I’ve always loved looking up at a star filled sky in wonder. When I was a kid we would go camping in Canada. It was so dark up there away from all civilization I don’t think there was a star you couldn’t see. I remember seeing satellites fly across the sky when satellites were still new.
But the truth was/is I’ve lived most of my life in or near big cities, first NYC and Philadelphia and now San Diego. So in my normal everyday life there wasn’t much star gazing. But there was something special about it.
In my photography there wasn’t much of it either. Sure I did a few long exposures when I was out in the National Parks like Zion or Yellowstone. But that was when I shot film and film didn’t always offer the same possibilities or capabilities, whether it was max ISO or reciprocity. This was especially true when it came to shooting the Milky Way in color and having the stars static.
So Astrophotography wasn’t something I thought a lot about. Enter the digital age and the possibilities begin to open up. Still I really didn’t think about it. I was busy shooting other things. Until one night when I stayed late at Joshua Tree National Park, the day was just so beautiful there I didn’t want to leave so I thought I would try my hand at shooting the Stars, Star Trails and some light painting because I had seen it become very popular of late.. .and that kinda got me hooked.
After seeing the shots I did at Joshua Tree a fellow photographer on Google + saw them and asked if I would be interested in going to shoot the Milky Way on the next new moon. I said yes and we ended up doing it on the next 3 consecutive New Moons this summer at 3 different locations in the deserts of California. Normally neither of us shoot the deserts in summer because of the extreme heat, but it wasn’t that bad this year and also the nights were very nice…which isn’t always the case
The problem was I knew nothing about the Milky Way and really didn’t know how to shoot it despite my 40+ years of shooting because it’s actually a new phenomenon made possible by the High ISOs and good reproduction capabilities at those high ISOs of the latest cameras. (* See my note under the How section about Astrophotography pre digital)
So let’s take a look at everything you need and need to know to shoot the Milky Way and then we will talk about processing those images. Each part takes extra and different preparation that you may be used to.
When is the Milky Way visible? Well the truth is it’s always there (we are part of the Milky Way Galaxy as is our sun sooo) but there are times of year when it is more so. There is a section of the Milky Way near the constellations Scorpus, Sagittarius and Scotum in the Southern Sky that is the densest and most visible, although the Milky Way extends all the way across the sky from horizon to horizon.
In North America this bright section (and therefore easier to photograph) is most visible in the summer months peaking in July. It’s visible for most of the night.
In the Fall it’s most visible just after twilight, in spring it’s most visible just before Morning Twilight. In Winter this bright section is not visible because it dips below the horizon that time of year, yet the Milky Way is still visible just not the peak time of year to photograph it.
If my Astronomy is wrong you may either correct me or better still just laugh and know I know really nothing about Astronomy.
Now if you want to find out exactly what it will look like when and anywhere in the world. I would suggest you get the Free program Stellarium, (http://www.stellarium.org/) It’s a bit clunky but way cool to find your way around the sky. Go into the settings and you can turn up the brightness of the Milky Way to get a better idea of what it will look like to your camera not necessarily your eyes. Having this program will get you looking the right way at the right time of night. And yes the Milky Way moves just like the moon and stars do (or actually the Earth does)
If you’d like a handy and very cool phone app, I found StarMap 3D ($2.99) gave a very cool representation using both the compass and gyroscope in our phones to view where what is as we point our phone at it
And lastly because the Milky Way is so faint to the eye and our cameras you will find it best to go to shoot at and around the New Moon (no Moon) so download a Moon rise/set app to tell you what the best day of the month is to go shoot. I use “Moon” for my iOS and you may as well get a sunset app (Sol) because you will want to know that, along with when Astronomical Dusk ends too. There are plenty of free apps for these functions.
The next question is; where should I shoot? The simple answer to this is; any area that is a Dark Sky area and not prone to the light interference from towns or cities. And you won’t believe how critical or how VISIBLE this light will be in your images. We found this out the hard way.
I like using this site, http://www.jshine.net/astronomy/dark_sky/ even though it’s no longer maintained or updated I found it useful . If you are not in or going to be in one of the gray areas, your chances of good photography of the Milky Way are slim to none. But even being in a Dark Sky area isn’t a guarantee since it still can matter what is nearby and nearby can be 50 to 100 miles away. It may still affect your images.
Like I said earlier we found this out the hard way. We picked 3 places to shoot which seemed to be good spots but not as good as possible. We chose; Joshua Tree National Park, Red Rocks Canyon State Park California and The Anza – Borrego Desert State Park, California.
All of these are Dark Sky areas; we worried about the light from Los Angeles some 150 miles away. That didn’t prove to be a problem at all because it was to the west. But what we didn’t consider was the light pollution from the Palm Springs/Indio area which was South/Southwest of Joshua Tree or right below where we would be shooting towards. So check your location but also look to see what is North and south of that location. City Lights East and West prove to be less troublesome. (The opposite may be true in other parts of the country, say Maine, so check the orientation in YOUR area)
Ok so now you know where you want to go to shoot, you know when you want to shoot so lets discuss How to shoot the Milky Way,
Let me start off by saying, this is Astrophotography for the masses. For years dedicated professional and amateur astronomers have been doing astrophotography and it is quite a specific and specialized type of photography that takes some awesome and expensive equipment like telescopes and Equatorial Mounts that track the movement of earth and sky. So I want to give a tip of the hat to them and acknowledge that this is nothing as sophisticated as what they do nor do I pretend to know what they know.
Digital Camera capable of Low Noise High ISO exposures
Fast Lenses, Wide angle preferably but other certainly can work
Remote shutter release or camera timer
Being able to shoot the Milky Way is a fairly recent occurrence for regular photographers. What it has taken is the Higher ISO capabilities and good performance (Low Noise) ISO of the latest generations of cameras. To do this and do it well you need a camera capable of at least ISO 3200 and a clean 3200. Some of the latest Cameras have ISOs as high as 204,800! (Boost non-native) and native ISOs as high as 52,800 (yes we can argue what native means). Now the performance at those ISOs really isn’t that great but what it means to us is that 3200 and 6400 ISOs are pretty darn clean which is what we need for this.
The other thing you need is a Fast Lens. f/2.8 max aperture is preferred f/4 max is the minimum. Most likely you will want a wide angle lens to capture a good portion of the sky but I have shot all the way up to 85mm. You will also need a Steady Tripod and either a remote or a timer, to trigger your camera without movement. Some photographers also capture the Milky Way with multi–image Panoramas but that another discussion; just know it is possible but difficult.
One last thing you will need. Shooting in Dark Skies area are remote nd can be dangerous. You literally can not see one foot in front of the other so moving around is difficult. I took two good falls during our outting and luckily didn’t break anything on my body or my camera. Now you may think this means bring big a powerful flashlight, but you would be wrong. Not saying don’t have one but what you really need is a good LOW power flashlight. A high power flashlight will blind you when you turn it on and it takes a long time to regain your night vision. I use both a Headlamp with a low power setting but mostly I use a single Red Night Vision LED key chain lightthat I keep on a string around my neck. It provides more than enough light to get you around your shooting area and also make adjustments to your camera .
The first thing we need to know is that the Earth moves and pretty darn fast. So if we want an image of the Milky Way with round static stars there will be some limits on how long of a shutter speed we can use. To determine this, we use the Rule of 500. We take 500 and divide it by the Full Frame focal length of our lens (if you are shooting with a Crop sensor camera, multiply the focal length by the crop factor to determine FF Focal length. Nikon typically is 1.5X, Canon 1.6X)
So take for example the lens I shot most of these with, a Canon 17-40mm L set to 17mm. 500/17mm = 29.41 So about 30 seconds is the longest exposure time I can shoot without seeing elongation of the stars instead of round circles, in reality zoomed in to 100% we can still see some elongation but at typical viewing we don’t. For another Example, say 85mm, the max time would be about 6 Seconds (500/85 = 5.88)
When you are standing in the middle of nowhere in a Dark Skies area with no Moon light you swear you could expose forever because it is so dark out. The truth of the matter is there is an actual correct exposure for this condition. The light value of a dark skies night is -6EV. To translate that to camera settings that ends up being about f/4, 30 seconds at ISO 3200, give or take a stop, which works out great for my full frame camera at 17mm using the above 500 rule.
So you might think well any new camera is capable of that. But it becomes useful to have more aperture and ISO capabilities when we move off that 17mm lens. If we were instead shooting with a 35mm lens, we would max our Shutter out at 15 seconds so we have to make that 1 stop difference up somewhere and we could do that by either opening our aperture up to f/2.8 or upping our ISO to 6400. And also, like I said, the above exposure is a starting point and you may want to expose it a bit differently either more or less exposure. But even in what seem s like endless darkness there is light so you CAN over expose this scene.
So choose your lens, set up on your tripod, set your remote and take your shots. Composition wise, you may find a portrait orientation of the camera helpful to get more of the band of the Milky Way in top the frame. And also think about silhouetting some object in the frame to add some depth and interest to the shot. As amazing an interesting as the Milky Way is by itself we can always ad more interest to draw viewers into the image.
For the most part it will be impossible to focus your lens in such low light. So you will have to turn off Auto Focus and manually focus your lens. Most of the time you will want to be focused at Infinity so know where that point is on your lens marking and no it’s not just turning the focus all the way, it’s actually a little before the end point. Use the lines on your lens.
With most Wide angle lenses and a Foreground subject not super close, this will be fine as far as DOF is concerned since you are shooting with wide open apertures. However if you decide to use both a longer lens (Like I did with the 85) and a subject 20-30 feet away you may need to take this into consideration as Your DOF will be limited. You may want to think about focusing at your Hyperfocal distance for situations like this. This again is where good ISO capabilities beyond 3200 come in handy if you need to stop down for more DOF you can up the ISO to make up for the smaller aperture
So you’ve been up all night shooting – we actually found in the summer months the time just after Astronomical Dusk (Sol the app will tell you when that ends and night begins) are the most productive -but you’ll be having so much fun you will stay later. You will also find you haven’t shot that much in comparison to a normal shoot since 30 seconds exposures eat up the time. Download your images after a bit of sleep and now starts the equally important process of editing your images.
Hopefully you shot RAW because that has much more information and makes it much easier to do White Balance corrections.
White balance in the RAW stage is very important to your final image and this leaves a little leeway for your person tastes. Some people use a Tungsten White balance but I’ve found that most of my image work best at around 3700 to 3900° K and 10 – 20 points on the Magenta side. You may feel differently but what you can do is move the slider for White balance back and forth and you will see the image, specifically the black areas, turn from Blue to Yellow, when you find a point that doesn’t look much like either you’re probably close (assuming a calibrated monitor) Do the same with the Green/Magenta slider and you will see the image shift from Green to Magenta, The point at which you see the shift is probably a good point.
After you get a good white balance you may want to use some other adjustments. Be careful with Exposure adjustments because even though your camera may have good High ISO capabilities they still aren’t perfect and pushing up exposure will also increase noise, you may be able to lower some of that with some black adjustments which also will help to make a silhouetted or foreground elements look as they should be.
You may also find that shooting dark exposures like these (your histogram is supposed to be bunched to the left) you will see many of the dead pixels your camera sensor most likely has. Lightroom’s develop module takes a lot of these out but with other software you may have to clone them out manually.
After you are finished there, it’s time to do some Noise Reduction. As hard as you may try you still will probably need to do some noise reduction and this is a good point to do it (if you feel you don’t, then don’t) You can use the Noise Reduction in Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw or better still use the more sophisticated noise reduction of Plug- ins like Topaz Labs DeNoise or Nik Define.
OK so you talked about Topaz Labs Clarity in the teaser for this article, what about it?
It’s no secret that I am an affiliate for Topaz Labs as I am other companies that sponsor my page. But the truth is I don’t sign up for companies I don’t personally use or believe in. I have to say one of my most used plug ins is Topaz Labs Clarity. This is hands down, my favorite program. But I found out that it actually is practically an essential when doing Star or Milky Way images. The Milky Way, as it appears to the naked eye, still is very faint. It’s a soft cloud like looking object that actually is made up of millions of stars. But to the naked it eye it appears very light in the sky and at very low contrast to the rest of the night sky. With astrophotography it actually becomes a bit brighter in camera than to our eyes the problem still remains that it is of very low contrast to its surroundings.
Now we could try normal contrast tools, Recovery/Fill, Shadow/ Highlight Contrast etc in Lightroom and ACR. We could try Curves or Levels Adjustments in Photoshop. But they still work on too broad a band of tones and we need tight control because we want to boost certain tones and leave others intact.
This is where Topaz Labs Clarity comes in. It has that ability better than any other program out there. And it does it quickly and easily.
Open your image in Topaz Labs Clarity and I will give you some starting point numbers to work with. I thought about giving away my preset that I made to use with my Milky Way shots. But it is so simple, fast and easy I’ll just give you the numbers and you can make your own preset quickly.
At the bottom right of the Clarity workspace, click the Reset button, this will zero all the slider, then use these settings as a starting point
Micro Contrast +0.75
Low Contrast +0,75
You may find, depending on the brightness of the image, you will need less or more
And that’s it, you can mess around with the rest of the sliders but you’ll find that Middle and High contrast doesn’t affect the image mush because there are not areas of mid and high contrast in this scene. But of course your image may vary.
It is as simple as that and you will see that this brings much more Clarity (Pun intended) to the Milky Way regions of your image.
From here you may want to do some more general contrast adjustments and maybe…maybe some sharpening. But keep in mind all along you want to keep noise at its lowest amount. It won’t matter much for website size images but when you get them larger displayed or printed the noise can still be quite visible. Use too much noise reduction especially in the later stages and you can loose some crispness to the stars or even silhouetted objects in your foreground and you start to get some blotchiness and smearing to the image especially the Milky areas.
There’s a lot more to learn about Astrophotography and there is so much more you can do with your Milky Way and Star images. You can get into: doing Star Trails, you can do light Painting of foreground subjects, Blending of two different exposures for Milky Way and Foreground. Even some cool compositing that I did for some fantasy photos. But this will get you off to a good start and I hope you have as much fun with it as we did
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