Hey aspiring Milky Way photographers, how is your year going so far? I am back with the second part of our series “Milky Way Photography for Beginners.” In Part One, I covered my process in the office that I go through – Moon information, location scouting, and checking the weather forecasts. In Part Three, I talk about several post-processing techniques that I use. In this part, I am going to cover the field portion of a Milky Way adventure – from pre-trip items you should look at to prepping the camera before the session.

Grain Elevator Milky Way

Pre-Trip Preparations

We have spent the last few days at our desk. We checked the weather forecast models on the COD website. It looks like the clouds will stay away while we are out shooting. We found a great abandoned building on the side of the road that has public access. We are ready to rock our photography groove!

But wait, there are a couple more steps that we should do before we leave the house. Did you pre-trip inspect your vehicle? Check the belts? Tire pressure? Is the tire tread good? So on and so forth. Do a pre-trip inspection to make sure your vehicle is in good working order. You do not have to do this every time, but Milky Way photography will take you out into the rural areas where there are no services. This activity takes place at night also, so you do not want to be stranded somewhere remote.

Tools for the Trip

Make sure you have a small set of tools with you. If you know a mechanic that knows your vehicle or are even a semi-gearhead that drives older model vehicles like me, chances are you can find a list online that will include some wrenches, by size, and other small hand tools that will repair a lot of minor malfunctions. Even though most vehicles come with tire tools, they tend to be barely functional. In the back of my Toyota 4Runner, I have at least one four-way lug wrench and a floor jack.

One tool that I cannot recommend enough is a portable power pack that can also jump-start a vehicle. Something like a HALO Bolt charger is perfect.

Clothing

Also throw in some warm clothes like a hoodie, gloves, and jacket. Even if you are going out in the middle of August and it’s 95 degrees at the house, your adventure might lead you to 8000′ on top of a mesa in New Mexico and no matter what time of year, it will be cold.

Snacks

Toss in some snacks, drinks, and water. Milky Way adventures can sometimes last for a few hours, and there is not going to be a restaurant in sight. Be prepared.

GPS

Although you might have a GPS unit in the car or app on your phone, if you are venturing off into unknown territory, toss in a paper map of the area. If that map is any more complicated than a Rand McNally road map, then have a rudimentary understanding of land navigation.

Camera Gear

When it comes to my camera, I will make sure I have some memory cards, fully charged batteries, L-plate installed, tripod ready, some lens clothes in the bag and usually mount the astrophotography lens before heading out. I will also double check the LCD brightness and turn it down as low as it will go.

First Aid

Lastly, toss in a first aid kit. You can head over to Adventure Medical Kits and find one that fits your needs. You can even find something that fits in your camera bag.

OK – We Have Arrived!

When it comes to getting on location, the way you go about it can differ due to several factors. Where I used to play around in western Oklahoma, I was familiar enough with the area that I could show up in the middle of the night, and I already knew my general setup. If I were going later on in the year, I would get out there an hour or two before sunset. Doing that allowed me to look around and perhaps find a location that I had not thought of before. I would suggest if you have never been to the area before, try to do a location scout in the daylight.

Once I am at my location, especially if it is already dark, I will get out and look around. Check the area for any wildlife and see how the layout is. Snakes are nocturnal, so watch where you step.

Shutter Speed is the Key

Shutter speed is the part of the Exposure Triangle that takes precedence when it comes to Milky Way photography. Doing that might sound a little counterproductive, but we have to take into account the Earth’s rotation. If our shutter speed is too long, stars will trail and the Milky Way will not be sharp.

milky way star trails

Focal length also plays a part in what our shutter speed needs to be. If we go back and think about shooting a portrait at 200mm, our shutter speed needs to be as quick, if not faster than 1/200 sec so we can achieve a sharp image. The same thing goes for Milky Way photography, but now we are dealing with numbers like 14mm and shutter speeds that are in tens of seconds.

The 500 Rule

The 500 Rule is simple. The equation is 500/focal length=shutter speed. That is for full frame cameras. If I am using my Nikon 750, I will go with 500/16mm = 31.25 seconds. If you are using a crop sensor, then you need to plug in the crop factor. Let’s say I am going to use my Pentax K-5 II with the Rokinon 14mm that I recently sold. 500/14*1.5 = 23.80 seconds. That equation will get you in the ballpark.

A Better Rule – the NPF Rule

Now if you want to get technical about this whole thing, there is the NPF Rule. Said to be more accurate, it is also more complex. The NPF rule is (35 x aperture + 30 x pixel pitch) ÷ focal length = shutter speed in seconds. That’s just the final equation; there’s some other math involved in this grand adventure because we need to figure out pixel pitch also. That formula is Pixel pitch = the camera sensor’s physical width in millimeters ÷ number of pixels in width x 1000 to measure it in microns. Luckily, the author, Aaron Priest has provided a spreadsheet to help us figure out what we need to figure out.

Pick Your Rule

Since each photographer is different, pick your poison when it comes to the math you want to use. There is a case to be made that the NPF rule is the better of the two and I would probably agree with that statement. The 500 Rule will get you a good number, but it might be a little on the high side, so you will want to shorten your shutter speed by a second or three. Once you have done this type of photography a bit, you will have a shutter speed that you will go with most of the time. I would only worry when it comes to different focal lengths.

Aperture

Aperture is pretty simple with Milky Way photography, wide open. f/2.8, f/3.5; however wide you can open it on the glass you are using, do it.

Pump Up The… ISO

Once you have shutter speed and aperture set, you will need to adjust the ISO. That is where the mind can play games. When I first started, I was always about using the lowest ISO possible. I would use anywhere between 3200 and 6400. I see this play out a bit online as I see aspiring Milky Way photographers keep the ISO turned way, way down and they do not get a good image. Take it from someone who just got done using a crop sensor camera that came out way back in the first part of the decade, crank the ISO up. Start at 6400, maybe even jump to 12,800 for your test shots.

When it comes to any photography where I am set up on the tripod, be it macro, landscape, Milky Way; I prefer to use the camera self-timer mode. I usually set it for two seconds so I can guarantee that I have no camera shake.

Get Your Focus

The last thing to do before you get going is to set your focus. With Milky Way photography, we are going to be using the Live View mode of our cameras. The way I like to set my camera’s focus is to use the Live View to zoom in on an object. When I use Low-Level Landscape Lighting, I can pick a piece of landscape in front of me or part of the building that is in my composition. If I am not using LLL, then if I have a farm light off in the distance, then I might be able to zoom in on that light, usually around 8X to 10X and fine-tune things from there. If I do not have that, then I will use my flashlight to illuminate the ground in front of me a few feet and set focus.

Remember White Balance

Oh wait, I forgot White Balance. White balance could have an entire article devoted to it. I use an in-camera custom Kelvin of 3800 as that will more than likely be where I leave it. The reason is so when I am reviewing the shots in camera; the images will look close to what the final image will. You can get away with using whatever white balance you want and change in Lightroom later.

Here we are. Camera settings dialed in, timer release of 2 seconds, you have fine-tuned the focus, we are ready to rock our Milky Way shots. Take your first test shot and review it in camera. Double check the camera’s focus and composition. If you feel comfortable with them, then let them be.

The Histogram Will Show You The Way

How is the exposure? When I first started down the Milky Way path, I kept ISO low, and I spent a lot of time post processing so I could bring out the Milky Way and make it stand out. Then one day I heard on the Photog Adventures podcast “shoot to the right.”

The Histogram is the be all, tell all when it comes to exposure. Unlike some corners of portrait photography insist on the Histogram diving headfirst off the right side, all of our information will be on the far left because we have dark images. The more we can “push” that information to the right, the better foundation we will have when it comes to a decent Milky Way image. Take it from a post-processing junkie; it will also make that task a whole lot easier.

milky way histogram

In the above image is two different shots of the same composition taken just seconds apart. As you can see by the information provided on the Histogram, I adjusted both shutter speed and ISO to get the exposure I wanted. The information within the histogram also has moved to the right. Granted, I did not use these images, but if I had, the one on the right is a lot easier to deal with post processing wise.

milky way church

Even though I never used this image, with some simple Lightroom adjustments, I have taken a picture with a decent Histogram and made it look decent. It still is nothing I would sell as a print, but it still stands out.

Hot Sensor = Unhappy Sensor

Lastly, one thing to keep in mind when you are shooting is the ambient air temperature and your camera body. When the shutter is open, it creates heat. In turn, that heat creates noise in the image. It is evident on the edges of the image as there will be an ugly, noisy red and black blotches. It has been some years since I have had to deal with this issue. Just keep this in mind as you are starting. Instead of ripping off 80 shots, one right after another, let your camera “breathe” every so often when it is warm outside.

Sensory Overload!?

You are getting a whole lot of information with this series of articles. While there is a lot that goes into Milky Way photography, once you have done it a few times, a lot of it will become second nature. Although many photographers trip themselves up by over-thinking the difficulty level, it is not that hard once you get used to the process.

Next Time – Post-Processing

In the third and final part of our Milky Way Photography for Beginners series, I will cover post-processing. I will dispel some myths, show my process, and write about my mindset.

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