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Photographing the Milky Way

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by May Cross (subscribe)
I'm a writer, artist and keen photographer living in Brisbane.
Published August 5th 2017
Astro Photography for Newbies
Being new to Astro Photography (and astronomy), I thought I'd share some of my discoveries from the last few months. Most of what's contained here has helped me in some measure and I hope it helps you too if you're thinking of giving it a go. You'll be out and about at night and this time of year can be very chilly so take warm clothing, hot drinks and some food. I found chocolate helped. The best time to shoot the Milky Way is between February and October in Australia.

Milky Way from Wivenhoe Dam


Include something earthbound in your photo to give the image some context: a hill, rock-face, tree or building will do. It seems to ground the image, to make it that little bit more relatable, just look at some of the images shot by the experts to see how well this works.

Milky way through trees, night sky
Milky way though trees


Most modern cameras will capture the Milky Way if the sky is dark enough and if you do a little post processing in a digital editor. It is possible to make a very pleasing photo of the Milky Way. A DSLR camera will offer up more possibilities for creatively shooting the night sky. A good start is a DSLR with reasonable ISO (light sensitivity) capability. I typically shoot between ISO 1600 and ISO 3200 but it'll vary with where you are in relation to light sources, such as a city, and also with the environment you're in.

A fast, wide-angle lens is desirable (f2.8 is great, but any speed will do as the best camera truly is the camera you have with you) and the wider the better. Mount your camera and lens on a tripod (which is a must). A remote shutter release is great; even better would be an intervalometer which will allow you to take shots of a pre-programmed length and intervals which is great for stacking. Don't worry if you don't have these; the time required for such shots is available on most DSLR cameras and will typically be between 20 and 30 seconds depending on which lens you are using and what type of sensor your camera has. There are a couple of rule-of-thumb guides for calculating exposure length time and they are the 500 rule and the 600 rule, just look them up as they are important. If your exposure is too long, then you'll end up with star trails instead of circular dots of light (which is what you're after in this case).

Resources:
The Photographer's Ephemeris can be used on your home computer and/or laptop and it is also available as an app for your phone, both Android and iPhones.

Stellarium is a great app for desktop and phone that will tell you where the Milky Way is any time of day or night. You can literally wave your phone at the sky and it'll show you where the centre of the Galaxy is (or will be at a time you specify).

unprocessed night sky taken at O'Reilley's
Unprocessed night sky taken at O'Reilly's


Dark Site Finder is another good tool that gives you access to "light pollution maps" anywhere in the world. You just look up where you live, or intend to shoot, and you see just how bright it is at night. You can see the light falling off from red hot in the middle of a town or city and going to dark grey in regions where there is practically no light pollution, which are obviously the best areas to shoot if you want the clearest photos. Most urban areas will have spots that you can drive to in about one or two hours that will give good results. If you look at my unprocessed image taken at O'Reilly's, near Canungra, you'll notice just how many stars are in the shot; you wouldn't expect to see nearly as many closer to Brisbane.

Deep Sky Stacker is one of a number of applications that allows you to "stack" multiple images on top of each other and process them into a single, clear shot of the night sky. What it does is recognise the difference between each shot and where there are little specks of light (sensor noise). It processes the noise out of these spots and gives a clearer, darker sky with much greater contrast in the stars.


how to photograph the milky way by digital photography school
Image by Digital Photography School


Photoshop is a well-known digital editing program and it also can be used to stack night sky images. (There are numerous tutorials on how to do this on YouTube.) Photoshop is also excellent for additional editing of your image: it can brighten, contrast and bring out colours in your Milky Way image. You can get a free trial of Photoshop by visiting the Adobe site. There are free alternatives to Photoshop on the net that can do quite a lot for an image even if they don't have the full set of tools available in Photoshop.
One such tool is Pixlr.

The AccuWeather site is good for checking what phase the moon is in. This is important because you don't want to be out there, hours from home, on a cold night wanting to photograph the Milky Way, but it's not visible because the full moon is shining right where you want to take the shot!


milky way by tim swinson
Image by Tim Swinson
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Why? Give yourself a sense of perspective.
When: Anytime but February to October are the best months.
Where: Anywhere in the Southern Hemisphere (even in your back yard)
Cost: Free (if you have a camera)
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