This week the stars aligned and I was finally able to do some Milky Way photography. It was awesome, scary (more about that later) and I already want to go back and do it again! Here’s the story of how the night went, which settings and equipment I used and all the pre-planning I did that made the trip a success.
Here’s the equipment I used to get the photographs:
I bought this wide-angle lens about 6 weeks ago to do landscape and astro photography. So far I’m really enjoying it! Tokina makes this lens for both Canon and Nikon crop sensor bodies.
My Mum gave me an older tripod she was no longer using. It’s a basic model, but so far it’s doing a great job! Rather than rush out to buy an expensive tripod, I was told to start with a cheaper model to understand which features I would want in a more expensive one.
For exposures of 30 seconds or shorter, you can just use the self-timer on your camera. I wanted to try even longer exposures (to bring out foreground details), so I bought a remote shutter that allows you to keep the shutter open for as long as you want!
There’s a lot more involved than just pointing your camera up to the sky and shooting! Planning is arguably the most difficult aspect of Milky Way photography and, coming from bird photography, this isn’t something I’m used to doing much of!
Here are the basics:
You need clear skies – obvious right? Be warned: even when the forecast calls for clear skies, those clouds can still come over and ruin your shot!
There are two aspects to finding dark enough skies:
1) Light Pollution
You need to be far enough away from city lights so that the light pollution doesn’t ruin your shots. I used Dark Site Finder and looked for places that were dark green or darker. From Ottawa, it’s about an hour’s drive to get to a dark enough area.
2) The Moon
The best time of the month for Milky Way photography is the few days before, after and during a new moon. I downloaded the PhotoPills app which was essential for my planning. It allows you to forecast lunar cycles for precise locations (you drop a pin) anywhere in the world. It also tells you the best time of the night to photograph the Milky Way for any given date and location.
Here is a screenshot of some of the information Photo Pills will show you for your location. It’s a truly powerful app.
Although the Dark Site Finder shows you which areas are in the dark zone, you still have to decide where exactly you want to go.
Daytime Scout Sesh
The preferred method is to scope out possible spots during the daytime. Although it’s nice to photograph the Milky Way on its own, you also may want other features in the foreground on your photo. It’s easier to plan for these in the daylight. Once you’ve scouted a possible location, you can drop a pin on PhotoPills and see where the Milky Way will appear in the sky in relation to your feature.
Google Maps Satellite View
My method was more rudimentary – I used Google Maps’ satellite and street view features to check out areas in the dark zone.
It took me little while, but I narrowed it down to two possible sites an hour’s drive from Ottawa. I looked for a spot with open fields (rather than thick forests), not near any towns and without any power lines that might obscure the shot.
How to Find the Milky Way in the Sky
If you’re in a dark enough area, you will be able to see it with the naked eye! I also really like Sky Guide, an app that will show you the Milky Way, planets and constellations when you hold your phone up to the sky. You don’t even need data for it to work. The app even showed us the International Space Station going past. So cool!
How The Night Went
On Tuesday night, the moon was a Waxing Crescent (7.8%) and it would set at 10pm. Assuming the skies stayed clear, the Milky Way galactic center would become visible at 10:50pm and stay visible until 2:20am (thank you PhotoPills!).
The forecast was for clear skies, so we decided to go for it! Butttttt, a few hours before we were supposed to leave, I noticed The Weather Network was calling for fog starting at 11pm. I couldn’t believe it! After some deliberation, I decided it was worth trying anyway.
The first location was in a darker area, but it didn’t have Google street view maps so I wasn’t able to scout it properly. As it turned out, most of the area was thick forest and you could only see small sections of the Milky Way between the trees. After snapping a few shots, we decided to move on to the 2nd location.
The 2nd spot was in a brighter area, but offered expansive views across a wide landscape. When we got out of the car, we could see the Milky Way with our naked eye! It was MUCH bigger than I realized it would be (way too large to get in one frame). It was a full arc across nearly the entire sky. We parked on the road in front of a farm with a silo and started taking shots. The fog started to roll in, but it thankfully stayed close to the ground.
Here are some of the photographs I took:
Although you can see the Milky Way with the naked eye, the photographs really bring out the details and colour.
Milky Way Photography is Scary!
This might sound ridiculous, but standing in the pitch black photographing the Milky Way is scary! Especially when the creatures of the night wake up and you can hear howling/screeching/scuffling all around you. You are taking these long exposures and you can’t turn on any lights while the camera shutter is open (in some cases, 4 minutes!).
At one point during a long exposure, we heard this squeaking sound coming from behind us. Initially I thought it was a mouse, but the noise was pretty loud and I could hear the animal running towards us (much louder than a mouse would be!). It took every inch of restraint not to turn on my headlamp, especially as I saw the silhouette of a medium-sized animal run a few feet from us down the road. It was probably a Raccoon, right?
Later in the night, we began to hear howling that was getting louder and louder (it sounded like a pack of Coyotes). That was the point when I started to lose my nerve! Needless to say, we didn’t hang around for much longer.
I downloaded an eBook, Milky Way Nightscapes that’s a beginner’s guide to Milky Way photography. It’s full of photographs and easy to read instructions for every step of the process, including camera settings. It costs 19.99 USD and I thought it was worth every penny.
These are the basic settings that I started with:
- 25 seconds
- ISO 6400
- Manual focus to infinity
The rest of the settings I got from the eBook, so if you want this information you’ll have to get the book! (I have no affiliation with the author and I don’t get commissions for promoting the book).
Milky Way Photography: Conclusion
All in all, it takes a lot of planning and a bit of luck to get photographs of the Milky Way. It can be frustrating, but in the end it is definitely worth it! I had never actually even seen the Milky Way like that before, so the experience of just being there was richly rewarding.
For the next new moon, I plan to visit an even darker area, and to start experimenting with getting different features into the foreground of my photographs.
I’d like to thank Nick Hawvermale for his inspiration and advice about Milky Way photography.
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