Some hints to get you started with space and galaxy photography
Some of the most beautiful landscape images you’ll see will be filled with a swathe of stars from the Milky Way. These night-time images are gorgeous and ethereal, but can be a little tricky to capture without the right techniques.
In this piece, we’re going to look at some simple tricks you can try to get you started when you’re trying to figure out how to photograph the Milky Way.
Best locations for Milky Way photography
Light pollution is a big issue in most towns and cities, so while you could give Milky Way photography a go in your back garden, for best results you’ll probably need to take a little road trip further afield.
The more remote the area the better, as you’ll stand a good chance of seeing as many stars as possible. You can use smartphone apps to help you find locations which are less prone to light pollution to help you plan your trip.
Always be safety conscious if setting off into a remote location. If you can travel in a pair or group, it’s advisable, and always make sure you tell someone where you’re going and when you expect to be back.
Certain times of year work better than others too, again, there are apps which can help you track what the milky way will look like in your chosen area to pick the best time for your shots. In order to get the best image of the stars, you want to avoid the moon being in your shot – for this reason, it’s best to pick a time in the month when there is a no moon or very little moon visible.
Best weather for Milky Way photography
When photographing the Milky Way, you want the skies to be as clear as possible. There’s virtually no point in planning a shoot without looking at the weather, as you don’t want to turn up to your location to find it is completely cloudy and you’ve had a wasted journey.
Choose your time of the month to go, but if you can, keep a couple of days either side of your proposed date free and check the weather closer to the time.
As you’ll likely be standing outside for large stretches of time, you may want to avoid Milky Way photography during the coldest months, but even in the middle of summer you should make sure you take plenty of warm clothing as it can get very cold, very quickly under a clear sky.
Best camera equipment for Milky Way photography
If you’re serious about astro or space photography, you might want to think about picking up a dedicated camera for the job.
You’ll need something which copes well with shooting in low light, producing crisp and clear images, even when shooting at high ISOs. Most modern DSLRs and CSCs have pretty good low light capability, but certain cameras excel at it. A good example is the Sony A7S II, which is famed for its low-light shooting power and has even been used in a recent space mission.
Other cameras known for having good low-light prowess include the Nikon D5 and the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV. A full-frame camera, with its large sensor, such as any of those suggested, is ideal for capturing the most amount of light – which is the aim of the game when it comes to night sky photography. Don’t be put off by APS-C and Four Thirds cameras though, as they can also produce some excellent night-time images.
When it comes to lenses, wide-angle lenses are ideal for Milky Way and night sky photography. The reason for this is fairly obvious – you want to capture as much of the night sky as possible, for which a wide-angle lens is designed for.
Aim for lenses which fall somewhere between 14 and 24mm. A good example which you could use with the Sony A7S II is the Sony 12-24mm f/4 G Lens, or the Sony 16-35mm f/2.8 G Master lens, which has a wide aperture for letting in even more light.
As you will be using long exposures, a tripod is an essential piece of kit. You’ll want to go for something which is as sturdy as possible, but because you might be walking some distance to get to remote locations, you’ll also want one which is relatively portable and light. A carbon fibre tripod usually combines the best of both worlds. Additionally, you should look for a tripod which has a flexible head that will allow you to point your camera upwards towards the sky.
The 3 Legged Thing Leo Equinox Tripod with AirHed Switch Ball Head tripod can support very heavy camera and lens combinations, but folds up to a small and compact size. It can also be configured to shoot low to the ground if you want to get a maximum amount of sky in your shot as possible.
Finally, a remote release ensures that you don’t need to touch the camera and risk introducing image blur. The release you’ll need depends on the camera you’ll be using, but can be picked up for as little as £15.99.
Best camera settings for Milky Way photography
What you most need to achieve with galaxy photography is capturing as much light as possible. In order to achieve this, there are a few key settings which you need to pay attention to.
Normally you’re advised to use as low an ISO as possible for most types of photography, but for Milky Way photography, upping the ISO is advised for maximum light sensitivity. Don’t be afraid to use values such as ISO 1600 or ISO 3200, perhaps even higher if your camera is capable of producing good images at higher values. Use the highest setting you feel comfortable using, and don’t be afraid to experiment with higher settings than you might otherwise consider using.
It’s a similar story when it comes to aperture – use as wide an aperture as your lens will allow. Don’t worry about creating a shallow depth of field, as shooting at wide angles into the night sky almost certainly will still result in a very large depth of field anyway – the aim is to get as much light onto the sensor as possible. Shooting at f/2.8 is a good benchmark, but if your lens can go even wider (such as f/1.4), then even better. You can still get some good images with lenses which can only shoot at f/3.5 or f/4, so don’t be too worried if you don’t have any ultra-fast glass.
Make sure you’re shooting in manual mode so that you can take full control of all shooting parameters. As well as a high ISO and wide aperture, you’ll want a relatively long exposure, again so you can let in the maximum amount of light possible. It can be very tempting to dial in the longest speed your camera is capable of – for example 30 or 60 seconds, or use Bulb mode and leave the shutter open for several minutes. However, because the earth is rotating, if you do that, you run the risk of producing “star trails”, where stars appear to be moving across your image.
If you don’t want star trails in your image, you’ll need to keep the exposure down to just a few seconds (depending on the length of your lens and the sensor size of the camera). You can experiment with different shutter speeds to see which produces the crispest image, but, again, there are apps which can help you calculate the optimum shutter speed to use for astro photography.
Milky Way photography is a good time to use Live View. Avoid using autofocus, as many camera systems may struggle to lock onto such a distant subject. Switch manual focusing on and zoom the view on your camera’s LCD screen until you have a single star as large as possible in view. Adjust the lens focus until the star is sharp, and then you’ll be ready to take your shot.
Best composition for Milky Way photography
Experiment with different compositions, but a good trick to get started with is to include some foreground interest – allowing the Milky Way to sparkle in the background.
You might be a little limited when it comes to foreground subjects in remote areas, but trees and isolated rocks make for good natural subjects. Man-made objects such as cars or perhaps an abandoned shack or habitat can also be interesting, depending on the object.
Otherwise, shooting straight at the milky way can also yield some interesting compositions, as star constellations make interesting patterns in themselves – give a few different ideas a go and see which you like the best.
Will you be heading off into the wilderness to give Milky Way photography a go? We’d love to see your results – share your shots on our Instagram, Facebook and Twitter pages!