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Photography Lessons With ElCapichan: Milky Way

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Todayís Lesson: Photographing the Milky Way

Probably one of the coolest aspects of photographing the Milky Way, or really just any part of the night sky, is seeing just how many stars are up there that we cannot see with the naked eye. Even at an elevation of 10,000 feet and far from any major cities, it can be difficult to find the the Milky Way until your eyes have fully adjusted to the dark after some time. There are 2 main ways to photograph the Milky Way. The first, and best way to get highly detailed and impressive images of the Milky Way is to use a tracking mount. The second, and most accessible technique just requires a tripod and long exposure, though these images arenít going to be quite as detailed. Both methods are gong to get you some really impressive shots of the Milky Way and the night sky, but seeing as not everyone is going to have a tracking mount or want to go out and buy one, I am mainly going to focus on shooting without the tracking mount.

Tracking Mount

If you really want to get some amazing, jaw-dropping images of the Milky Way, you are going to need a tracking mount. Tracking mounts are designed to rotate perfectly in the opposite direction of the earthís rotation. What does this mean? Well, because the camera is moving in the opposite direction of the earth, the stars appear to be locked in to place by the camera. No star movement means no star trails which means you can take as long of an exposure you want without getting any trails. This just about the only way your are going to get the truly detailed shots (Using an extremely wide lens will get you a great deal of detail when not using a tracking mount). Where the pain comes in is getting the unit in synch with the earthís rotation. The cheaper units require you to angle the unit at a very specific point while some of the more expensive units have an auto calibrator. Tracking mounts arenít overly expensive. You could find a unit for around $100 if you really want get the best possible shot, but the more technical tracking mounts can be pricey.

After doing a bit more research, it seems this mode isn't quite as necessary to get amazing Milky Way shots. What it is good for is getting closer shots of specific parts of the Milky Way, but I find the wider shots with interesting foreground much more artistic.

Non Tracking Mount

As usual lets start out with the gear you are going to need to get this done.

  1. Camera (with the abililty to shoot in Bulb mode)
  2. Sturdy tripod
  3. Remote release cable (100% required)

First step to photographing the Milky Way is to find the Milky Way. Just like the sun and the moon, the Milky Way rises and sets. Carina Software has software for the computer as well as an iPhone app that can tell you the position of just about every major constellation and planet visible in the night sky. The software can be found at and you can find other websites that offer charts or free programs to help you locate the Milky Way. If you live in higher altitude and/or there is very little light pollution near you, you should be able to make out the Milky Way after your eyes have adjusted.

Once you have found the Milky Way, it is time to set up for the shot. When shooting the Milky Way, the wider the lens, the better. I wouldnít use anything over 24mm and 14-17mm is best. You want to use as wide a lens as possible because it will allow you to take a longer exposure and get more light in. I can't stress enough that you really want to use the widest and fastest lens you can. The wider the lens the less noticeable the trails will be. As a rule of thumb, always use the widest aperture your lens has to offer. That should be f/2.8 or less, otherwise donít bother. Youíll just end up getting trails. Because you are using such a wide aperture, the DOF is going to be very narrow making adding a foreground subject very difficult, but it can be done. Try to use the hyper focal distance to get the best possible focus. If you canít use that, try trick of focusing about a 1/3rd into composition. If there is no foreground subject, just set the focus to infinity.

Since the Aperture is always going to be set up at itís lowest, it is coming up with the proper balance between shutter speed and ISO. This is going to require a little experimenting as it all depends on what the level of noise pollution from city lights or the moon is. To make matters easier, you are not going to use a shutter speed longer than 90 seconds. Even 90 seconds is pushing it, so try to make the shutter speed either 30 or 60 seconds. Iíd suggest trying both and taking many photos with each. So set the camera to a shutter speed of 30 seconds, aperture of 2.8 or less, and then find the right ISO that produces a good looking image. Experiment with different ISO values and take several photos with each. When you are done with 30 seconds, bump it to 60 and repeat. The more photos you take, the better the chances are you got a keeper.

I will point out here, that there is no one right group of settings to use. Iíve seen some awesome shots using Tv: 20sec Av: f/4 ISO: 1600 and others at Tv: 90sec Av: f/2.8 ISO: 3200 both claiming to have been using a 17mm lens. Use this info as a guide as to where to start out and then experiment from there.

As a general rule of thumb though, shoot no faster than 20 seconds and no slower than 90 seconds. The wider the lens the longer you can shoot, and the longer the lens the shorter you can shoot. Try to use the widest aperture possible, but if you find you can go higher, give it a shot. ISO will vary depending on the lighting, but you probably wont want to go lower than 1600 and higher than 3200 (if youír camera can produce decent images above 3200, then give it a shot).

Post Processing

When shooting star photos, I really push for RAW. When you first look at your photos, you might be very confused. The image may look surprisingly red and orange and possibly even too bright. Fret not, this is why we shot in RAW. In RAW, the first thing you are going to want to do is adjust the white balance. Usually somewhere betweem 2750k and 4000k is where you are going to find the right white balance. Then experiment with the sliders in RAW to get the image to look as good as you can. Messing with individual color saturation and color brightness get the color as close to perfection as you can.

A final and optional step will be done in Photoshop itself. This wonít bring out all the extra detail that can be found by using a tracking mount, but it can add a little more pop to the image and is extremely easy to do. All you have to do is duplicate the background layer and then set the blending to screen. Make as many duplicate layers as you like, but try not to go too overboard. At some point you are just adding noise to the image and not enhancing the stars. If you end up flattening the image, you will need to add a little sharpening

Side note: Iíve seen some places say they take several photos in quick succession (Tv: 20sec Av: f/4 ISO: 1600) and then align the images. I might be missing or overlooking something, but seeing as the settings are exactly the same for each image and you are aligning them, there is no difference than just duplicating layers. At least when duplicating layers, you wonít have to do any cropping.

Answer to Side Note: I asked around and found an answer to why you would want to take several photos rather than just duplicating the one image. The reason behind this is that when you align all he images, the ISO noise is going to be in different locations rather than stacked on top of each other in the exact same location. So when you blend the images together, you get a cleaner looking image than if you just duplicated 1 image. Now you will have to crop the image, but that is a small price to play to get a cleaner image.

Here is a shot I took last night. The light pollution here was really bad, so I was forced to use a lower ISO and faster shutter speed which did not allow me to get as much detail. I used the optional PS steps to geta bit more pop out of it, which sadly seems to have been lost due to the flattening and resizing, though sharpening was abel to bring a bit back. Shooting the Milky Way is not easy and definitely requires having the right equipment Next lesson will be lightning day or night. Not sure which one I will do first.

Shot using non tracking method
Canon 5D MkII
Focal Length: 27mm (I should have been using 24mm)
Shutter Speed: 25 seconds
Aperture: f/2.8
ISO 1600

Shot using non tracking method
Canon 5D MkII
Focal Length: 24
Shutter Speed: 30 seconds
Aperture: f/2.8
ISO 3200

Here are a couple of images that show what amazing shots you can get when you have the right equipment (i.e. super wide lens and/or tracking mount) and really dark sky. With I could say these are mine, but hope to grab some like them someday.

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Updated 12 Sep 2010 at 12:48 AM by ElCapichan



  1. Error's Avatar
    very nice.

    when you say release chord, are you talking about a remote?
  2. ElCapichan's Avatar
    Yeah. Release cable or remote release cable. What's awesome about them is they have a locking device so you can shoot in Bulb mode and leave the shutter open for as long as you want. Or in terms of using the digital method in star trails the locking device allows you take pictures non-stop without touching the camera.

    I'd love to get nice super wide lens and go somewhere where there is hardly any light pollution. I need to edit the main post a little bit, but overall, I am happy with it.
  3. Josh's Avatar
    Your last two images are broken.
  4. kingoffighters's Avatar
    Today's lesson, NHL 11.
  5. ElCapichan's Avatar
    Was busy today. I will add back those images tomorrow and start working on another blog to put up hopefully by Sat or Sun. It will be on photographing lightning at night followed by photographing lightning during the day.
  6. ElCapichan's Avatar
    Other images are back up. Going to finish up the blog I started last night tonight and then will finally get to lightning at night within the next day or so.


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