Milky Way Photography Season – A Quick Start Guide
Heading into Prime Milky Way Photography Season
April is here, and the Milky Way has risen! You can now photograph the core again. Currently, the best time to do this is during the middle of the night. This particular shot was captured at 4:45 am. As each month passes by, the core rises almost 2 hours earlier. The core is currently rising at roughly 1:30 am for APRIL, but would be very horizontal to the horizon. You can see the amount it has “risen” in the photo above within 90 minutes. This information also is the same for each year.
Let’s talk about some rough settings. Manual mode is a must. I always start with a pretty high ISO, say even 6400. This is strictly to shape my composition and see what’s out there in the dark. Once I have my composition set, I will settle the ISO back down to around 1600-2500 area usually. I try to keep exposure time near 15-20 seconds. 30-second exposures are just as common, and you will be just on the cusp of starting to see star trails if you look at your photo close enough, unless you are extremely wide. For the most part, my aperture is always at f / 2.8 or faster. My go to lens, the Sigma 20mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art Lens, opens all the way up to f/1.4 which is pretty handy! You need to let in a lot of light for these shots.
These are rough starting points. If you think you need an adjustment, do not hesitate to do so. If your shot is still dark, for example, raise your ISO.
Shoot in RAW
For Milky Way photography season, you will want always to be shooting in RAW. RAW does not process your picture at all and gives you total control to do the adjustments yourself in post processing. RAW files also capture the most amount of data, they do not become compressed like jpegs, and can be sharpened with more control, which can be essential for these shots at night.
The short story here is to leave your white balance on auto. Most of the time it will be fairly accurate, however, shooting in RAW allows you to change this in post processing to your liking regardless. I tend to favor a temperature near the 3500-4000 mark. It is possible to adjust white balance in post processing when shooting in jpeg, but not nearly as easily as with a RAW file.
An important part of your final piece will be ensuring your shot is in focus. You will want your lens to be set at infinity focus. The infinity mark is not always the exact mark on your lens. You can focus on something far away in the daytime and note this spot on your ring and keep it here until nighttime shooting. I also encourage you to fine-tune the focus as you go. Take your shot, and then zoom in on the viewfinder and check out the stars. Make subtle adjustments as needed until tack sharp. If you have live view, enable it, and zoom in on a bright star to fine tune your focus.
Where is the Milky Way?
To clarify, we are actually in the Milky Way galaxy. The photogenic part you see captured in so many photos is the Milky Way galactic core. Another important note is to know that the season to see the core is roughly March through September (though with the right conditions, you can shoot even in February and October). Give or take two weeks, depending on your exact location and sunrise/sunset times. You should also allow yourself about 20 minutes for your eyes to adjust to the darkness when viewing. You can see the Milky Way overhead in dark enough locations.
Prime season will be June through August ensuring plenty of shooting time. Generally speaking, you will look south to find the core, southeast during the start of the season, slowing making its way southwest towards the end of summer. Note that for the Southern Hemisphere, you would still look south, but direction moves opposite.
Pay Attention to the Moon
During Milky Way photography season, make sure you know the moon phase on the night you plan to shoot. The light that the moon illuminates can quickly dampen your chances of seeing the Milky Way. So the ideal time to shoot is during the new moon. Shooting during the new moon also gives you the entire night to shoot without having to worry about moonlight.
You should also pay attention to what time the moon rises and sets. For example – if there is a 35% moon, but it sets at 2 am, then you can easily shoot the Milky Way past this time, providing it’s the right time of year. The same can be said with a rising moon. If the moon will be bright on a particular night but doesn’t rise until 11 pm, then you may have a few hours to shoot before this (this example would need to be late summer when you can see the core earlier in the night).
This is a tricky one, but manageable. For starters, if you live in a metropolitan area, don’t count on seeing the Milky Way without doing some driving to get away from town. The bigger the city, the more light pollution, the farther you will need to drive. Light pollution can be seen from even a few hundred miles away. You can also increase your odds by positioning yourself correctly for viewing. I live outside of Phoenix, but I can travel just 30 minutes south of Phoenix and see the core nicely. I position myself so I am looking away (southern) from the light pollution and towards the Milky Way. Consider this same approach. For some more inspiration head over to my Dark Skies Portfolio. So now that it’s about to be prime time Milky Way photography season, get out there and grab some nightcaps!