Welcome to Part One of a three-part series Milky Way Photography for Beginners. Have you ever wondered how to create a Milky Way photo? Do you want to have the skills to create these images? Then look no further! It’s not as hard as you may think. If you have a basic DSLR or Mirrorless camera kit, you probably have everything you need to start Milky Way Photography.
Milky Way Photography for Beginners – Part One
I’ve geared this series towards those just beginning their journey into the art of Milky Way Photography. In this first part, we show you all the gear you’ll need, when and where to see the Milky Way, and how to plan for your first Milky Way photographs. In Part Two, we will build on what you’ve learned in Part One, and head out into the field and take your first Milky Way photo. Finally, in Part Three we will discuss how to get the most out of your Milky Way images in post-processing.
After completing this three-part Milky Way Photography for Beginners spectacular, you will have a solid foundation that will allow you to become proficient in creating Milky Way images that are sound technically and appeal to your audience.
Milky Way photography does not require a bag of gear worth the price of a sports car. From time to time, I will see someone ask for a camera recommendation in a group and the answers are always the same, “full frame camera body whatever.” Newsflash, you do not need a full frame camera body to photograph the Milky Way. I have been doing it for years with a 16 MP crop sensor camera, and I have sold thousands of dollars worth of Milky Way prints from shots that came out of that camera. Does a full frame have an advantage? Yes. I just moved to a full-frame system myself. The key is knowing your camera and how to work with its limitations.
What you want in a camera body is pretty simple. You want to have full manual control. Canon, Fujifilm, Nikon, Panasonic, Pentax, Olympus, Sigma, Sony – the choice is yours. You need to be able to set the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO without the camera having any say in the matter. That is it.
Lens selection though is essential. Yes, you can pull off a Milky Way image using a run of the mill 18-55 mm kit lens. I have done it with success, and many others also have. The most important specification you want to look at is the maximum aperture. You want to get a lens that is f/2.8 as a minimum. Although that number may scare you and it’s synonymous with expensive glass, for less than $300 you can have the perfect lens for Milky Way photography.
One of the more popular Milky Way photography lenses on the market is the Rokinon 14 mm f/2.8. Usually ranging from around $250 to $300, this lens can be one of the best “bang to the buck” pieces of gear you can get.
Since I have moved on from crop sensor to full frame, I will be updating this section later on this year as I have also moved on from the Rokinon and have a new Tokina 16-28 mm f/2.8 taking its place.
The next piece of gear that you need is a tripod. When it comes to tripods, you do not want to skimp. Typical thinking is at the bare minimum spend $200 and no less. If you look high and low, you can find a quality tripod used. Our own Kirk Keyes dropped $60 on a 20-year-old, used aluminum Manfrotto tripod in perfect condition. I have been using a Vanguard Alta Pro 263AT for years. With tripod and ball head, the price would be about $300 brand new. My tripod out of production, but Vanguard has a newer version.
Other Gear You’ll Want
Those three items are the bare minimum you need as a beginner Milky Way Photographer. The following things are not necessary, but they will help you have a more enjoyable and productive night shooting.
Remote Shutter Release
It would not hurt to find a remote shutter release so you can trigger the shutter without having to touch the camera body. If you move the camera when you take a photo, it can introduce vibration into shots and make them less sharp.
I prefer wired remotes, while other photographers prefer wireless. The choice is yours.
If you don’t have a remote shutter release, you can use your camera’s built-in self-timer. While it works, it is not as immediate as a remote release. And it does slow your shooting down as you wait for your camera to count down the seconds before taking a photo.
Have a minimum of 2 fully charged batteries. Some cameras suck batteries dry quickly, and you may need more than two. And the colder the night gets, the faster your camera will die. You don’t want to have to call it quits on the most awesome night of Milky Way photography because of a dead battery.
Extra Memory Cards
Bring a minimum of 2 memory cards, at least 16 GB each. You never know when there might be a problem with one of the cards (it gets lost, broken, malfunctioning.)
Headlamp or Flashlight
Lastly, do not forget a flashlight or three and a headlamp. These will help you find your way, compose shots, and when you are not paying attention, ruining shots because you left it on and flagged the camera while the shutter was open.
A headlamp allows you to work and hike hands-free. One with a red-light mode lets you maintain your night vision. It does not need to be super-bright, just something that can light up your immediate area. You’re not trying to spot bombers over London; it just needs to light up the camera and do some easy hiking.
If you want more than a simple headlamp, check out this Boruit model on Amazon.
It’s a no-brainer to bring warm clothes in the winter, but even in the summer months, nights can get cold. Dress in layers and bring extra clothes in the case you need them. It can get pretty cold as you stand around waiting for the Milky Way to get in just the right spot for your composition.
Photog Adventures Gear
Lastly, you can also review the Recommended Gear list on the Photog Adventures website. The links on this Photog Adventures page, as well as several in this article, are Amazon Affiliate links. Clicking on and buying items from them help us produce the MilkyWayPhotographers.com website as well as the Photog Adventures podcast and YouTube channel.
HAVE GEAR, WHAT’S NEXT?
Now that you have your camera, a lens, and a tripod; the next step is research. You need to find out where the Milky Way will be in the sky, at what times, and where you should go to photograph it.
When is Milky Way “Season”?
The first thing to remember is that you can photograph the Milky Way year round. There is a “season” so to speak. The season is determined as the part of the year when the Milky Way Core is above the horizon during dark hours. The Milky Way Core is an orange mass of stars at the center of the Milky Way galaxy.
Here in the United States, this season ranges pretty much from February to October. Your mileage will vary a little depending on your exact location. Since we are inside the Milky Way, it wraps around us, surrounding us with a ring of stars. You can photograph the entire ring if you want.
From November through January, the Milky Way Core is too close to the Sun and gets lost in its glare. The night sky doesn’t get dark enough for the Milky Way Core to stand out. It gets lost in the glare of the sun. During these months, the rest of Milky Way is begging us to photograph it as it stretches across the night sky.
Look for Moonless Nights
The next thing you will need to consider in planning a Milky Way photo is the phase of the Moon. You can forget trying to shoot the Milky Way during a Full Moon. The illumination from the Moon will drown out the Milky Way. The best time to capture it is during a New Moon phase, and to a lesser degree right before and right after the New Moon. The Moon will not have enough illumination to drown out the Milky Way during these times.
Early in the year, the Milky Way Core will be above the horizon just before sunrise. It is also the time of year that you want to go for Milky Way panoramas, which I will talk about in later articles. As the year progresses, the Core will continue to rise above the horizon sooner and sooner in the night sky. By late summer, the Core will be up right after the sun goes down. The Milky Way will also be vertical or close to it.
Where to Look in the Sky
Lastly, you need to know where to look in the sky. Early in the season, the core will be on the eastern horizon, a little to the south of due east. Since the Earth orbits the Sun, the Core will go from there and head towards the south. Later on in the year, the core will be coming up in the south.
I have a collection of apps on my phone that I use for Milky Way Scouting. There are also a couple of websites that I recommend for Milky Way photography for both beginners or those experienced. The apps are somewhat wide-ranging regarding the information that they provide. Some of them will show you where the Milky Way is in the sky at any given time. A couple of them also have “live view” features that allow you to use the app to assist you in locating the Milky Way in the sky.
Here is a list with a quick description of each app or website:
A light pollution map might be the most critical information you need. I use https://darksitefinder.com for this. Photography is the capture of light and the more stray light there is, the more the sensor is going to capture it. The issue is that if you are in a town of more than a few people, the street lights are liable to wash out the Milky Way. Along with that, the sensor is going to gather all of that light and the sensor will not “capture” the Milky Way.
As you can see on the map below, areas of light pollution around towns and cities are shaded in color, while “dark sky” areas are in shades of gray, ranging from light gray to dark gray. The dark gray will be the darkest of the dark. Those are the places you want to go to if you can. You also want to try not and shoot into an area with a lot of light pollution. That will reduce the brightness of the Milky Way as well.
Star Walk 2 is excellent for planning and finding the Milky Way. The app displays celestial objects in the sky and their location. Star Walk 2 allows you to scroll through time and dates so you can determine when and where to look. The app can also take into consideration the user’s location, and it has an augmented reality function.
This app has possibly set the gold standard for useful photography tools. I can write an entire article about this app, but I will keep it short. This app can be used to plan everything for a Milky Way shot. It is not as “visual” as Star Walk 2, but it allows the user to set a location on the map and the user can scroll through a time chart, which will display where the Milky Way is and times that it is visible. That is the bare bones description of the app.
PhotoPills is so much more than a planning app, and even if you do other kinds of photography in the outdoors, it is handy. It has an extensive collection of calculators for depth of field (DoF), Hyperfocal Distance, Field of View, Subject Distance, Focal Length Matching, Star Trails, Time Lapse, Spot Stars, and even a built-in timer.
Just like PhotoPills, PlanIt! for Photographers is an app that will let you plan everything you need to know for photographing the Milky Way. PlanIt! uses an arguably more straightforward interface than PhotoPills which has a more modular approach. PlanIt also goes one step beyond PhotoPills and adds in features such as Tides, a Bortle Scale/ Dark Sky Map, and Cloud Deck info.
One thing that PlanIt! lets you do is download digital elevation maps (DEM), and then it can render a 3D perspective of the landscape terrain. It is super helpful when trying to align the Milky Way, Sun, Moon, or any other night sky object with the landscape.
PlanIt! has a free version, but it’s only a few dollars for the Pro version and well worth it.
I have not seen much written about this app as of yet, but I would consider this one a hidden gem that is very useful. The app displays weather models from the College of DuPage. That might sound weird for astrophotography, but one of the forecast tools included is for cloud coverage. In short, I can pull up the weather model and scroll through the timeline to see if I have a clear sky at my planned photo location. I would not call this app user-friendly, but it is not difficult to use. This information is also available through the College of DuPage’s website. ***UPDATE*** Unfortunately I am unable to find a link to the app. If you see a link, feel free to drop it in the comment section.
With this app, the user can pull up locations throughout the US to see what the clear sky forecast is for that location. Information includes Cloud Cover, Transparency, Seeing, Darkness, Wind, Humidity, and Temperature. It is a pretty solid app, but there might be a few hours between updated forecasts.
My Clear Sky Charts is available for iOS only.
Clear Outside takes a similar approach to My Clear Sky Charts for displaying weather info, despite having a more dated interface. It gives you seven day hourly forecasts which are updated hourly. Low, medium, high, and total cloud cover display in a table. It shows civil, nautical, and astronomical darkness times. Moonrise/set times and lunar phase, as well as solar rise/set and transit times, are displayed. You can save your favorite locations for easy access, and it automatically provides a forecast for your current area. An extra cool inclusion is ISS pass-over information and even daytime forecasts for solar photography.
This app is just what it says, a calendar for the moon. It will give you moonrise, moonset, sunrise, sunset, and moon phase information for your location. Even though PhotoPills has this info as well, Mooncalendar is quick to use.
Everyone is familiar with Google Maps. But Google makes a similar mapping program – Google Earth. It’s a virtual image of the entire planet. You can use Google Earth to look at most any spot on Earth. I’ve found locations that have abandoned attractions such as buildings and aircraft. If the satellite imagery is decent, you can make out distinct fence lines annotating that the site might be private property.
When you’ve found a location you are interested in shooting, do a Google Images search to see if Google can find any existing images from there. It’s sometimes tricky to figure out what any particular location will look like, so searching for images online can help significantly with picking suitable locations.
Find Your Apps
Those are my go-to app and website recommendations, but there are plenty of other resources out there. Several of the apps are useful for different types of photography, such as chasing sunsets, or if you are into weather photography like I am. Find what works for you and run with it.
WHERE DO I GO?
Now that you have the Milky Way’s position sorted out and you know the Moon will not be up at the same time, where can you go? Is there an exciting terrain feature such as a lake or an abandoned house that you can use as a foreground subject in the image? Where can you set up for that object and the Milky Way? What about light pollution? Will you have to drive several hours from the city? Or if you live in a semi-dark region can you drive for just a couple of minutes and start shooting?
Let’s Make a Plan
Whether you’re a beginner or experienced Milky Way photographer, there are a few questions you’ll want to ask yourself. As a basic approach first, check out a dark sky map and see what your surrounding area looks like, dark sky-wise. Even if located in a light polluted area, it may be possible to drive an hour to get in a much less light-polluted spot.
Use Sky Walk 2, PhotoPills, or PlanIt! and determine the time of night the Milky Way will be visible. Note the general compass direction that the Milky Way will be. Make sure the Moon will not interfere.
Then go back to your dark sky map. You want to look for a potentially attractive location that has an area of dark sky in the direction that you noted the Milky Way would be in the step above. You don’t have to be located yourself in an area of super dark sky. Try to find a location with a Blue, Green, or maybe even Yellow on the dark sky map. Do try to have an area of darker sky between you and the Milky Way. Also if you are in the brightest of light polluted skies, look for locations on the south or southeast edge of your area that have less light pollution.
Working Around Light Pollution
As an example, much of the East Coast of the USA is severely light polluted. But even near New Your City, there are spots with much less light pollution, like at the east end of Long Island. Montauk Point is 125 miles from perhaps the most light-polluted place on Earth. Even though the lighthouse at the Point is in a Green Light Pollution Zone, it has been the location of many great Milky Way shots. The trick is recognizing that this is a good location is in noticing that it looks out over the Atlantic Ocean, which has no light sources.
My Personal Milky Way Photography for Beginners Photograph
The following photograph is one of my earliest Milky Way images, and no, it is not a composite. As you can see, there was plenty of light where I was shooting, but with some simple Lightroom adjustments, I was able to bring out the Milky Way. You do not always have to head to the darkest skies, but it helps, especially if you are only starting.
Milky Way Photography for Beginners – COMING NEXT
When I first wrote about Milky Way Photography for Beginners on another website, it was a monster in size. Our goal with this series to present to you the basics – the information needed for you to go out and get comfortable photographing the Milky Way on your own.
Over time though, we will introduce you to advanced techniques from photography to post-processing that will allow you to go from beginner to world class.
If you liked the article or have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comments section below. And make sure you come back for the next installment of Milky Way Photography for Beginners.