To capture the Milky Way, you will need to (1) go to a place with little or no light pollution (like in the province), (2) use a camera with manual settings, and (3) use a sturdy tripod. The image below was taken with an entry-level DSLR camera (with an 18-55 mm kit-lens) mounted on a tripod. This tutorial will guide you on how to capture a similar image on your first attempt.
Finding a Dark-sky Site
Any place away from the city may offer pristine dark skies. Ideally, it must have a clear view of the southern horizon to give you an unobstructed view of the Milky Way.
Best Time to Observe
It is advisable that you conduct your observations/imaging sessions during the time when the Milky Way is very prominent in the sky, usually during months of March to May each year. Since the Milky Way is only visible on a dark moonless night, in order to maximize your chances of spotting it, it is advised that you conduct your imaging session on a date near a new moon. During this time of the year (March to May each year), you will see the Milky Way rising in the southeastern horizon at around 2-3 am and will be prominently visible from past midnight (12 midnight) until an hour before sunrise (5 am). You will then have approximately a 3-4 hour window to capture it, but don’t worry, because you will only need 30 seconds of exposure time to take a decent Milky Way shot.
The starmaps (a map of the sky) below show how the Philippine sky (my locality) would look like during various times of the year. You may also use an app called Google Sky Map (for Android phones, just search online) or a freeware called Stellarium to navigate the night sky and help locate the Milky Way with ease. All these programs are downloadable for free on the Internet.
Spend a few minutes to familiarize yourself with the sky. It takes around 30 minutes for our eyes to adjust to darkness. Locate it first before attempting to photograph it, so that you would know where to point your camera. If you are having difficulty locating it, feel free to leave a comment below (don’t forget to introduce yourself and state your location).
Recommended Camera Settings
Any entry level DSLR with kit lens will work just fine (I am using a Canon 450D DSLR with 18-55 mm kit lens). Set the exposure time to 30 seconds. Set the f-ratio (or f-stop) to its lowest value (widest opening of the iris diaphragm to accommodate more light, i.e., f/2.7 is preferred than f/8). Set the ISO value to moderate (I usually shoot at ISO 1600). Set the focus to manual (instead of auto). You can do this by toggling a switch on the lens (consult the camera’s manual). The flash mechanism must remain off. Attach your camera to a tripod and make sure that it is properly mounted. Turn on the Live View function. Point the camera to any bright star and then turn the focus ring clockwise or counterclockwise (consult the camera’s manual) to bring the star into focus. Point the camera to the right region in the sky (you may use the star maps above). Turn on the camera’s time-delay shutter feature to avoid shaking (10-second time delay will do). When you are ready to shoot, press the shutter to take your shot. If the steps above are done properly, you should be able to capture the Milky Way. You may need to shoot several times for proper framing.
If you have wider lenses and you wish to experiment by taking exposures longer than 30 seconds (say, 60 seconds perhaps), you must set the camera to bulb (consult your manual on how to do this). Under this setting, the camera’s shutter can be manually controlled by a device called a cable release. Keep in mind however, that as you increase the exposure time, star trails become more evident.
ISO Speed and Noise
Increasing the ISO value (or the ISO speed) would result to brighter photos captured in shorter exposure times, but it would also mean capturing more grainy images. The image below illustrates the effect of different ISO values on images.
I’d be happy to hear from you. If you have captured a Milky Way photo and you wish to have it featured on this site, just send me a copy of your photo. If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment below.
For an archive of my Milky Way shots, click here. Clear skies and happy shooting!
For tutorials on how to get started with astrophotography, click here.
For DIY astronomy projects useful for astrophotography, click here.
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© Anthony Urbano (Manila, Philippines)