Images by Julia Ohst
Your guide to shooting stellar Milky Way photography.
Beware the full moon and light pollution.
The features of the Milky Way’s center are only visible in the Northern Hemisphere between April and October and in the Southern Hemisphere between February and October. During those times of year, the Milky Way is most visible on dark nights in dark places. Check a moon-phase calendar to plan your shoot on the night of a new moon (when no moon light is visible), or for times before the moon has risen or after it has set. “For those of us with day jobs, that means comparing the lunar calendar to the work calendar in order to find a weekend to go,” says photographer Julia Ohst.
To avoid light pollution, you may have to travel some distance. “Light of any kind, whether it’s the moon or city lights, or even small town lights, will wash out the Milky Way and make it look really dim,” says Ohst. You can use a light pollution map like the Dark Sky Finder app or Dark Site Finder website to help you locate the closest dark places near you. Don’t forget to check the weather to make sure the sky won’t be hidden behind clouds.
Put the foreground elements first.
Scout your shot in the daytime.
Take care in the dark.
Ohst recommends another app, Gaia GPS, for navigating in the night. “Just press record when you’re leaving your car, and it will record the path you walk on. It even works if you have no signal, so you can always get back to your car.” To capture multiple compositions in a night, you can drop a waypoint for each spot so you can find it in the dark.
What to do with your camera.
Focus on a bright star.
To focus on objects that are 25,000 light-years away, you can’t rely on your camera’s auto-focus. “You need to have the ability to manual focus, to set your ISO, aperture, and shutter at exactly what you want, so you need to go full manual,” Whitehouse says. One option, if your camera has it, is to use the focus magnifier feature (“Live View” on a Nikon) to pull your focus. “I find the brightest star in the sky, focus magnify on that, get it to where it’s super-crisp, and that makes the entire scene perfectly crisp,” Whitehouse says.
“It doesn’t always work perfectly the first time,” says Ohst. “So once I do that, I zoom back out, take a test shot, and then I zoom way in on the test shot to see if my stars are pinpoint. Often they’re not and I have to try it again.” Ohst recommends checking and double-checking your focus, especially if you change your camera orientation, because you might accidentally touch the focus ring and lose your shot. “And there’s no fixing that at home,” she cautions.
If you’re new to photography and you aren’t comfortable with manual mode yet, try setting your focus before the sun sets. “One trick that you can use is to focus on the thing that’s the furthest away in the landscape. Then when it gets dark, you don’t have to worry about it,” says Whitehouse.
Play with the exposure triangle.
Use technology to avoid star trails.
One of the biggest challenges in Milky Way photography is letting enough light into your camera’s sensor without creating star trails (bright streaks that show the movement of the stars over long exposures). You can avoid those by raising the ISO setting on your camera. “I shoot at ISO 6,400, 8,000, sometimes even 10,000, depending how dark it is,” says Ohst. “But when you shoot at those ISOs, the picture is really noisy. You can see pixels and they might be odd colors.” Photographers use two techniques for long exposure noise reduction: stacking and tracking.
Light the foreground.
Experiment with photo blending.
With Adobe Photoshop, you can blend your perfect photo of the Milky Way with your perfect blue-hour photo of the foreground. It can take a lot of time to mask the horizon of one photo, especially if there are trees. “I’ve learned to avoid trees,” Ohst says.
Images by Whitney Whitehouse
Make the Milky Way shine in post-processing.
Find the perfect edits of your photos with Adobe Photoshop Lightroom. “Use Lightroom to bring up the saturation and vibrance more than you would for other kinds of shots, and avoid increasing contrast too much, because then the stars can look crunchy or overly processed,” says Ohst. For more tips on adjusting your photos in Lightroom, check out tutorials on how to reduce noise and how to edit the foreground while leaving the background untouched.
As you begin your photographic journey to the core of our galaxy, remember to move carefully in the dark, be respectful of other photographers, and be patient with yourself. Mistakes are inevitable, but with practice you’re sure to capture fantastic shots.
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