The Milky Way season is here! Yay!
But before talking about the Milky Way, the main subject of this tutorial, let me introduce myself.
My name is Antoni Cladera and I’m a nature and landscape photographer with a growing passion for astrophotography. I’m also one of the members of PhotoPills, an incredible app that has been called “the photographer’s Swiss army knife”. And I can’t agree more: it truly is a extremely useful tool as you’ll see throughout this tutorial.
Here at PhotoPills we have a motto that says “Image. Plan. Shoot.”.
And that’s exactly the goal of this tutorial, to give you all you need to create jaw-dropping images of the Milky Way. I’ll show how to imagine your shot and look for inspiration, you’ll learn how to use PhotoPills to plan your Milky Way shots in seconds, and we’ll go through the best camera settings to nail your shooting.
If you wish to learn even more about Milky Way photography, check a super long article I wrote called “How to shoot truly contagious Milky Way pictures”.
Step 1: Find a powerful location (with an interesting subject)
In order to capture a stunning Milky Way picture your first mission is to find a powerful location. And what makes a location powerful for night photography?
Well, it should have two characteristics:
- The location should be in an area where the sky is extremely dark. Or as we night photographers like to say, it should be light pollution free.
- The location should include an interesting element that helps you connect both the landscape and the sky in a creative way, and that captures the spectator’s attention. What kind of element should you include in your frame? A rock, a lighthouse, a tree, an old construction and even a model.
Step 2: Brainstorm about all possible compositions (vertical, diagonal, horizontal)
Did you know that there is a hunting season for the Milky Way?
That’s because during a certain period of the year, the core of the Milky Way isn’t visible. Why is that? Because the galactic center is only above the horizon during daylight hours, and the Sun prevents you from photographing it.
In short, the core is visible from February to October with the best time for viewing being from late April to late September.
Knowing that, these are my three favorite compositions for the Milky Way…
Note: The following compositions are referred to the Northern Hemisphere. In the Southern Hemisphere you can get all these compositions in a single night. The position of the Milky Way will depend on where you are in the world. As I’ll explain in Step 3, you can use PhotoPills to figure out the position of the Milky Way no matter where you are. 😉
Horizontal or low Milky Way (great for panoramas)
The picture above was taken in Menorca, the charming island in the Mediterranean where I live. As you can see, the Milky Way is pretty low in the sky, forming an arch above a lighthouse.
To capture a low Milky Way in the Northern Hemisphere you should do so between February and May.
Diagonal Milky Way
Again, the picture above was taken in Menorca, Spain. As you can see, the Milky Way is positioned in the framing creating a diagonal between the human element on the right hand side and the top of the lighthouse.
To capture a diagonal Milky Way in the Northern Hemisphere you should do so between May and July.
Vertical Milky Way
You’ve guessed it, the picture above was also captured in Menorca. As you can see, the Milky Way is completely vertical, perfectly aligned with a natural bridge next to the coastline.
To capture a vertical Milky Way in the Northern Hemisphere you should do so between July and October.
Step 3: Find the exact date and time the scene you imagine actually happens (with PhotoPills of course!)
If you think I was able to capture the previous shots because I was lucky, think twice!
All of them are the result of a thorough planning and of being at the right spot at the right time.
Did I guess it?
Of course not. I used PhotoPills!
In the following video, we explain you step by step how to use PhotoPills to plan any Milky Way photo you imagine. And it will only take you a couple of minutes.
You’ve got fantastic photo idea for the Milky Way and you’ve planned every single detail… Let’s see now the equipment you need to actually take it!
Step 4: All the equipment you need
What is the ideal equipment for night photography and in particular to capture a great picture of the Milky Way? In my opinion, here’s the minimum gear you should have:
- A DSLR or mirrorless camera with manual exposure controls (aperture, shutter speed, and ISO), and manual focus as well.
- Good noise performance when pushing up the ISO to 3200 or higher.
- Possibility of manually setting the white balance.
- Option to shoot in RAW.
- A camera with a built-in intervalometer or that allows you to plug in an external intervalometer.
- A body allowing you to use non-CPU lenses.
- The fastest possible lens (e.g. f/2.8 or f/4) with a fairly wide angle (e.g. 14mm for Full Frame cameras, 11mm for cropped sensors).
- A sturdy tripod and a good ballhead.
- A headlamp.
- Specific gear to deal with moisture in the air. You could use a lens hood, a fan or a dew heater for instance.
Step 5: Calculating the exposure time to prevent star from trailing
Because you’ll be shooting when it’s pitch black, the longer you keep the shutter open the better.
But for how long? Unfortunately, if you keep the shutter open for too long you’ll end up with star trails in your picture instead of having the stars as big bright spots.
There are two rules allowing you to avoid star trails: the 500 rule and the NPF rule. However, since this is a short tutorial, I won’t go into detail and explain both rules but here’s some extra information if you’re interested.
All you need to know is that the NPF rule is the one you should use!
Now that you know that these rules exist, it’s time to put PhotoPills to work and forget about complicated calculations!
- Go to PhotoPills and tap on Spot Stars (Pills menu).
- Choose your camera.
- Set the focal length and aperture.
- Chances are you have no clue what the declination is. So set the declination of the stars to 0º. If you do know the minimum declination, set it.
- Choose the accuracy. In most cases Default is the best option.
- Despite the app will display both the 500 and the NPF rule results, use the exposure time (shutter speed) you get with the NPF Rule from the table of results. Use this value as a starting point, take a test shot and adjust accordingly.
Step 6: How to photograph the Milky Way
Let me show you how to set up everything for the shooting session, step by step:
- Place your tripod on a solid surface right on the shooting spot you planned with PhotoPills.
- If your lens has it, switch the image stabilization off.
- If you use an ultraviolet (UV) filter to protect your lens, remove it.
- Shoot in RAW, not in JPEG.
- Set the shooting mode to Manual (M).
- If your camera enables noise reduction in long exposures, turn it off. You can always turn it on when you’re ready to shoot your final image, the “good” one.
- Use the shortest focal length you can (e.g. 14mm, 18mm,…).
- Use the widest aperture (the smallest f/number) possible.
- Focus at the hyperfocal distance.
- Set the exposure time (shutter speed) according to the NPF rule using PhotoPills.
- Start with an ISO of 3200 and adjust it accordingly.
- Set the white balance manually between 3400K and 3900K.
- Take a couple of test shots.
- Check the histogram and adjust the exposure if necessary. Usually, you adjust the exposure by adjusting the ISO.
- Check the framing and recompose if necessary.
Step 7: Your turn
No excuses! Now you have all the tools to get out there and capture awesome photos of the Milky Way.
And once you’ve captured one of these great pictures you’ve dreamed of… Don’t keep it to yourself! Share it!
Join the community of Milky Way hunters, become a PhotoPiller like us, and submit your photos to the PhotoPills Awards.
And of course, don’t stop imagining, planning and shooting. Continue your quest!