How to Photograph the Milky Way

The Milky Way

This tutorial covers the basic steps necessary to capture images like the one above. Our galaxy, the Milky Way, is shaped, as the late Sir Patrick Moore, (a BBC, well actually, national institution described it, a man who presented a late night astronomy programme for 55 years) like two fried eggs back to back.  We live about halfway across the white.  It’s about 25,000 light years to the centre of the galaxy and about 25,000 light years to the edge.  With light travelling at 186,000 miles per second, getting your head around how far light can travel in an hour, let alone a year and then multiplying that by 25,000 to get to either the edge or the centre of the galaxy from where we are situated, it really is quite mind-boggling.

The size, the complexity, the multitude of stars and planets, standing on a beach or a cliff top with a camera pointed at the night sky, looking towards the edge of the galaxy that stretches like a huge arch above our heads, one really can feel very small and insignificant indeed.  I had a little chuckle to myself, remembering ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ where in the opening chapter, Earth was demolished to make way for an intergalactic highway.  With all attempts to contact us having been ignored, so wrapped up in the idea that we are the only ones, the highway was going ahead unchallenged and that was it, Earth was no more and the intergalactic bulldozers trundled on remorselessly.

Find a nice dark Sky

The first step is finding a dark sky without light pollution. This is becoming increasingly difficult as towns and cities spread.  I’ve been using a website called Blue Marble to find areas local to me that should be dark, or at least dark enough to capture these images.  I have a certain advantage in being able to find a nice flat relatively dark horizon looking out to sea but even then, darkness can not be guaranteed.  The orange glow in the image above comes from a trawler or tanker.  In the picture below the glow from Falmouth, and a few more towns around the coast plus what I think are navigation lights from a fishing trawler that was coming and going across the horizon clearly impact on the image but not disastrously so.  The orange glow from the sodium lighting used the world over will wash out the further stars from your Milky Way image so really, get as far away as possible from towns and cities.

Milky Way, Hemmick Beach II

Locating the Milky Way

Once you’ve found yourself a nice dark area of countryside, you need to find the Milky Way.  The best advice I can offer here is to look for what could be a ribbon of clouds across the sky on a clear night.  The billions of stars that make up the Milky Way can appear just like that but if you look more closely at the cloud you’ll see that it’s made up of stars.  To be more exact, the Milky Way extends from the constellation Scorpius (Scorpio) to the constellation Cygnas, (the swan) particularly the area closest to Sagittarius.  There are a myriad number of apps available for smart phones that will help you locate what we’re talking about if you’re still nonplussed or if light pollution is obscuring the best of the Milky Way.  Here in the UK at the moment the Milky Way can be seen directly overhead extending north-east to south-west at around midnight.  Summer is a good time to see the Milky Way.  In winter the sun is in the constellation Sagittarius introducing cosmic light pollution.  The moon can also be a culprit so it’s best to view during the Lunar cycle when the moon is absent or new.

Tripod

Right, you’ve found a dark sky and you’ve located the Milky Way, what you now need is a sturdy tripod.  With exposure times extending to 30 seconds, you cannot hold your camera still for that time.  That said, don’t let not having a tripod hold you back. If you don’t have a tripod you could lay your camera on its back and set the self-timer.  Setting the self-timer allows for the shutter to fire without jogging the camera.

Lens

To get the widest field of view, to get more of the Milky Way into your photograph, wide angled lenses are best.  A typical kit lens would be 18-55mm.  18mm is a good starting point.  If you can go wider, all the better.  Faster lenses are better.  By that I mean lenses that allow you to open the aperture to around f1.4, 2.8 or 3.5.  This is simply because the wider the aperture, the more light you can collect on your sensor in the time the shutter is open.

Milky Way, Hemmick Beach III

Shutter Speed

We’re on the move as a planet, when you start taking pictures of the stars with long exposures, you’re going to get star trails if that exposure time is too long.  To photograph the Milky Way we want to slow the shutter as much as possible before the star trails become too apparent.  For this we use the 500 rule.  Divide 500 by the focal length of your lens to arrive at a maximum exposure time before star trails appear.  Wider angle lenses are better as they are going to give you a longer shutter speed allowing more star light to be collected by your sensor.  I’ve been using a Nikkor 14-24mm f2.8.

Aperture

Set your aperture to its widest.  As I’ve mentioned, ideally this will be between f1.4 and 3.5.  If your lens doesn’t open that wide, it’ll be harder to get an image but not impossible.  With a wide aperture however comes a narrow depth of field so you need to be quite precise in your focusing.

ISO

To get enough light on your image sensor, you’re going to have to make it more sensitive to light.  This means upping the ISO to anything between ISO 1600 and ISO 6400.  The higher the ISO, the more noise will be introduced into the image.  I’ve experimented with higher ISO’s and shorter shutter speeds.  Really it’s a trade-off.  You’ll need to find the best shutter speed/ISO combination that works best for you.  I have found with my Nikon D800e that even at ISO 6400 the noise factor isn’t any more troublesome than at ISO 1600.  Hence, I’ve been able to set faster shutter speeds to get ultimately a sharper image of the stars.  Faster shutter speeds mean less star blur.  Despite the introduction of noise at such high ISOs, I’ve printed these images at A3 and they look really good.

Focusing on the Milky Way

You need to set your lens to infinity to get the Milky Way in focus.  This is difficult to do on a dark night with no moon to provide a focus point for auto-focus to operate.  You’re not going to see anything looking through your viewfinder, the camera is blind.  If you have an infinity mark on your lens be wary of just setting to that mark.  In my experience setting the lens at the infinity mark will not give you the sharpest picture.  It should, and I’m not entirely sure why it doesn’t on a lens costing £1500 but there you are.  Perhaps someone could explain that one to me.  Anyway, what you really need to do is focus on a distant object while it’s still light enough for your auto-focus to operate.  Once you’ve focused, switch the lens to manual and leave the focus ring alone.

This is all well and good but if you want to add foreground interest to your image, given a very wide aperture, if your stars are in focus, your foreground will not be.  I have experimented with setting the lens at the hyperfocal distance which, according to the depth of field calculators (numerous ones available for smartphones), at f2.8 on a full frame camera, focusing on a point just 0.83m should give you a sharp image from half a meter in front of the camera to infinity.  Sounds too good to be true and it is.  This method gives you a very sharp foreground and the stars are OK but they will not be as sharp as they could be.  The solution is to focus one image at infinity, and another at the hyperfocal distance and merge the images in Photoshop.  If you shine a torch at the hyperfocal distance for whatever f-number you’re using (lots of depth of field apps available for smartphone) for foreground, (ideally f/8 or f/11 with a very long exposure), auto-focus will pick up the point.  Once you’ve done that however, you’ve lost your infinity focus and no longer have the option to refocus to infinity because it’s dark.  My solution has been to take very careful note of where the focus ring is set when auto-focussing on a distant object.  I’ve then been able to return the lens to that point when I’m ready to shoot the stars once more.  It’s a bit woolly and if your lens doesn’t have a focus distance scale on it, it’s difficult to do.  Some trial and error is going to be required to find what works best for you, your camera and your lens.

The Milky Way, Hemmick Beach I

That’s it, all you need to start capturing pictures of the Milky Way.  Once you have your images and are back at home in front of the computer with a nice cup of tea, you’ll need to process them.  I use Photoshop to process my images.  Regardless of the software you use to process your pictures, the first thing you are likely going to want to adjust is the white (or colour in Photoshop) balance to remove any colour cast.  You can then set about increasing contrast to bring out the detail.  There are many tools available to help you get the best of your images these include Topaz Labs ‘Adjust’ and one of my favourites, Topaz DeNoise.  If you don’t have Photoshop, it’s available as a full working trial via the Adobe website as are Topaz Lab’s plugins.  I’m not going to go into too much detail about the processing of these images as there a million and one ways to go about it but the two most important areas to concentrate on are the white/colour balance and contrast and I’ve mentioned.

Have fun.  I hope you find this useful.

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Milky Way

The Milky Way

A couple of weeks ago I was talking to my friend and fellow blogger Poppy, when I happened to mention what a fabulous moon there was outside.  Poppy’s BB piped up in the background with ‘yes, tonight is a super moon‘.  Well, that was the start of another Poppy and Chillbrook excellent photography adventure.  Two in the morning, out in the wilds of Cornwall and Worcestershire, Poppy and I were exchanging photography and astronomy tips by mobile phone whilst looking at the most amazing night sky.  A plan had been hatched that night, via Skype, to photograph the Milky Way and last night the plan came together. Excellent!!

It’s extremely difficult to find a truly dark sky in the UK as the villages, towns and cities are now so numerous and spreading, each filling the sky with the ubiquitous and vile, orange sodium light pollution however, I found a dark patch, using a website called Blue Marble, on the south coast of Cornwall looking out to sea that looked promising.  I thought this would be a good place because I assumed there wouldn’t be any orange light pollution out at sea.  I was wrong.  The large tankers and cargo ships plying the English Channel also favour this particular form of lighting apparently so it seems nowhere is sacred and a dozen or so miles from the nearest town, the orange glow is evident.

However, despite the light pollution, Poppy and I both managed to get some rather interesting pictures.  You can see Poppy’s pictures here.  We live in a truly wondrous galaxy.  How small and insignificant we are..

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Milky Way II15mm f/2.8 30 sec. ISO 3200
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I will be paying very close attention to location, foreground interest and Milky Way position on my next outing to shoot the stars.
I’ll be writing up a tutorial describing how I went about getting these photographs in the next few days.. :-)
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1AT_7676A Post

Chapel Porth.. Lee Big Stopper..

On the beach at the crack of dawn this morning, it couldn’t have been better.  Of all the offices I’ve worked in over the years, the beach surely takes some beating.  I took this photograph just as I was packing up.  I attached my Lee Big Stopper 10 stop ND filter and took a few long exposures.

More from my Chapel Porth shoot to follow.  Click on the image for a sharper, clearer view.. ;-)

Chapel Porth, Lee Big Stopper

24mm f/22 150 sec. ISO-100

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Polruan III

A Postcard from Polruan..

I had a trip out for lunch today to the Lugger Inn in Polruan.  Polruan sits at the mouth of the River Fowey and a small ferryboat links Fowey across the river with Polruan.  I couldn’t recommend the Lugger Inn highly enough.  Our lunch of fresh, locally caught plaice with buttered prawns on a bed of crushed new potatoes with samphire was absolutely superb!  Click on the link here, or on the links above, to take a look for yourselves.

After lunch on a scorching hot day, what better way to spend an hour than sitting on the quayside enjoying the view, a lovely sea breeze, and watching people messing about in boats on the river.  Well, for me as a photographer, there was a better way to spend that hour of course and that was taking photographs.  My mother, whom I’d taken out to lunch, got to sit and enjoy the view and the breeze and I didn’t feel quite so guilty about getting all absorbed in my photography when on a trip out together.

I pick up my Mum and we go out to lunch quite regularly and coincidentally enough, the pubs and hotels we visit are always in locations that lend themselves to a photograph or two. My Mum hasn’t complained, is very tolerant and for that I’m very grateful. Here are some of the pictures I took today.  A day and a location that lent themselves perfectly to a picture postcard type photo or two.  Click on any of the pictures to open the gallery.  I hope you enjoy the pictures..

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A Zen Moment.. Porth Nanven

While I was visiting Porth Nanven in the Cot Valley last week, waiting for the light that didn’t materialise ( it was overcast and the light was very flat) I had a bit of a zen moment.. My balancing pebble installation would naturally be temporary with a rising tide.. Hadn’t realised how temporary mind you..

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Super Moon

Tonight is one of those nights when the moon appears bigger than it usually does.  This is called a super moon and tonight, with clear skies, I was lucky enough to see it.  The longest lens I have is 70mm (I have a 400mm lens on my Amazon wish list) so it’s not a brilliant picture as I’ve had to crop so tightly but even so, the Tycho crater is clearly visible at the bottom of the moon.. :-)

Super Moon70mm f/5.6 1/400 sec ISO-100

Porth Nanven, Cot Valley, Cornwall – Boundaries

Here’s a few more pictures from my recent dawn shoot at Porth Nanven in the Cot Valley, Cornwall.  This really is a very special place and needs very little help from the Photoshop toolbox but in the third image posted today, I let my imagination run just a little bit.

Porth Nanven, Cot Valley, Cornwall - Boundaries II24mm f/8 60 sec. ISO-100

There is always a lot of talk about post processing pictures.  Otto hosted a very interesting discussion on the subject recently of lines and boundaries and definitions of photography in the digital age.  For me, shooting RAW, I always post process my images, it’s a requirement.  I like to have that control.  If you shoot jpegs and are happy to let your camera do the processing for you, that’s fine but of course the pictures are still processed.

Porth Nanven, Cot Valley, Cornwall - Boundaries24mm f/8  76 sec. ISO-100

There does come a point however when a post-processed photograph becomes something more and here I like the way the Royal Photographic Society categorises images such as these for the purposes of gaining distinctions from the Society.  These images come under ‘Visual Art’ category.

To make the image below, I took one of the two original photographs.  I then went through my archives digging out photographs with really nice clouds in them as well as photos with birds.  I then created some Photoshop brushes, quite a simple process for which there are many tutorials, and ‘painted’ the clouds and the birds onto the image.  The moon was added in exactly the same way.  You don’t need to make your own brushes of course.  There are many out there freely available but I wanted to work with elements added from my own photographs.  I then spent some time with gradient maps, adjustment layers, luminosity masks and rendered lighting effects to create just the atmosphere I wanted.

Porth Nanven, Cot Valley Post Processed

40px spacerThis was a first for me and I thoroughly enjoyed the process.  I could have kept going, I was at the tip of an iceberg of possibilities.  Is it cheating?  Only if I pretended it was something it wasn’t.  Is it photography?  It is in my opinion.  Just a very exciting extension of traditional form made possible and very accessible in the digital era.

By the end of this process I was left pondering the question as to why anyone would get up at 2 am to take photographs when 9 am would do.  Any photograph, with some work, can be made to look like it was taken at any time of day.  I can create any mood or atmosphere I like in a photograph and it can all be done from my desk in front of my PC.

I’m very excited about the boundless opportunities that this photographic visual art presents.  One is limited only by one’s imagination and skill both as a photographer and as a Photoshopper.

I know why I get up at 2 am to take photographs however, and that just isn’t going to change.  I’m in love with the landscape I photograph, I love taking pictures of it, I love capturing its many moods first hand.  If I don’t get the photo I want one day, I come back the next.  It’s all part of the challenge and the joy of photography.  There is nothing to match waiting for first light, crouched with your camera, listening as the birds start their dawn chorus.  Waiting and clicking the shutter, composing and readjusting and being 100% immersed in the landscape and absorbed in the process of taking photographs .  For me that beats the hell out of ‘making’ them in a computer.