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When Is the Best Time to Photograph the Milky Way?
The best time to photograph the Milky Way is during a “new moon,” a phase in which the moon is almost completely dark. During this timeframe, the galaxy’s light won’t have to compete with the light of the moon in the sky. The Milky Way changes positions in the night sky throughout the year, which means that some nights it’s clearly visible for up to five hours, while other nights it’s only visible for a few minutes or not at all.
To figure out when the Milky Way will most visible for you, look at sky charts specific to your area. For the most part, summer nights between April and August offer the best view of the Milky Way. However, its position in the sky is different depending on which hemisphere you live in, so look at sky charts or a Milky Way tracker for either the southern hemisphere or northern hemisphere to ensure you’re selecting a night with good visibility.
What Equipment Do You Need to Photograph the Milky Way?
Night sky photography requires fewer pieces of equipment than other photographic media. The essential tools are:
- A camera. While you can take shots of the Milky Way on a smartphone, a more powerful camera will capture shots with the most detail and balance. A basic DSLR camera (a type of digital camera) allows you to manually control your settings (like aperture, ISO, and shutter speed) to get great shots; mirrorless cameras are also a good option.
- Lenses. You’ll want a good wide-angle lens (a lens with a short focal length, or a maximum aperture of f/2.8) if you want to capture the visible part of the Milky Way—it takes up a big piece of the night sky and can be hard to photograph with a narrow view. Ensure that your wide-angle lenses can handle low light, as well.
- A tripod. If you take photos of the night sky while holding the camera, your shots are most likely going to end up blurry. Bring along a tripod to help you stay steady and frame your shot perfectly.
What Are the Best Camera Settings for Milky Way Photography?
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Shooting the Milky Way is all about getting enough light in your shot; since it’s dark during a new moon, your camera needs to be ready to capture the highest amount of light possible. Set your camera to manual mode and use the following settings as a starting point:
- Exposure time (shutter speed): To capture the best Milky Way photos, you’ll need to take long exposure images to collect more signal in the frame. To start, try a 10-second exposure time. After you try 10 seconds, experiment with longer exposure times to get even more light in your shots, like a 30-second exposure or even longer. However, one con of long exposure settings is capturing “star trails” while shooting the Milky Way as it moves across the night sky.
- Aperture (f-stop number): Use f/2.8 or the widest possible aperture setting for your lens. This aperture allows the most light into your lens, which is necessary when photographing the sky during the darkest nights of the month.
- ISO (sensor speed): ISO 1600 is the minimum ISO setting to use for Milky Way shots; any lower and your shots will turn out too dark. Higher than ISO 3200—for instance, up to ISO 6400—and you may start seeing noise in your photos; if your camera has a long exposure noise reduction feature, try using it with high ISOs to balance it out and reduce noise.
- Manual focus: Manual focus is ideal when shooting the Milky Way because if you use autofocus your camera sensor will struggle to zero in on the right details in the dark sky.
How to Photograph the Milky Way
If you’re ready to capture great images of the Milky Way, check out this step-by-step guide:
- Pick the right night. Research sky charts for your area to determine what months, days, and times of night the Milky Way will be most visible—for most places, this will mean the summer months (between April and August). Aim to shoot during a new moon or small sliver phase when the light is most optimal. Avoid shooting during a full moon, so the light from the moon doesn’t block out the stars. Check the weather, too—you don’t want to be caught out in the rain or under a cloudy sky with poor visibility.
- Shoot in rural areas. The Milky Way will look faint to the naked eye (and to your camera) if there’s too much light pollution nearby; you may need to leave the city to find a location with a dark sky. If you have a car, drive to the most rural area in your immediate vicinity (a national park is a great option); if you’re not sure where to go, find a light pollution map for your area. The less manmade light from city lights, the better your night sky photography.
- Set up your tripod. Pick a flat spot where your tripod won’t fall over, and set it up for your desired angle. A headlamp might be a great piece of equipment to bring to ensure your safety as you search for the right spot in which to shoot.
- Choose your camera settings. Select your desired settings for your camera; a 10-second exposure, f/2.8 aperture, 1600 ISO, and manual focus are a great starting point.
- Frame your shot. Now that your camera is set up in the tripod with the proper settings, start playing with the composition of your photo. Live view, the setting where the viewfinder shows the composition, can help you compose a good shot. Look around to see if there are any interesting features of the land or foreground objects that you can include in the shot. For a good focal point, try focusing on a single bright star. Utilize the rule of thirds—place your subject on the left-third or right-third of the frame—to create a pleasing composition.
- Start shooting. The key to photography is taking lots of photos, so start focusing and shooting to see what looks good. Play with your focus ring, camera settings, and composition until you have a good range of photos you’re happy with. If bending over the tripod becomes tiring, consider a remote shutter release, which allows you to take photos with a remote rather than having to constantly press the button on your camera to capture photos.
- Edit the photos. After you’ve taken your photos of the Milky Way, it’s time for post-processing. Upload your pictures into photo-editing software, and play with variables like white balance, levels, and noise reduction to get the crispest contrast and sharpest view of the stars. While in post-production, take note of what settings you like the most for the best image quality, so you can utilize them for your next Milky Way photo shoot.
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