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How to take photos of the The Milky Way

 

                                             

Firstly you need find out where the Milky Way is located in the Sky, you can download a free software called Stellarium from the Internet which is a brilliant Planetarium and will show you the locations and has many other amazing features. You need to consider how dark your skies area, from our area around Manchester we have a lot of Light Pollution and don’t get good images of The Milky Way without traveling to a dark sky site.

 

Equipment needed:

  • DSLR camera (so you can manually change the settings) but a decent point and shoot camera should work too

  • A tripod to keep the camera steady (for long exposure photography this is a must otherwise the image will be blurred)

  • A compass

 

Things to check before heading out:

  • Battery is charged

  • Memory card is in the camera (yes, seems obvious but we have made this error before)!

  • That the Moon isn’t going to ruin your image (if the Moon is bright it will drown out the Milky Way)

 

Planning the shot:

This is where you get artistic, think about how the final image will look and what you want your overall image to look like. You could try and get other objects in the photo with the Milky Way rising from behind them or you could just aim up and image the Milky Way on it’s own.  Either way you will end up with a great image! Ensure you don’t have too much light pollution where you plan to take the image from, if you have, it is a good idea to get to somewhere darker. The light pollution will drown out the Milky Way and if bad it may not be visible at all.  

 

Setting up:

  • Now set the camera on the tripod and change the setting to Manual shooting.

  • The first thing you need to do is get a good focus. The best way to do this is to zoom right out with the lens to get a wide view (don’t forget to take automatic focus and flash off), point the camera at the brightest star you can see. Use the live view LCD screen as it is easier to see. Taking photos at night can be difficult as there isn’t much light coming into the camera but its easy when you know how! Hopefully now you should see the star on the screen, if you can’t see the star try increasing the ISO to around 1600 and the shutter speed to around 15seconds.

  • Once you have the star onscreen use the zoom button on the camera (on a Canon this is to the top right on the back of the camera body) and zoom in as much as you can on the star (don’t zoom in with the lense as you want to focus the camera without changing this). Once zoomed in you should them focus the star by manually turning the end of the lens, be careful not to turn the whole lens, just the end of it, holding the main body of the lens whilst doing this so it doesn't move can help.

  • Now use a compass if needed and locate the area in the Sky where the Milky Way is, point your camera in this direction.

  • Now you are focused in, take some test shots and get your settings right. You may have to change the settings a few times as every ones levels of  light pollution will be different. Also keep in mind that if it hasn’t been dark for long, the higher exposure and shutter speed will give a rather bright image! So ..... Set ISO to about 1000 and change the shutter speed to around 20 seconds. Take a test shot and view the results. If the image looks too bright reduce the ISO, if it is too dark increase it. If you go over 30 seconds exposure time, you will start to see the stars making trails, this will not give a crisp image of the Milky Way, so don’t go over this. You will need to adjust your exposure and ISO settings until you are happy with the image. If you don’t have a remote shutter release button, it can be a good idea to set a 2 second delay before a picture is taken, to avoid the camera wobbling when the shutter is released.

 

You are ready for the shot!

 

Don’t be disappointed if you got get the image you planned. The amount of natural and unnatural light has a large affect on any night sky images. Try again another night, try a different location and practice with the camera settings on normal stars from your garden.

 

Don’t hesitate to ask for any help on our COMMENTS PAGE, there are no stupid questions!

© Sarah Hall & Colin Campbell