How to capture the Milky way?

Ok like already teased, here is a post on how to take images of the milky way. In this blog-entry I want to “light up” some main areas like :

Preparing / Planing

Required Equipment

Photographing

Post Processing (Lightroom)

Milky way shoot in Austria

Milky way shoot in Austria

Some little information, concerning the Milky way.

What is the milky way?

Wikipedia
“The Milky Way is the galaxy that contains our Solar System.[15][16][17][nb 1] Its name “milky” is derived from its appearance as a dim glowing band arching across the night sky in which the naked eye cannot distinguish individual stars. The term “Milky Way” is a translation of the Latin via lactea, from the Greek γαλαξίας κύκλος (galaxías kýklos, “milky circle”).[18][19][20] From Earth, the Milky Way appears as a band because its disk-shaped structure is viewed from within… The Milky Way is a barred spiral galaxy some 100,000–120,000 light-years in diameter, which contains 100–400 billion stars

Bruno Gilli/ESO

Preparing / Planing

The best time to see the milky way around the northern hemisphere is from July till September. The reason is that in that period the most dense and brightest part of it can be seen.
On the southern hemisphere the best time is between January till march (good weather condition is a must).
Additionally an important issue – additional to the period – is the area. Big cities create more ambient light. It is also referred to light pollution. Smog and exhaust gas provide additional particles in the air which intensifies the dimming effect on the stars.

So if you close to or in a city, then get used to drive some time to reach more the country- / mountainside. Personally I’ve read a lot that on the canary islands (especially Tenerife) is ideal to photograph the milky way. I visited it already twice bit didn’t had the opportunity to photograph it there (put it onto my bucket list).

Light pollution map

 

Light Pollution

Light Pollution

On this map you can see where light pollution is a major factor.

red = heavy light pollution

black = almost no light pollution (best conditions)

The Moon

Before I talk about equipment, there is one important point to mention too. Yes I know “… what else to consider to photograph the milky way..?!??”

There is one natural light light pollution on the sky that make it hard for you to photograph. It’s our moon.

moon

Moon by Luc Viatour – www.lucnix.be

The brighter the moon shines, the harder / impossible it is to photograph the stars around him. The best time would be on a new moon (no moon on the sky visible). In that time you should be on the safe side and all your preparations should have paid off (hopefully).

 

Equipment (hardware)

The main equipment consists of 3 elements which are:

Camera / Lens / Tripod

Camera

First of all you need a camera which can safe your images in RAW-format. Additionally a shutter speed up to 30 seconds is a must, which should be standard for all cameras today (SLT / DSLR etc.)

Another benefit would be if your camera creates not that much noise between ISO 1600 – 2000 (but not a must).

raw

Set you camera to RAW

Lens

A faster lens would be a great benefit (e.g. f 2.8). Faster lens = less shutter speed / lower noise settings could be used.

Personally I would recommend a wide angle or even fisheye lens. This brings you 2 advantages. Firstly you can photograph a lot more in 1 picture without stiching 2 or more together, which means less post processing. Secondly a wider angle means also longer exposure is possible.

How is that?

The earth is in constantly rotation around his own axis. If you are photographing with a longer shutter speed, at some point you will see this rotation in your image. Especially you will see this on the stars. If you shoot too long your stars wont get photographed as round light sources, you rather get star trails.

What has this to do with a wider angle?

As closer you are shooting an object as faster you will see it move (e.g. Telezoom lens on a bird or Macro lens on an insect). That means you need to choose a faster shutterspeed to avoid star trails. To counteract would be increase your ISO settings more, which will inflict more noise.

Tripod

Photographing with a shutter speed up to 30 seconds is impossible with a tripod. So this is a must. Please consider as sturdier your tripod, as “sharper” your images will be at the end. Some tripods provide the possibility to attach something to the center column of your tripod, e.g. a backpack. If you have the possibliity then use it. This will make your tripod even sturdier. But please make sure you don’t overdue it and break your tripod. Read the manual of your tripod, how much it can max. carry.

Optional a cable release/wireless remote

It is important to not move your camera during the exposure. This means that even pushing the shutter will end in a blurred image (because you have moved the camera ever so slightly). It’s up to you if you need that accessory. If you don’t have the money/energy you can use your delay timer of your camera (e.g. 2 sec, 10 sec. ).

I personally use the [eafl id=1574 name=”EQUIPMENT – Haehnel Giga T Pro II” text=”Hähnel Giga T Pro II Funk-Fernauslöser”]. I found this piece after a longer research. To be honest you will need some training period to use the full capabilities. I have it over 1 year and 1 month ago I still learned something. This doesn’t mean you will have too. The reason in my case was just that I haven’t used it for a while and I had to get into it again. So if you know how to use it, it’s a very versatile tool.

You can have it in for almost all camera manufacturers (Nicon, Canon, Sony, Olympus, Panasonic).

Wireless-Remote

Example – Hähnel Giga T Pro II Wireless-Remote

 

Equipment (software)

Nowadays everybody uses a smartphone. So why don’t use it? There are a lot of apps that can help you show for e.g. the actual position of the moon / sun, lunar phase & star constellations. Some even provide an Augmented Reality mode (short AR). This means your holding your phone to the sky and you see directly on your screen what you are looking at (your phone pointing at).

I would recommend 2 apps that I use personally (Android)

Sun Surveyor

gives you the actual position of sun + moon. There is a Lite Edition for testing purposes.

Google Sky Map

shows you the star constellations (incl. AR-mode)

 

Photographing

I want to give you some additional tips on your way to shoot the stars / milky way.

File format

Please set your camera to save your images in RAW format. This is the complete (loss less) data from the camera’s sensor. With this file format you have the possibility to get the most out of your image.

Focusing

For your camera it is hard to automatically focus at night. Especially focus correctly on the stars. To avoid this problem, switch to manual focus and set it by hand on the stars / infinity. But be CAREFULL! Not all lenses are focusing on infinity when rotating your focus to the maximum. If you have a camera with a setting called “Focus Peaking” (Fuji, Sony, Olympus, Panasonic…) then it should be easy for you to focus manually.

If you don’t have a camera with such an “Extra”, don’t panic. Just set your focus to infinity and take a picture. Then take a look at your image and see if it focused correctly. If not turn your focus in small steps and repeat the process till you nailed it.

Camera settings

Here is a guideline to your basic Camera Settings.

Set your camera to manual Mode (M). Here you have full control over your camera. ISO, Shutter speed & aperture can be configured independently from each other

  • ISO 1600 (or 2000) (basic value, can be adjusted to your needs)
  • Aperture set to the widest possible (what your lens can deliver, e.g. 2.8, 3.5 etc.)
  • Shutter speed can / should be calculated by following formula. This formula represents the max. possible time to shoot one image, while preventing star trails. The stars will be photographed still circular.

Camera with APS-C Sensor (DX-Sensor)

300/focal lenght = shutter speed

Camera with Full format Sensor

500/focal length = shutter speed

Take a camera with full format sensor as an example. If you are using a focal length of 50mm (500/50) then you get a max. shutter speed of 10 seconds to photograph without creating star trails. This is probably not a good example, because of this “short” shutter speed, your be very dark (considering an ISO of 1600). To compensate this you need to increase your ISO settings to an amount where noise will be very harsh in your image, except you are the lucky owner of a Sony A7s 😉 So I would recommend a wider focal length or even a fisheye lens.

Post processing (Lightroom)

So that you considered my tip on shooting in RAW (did you or?), you have now the possibility to process your image without much compromise. Here you will polish your jewel to a presentable level. On the image below you can see how much detail is missed compared to the final one. This is the untouched RAW imported in Lightroom.

RAW image untouched

This is my milky way image directly imported in Lightroom. It’s the untouched RAW file.

 

Usually my workflow would be making all the post processing in Lightroom. If I want / need to process any deeper I use Photoshop. In this case I will be just show how I use Lightroom
First of all use the “Lens Correction” tab. Here you can remove distortion caused by your lens. You can either use the provided lens profiles of Lightroom or edit them manually.

lens correction

Lens Correction by Profile

lens correction manual

Manual Lens correction (if you can not find your lens in the Lightroom database)

Next step would be the white balance, to reveal more of the milky way. Here you can see that I changed the white balance to a bit more violet temperature. Exposure, shadows + highlights were also changed.

Basic settings

Here I changed the white balance, exposure, highlights & shadows

Additionally I’ve created 2 separate gradient filter. I used them to give the upper + lower part a different temperature, in this case more bluish, and I also reduced the exposure + shadows to assert the center more.

Gradient Settings

Gradient Settings

Of course use the noise reduction in Lightroom, but be careful! Don’t overdue it. As higher your value, as more details you will loose (e.g. faint stars). Try a step by step approach.
Otherwise I would recommend to play a bit with the settings. As long as you like it.

And here is the final result. At the end I replaced the tree in Photoshop with one of the many other images I took of this scene. In this case the tree was not that unrealistic greenish.

Milky way shoot in Austria

Final Image

I hope I could arouse your interest in shooting the stars (in this case the milky way). I’m always fascinated, I’ve I have the time + opportunity to be in a similar place like this, to see our galaxy so clearly with my bare eyes (and camera). Makes me feel so small.

Enjoy your solitude. I wish you a successful outcome with your images!!

Cheers Michael

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