I’ve always had a soft spot for astronomy probably stemming from the fact that, for the majority of my life, I hadn’t seen more than a few stars at a time in my hometown sky. The first time I was awed by a pitch-black night sky was on a trip to Israel in 2011. Not only was I floored by the amount and brightness of the stars, I also noticed that for once, I was able to see the horizon from where I stood. I joked that in New York City, any view you could hope to have would have a building blocking it. It’s not far from the truth. Seeing the Israeli horizon in the distance, undisturbed by anything man or nature-made, was eye-opening. I fell in love with the stars and the horizon.
I started taking note of the stars on particularly cloudless nights in NYC but the sky couldn’t hold a candle to what I experienced in Israel.
When my photography ballooned from a hobby to a passion, I always thought getting a shot of the Milky Way would be close to impossible. The light pollution around me was miserably high and I figured the only way to see it would be to travel to a different country. Turns out that you can see the milky way with your naked eye just a 5-hour drive from my neighborhood. That’s not as bad as I expected! Cherry Springs State Park in Susquehannock Forest, PA claims they had one of the darkest locations in the Eastern United States (spoiler alert – it’s dark and fantastic!).
I spent months learning, researching and planning my trip to the park. I watched Youtube videos, read books and downloaded apps that ranged from accurate weather readings, compasses and cloud forecasters. My biggest recommendation would be to shell out $10 for the Photo Pills app – they make it incredibly easy to plan a Milky Way shot. Finally, after feeling confident in my ability to capture the Milky Way, I started to narrow down when I could capture it.
The “when” part was most frustrating. While July is supposedly the best time to view the Milky Way from the Northern Hemisphere, it also turned out to be a cloudy, wet month in the Eastern US. I had planned and rescheduled 2 camping trips to account for a new moon, dry weather and a cloudless sky. Finally, on my third attempt, I realized I might have a 2-3 hour window when the clouds should part to reveal the Milky Way around us. I decided to take the chance and brave the 5-hour drive to Cherry Springs State Park, taking my boyfriend with me for the ride and promising him a fun camping trip either way.
Late at night, after staring angrily at a cloudy sky for hours, the clouds began to dissipate! Driving up to the parking lot of the astronomy field, I got my first glimpse of the Milky Way, with my naked eyes through our dirty car window, no less. We collected ourselves and our equipment and started shooting before the clouds rolled back.
Prior to Arrival
- Make sure that the moon will have set or is only a sliver in the sky. It should be no more than 25% illuminated by the sun, a new moon being ideal. Our moon completely set at about 8pm which gave the sky plenty of time to darken up and reveal the Milky Way. Likewise, make sure it’s not raining, not too humid and not too windy (or else you may end up with a lot of blurry, swaying trees). Lastly, there should be minimal clouds in the sky so you can see everything in its full glory. And obviously, go to a very dark place. An hour outside NYC won’t do. It’s gotta be DARK.
- Use the Photo Pills app or research in which direction and what time the Milky Way will rise. For us, it rose in the south around 10PM with an elevation of about 20°. The entire Milky Way is visible at all times (providing it’s dark and clear outside) but the core, which is the brightest part, only rises at a certain time and sets just like the sun and moon. Earth is constantly rotating so your view of the Milky Way will differ by the hour!
- Set up your tripod and make sure it’s sturdy. We filled up a plastic bag with heavy rocks and secured it to the center post of our tripod to avoid any shake. Thankfully, it wasn’t a windy night so this was just a precaution.
- Evaluate your camera and lens. Firstly, do you have a crop sensor or full frame lens? This is important to note because the following calculations will differ based on your sensor size.
- Determine your maximum shutter speed. The achieve a sharp image with no star movement (the Earth is rotating so the stars will seem like they’re moving in the sky, albeit slowly) you need to use a fast enough shutter speed. That shutter speed will differ based on the lens you’re using. A telephoto lens will force you to use faster shutter speeds because stars’ movement is exaggerating by the small frame of view. A wide angle lens will allow you to use longer shutter speeds, which will allow for more light (imperative to night photography). Wide-angle lenses are generally preferred because of the longer shutter speed allowance and maximum field of view. The Milky Way is huge, you’re going to want a wide-angle lens to see it all!
- If you have a crop sensor camera body, multiply your lens’s focal length by 1.6x for Canon sensors and 1.5x for Nikon sensors. For example, I shot this Milky Way image with a Canon 80D DSLR body, which is a crop sensor, and used a Canon 14mm f/2.8 lens (only initially, I would NOT recommend it). I calculated my shutter speed using an effective 22.4mm focal length (14mm x 1.6 = 22.4mm). To calculate the maximum shutter speed, use the 500 rule. Divide 500 by your effective focal length: for me, that was 500 / 22.4mm = 22.3 seconds. I rounded that down to 20 seconds, just to be safe.
- Open up the aperture as wide as it’ll go. That depends on your lens – the higher the f-stop number, the smaller the aperture (how wide open the lens is). Some lenses only go as wide at f/3.5 or f/4. Others, which can be quite expensive, can go as wide at f/1.2 or wider! I used a Canon 14mm f/2.8 lens so I set it to f/2.8. (Eventually, I stopped down to f/3.2 because I was seeing very blurry results. Again, I would not recommend the lens – see bottom of post for example images from the 14mm lens).
- Pros and cons of a wide open aperture: the wider it is, the more light is allowed into the sensor. However, you might see some distortion around the edges and corners of the frame. Stopping down can fix those distortions but will decrease the amount of light going into the sensor. This will force you to increase the ISO!
- Determine which ISO to use. The lower the ISO the better since high ISOs will result in noisy/grainy images. Full frame cameras are more forgiving at higher ISOs than crop sensor cameras. An ISO of 3200 or 6400 is a good starting point. For my image, I used ISO 4000 but had I been using a full frame, I probably could’ve have gone a bit lower. With a crop sensor, you can use longer shutter speeds, allowing more light into the camera, reducing the ISO needed.
- Achieve focus. Switch your lens to manual focus. Using the magnification button on your camera, zoom in all the way and find a particularly bright star. Adjust the focus manually to make that bright star as small as possible. If the star is out of focus, it will be large and blurry. A small pinprick star means you’ve got the focus just right. This might take some manual microadjustments. Be patient! You won’t be able to fix poor focus in post-production.
- Use a shutter release cable to take a photo! You can also use the 2-second timer on your camera if you don’t have a cable, that’ll give the camera enough time to stop shaking from you pressing the shutter button. After taking the photo, evaluate the composition, focus and exposure. Adjust the framing, focus and ISO if necessary (since your shutter speed is dependent on your lens and the aperture should remain wide open, ISO is the main factor left to adjust). If the image is too dark, increase the ISO. If it’s too bright, you can lower it!
- You can choose to shoot one image, or a panorama to then stitch together in Photoshop. Either way, take LOTS of photos. You never know until you see it on a computer that the image turned out to be a bit shaky from a gust of wind or out of focus ever so slightly.
Note: for my image, I replaced the wide-angle Canon lens I was using with my Sigma 35mm f/1.4 lens and created a panorama of 13 images. The Sigma lens was much sharper and allowed in more light at a much wider aperture. I highly recommend this lens for all purposes! The 35mm was, effectively, a 56mm lens on a crop sensor. Using the 500 rule, I determined that I could let my shutter stay open for a maximum of 8.9 seconds. I rounded that down to 8 seconds to be safe.
I took 13 photos of the night sky each at 8 seconds exposure, f/1.4 and ISO 4000.
Once I was happy with the images overall, I backed them up on my laptop. Coming home, I started color correcting them. Here’s a comparison of what I got in camera vs. the edited end product (this is 1 of the 13 images used in the panorama):
And to create the panorama, I started in Lightroom and applied the same exact settings as shown above. I then selected all the files and synced the settings across them all (including the “Enable Profile Corrections” option to remove the vignetting which would be very apparent once multiple images would be stitched together). I then selected them all again and chose the Photo Merge > Panorama option when right-clicking the selected images.
I then fine-tuned the projection of the image, cropped any transparency around the edges and saved my new photo.
I hope this was a thorough and accurate walkthrough of shooting the Milky Way! These are just the basics to capturing it in camera.
Here’s another photo I took that night using the Canon lens. Note the distortion and softness in the corners of the photo.