings Photo Copyright Gayle Beveridge
RAW or JPEG?
What does it mean to photograph in RAW format? RAW is a file format that captures all image data recorded by the camera sensor when you take a photo. Because no information is compressed with RAW you are able to produce higher quality images, as well as correct problem images that would be unrecoverable if shot in the JPEG format. JPEG is a compressed file.
It is recommended you shoot your Milky Way images in RAW BUT if your photo editing software does not allow you to edit RAW images then shoot in JPEG. Some cameras are able to record both RAW and JPEG files.
Manual Camera Settings for Milky Way Photography
Milky Way Photography is done using manual settings and here they are:
Set your lens to its widest angle e.g. 18mm, 24mm
Use manual settings for Milky Way Photography (M on your camera dial)
Choose the widest aperture available for your lens e.g. f/1.8, f/2.8, f/3.5
Set shutter speed to that calculated using the rule of 500
Suggested ISO - 1600 to 6400
How to Focus in the Dark
How to Focus on the Milky Way
You will need to know how to manually focus your camera as autofocus is unreliable in the dark. Put your camera on the desired exposure settings (above) before focussing.
There are three possible methods for focusing on the Milky Way.
Visit the site during the day and focus on a distant object. Mark the focus ring and lens barrel so you can replicate this at night. (Not my preferred option.)
If your lens has an infinity symbol ∞ set it to that. This may require some tweaking as these markings are not always accurate.
Use LiveView to focus.
The Milky Way Rising over the Wonthaggi Wetlands Conservation Reserve Photo Copyright Gayle Beveridge
I don't have an infinity symbol on my lens so I use LiveView to focus but how do you do that?
Enable LiveView on your camera.
Point your camera towards the brightest star and centre that in the LiveView frame, or shine a light on a distant object (Use a Depth of Field Table to determine distance)
Magnify the LiveView using the magnifying buttons. (Do not zoom the lens)
Adjust the manual focus ring until your star or object appears in focus.
Your star should look sharp, bright and nearly white. Stars with a green or magenta cast are out of focus.
If there are dimmer stars appearing around your chosen star try to focus where these are most visible.
Many photographers will shoot separate images for the Milky Way and the foreground and blend them in post-processing but it is possible to take a single Milky Way image with a lit foreground by using light painting.
You can use an ordinary torch to light paint the foreground - Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay
Light painting is the process illuminating a subject or space with a moving light source while the camera shutter is left open during a long exposure. The light source does not have to be applied for the entirety of the long exposure. E.g. you might light paint for 5 seconds of a 30-second exposure.
You might want to tackle light painting after you've mastered your first few Milky Way shots.
The internet is awash with articles and videos on how to photograph the Milky Way. I have found Daniel Gangur and Richard Tatti to be excellent resources. Both are very generous with the information they share and both run Milky Way photography workshops in Victoria.