Capturing the beauty of the night sky is one of those disciplines when learned on your own 100% can be somewhat of a long road to success. Throughout the years I've made a lot of mistakes capturing the Milky Way. But with all these mistakes, it opened a door to a full proof method in achieving those images I've dreamed about capturing, taking home memories to share with friends and family along the way. I now work with people on a one on one or group basis conducting fun and informative workshops sharing my knowledge with fellow photographers that have that desire to sharpen their skills and learn more about the universe around them. With that said, here are a few tips and tricks that can help you along your journey as a photographer of the night sky. Hope you enjoy!
TIP 1. LOCATION & HOW TO FIND THE MILKY WAY
Yes! It's a pretty obvious one to most, but with more than 90% of the population on Earth not being able to see the Milky Way with their naked eyes, people ask constantly why they can't see it peeping out their windows or from their backyards. It's not because their naive, but literally most people have not seen a dark sky from the day they were born. Light pollution is the night skies worst enemy. So you might of guessed it, the further you travel away from a major city the greater your chances are in seeing the Milky Way galaxy which is between 100,000 – 120,000 light - years in diameter or more containing over 200 million stars. Crazy right!?!
Another thing to note, is that the core or center of the Milky Way is visible from the months of March to November. It is easier seen in the Summer months where it's up and about quickly after sun down. As we orbit around the sun from November till late February the Milky Way is behind the sun being up only during the day light hours.
If your a eager beaver like me and miss seeing the Milky Way core during the off season, check out www.darksky.org a extremely helpful website to find a proper dark sky location. Where you can view the Milky Way core as earliest as the the last week of February at about thirty minutes to an hour before dawn. You might freeze your butt off depending on where you live in the world, but hey it's like seeing an old friend that you haven't seen in along time. Totally worth it right!
So rounding up the first tip is how to find the Milky Way in a dark sky. To make things extremely easy especially for a first time shooter of the night. Download both of these easy to use applications available on your desktop computer and mobile phone called "Stellarium" or "Star Walk." You can use either one of them to locate the constellation Sagittarius. Where the meat and bones of the Milky Way appears the brightest. I use them both on a daily, not only to predicate the time the Milky Way will rise and set. But to also see future star patterns, making it possible to plan any upcoming celestial events, etc.
TIP 2. GET A RELIABLE TRIPOD
Another obvious tip but a useful one at that. Especially if your shooting somewhere where the winds are moderately high. I currently use a Slik Pro 634 CFL carbon fiber tripod which has been with me for years now and has never let me down. A little pricey but certainly a great investment. I've also recently acquired a brand new tripod that is extremely light in weight and made specifically for the astrophotographer in mind. A new tripod is hitting the market by Slik called the Lite AL-420S and should be out very soon. This is the smallest one of the bunch. Slik does have a few in different sizes ranging from small to large in aluminum and carbon fiber. I do travel a ton and love to adventure light and compact. This sturdy guy folds up nicely and fits right into my backpack with no problem. So what makes this tripod so awesome you ask? It has a detachable light source that you can turn on and off. These days I place my backpack right under the tripod and use the attached light source when I need to search around in my bag for something.
TIP 3. NEW MOON VERSE SOME MOON
Throughout the years it's been a pleasure finding out what works best with certain scenarios and visions and considering natural lighting on the landscape or your subject matter. I sometimes plan on capturing a scene with two exposures and blend both of them in Photoshop. This involves an image taken with the moon rising or setting while it casts natural light, and one taken of the night sky in complete darkness. These days I do shoot more often on a night that has some moonlight to achieve this effect.
My recommendation for a first time shooter of the Milky Way is to shoot during the new moon cycle. Technically, it is a much easier image to capture because once you have your setting wired you can set it and forget it. If the moon is rising or setting you may have to make some minor adjustments.
TIP 4. TECHNIQUE & THE 500 RULE
Here are a few nuts and bolts of what every night sky photographer should get a handle on. First, start this off by making sure you are shooting in manual mode and in RAW. Shooting in RAW and not in JPEG will save you from a future of headaches down the road and make it easier to change you color balance etc. With today's cameras, I find pretty much any modern DSLR and mirriorless camera can handle higher ISO's pretty well. Every camera is different of course. I personally use the Sony A7rII for my astrophotography, and sometimes push it all the way up to 12,800 ISO in certain situations with little to no noise at all. Not all cameras can do this. But what most cameras can do is between 3200 - 6400 ISO. This number is where I usually float around 85% of the time.
Next is exposure time and getting it just right before you start getting that unwanted star trail. Getting pinpoint and sharp stars is the name of the game in capturing imagery such as this. By using this formula called the "THE 500 RULE" you can achieve this with no problem. You take 500 and you divide that by the focal length of your lens. This will give you a exposure time with no star trailing. (EXAMPLE) 500 / 24 = 20.8333 seconds. Now you round down which would give you a exposure time of 20 seconds. NOTE! THIS IS IMPORTANT. If you have a full frame camera you can do this calculation right off the bat. If you don't and shoot with a crop sensor camera or smaller such as a Sony A6300, you need first to multiply your crop factor by your focal length then run the formula. (EXAMPLE) 24 X 1.5 = 36. Now you take 500 / 36 = 13.8888 seconds and of course you can round it down to the nearest number. If you want to read more about the "500 Rule" please do visit here to check out a more detailed explanation.
Another important detail is setting your aperture and white balance. For the most part the aperture will be set to the most open or fastest setting. If your lens is a f2.8 set it to that and so on. At least start there first and experiment from then on. Having the aperture wide open will let in the most possible amount of light, resulting in a well exposed Milky Way. Slowing it down one stop will increase clarity of the stars, especially at the corners of the image. Let's say I have a lens that is a F2.0. I will stop it down to F2.8. Of course, all lenses are made differently and some are sharper than others wide open. This is where the fun takes place experimenting and pushing the limits of what your gear can do. With some trial and error, you will figure out what works best for you.
As far as white balance, I never leave it on Auto and always set my camera to incandescent or a cooler temperature. In my opinion, this looks the most natural right off the camera almost every time. At the end of the day, I play around with the white balance in Adobe Light Room to achieve a feel that suits the mood of the image. This is where shooting in RAW comes in handy.
With all that said, if you take all of these pointers into account and play around with your ISO and aperture while following the rule of 500, you'll be scoring images of the Milky Way in no time!
TIP 5. THE HOYA INTENSIFIER
The last tip but certainly not the least is the intensifier. What is that you ask? It has been my secret weapon in capturing the Milky Way or any nightscape image for awhile now. I first found out about this simple filter that Hoya makes a while ago while nerding out online learning about how people photograph interstellar space. A few mentioned this filter and how useful it was to cut through light pollution while really making those nebula's, and deep space images pop! I thought, if they are using it why can't I use it on shooting astrophotography at a much more wider field? I got a few and now can't leave home without them.
They are made to intensify red and orange colors, especially for Fall when leaves change, or even during the golden hour just before sunset. The intensifier is also known as a Didymium filter. These filters cut out the yellow - orange portion of the spectrum. Much of our light pollution is from sodium vapor lamps which are city street lamps that give off the same spectrum of light that the intensifier cuts out. Using these filters creates an almost pollution free image, making it much easier to edit in post. It's a tool I recommend every photographer picking up to add to their bag of tricks. With no question. It'll seriously blow your mind how much change it will bring to your images.
IMPORTANT NOTE - if your interested in ordering a Hoya intensifier make sure it's labeled as "intensifier" or "red intensifier."
To stare up at the stars and Milky Way is a captivating experience to say the least. Capturing beautiful imagery to share with the world will only help spread the word of how important it is to protect the little amount of dark skies we have left, and to maintain them for the future of the youth to enjoy. I hope you can take these general tips to create and expand a discipline in photography that will bring you countless memories to share with your family and friends.
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