Taking a photo of the Milky Way may seem beyond the capabilities of an entry-level DSLR camera, after all, it is our galaxy and not just some familiar subject like the moon or the Sun. In this article I’ll walk you through some of the most important things you need to know in order to capture a photo of the Milky Way.
The Milky Way is a very faint target. It is so faint that it could easily get lost in the sky glow caused by city lights or even overpowered by the seemingly faint moonlight . To capture a target as faint as the Milky Way, photos must be shot from a place that is really dark. A trip to a nearby province may be enough to offer the conditions suitable for this purpose. Milky Way enthusiasts usually travel to dark-sky sites to avoid city’s light pollution and schedule imaging sessions when the moon is not visible.
To the naked eye, the Milky Way looks like a very faint band of light, resembling a ‘milky path’ or ‘way’ in the sky. Binoculars would easily reveal that this band consists of very faint stars that can no longer be discerned as individual stars by the unaided eyes. It is most prominent in the sky during months of March to May each year, rising in the southeastern horizon at around 2-3 am. The starmaps (maps of the sky) below show how the Philippine sky (my locality) would look like during various times of the year. You may also generate similar maps for your location using a freeware called Stellarium. It will help you navigate the night sky and locate Milky Way with ease.
To see the Milky Way, eyes must first be allowed to adjust to darkness, which takes usually around 20-30 minutes. Once your eyes become fully dark-adapted, Milky Way’s bright core will become noticeable and the “milky” band visible. To protect eyes from losing dark adaptation, use a dim light source, preferably, red light. It can be achieved by simply covering a flashlight’s bulb with layers of red paper or any suitable material. Note that a brief exposure to bright light (like a flash from a camera or a flashlight pointed directly to your eyes) will cause eyes to lose dark adaptation and it will take another 30 minutes to adapt to darkness.
Locate the Milky Way first before attempting to photograph it, so that you would know where to point the camera. If you are having difficulty locating it, feel free to leave a comment below and I will try to address it the soonest possible time (kindly state your location).
Now it’s time to take a photo
Any entry level DSLR camera with kit lens may be used to photograph the Milky Way. The use of a tripod is optional. I have outlined below some key steps to walk you through the process of capturing a photo.
1. Set the lens’ focal length to wide-field (e.g., 18 mm).
2. Set the camera’s exposure time to 30 seconds.
3. Set the lens’ f-ratio (or f-stop/f-value) to its lowest value (set to widest opening of the iris to accommodate more light, e.g., f/1.8 is more preferred than f/10).
4. Set the camera’s ISO value to moderate. I usually shoot at ISO 1600.
5. Check that the camera’s flash remains off.
6. Attach your camera to a tripod and make sure that it is sturdy and does not shake easily.
7. Since the camera’s auto-focus function will not work in this case, you need to set the camera’s focus to manual mode. You can do this by toggling a switch on the side of the camera’s lens (consult the camera’s manual).
8. Set the lens’ focus to infinity. Since the Milky Way is too faint, set the focus using a brighter target (e.g., any bright star). Turn the focus ring clockwise or counterclockwise (consult the camera’s manual) to bring any bright star into focus. You may need to look through the view finder first to roughly focus onto a star and then use the camera’s electronic display (e.g., LiveVeiw) to achieve a more precise focus.
9. Point the camera to the general direction of the Milky Way (use star maps).
10. Turn on the camera’s time-delay feature to avoid shaking (10-second delay will do).
11. When ready, press the shutter to take your shot. In this case, the camera will expose for 30 seconds. During exposure, you must not allow any stray light to reach the camera’s sensor, and certainly not allow the camera to move or shake. You may need to shoot several times for proper framing.
If you wish to experiment taking exposures longer than 30 seconds, you must set the camera to bulb mode (consult the camera’s manual on how to do this). Under this setting, the camera’s shutter can be manually controlled through a device called a cable release (some may also refer to this as remote shutter). Keep in mind, however, that as you increase the exposure time, star trails become more evident. I recommend exposing only up to 60 seconds.
You may also opt to increase the camera’s ISO value (or the ISO speed). This would result to brighter photos captured in shorter exposure times, but would also mean capturing more grainy images. I recommend experimenting with settings up to ISO 3200 and see which one’s work for you. The image below illustrates the effect of different ISO values on images (image taken with a non-DSLR camera).
Using lenses with varying focal lengths will allow for closeup (example, 50 mm) and panoramic shots (18 mm). Some may choose wider-field lenses (lower than 18 mm) to capture both the Milky Way and some nice foreground.
I’d be happy to hear from you! A photo of our own galaxy is something you can be proud of, and of course, a nice addition to your growing portfolio.
If you have captured the Milky Way and wish to have it featured on this page, kindly send a copy of your photo to firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks!
For an archive of my Milky Way shots, click here. Clear skies and happy shooting!
© Anthony Urbano (Manila, Philippines)