How To Capture The Milky Way In Style & Comfort
If you have caught the night photography bug then at some stage you will be focused on capturing a decent Milky Way image. To do this there are a few pieces of equipment that are vitally important night time outdoor activities such as a tripod, a digital SLR or mirrorless camera, head torch and a remote. I’ve put together a basic guide to help you, by no means is it perfect because there are many different ways to capture the universe but what I have written is designed to help get you started.
Taking pictures at night can be quite challenging for beginners. It requires you to manipulate ISO, aperture, and shutter speed among many other things. Once you learn the basics, you’ll find out that night photography is extremely rewarding. Make sure you experiment and try new things, mess around with the settings and when you get home to put the images on your computer, hopefully you’ll be gifted with stunning images to be proud of.
The first task, relax. Take the time to look up at the skies and take in the beauty of the universe around you. Night photography is a magical time where you won’t have the distractions of your surroundings interrupting your work or mind.
Relaxing will help you think about what you’re doing, what you’re trying to achieve and it allows you to take the time to absorb your surroundings. Don’t rush into things, make sure you visualise in your mind what you want to achieve and take the time to get it right while enjoying the experience. The late, great wilderness photographer, Peter Dombrovskis said it best with:
“When you go out there, you don't get away from it all, you get back to it all. You come home to what's important. You come home to yourself.”
For this article I will take a two stage approach. The first being the process I recommend and second the essential outdoor gear I use to not only achieve good results but to do it with comfort. If you’re not comfortable and the equipment you are using isn’t able to achieve the results you have visualised or then inevitably you will be frustrated. I’ve been through that frustration and what I recommend below is the system I have and it allows me to work happily, comfortably and achieve good results. Well, I think they are good but that’s up for discussion lol…
If you are further interested in honing your skills I teach for Nikon and regularly hold night photography classes in Hobart, Tasmania. More information can be found on the Nikon School website
I am always interested in hearing from readers about how they achieved great results with their night photography or even the learnings they made along the way to success. Please share your night photography stories using the hashtags #ExperienceIsEverything and #PaddyPallin or tag us @paddy_pallin.
You can also contact me on social media or via my website
This can be very challenging when you are in a new location. If possible visit in the day light first, this way you won’t have to stumble around in the dark squinting at your live view screen, pointing your torch at things and trying to create a good composition. Working in the dark can be annoying and your results will be a lot better if you do some research first.
Put the camera in Manual mode
It also helps to have a lens that is as wide as possible. This allows maximum light into the camera: lowest f-stop, around f/2.8 to f/4, is a good guide. Once you have the camera on manual mode, the aperture as wide as possible then a few basic settings to get you started could be ISO 800 to 3200 and a shutter speed of anywhere from five to 30 seconds.
Use manual focus
How the hell do I do this in the dark you ask!! Autofocus may be reliable, but it’s still not foolproof. Its weakness is really noticeable when taking pictures at night. Using manual focus turn on the Live View Mode and press the Zoom-in button (the one with the magnifying lens icon) until you magnify the subject you want to be in focus, then adjust until it’s pin sharp.
Remember not to switch on the autofocus function any time during the photo shoot. Otherwise, it will override anything you did manually. This technique may take a while to get used to, but it’s more reliable than your autofocus in poor lighting.
*Hot Tip - If you want to get really tricky then turn up on location at blue hour, capture a shot of your foreground in focus at a low ISO, wait a while till it’s dark and then capture your star shot using the focusing method above. When you get home you can blend the two images together in Photoshop. This is a little advanced but if you master the technique the results are amazing. If you struggle with this contact me and I will help you - firstname.lastname@example.org
Use low ISO if possible
Using high ISO seems to make sense when shooting at night, but doing so also increases the noise in your images. The newest cameras such as the Nikon Z series are really advanced, they allow you to take pictures at ridiculously high ISO settings (up to ISO 3200 or more). Learn the limits of your camera’s ISO levels by taking some test shots with different ISO settings. Examine the photos on a big screen and find out at which ISO level your camera becomes too noisy. If it looks unusable at ISO 1600, then stick to settings lower than that.
Just because your camera can shoot up to ISO 25,000 doesn’t mean you should use it. There is a fine line between low ISO and longer shutter speed because the longer you leave the shutter open makes it harder to get sharp stars, it’s easy to forget how quickly the Earth is spinning until you try to capture it with a long exposure.
JPEG is fine if you never want to edit the images you’re shooting. Look, I know there is a lot of debate on the subject but if you shoot Milky Way images their beauty will be realised with good processing so you will need RAW files. I recommend RAW for any type of photography because you never know what you might capture and if it’s caught in JPEG then you are missing a lot of data that JPEG will not provide.
RAW is the best option to avoid grainy pictures due to low light and post-processing. Unlike JPEG, RAW files maintain their quality (to a point) even after post-processing. After editing your image file, you can always convert a RAW file to any format you want, including JPEG or PNG. RAW files take up a lot of space on your memory card, and your images need to be edited afterward, but at least the quality of each image is preserved.
I have an article on how I protect my data, here
Take test shots
Unlike taking photos in the daytime, night photography requires you to be more methodical. You need to know the exact settings to use for your camera, and to do that, you need to take some test shots. Doing this also allows you to fine tune your camera settings, so if your initial settings produced a dark picture, then adjust it again until you find the correct exposure. Once again go back to the first step, relax. Make sure you slow down and zoom in on your picture to make sure the settings are correct, make sure you take the time to find the sweet spot between a low ISO and sharp stars.
Play with different shutter speeds
Obviously the stars are moving and once you slow down and adjust to your surrounds it can be quite noticeable. You will definitely see the effects of this movement when you zoom in on your picture and realise that what looks quite sharp on the live view screen is actually quite blurred when you get up close. This movement is called star trails and they can become an amazing photograph in their own right, but this is a topic for another day.
The way to reduce this movement and get nice sharp stars is to limit your shutter speed. Each lens reacts differently to movement so there is no one size fits all formula. However, there is a technique called the NPF Rule which is a complicated but accurate rule for sharp stars.
To achieve this you can follow the following formula (35 x aperture + 30 x pixel pitch) ÷ focal length = shutter speed in seconds. Pixel pitch = the camera sensor’s physical width in millimeters ÷ number of pixels in width x 1000 to measure it in microns.
If this hurt your brain like it did mine then I suggest taking a shot at 20 sec, zooming in and adjusting it until you get sharp stars J There will be a trade off with any change you make but these are the joys of night photography and by working through them you will perfect your craft and be proud of your achievements when you create a beautiful image.
Like most things the equipment you have can be determined by your budget, one word of advice I have is that if you are going to buy something, spend a bit extra and get the good one. Benjamin Franklin said it best with “The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten.”
A sturdy tripod with a good ballhead
Taking photographs in dark conditions requires long exposures, which means your camera has to be steady at all times. A tripod and ballhead that can handle a heavy camera and rotate to all sorts of angles is vitally necessary.
Tripod – I’ve had a few over the years and I found that this is one piece of equipment I should have spent more money on to start with rather than going through 3 or 4 before I purchased a high quality one. I now have an Enduro and it is perfect, I have used it in a lot of harsh conditions and it never lets me down.
The same as a tripod, cheap ones will only drive you nuts and make the shooting experience quite frustrating. Slipping base plates with the fiddly little screws, hard to tighten knobs in the cold, angles that the ball head can’t get into, annoying leg extension clips that break..… I’ve seen it all and it drove me crazy. Then I tried the Acratech ball head combined with the Enduro and my life was complete J
The realisation comes when you setup your tripod and adjust the ball head with ease in moments while others are still click clacking and fiddling with this and that, meanwhile you are sturdy and able to shoot at all angles before they even take 1 shot. When this happens you will be very happy with your purchases. Acratech are the bee’s knees of ball heads.
Whatever you have as long as it keeps you warm then it’s a valuable piece of night photography equipment. Recently I have started using Arcteryx equipment and found all of their clothing to be of an exceptionally high standard, this is the beanie I have been using:
It gets bloody cold at night, especially in Tasmania. You can wear multiple layers and feel like the Michelin man or you can get a great set of thermals that will keep you nice and warm. Again I have found the Arcteryx thermals to be really good because they while they keep me nice and insulated but they are thin and smooth under my other layers so I do not feel too bulky.
You’ll feel very smug if you have toasty warm fingers and the person next to you doesn’t… However it can be super painful taking them off every time you need to adjust your settings. I found these ones from Acratech fix that problem by having tips that allow you to poke your fingers out. I’ve done a review on these which can be found on my website.
Get one with as many lumens as you can afford. There’s nothing better than feeling like you have a lighthouse on top of your head. It will help with focusing on foregrounds, composition and safety when you travel from A to B in the dark. I have the lightweight Black Diamond and with a massive 325 lumens I can light up the world around me like a Christmas Tree.
I suggest buying a dedicated external pack, batteries fade quickly in colder conditions and when you are using live view all the time it can be really annoying. If you plan on doing a time-lapse or star trails you will need a larger power source. These powervault batteries come with the dummy battery you will need that goes into your camera’s body. They are lightweight and pack a real punch. I like these because I feel its better to have 1 good battery rather than 4-5 spares rattling around in your bag.
If you’re out in conditions where dew is a problem then you’ll get condensation on your lens and if its on the inside of the glass then it is game over, unless you have a lens heater. I use the firefly heater by Kendrick because they are one of the best (IMO) they even did a comparison of theirs versus competitors, check it out.
A word of advice, if you buy the heater don’t worry about the power source or controllers. Just get the heater and connect it to the powervault batteries I mentioned previously. The controllers look great but you can just run the heater on full without them and they work fine, I’ve tested mine in very harsh conditions and they have never failed.
Thanks for your support reading my article, I hope it gives you the urge to get out there and experience the world for yourself