Aiming for the Milky Way

I have been clicking lots of nightscapes and star trails lately. Just a few days back, I saw a photograph of Milky-Way, shared in a Whatsapp group. More than the photograph, what interested me was the statement that the person who had captured the photograph, had spent a large number of months (maybe years) and lots of failed shots before achieving that photograph. The photograph was nice but this statement appeared exactly out of the reality shows, trying to strum some emotional chords in the hearts of some gullible readers. I thought, why not click some milky-way shots as well when I am doing star-trails next time.

 

Milky Way behind Maini's Hill Cottages

(Milky Way behind Maini’s Hill Cottages. Captured using an old camera and in a foreground with lots of light pollution.)

 

Milky Way photography is not difficult at all, if you know how to photograph stars in general. Just a little bit of extra knowledge and preparedness helps. Though, I have already written an article on photographing stars – Capturing Starry Skies, I’ll summarize the basics once more here.

 

Camera Basics

Use these settings –

  • Set the ISO to medium range (1600-6400 : This is fine for most new cameras). Don’t worry about over-exposure. That’s actually working in your favor to reduce noise. Over-exposure can be corrected later on.
  • Use Manual Mode. The photographs are going to be over-exposed when you preview them, don’t worry. Stick to Manual Mode. Ignore the camera meter too.
  • Set the Aperture to the widest open available on your lens or the widest open one that can provide enough depth of field (Depth of Field & Aperture, Hyper-focal Focusing, Focus Stacking) to capture the foreground too.
  • Change Shutter Speed to Bulb or Timed Mode (Where you can manually determine the number of seconds to open the shutter).
  • Manual Focusing to prevent focus-hunting in the dark night (That reminds me to plan on some popcorn and a binge-watching of Dark Knight series).
  • This goes without saying – mount the camera on a sturdy tripod.
  • Click raw. You’ll need a lot of leeway later on to correct exposure and to bring out the milky way. Jpeg – no way !!!

For details about why I recommend these settings, do read the starry-skies article, I have mentioned above.

 

Milky Way

The galaxy we are located in is called Milky-Way. That’s school knowledge that most have forgotten. Milky-Way is said to be a spiral-galaxy with a bar shaped core, with billions and billions of stars. Since we are located in it, when we see the galaxy, we see it as a band crossing the sky. This band, composed mostly of the core of the galaxy, is what photographers talk of when they say that they are photographing Milky-Way.

The Milky-Way photographs are also decorated by a cluster of cloud-like formations. These are the nebulae (nebulas) or the cosmic-clouds. These emit different colors. Due to long-exposures and atmospheric dust, these colors are not recorded as accurately as we would want them to be. For those of you interested in enjoying these colors of nebulae, a dedicated high-powered telescope is what is required.

 

(The faint colors in Nebulae can be seen even in simple Milky-Way snapshots. Someday, I’ll get myself a powerful telescope to enjoy all these)

 

Timing the Photo-Shoot

Some lame photographers mention that they spent so many months or years trying to photograph Milky Way. In my opinion, they should have either asked some old villagers about the visibility of ‘aakash ganga’ (as it is fondly called in India) or used some technology. (I am one of those few who believe that a photograph should tell the story on its own. There should not be a need to improve its importance by telling the story behind it.)

Milky-Way can be photographed from late spring months to early autumn, from northern India. During winters, the tilt of the planet hides most part of it below the horizon. The sun moves south during winters and the visible part (the core of the band) of galaxy moves too.

Milky-Way can be best photographed in the early morning hours of spring and summers (some hours before sunrise). During autumn, it is easily photographed in the early hours of night (some hours after sunset). The photographs in this article were photographed at about 9 PM (IST), in the first week of September.

For photo-shoot, the biggest challenge is the light pollution, followed by atmospheric pollution. This is why, I always recommend photographing Milky-Way in the months of March or August/September. Summers in India are notorious for dust storms and in most places the sky is not clearly visible. During July-August, clouds keep on playing hide and seek.

Absence of moon is also needed. Plan your clicks around new-moon time or when the moon is not there in the sky (after moon sets during spring season and before moon-rise in the autumn).

 

Location

The farther away from civilization, the better it is. Light pollution plays a spoil sport. Some of my friends tell me that living near the hills, it is easy for me to photograph the milky way. However, that is not a good enough reason. Almost any place can be a good spot to photograph the Milky-Way, provided the sky is visible and the light-pollution is low. I have a friend who had photographed a wonderful composition from his apartment’s balcony (though during a power-failure). I have also captured some other night sky photographs from a village near the overpopulated city of Kanpur. Yes, the low light pollution places are ideal but even rural areas near the city are fine. There is no reason why you should wait for a trip to the hills to photograph Milky-Way, and not indulge in photographing it tonight!

The Milky-Way appears in the southern sky. For identifying the location or for predicting the approximate time, there are many apps available for phones and computers. Stellaris and Skyview are two good ones that come to my mind. In fact, these are useful not just for photographing Milky-Way but for anyone interested in astronomy.

I prefer to use the age-old method of identifying the constellations first and then finding out the location of the galaxy’s core. The Scorpious constellation has its tail in the core. Search for the Scorpious and the star in its tail will be one part of Milky Way. The top two stars of Sagittarius are also a part of the Milky-Way core. Learn to identify these two and you’ll always find the Milky-Way without fail.

 

Light-Pollution Filter

These were an accessory that very few photographers use now a days. Yet, these are still helpful. Light-Pollution filters are pink-magenta colored glass filters that screw in front of the lenses. These used to be very effective till a decade back when the light pollution was predominantly by the warm light of sodium-vapor lamps. Now a days, due to cool colored street lights, their efficacy is reduced, but still they are quite useful. If you stay in a city, do give this filter a try! In fact, even in dark locations, a light pollution filter can help bring out the beauty of Milky-Way.

 

(Milky Way in the backdrop of a road)

 

The Photography Begins

Once everything is right. The sky is cloudless, there’s no moon, Milky-Way is visible, camera is set… it’s the time to let the party begin.

Use the ‘500 Rule’ for the shutter speed. With a 25mm lens, the 500 rule says that the maximum exposure should be less than 20 seconds (500 divided by focal length i.e- 25 with this lens).

For the shots in this article, I used a Zeiss 25mm lens, mounted on a full-frame Nikon body. The camera was securely attached to a Manfrotto ball-head on a Vanguard tripod. No filter was used in front of the lens. I had used ISO 3200 and 6400 for different shots.

In the photograph above, the exposure time was just about 20 seconds. It was long enough to let the vehicle move across the frame, creating a light trail in the foreground. Yet, the time was just enough to prevent star-trails. By the way, for those finding an excuse about light-pollution, the above photograph is not exactly from a really dark location. In fact, it is next to a road with traffic!

 

Post-Processing

Post-processing raw files is slightly different from other regular photographs. Here, the aim is to bring out the nebulas without increasing noise. After correcting the exposure, shift the black-point to make the sky dark. Apply sharpening, while adjusting the threshold for it. For details, I once again recommend reading this article – Capturing Starry Skies.

 

Strong Compositions

The photographs on this page are just snapshots to showcase the principles behind photographing Milky-Way. If you want to have images that create an impact, concentrate on the whole composition. A foreground subject standing tall, covering some part of the sky as well, looks wonderful in front of the galaxy. Treat the whole frame with importance and not just the galaxy. For beginners, you can bank on the so called composition rules. Whatever you do, remember to think of the whole composition. Treat Milky-Way as a way to strengthen your subject and not as the main subject.

For best technical quality, use the latest camera model that you have (the one with the least noise at high ISO or with a high native ISO), buy a light pollution filter, and over-expose the raw file!

 

An Interesting Offer …

In fact, if you are planning to photograph Milky-Way, why don’t you plan a trip to our homestay (Maini’s Hill Cottages). It’s on the edge of a village and a forest. Great place. You pay for the stay and photography lessons will be on me! (How’s that for a marketing pitch, for the homestay?)

 

Further Reading:
Capturing Starry Skies
Star Trails
Remove Noise (Add Grain?)

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