It is not that hard to photograph the Milky Way once you find the perfect spot. Finding the spot to photograph the Milky Way is the hardest part of the photo to do. Generally for around the U.S you can photograph it from Spring to late Fall. The hard part is finding a dark area to do that in. With the cities expanding and all of the light pollution that fills the sky, you have to find spots away from the cities lights. That will mean for me that I will end up in the U.P. of Michigan or Minnesota’s Lake Superior shore. I use an app on my iPhone called Dark Sky, it helps me locate area’s with the lowest amount of light pollution. Once I pick an area to photograph in, I then need to find where the Milky Way will be.
In Spring it starts in the the east and slowly shifts to the west. I use an app called SkyView, to help me place where it will be. You just need to find the constellation of Sagittarius and you will see the dense cluster of stars that would be the Milky Way. I use the app to determine the location and time that the Milky Way will rise, in Spring it is later at night, as we get into Summer it rises earlier depending on where you are.
Once you know where it will be and the location you plan to shoot at, you need to find some foreground to make the image interesting, trees, islands, shorelines, etc., this can get hard to do, I have found many locations, but the foreground is boring, so you need to keep your eyes open to different possibilities. I do these searches during the day, using the app to show me where the Milky Way will be. This can take some time to, but when you find that right spot, it can make for an interesting image.
Now that you have found the spot, you need a couple of things to come together. First, it needs to be a clear night, so be prepared to wait a couple of nights to get that clear night, when you see that it is going to be clear, make the most of it. Another minor part, is the moon, if it is close to a full moon and or just after it, you won't be able to get the Milky Way until it sets or before it rises, so this can be tricky, Skyview can help you with that or I also use The Photographer’s Ephemeris, it will tell me where the moon is and when it rises or falls at the horizon. Another app that works well for this and has a lot of features is PhotoPills, it has a planner in it plus lets you know where the sun and moon is, plus a lot of other features, it is worth checking out.
So now you have the location picked out, you have your composition ideas ready and it is time to start shooting. Equipment wise all you need is your camera with a wide angle lens, tripod, cable release and a flashlight, I like a headlamp that puts out a red beam, the red does not hurt our eye as much when shooting at night, if you use white, you will lose your night vision for a while, red does not do that. I usually suggest setting up before it gets dark, it makes it easier to get the camera set while there is still light available to see with. So the first thing I do is to get my focus set at infinity, don’t just crank it to the mark, look out into the far distance to an object and focus on that, set your camera to manual focus, I will lock it down using some tape. It can get really hard to adjust the focus once it gets dark, it can be done, but it is so much easier to do it before it gets dark. Then set up your camera and pick your composition, sit back and wait for it to get dark.
Camera Settings will vary depending on the lens that you will use. You will need to keep the shutter speed long enough to capture the stars, but short enough so that the stars don’t turn into trails. My starting exposure is 30 seconds at my widest opening which is f/4 and I will use an ISO of around 6400. I found this works well with my full frame camera and a 16mm lens. As the lens gets stronger the the maximum shutter speed to avoid star trails gets shorter, which means you will have to either open the lens up or increase your ISO. I will start with a couple of test images to see if I get trails, if I do then a cut the exposure time down and increase my ISO. You just need to look on your monitor, zoom in and see if you are starting to get star trails and do you adjustments from there.
Once I have all the settings working, I will shoot away, recomposing the image can be difficult, so I go for my first image, making sure I get that one, then I will try and recompose for different shots. You can also try to light paint the foreground, but make sure you get your basic shots first, then start playing around. Don't forget to just enjoy being out at night, with the beautiful star filled sky.
This chart is set for using a full frame camera, if you are using a crop frame, just use your multiplication factor to compensate for the difference.
Focal Length........Max Shutter Speed
- 16 mm..............30 Sec.
- 24 mm..............24 Sec.
- 28 mm..............22 Sec.
- 35 mm..............18 Sec.
- 50 mm..............13 Sec.
- 85 mm...............8 Sec.
Apps for the iPhone: Dark Sky SkyView Photo Pills The Photographer’s Ephemeris Planets Sun Seeker
A good blog for night photography is by Kevin Adams: http://www.kadamsphoto.com/nightphotography/
A good article in the Outdoor Photographer Magazine is: http://www.outdoorphotographer.com/how-to/shooting/photographing-the-milky-way.html#.VU-ksmAl_9O