I receive lots of messages here and there about shooting the Milky Way (MW) and what my settings are and how I do it. Keep in mind that this is MY shooting style. Other photographers may shoot differently. So…. here ya go.
Location/Where to shoot/When to shoot?
First, get out of the city and away from lights! This is essential. You just cant see or photo the Milky Way near so much light noise. Second, It really depends on the time of year because the MW “rises” and is visible at different spots in the Eastern, Southern and Western sky. Heading out somewhere South and East of any noisy city light is best. You can shoot North (looking south) of any city light, you just have to be hundreds of miles away. Depending on the size, city light noise can be visible in your shot even at 150 to 200 miles (and maybe more) away. I live in the southwest and its pretty easy to get south of the city I live in to grab my shots. Also, shoot when there is little or no Moon. The Moon is so bright and depending on where its at in the sky it can wash out your view of the MW. For more info on finding a dark place to shoot, browse to: http://www.jshine.net/astronomy/dark_sky/ or http://www.darksky.org/night-sky-conservation/36-ida/night-sky-conservation/91-darksky-finder-a-destinations
Another helpful resource/program is Stellarium. This free program will allow you to see where the MW and the Moon is and when both will “rise” by time and location. http://www.stellarium.org/
The best time to shoot the Milky Way is in the summer months (If you’re in North America). Why? The Earth is in a position to see most of the MW. And when it “rises” and you can see it arch from South to North in the Eastern sky (early Summer). I always quote rise because the MW doesn’t really rise, it comes into view as the Earth makes it daily/monthly/yearly rotation around the sun. But you knew this – Right? 😉
A camera (DSLR) capable of high ISO capabilities
The best choice will be a full frame DSLR like a Canon 1D/5DMKIII/MKII/6D, a Nikon D4/D3s/D700/D600/D800/D4, etc, and other brands of full frame cameras. Full frame sensor cameras are the best choice for capturing the MW because of their stellar high ISO performance. But the MW would be easily captured as well with a crop sensor (APS-C size) like that of a Nikon D3100/3200/D5100/D5200/D7000/D7100/D90/D300(S), etc, or a Canon T2/T3/T4/T5/40D/50D/60D/7D, etc. As far as other cameras such as point n shoots or mirrorless are concerned, if they have the option to shoot in manual and set the exposure, aperture, and ISO, they should be able to grab something useable. But to be honest, I’m not sure as I don’t own one or used one.
A fast wide angle lens
Because the sky will be so dark, a fast (f/2.8 or faster) aperture lens would be preferable. The wider the view, the better because you will want to grab the biggest part of the sky possible – including the landscape to give the photo perspective. I use a Samyang 14mm f/2.8 lens. A wide zoom lens is fine too and with most of those the fastest aperture is f/3.5. You will also want to set your auto focus to OFF and then manually set the lens to the infinity focus setting. I use electrical tape to secure my focus ring so it doesn’t move if I accidentally touch it during the night.
A good sturdy tripod is essential as you don’t want the camera moving during a long exposure. You will end up with nothing useful if you try shooting handheld.
A wired or wireless remote – Optional
When I’m out at night, I sometimes shoot startrails and/or timelapses. Some photographers prefer to use a wired intervalometer/remote. This device allows you program and setup an automated continuous cycle of 30 second exposures. This is really handy if you don’t want to stand by your camera for hours hitting the shutter button over and over every 30 seconds. Some of the newer Nikons and Canons (and others) have built in intervalometers. Most DSLR’s have the option to use a IR (wireless) Remote and you might be able to pick one up at a local camera retailer for $20 dollars. However, if you don’t have any of the above, its really not that much work to setup a chair by your camera and just hit the shutter button every 30 seconds. 😉 To lighten my load when I’m out shooting the Milky Way, I dont carry a remote of any type. I just hit the shutter. If the tripod is sturdy, its fine.
Example wired timer for Nikon: Amazon
Get a large memory card. Don’t forget to charge your batteries and maybe bring an extra because you might be shooting for hours. You can always pick up extras for most cameras at a local camera retailer.
How to shoot and settings
These are my settings and what I use. I cant speak to how your particular brand of camera settings are completed with regard to the below.
1. Get your cam on the tripod and lock it to your view (Eastern, Southern sky, etc).
2. Set your camera to manual (M) mode.
3. Set a 30 second exposure time (Shutter Speed). Why 30 seconds? If you shoot any longer you will start to end up with star trails. You will need to experiment here a bit. Occasionally I’ll shoot at slower speeds such as 15 seconds depending on the night sky, surrounding light, etc.
4. Set your lens to its fastest aperture – Mine is f/2.8. If you are using a lens with aperture of something slower than f/2.8 (I.E. f/3.5, F/4) you might have to shoot a bit longer. If this is the case most cameras have a Bulb mode. The shutter will stay open as long as you have your finger on the shutter button or you can use a wired remote. See “A wired or wireless remote” above.
5. If using a zoom lens, set it to its widest point. 18mm, etc. For APS-C size or crop sensor cameras my favorite lens is the Tokina 11-16 f/2.8.
6. Turn off auto focus and set the lens/camera to manual focus and then focus to the infinity mark.
7. Set your ISO to what you want to shoot at. On my Nikon D600, I usually shoot at ISO5000 (Yes 5000).
8. I TURN OFF long exposure noise reduction (NR) in my camera. Why? If you have this turned on, after a 30 second exposure, the camera will take an additional 30 seconds to apply the NR after EACH shot. If I’m out shooting the stars/MW I leave this off so I can quickly switch from shooting the MW to shooting startrails. If I leave NR on, I’ll end up with gaps in my startrail stack when I post process. You can apply NR in post process.
9. If you have the ability (photoshop or similar), shoot in and edit in RAW and not JPG. There is so much image quality you can pull out of a RAW file then a JPG when editing.
Every camera is different and you will need to experiment. Because the sky will is so dark, my suggestions for full frame cameras are ISO5000 at 30 seconds and with an aperture of F/2.8. For crop sensors (APS-C size) a setting of ISO3200 or ISO4000 should yield some useful photos. Again, I suggest you experiment, take a few photos and look at the result on your cameras LCD screen. Too Dark? Increase the ISO. Too light or over exposed? Lower the ISO. In addition to the ISO setting, consider shooting longer or slower. I usually start off with a 30 second and adjust ISO and shutter speed to get what I want. If your fastest aperture is F/3.5 or F/4, etc., you will have to compensate with a higher ISO setting or maybe a longer shutter speed (See Bulb above). See your cameras manual for more info.
About Noise Reduction
Shooting at high ISO always results in noisy photos. Earlier I mentioned I shoot with no noise reduction because I like to reduce noise in post process using photoshop or photoshop plugins. If you dont have that ability to edit RAW files, are shooting in JPG and are just shooting the MW, turn the in camera noise reduction on.
Again. This is how I shoot. Other photographers have their way of shooting too. But this is the nice thing about photography, its an art form and you (and I) can shoot any way we wish.
Finally, if you don’t have a camera or don’t want to go through all of the above, just grab some chairs, your loved ones, and go sit and stare at the sky in a quiet remote place. There is so much to enjoy just looking straight up, deep thinking and enjoying the serenity. 🙂