The night sky is one of the richest and most rewarding subjects a photographer can shoot, but it takes patience and skill to get it right. In this astrophotography tutorial, landscape pro David Clapp explains how to shoot Milky Way photography with the gear that you have.
Many years ago when I began to shoot with digital cameras, I became fascinated with the night sky. My original DSLR was the Canon 5D, and although this was limited in both functionality and quality, it was the making of my photography and opened the door to the world of astrophotography.
Nowadays, it doesn’t matter whether you shoot an entry-level digital SLR or use a high-end professional series body: all are capable of shooting at night-time.
The biggest problem I suffered from early on when shooting astrophotography was my camera’s limited ISO. It simply was not capable of exceeding ISO640 without excessive noise, so the idea of shooting Milky Way photography eluded me.
Most modern digital SLR’s now can easily shoot ISO3200, giving far greater accessibility to the dark skies, so popularity for shooting Milky Way photography has grown immensely.
As with all night-time pursuits, there are limitations to how much light you can see, but the camera will do a great deal to reveal a world unseen.
I originally began to shoot the sky under moonlight, where light levels were lifted just enough to illuminate the landscape.
I had a few failed attempts at shooting Milky Way photography, but they showed promise, so I quickly realised the best results occur in complete darkness, with no light source other than the galaxy itself.
Moonlight and street lighting are very much your enemy, even distant ambience, so firstly your choice of location is absolutely crucial.
Best locations for Milky Way photography
I live near Dartmoor National Park, in southern England, yet it’s situated between three major cities. Even on clear nights, when the skies are washed with stars, an orange hue is present in every direction except vertically upwards.
After meeting an astrophotographer, he explained that dark sky areas were utterly crucial to my success, as well as low humidity, neither of which are particularly easy to find here in the UK.
Deserts are the best place to go. I managed to get some success in California’s Death Valley, in particular, but shooting nearer the equator is the best location in the world for Milky Way photography, both for star density, dark skies, low humidity and believe it or not – camera angle.
The gaseous structure of the centre of the Milky Way is far more prevalent the closer you get to the Equator, so this makes locations like Tenerife, Hawaii and the Atacama Desert the best locations for astrophysicists and budding astrophotographers alike.
So if you live in England, is there any point in trying to shoot the Milky Way? Well, the answer is yes. The first thing to do is find out where the nearest dark sky area is to you so you can eliminate glow of city street lights.
Then look for compositions that contain something geographical – mountains in particular, even coastline can be very effective as you look out towards the empty ocean.
Essential gear to photograph the Milky Way
So what exactly do we need in your camera bag to shoot the Milky Way? Is it all ‘fast glass’ and great expense? The answer is that it helps, but it needn’t be.
It’s important to get a certain level of quality glass, one that has good performance wide open, but you will be surprised at what astrophotographers will choose.
If you are looking to shoot the Milky Way as part of the landscape, which is where I suggest starting, then a wide-angle lens with a minimum aperture of f2.8 is the way to go. Place the Milky Way diagonally across the frame and if necessary light the landscape beneath with a torch.
I use a Canon 24mm f/1.4 Mark II, but I rarely shoot this lens at f/1.4… it’s an amazing optic at f/2, with less vignetting and far sharper corners than wide open.
I have also used the 16-35mm f/4L IS which is renowned for its super sharp corners, but f4 means shutter speeds will be considerably slower.
Let us imagine you have both these lenses above. If you shoot the 16-35 f/4L IS at f/4, then a typical shutter speed will be 20secs, ISO3200.
If you shot the 24mm f/1.4 mk2 at f/1.4, then the shutter speed would be much faster, just five seconds for exactly the same exposure.
This means much more light and detail can enter the camera, but as long as the optics perform well at such wide apertures.
The longer the shutter stays open, the more the earth will rotate and star trails will appear…. but there’s another problem… focal length.
Best focal length for shooting the Milky Way
The longer the focal length, shorter the shutter speed has to be to get a sharp shot. Focal length magnifies the movement of the stars min the Milky Way, so although a 50mm f/1.4 seems like another lens to head for, the extra focal length means the shutter speed has to be even shorter.
Lenses like a 70-200 f/2.8, although great for lowlight, mean the problem is compounded even further. So how did astrophotographer Esen Tunar take the remarkable and detailed images in this post? The answer is by using an astronomical tracking mount!
Using tracking mounts for astrophotography
These wonderful devices can help out immensely. This means there is no longer a restriction on shutter speed and all manner of lenses can be used.
The camera and lens turn with the rotation of the earth and cancel out the star trails.
It means much longer exposures can be taken with pin sharp stars. Multiple exposures can be made, to penetrate deep into the night sky, with slower sharper lenses too.
If you’re thinking about shooting the Milky Way then start by putting it into the landscape. If you become fascinated with the night sky then invest in some quality glass and perhaps a tracking mount.
Whichever way you go, it’ll have you aiming your camera for the heavens.