1. Head Outside the City Limits
It isn’t enough to simply point your camera at the night sky. If you want gorgeous, finely detailed photos with visible stars and planets, you’ll need to escape the bright lights and pollution of densely-populated areas. The more remote the location, the less smog that will dim your photographs, so don’t be afraid to drive to the very edges of your map.
2. Track the Lunar Cycle
In the same vein as the above, you’ll want a completely dark night for the best Milky Way photographs. A new moon is ideal since it’s almost completely invisible, but even a crescent or quarter moon is better than a full one. The light of a full moon will shine so brightly that it will wash out everything else in your photos.
3. Use a Wide Lens
A common refrain in Milky Way photography tips is to use a wide lens to immortalize as much of the night sky as possible, but how wide is wide enough? Look for something in the 14mm – 24mm range. Remember, too, that focal length is measured “backward” in the sense that shorter focal lengths translate to larger millimeter sizes, so a 14mm lens is ultra-wide while a 20mm lens is more narrow.
4. Calculate the Right Shutter Speed
If you’ve been researching Milky Way photography tips, you’ve probably come across the “500 Rule.” But what does it mean? Long story short, the 500 Rule will keep your images crisp and clean despite the blurs naturally caused by the rotation of the Earth. All you have to do is divide the number 500 by the focal length of your lens. For example, if you’re using a 24mm lens, your shutter speed should be 20. Here’s your math:
500 / 24 = 20.83
500 (starting number) / 24 (focal length) = 20.83 (desired shutter speed)
5. Find an Anchor
Think back to the most dazzling celestial photographs that you’ve ever seen. What did they all have in common? Whether it’s a distant cliff, a picturesque cabin or a nicely-shadowed tree, there’s always an “anchor” that both grounds the image and emphasizes just how large and expansive the galaxy really is. Find your own anchor if you want to take a Milky Way photograph that resonates.
6. Have a Plan
Know what pictures you want to take before you set out with your camera. For example, maybe you want to capture the galactic core, the purple-white “line” that defines many Milky Way photographs. Or maybe you want to record “star trails” as they move around the edges of the galaxy. Maybe you just want a gorgeous, time-lapsed panoramic shot! All of these will require different settings, strategies, and techniques, so it’s important to make a plan in advance.
7. Lower Your Aperture
The aperture of your camera determines how much light is let into the lens, and it’s measured in “f-stops” like f/2, f/8 and f/12. While every list of Milky Way photography tips will have a different recommendation for aperture settings, it’s generally agreed that they should be low. Start with f/2.8 and fiddle with the numbers until you figure out what works for you.
8. Invest in a Sturdy Tripod
Motion blur is always a concern for outdoor photographers, especially when the camera has to be fixed on a particular point in the night sky. You’ll need a strong, steady tripod that won’t shake in the breeze or sink into the ground when you click the shutter. Go ahead and splurge a little on this particular piece of equipment; it’s a long-term investment that you’ll need for serious astrophotography.
9. Watch the Clock
One of the biggest obstacles of night-sky photography is the natural rotation of the Earth. The sky won’t look the same at 10pm as it does at 3am, and you’ll need to plan for the positional changes of the stars and constellations if you’ll be taking pictures all night. This is one of those Milky Way photography tips that experienced professionals take for granted, but if you’re new to the scene, you might not have thought about it before.
10. Max Out Your ISO
Most cameras give you a choice in ISO settings, and you’ll need to go as high as you can for good astrophotography. The higher the ISO, the more sensitive your sensors become to light, and that sensitivity is a good thing when dealing with dark backgrounds full of tiny details. Most experts recommend an ISO of at least 3000 with the suggestion of going even higher for truly dynamic shots.
11. Go Manual
For large, out-of-focus areas like the night sky, you’ll take better snapshots when you switch from “auto” to “manual” on your camera. Another trick is to use your camera’s “live view” mode to make adjustments in real time. Instead of endless cycles of focus-click-examine, you’ll know right away if the shot is focusing properly.
12. Mark Your Calendar
While you can technically photograph the sky at any time, it’s worth waiting for the right time to capture dramatic and visually engaging sights. Depending on your location in the northern or southern hemisphere, there are probably specific days, months and seasons when the Milky Way is most visible in the night sky. Do some research to figure out the specifics of your area.
13. Consider Overlap Lengths
When creating panoramic photos, the general rule of thumb is to give yourself at least a 30 percent overlap between shots. When your subject is shrouded in darkness, however, it can be difficult to find that exact line. You might want to overcompensate and aim for a 40-50 percent overlap. It’s better to perform extra cropping than discover large gaps in your final image.
14. Choose Between Horizontal and Vertical
Most photographers go for horizontal shots of the Milky Way because they’re wider and more encompassing of the entire galaxy. On occasion, however, a vertical shot between mountain peaks will call your name. It’s okay to experiment; just make sure that you’re picking one angle or the other instead of trying to have them all at once. Those kinds of photos rarely turn out well.
15. Get Ready to Edit
The biggest secret of Milky Way photography tips is that almost all pictures undergo post-processing to make them brighter, clearer and more vibrant. So don’t worry if your raw images lack the “pop” of the viral images that you’ve seen! Editing can make a big difference in your lights and colors.
These are just a few Milky Way photography tips for high-quality, high-definition pictures. What do you think? Are you ready to get started in the world of astrophotography, or have you already been out canvassing for the perfect location? Let us know what you’re planning in the comments!