04 - June 7, 2017: Shooting Stars (3 of 4 - The Milky Way)
Capturing the Milky Way
This is the third in a series of entries covering night sky photography for beginners. If you're just starting out, I recommend that you start with parts one and two, covering gear and capturing star trails. Reading the full series will help you have a successful, and enjoyable, session.
Whether your goal is to capture star trails and the Milky Way, or just the latter, I have found that there is almost nothing more awe inspiring than seeing the faint glow of the Milky Way arching across the sky with the naked eye. I had never seen that until this year when I was on my first night sky photography outing. By using our cameras, we can pull out far more than what we can natively see on our own, and that's where the beauty of astrophotography really shows.
YOUR COMPOSITION AND PHOTOPILLS
If you've slogged through my longer-than-anticipated thesis on capturing star trails, I have wonderful news for you: shooting the Milky Way is far simpler! In hindsight, that makes perfect sense but going into my first shoot at Fort Griffin I was under the impression that it would be fairly complicated to pull off. In reality, as with star trails, your setup is the most important step but if you've planned things out in advance in regards to your location and composition* - which can be worked out quite thoroughly if you're waiting for your star trail shots to wrap up - the setup can be done in 10-15 minutes once you're used to the process. At that point, it's just a matter of taking the shot(s).
* This is where your smart phone will be unbelievably helpful. I personally use the PhotoPills app and its awesome Night AR mode to plan my composition for the Milky Way, and to know the timing of when the galactic core will be in the ideal position. The app can be a bit overwhelming but there are several great tutorial videos linked within the app itself to help you understand its use. One of my favorite features within the Night AR mode is the ability to slide your finger left and right to change the viewing time to plan your session. If you arrive to your location early enough to capture some sunset photos, you can also work out your night sky composition while the sun is still up thanks to that feature.
To Right: A screen capture of PhotoPills showing the location of the Milky Way at nearly 1am, taken before sunset.
In case you've jumped straight to part 3 without reading part 2, here are the settings you'll likely find most helpful during the composition process:
Aperture: Wide Open
Shutter Speed: 10-15 seconds (or as long as necessary to pull in enough light to check your composition and focus)
To Left: Composing my shot of the Milky Way over Lake Tahoe at the Mt. Rose Hwy scenic overlook (note the wildly crooked horizon)
Using these settings will result in an overexposed image that should help you greatly when aligning your foreground elements and setting your focus. If you're having difficulty getting the focus right, you can try using a flashlight or headlamp to light up the foreground for the purpose of focusing via the live view screen on your camera, if it has one.
Following are examples of the gear and settings I've used, and the outcome of each. Even though you will likely be taking only one capture for each image, you will want to use your intervalometer as a remote trigger. This will eliminate any risk of camera shake ruining your shots. Another option is to use the countdown timer on your camera but that just slows you down unnecessarily (although it does work in a pinch).
Comparing my first two attempts, you can clearly see the difference the lens made. The Canon 10-18mm lens has a smaller maximum aperture than the Sigma and it took far more post-processing tweaks to pull detail into the Milky Way, unfortunately resulting in far more noise in the image. A wider angle lens will, obviously, allow you to capture more of the Milky Way; the challenges I faced with the Canon 10-18mm led me to invest in the Tokina 11-20mm, which has a maximum aperture of f/2.8. The Canon is a great lens and it served me well on my trip to Israel but it does not do well in low light situations due to its limited max aperture. The Tokina, on the other hand, has turned out to be one of the best investments I've made on gear as it has performed extremely well with all I've thrown at it, low light or not.
While the benefits of the wider angle may not be readily obvious without a comparison, you can see in the settings I used that I was able to lower the ISO and reduce the exposure time while still having a fairly clean image in the end, thanks to the wider aperture of the Tokina vs. the Canon.
As covered towards the top of this page, I used my compact flashlight to paint the church during the exposure; the beam of light descending from the heavens above was, frankly, a "happy little accident" that fit the scene perfectly (I started with the flashlight pointing straight above my head and then lowered it into frame to do the painting, resulting in the pillar of light). As noted above, if doing light painting, it will take some trial and error and can easily become the most time consuming part of capturing the Milky Way.
It may seem anticlimactic but that is, essentially, all there is to capturing the Milky Way. Once you find the camera settings that work best for your gear and the environment you're in, and get past the trial and error phase, it's fairly straightforward. There's nothing left but to get out and shoot!
Whether your goal is capture star trails, the Milky Way, or both, your starting point is the same provided you have the appropriate gear: focus on your composition to create interest and a unique image. Plan ahead, scout locations online or through local photography groups, and leverage technology (such as PhotoPills) to help you coordinate your setup and timing as needed.
The last piece of the puzzle is understanding how to take these:
And turn them into these: