Five Composition Tips for Milky Way Photography

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Milky Way Pano in March 2019 over Island in the Sky at Canyonlands National Park

Learn my five favorite composition tips for Milky Way Photography! Make sure your images have quality composition when you go out for your next Milky Way!

Milky Way Photography is one of those genres that have it easy. Yes, weather conditions can RUIN your night! But if you are in a dark site, have zero clouds, and only have beginner photography skills, Milky Way Photography can be one of those experiments you nail on your first try! The Milky Way moves slowly across the night sky and gives you plenty of time to get it right. You never have to experience that typical panic of what settings to use during a 2-minute color explosion of a sunrise or sunset that you stressed about failing to capture!

With Milky Way Photography offering you the most time to make the image work, you actually have a lot of time to think about your composition. So here are my favorite five composition tips for Milky Way Photography for you to consider on your next adventure!

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FIVE FAVORITE COMPOSITION TIPS FOR MILKY WAY PHOTOGRAPHY

#1 – BREAK THE PLANES

Get a Foreground Subject to overlap one of the Thirds

Breaking the Planes with a foreground subject will carry the viewer from one third of the composition to the next.

Doing this is different than using leading lines because the foreground subject DOES NOT have to lead to the main focal point like the Milky Way Core. A tall foreground subject is perfect for this! The goal is to have something that exists in one-third of the image that crosses over to another third. That tip works vertically and horizontally.

Boring Milky Way composition over some water and distant mountains with nothing of interest in the foreground.
© 2016 Aaron King. Same night as the Silo image. Way boring by comparison!

When you capture an image with only the Milky Way in mind, you can make the mistake that nothing else is needed; the Milky Way is so cool all on its own! But doing this is a mistake. A proper foreground interest that breaks the plane will fix a boring Milky Way image instantly!

See the image on the right:
That image has a Milky Way – underexposed as it is – and it is still a pretty cool thing. I mean, it’s the Milky Way! But sitting there on the right with virtually nothing else in the image to complement it, makes for a very dull Milky Way Photograph! Glad I went further that night in 2016 to get a better version of the Milky Way!

Milky Way over a tall abandoned silo showing the benefits of composition tip for Milky Way Photography number 1: Make sure you have an interesting tall subject that can break the planes of the rule of thirds in your composition.
© 2016 Aaron King. One of my first ever Milky Way images. While not in perfect focus and no straightening of the silo, this is the perfect example of making an image better by using a tall subject to break the planes.

SEE MY YOUTUBE VLOG OF THAT NIGHT HERE:

#2 – BALANCE NEGATIVE & POSITIVE SPACE

Weigh the mass of NON-interesting vs. interesting

Every image will have the Milky Way and an interesting foreground subject. Those two elements of Milky Way & foreground make up the POSITIVE space in your composition.

The NEGATIVE space in your Milky Way photo is usually comprised of stars & the darker fore-ground edges. Keeping a balance between them will help viewers of your image feel attracted to the composition. When cropping your final image, pay attention to the mass of the positive space vs. negative space & keep more negative when necessary.

A panorama, for instance, can be a challenge to plan each element of your composition. A pano is almost a complete mindset of FIT THE MILKY WAY IN and hope that the foreground is as interesting underneath that Milky Way Arc.

In this image example below, I balanced out my negative & positive space by cropping less of the black foreground at the bottom of the image in the final version.

Composition tips for Milky Way Photography number 2: Milky Way Panorama over the tree in the pit at Dance Hall Rock. The Panorama exemplifies balancing positive space with negative space with the way I add extra foreground even though it is purely black.
© 2017 Aaron King

#3 – WEIGHT ON THE LEFT

Milky Way Core on the Right, Foreground on the LefT

This tip is my most northern hemisphere centric piece of composition advice. Working with our Northern Hemisphere view of the Milky Way, we have the Milky Way galactic core at the right of every image. When in the Southern Hemisphere, they get the Milky Way Core up at the top middle of their panorama and can play around with all sorts of positions of the core in their compositions.

Keep the heavier and larger part of the foreground shape to the left of the composition will balance out with the Milky Way Core.

Whether this is a single subject, a group of items, or an organic shape that is broader on one side, make sure to keep the weight on the left of your composition. That will ensure your foreground is an excellent complement to the thinner, more repetitive side of the Milky Way, allowing for the entire frame to be interesting.

In the image below, I was able to be closer to the rock on the far left, allowing it to take up so much room in the composition. Then the organic shapes of the rocks go from the left to the right, neatly framing the Milky Way.

Milky Way over some hoodoos at Goblin Valley. The framing of the largest and weightiest rocks on the left complement the Galactic core on the right.
© 2016 Aaron King. The weight on the left with the closest rock is a lot stronger and more complementary to the Milky Way Galactic Core than if I had moved to a different spot, or evened up the rocks on the left with those on the right.

#4 – SHAPE FROM TOP TO BOTTOM

Have interest in the TOP THIRD & BOTTOM THIRD

More rare is the opportunity to have something interesting that exists in ALL THIRDS of your composition. Something that carries from the top to the bottom will add motion, shape, interest & cause the eye to travel throughout your image.

Mountain ranges, rock formations, trees, or human-made structures are perfect for this kind of composition. The trick to making this work is to get CLOSE to the subject and let the Milky Way be the distant bonus!

Here at the Train Trestle, I didn’t even realize that I was going to create this kind of compositional shape successfully. I knew that I would get extreme distortion doing a panorama that close to the underside of the train trestle, but honestly, I just thought it would look cool!

It definitely did!

Milky Way getting framed by an abandoned train trestle. The panorama is created very close to the trestle causing extreme distortion and bending of the straight trestle and forcing a cool shape from top to bottom.
© 2018 Aaron King. This abandoned train trestle has been a favorite location of mine, it was really awesome capturing the Milky Way here yet again but in a completely new way!

#5 – FRAMING THE CORE

Get the Milky Way Core between your Foreground

The main goal is to frame the galactic core between something. Rocks, trees, cave openings, buildings, & even light pollution. When using this trick be sure to pay attention to your negative and positive space balance. Double check that the interesting subjects framing your Milky Way Core are in balance with the empty space in the frame.

See my image below, as Owochomo Bridge at Natural Bridges National Monument a perfect candidate for framing. This image exemplifies all of these five favorite composition tips for Milky Way Photography – except for the weight on the left. There is undoubtedly more weight on the right in this composition, but you can see the benefit of breaking the plane with both the Milky Way and the rock bridge. The balance between positive and negative space is near perfect. And lastly, the shape from top to bottom is brilliant in this composition!

Milky Way Galactic Core framed in the gap under the Owochomo Natural Bridge at Natural Bridges National Monument.
© 2017 Aaron King. Framing the Milky Way Galactic Core under the rock bridge is a fantastic way to make the most of Owochomo Bridge at Natural Bridges.

Final Advice

Photographic composition is entirely a subjective situation. You may HATE images that I LOVE and vice versa. But when it comes to picking some rules to start by, which will confidently control your compositions into a cohesive message around the Milky Way, these five composition tips for Milky Way Photography are fantastic starting points!

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