Have you every tried to photograph the Milky Way and found your results to be lacking compared to those amazingly detailed images on Instagram? Yep join the crowd of disappointed togs with lacklustre night images. The truth is, there are no decent photographs of the Milky Way that don’t have some serious post processing behind them. So if using post processing software like Adobe’s Photoshop or Affinity Photo (or the myriad others creeping into the marketplace), then maybe this isn’t for you.
However, my processing is not that hard and the results are quite natural to look at. I am not one for those over processed smack you in the face shots that get plastered all over Instagram.
So there are a few elements you need to successfully photograph the stars. The most fundamental is a clear night in a very dark location. There are many areas of the world, Egypt for example, where you can be under a clear sky for the majority of the year and the light pollution in many places is minimal. In the UK, if you do find a dark sky area, the chances of a clear night are stacked against you, although not impossible to find.
You then have to consider the time of year. The Milky Way is not visible everywhere all year, so do some research to find out when the Milky Way is visible in your area. I use the iphone app Photopills to assist my planning. This lets me find where the Milky Way is in the sky and plan where to go, where to stand and which direction. There’s also an AR system that overlays where the Milky Way will be, so you can find a good composition in daylight and see exactly where and at what time the Milky Way will look perfect. It will even help work out your exposure.
Lastly you’ll need a moonless period because the moon will overpower the Milky Way. This comes as a shock to many new astro photographers. The Milky Way is not very visible, certainly no where near as visible as the pictures would have you believe. You have to let your eyes really get used to the darkness to see even the faintest glimpse of it. So how can you record that on camera?
Well, I am going to do something most astro photographers don’t do. I could get lynched for this, but here is an unprocessed image of the Milky Way behind my favourite tree. It’s dreadful, as all unprocessed Milky Way shots are. The magic happens in post, but more about that later.
Above everything else you need a sturdy tripod. If you cannot afford a new sturdy tripod, buy a secondhand one, it will be much better value. Your camera choice is up to you, but it must be able to take decent exposures at high ISO values. Lens-wise I generally use a 20mm (on a full frame camera), but any wide angle will do. You can even create panoramas if you are fast enough. You will find a cable or remote release useful for keeping the camera steady.
Taking the Shot
There are two important things to consider when photographing the Milky Way. One is where you are going to focus, the next is shutterspeed. Let’s face it the Milky Way is a long way away, so most think infinity is what you set. But what about your foreground? My favourite tree in the RAW shot was only about three metres away, so I shone a torch on it and focused on that point. I then locked off the focus. Shutterspeed comes next and is more important than aperture. The earth on which you are standing is moving. It spins, so the stars look like they are moving. It’s slow, but it moves, so you do not want your shutter open too long or the stars blur. My advice is keep your shutterspeed below 25seconds for sharp Milky Way photography. So to get the right balance of exposure and camera noise from a high ISO, means you’ll need to test your camera’s ISO capability beforehand. That’s simply a case of photographing the same subject at the same aperture, but using all your camera’s ISO settings. You’ll need a tripod and a remote release to avoid shake and then look at each image at 100% on your computer. I will say that camera noise is not as much of an issue as many think, especially if you are printing your pictures. Even a good camera at an optimum ISO has some noise at 100% in shadowy areas, so some noise is fine. It’s when the noise gets too bad to distinguish details (like stars) that’s when you have reached the ISO limit of your camera, even if the setting pushes on further than that.
With that you can work out your aperture. Try and use one a couple of stops down from wide open if you can. The added depth of field will help and the image will be a bit sharper. If not, just shoot wide open.
Now you have a decision to make. You will get much better results by stacking images and there are some good software options for both Mac and PC, so even if you ultimately choose not to process with extra software, I would shoot between 10 and 20 shots, just in case later on you do decide to use stacking software.
This is where the heavy lifting is done. It doesn’t matter which software you use on a single shot you will get noise (grain) and possibly some colour discrepancies. The point is whether you can live with them. If your photographs are just going on Instagram or perhaps a website then, they’ll be fine. If you want to print them again you should get away with it. If you are entering competitions or want a really massive print, then you will want to create stacked images which do reduce noise, increase star sharpness and create a more pleasing image when viewed at 100%.
If you are starting out though, don’t bother. Just stick to one image and learn the basics first, knowing that, if you took the extra images, you’ll have chance to go back and re-edit once you are more confident.
One thing to try and do is isolate the foreground and background as the treatment for both will be different.
As for the actual processing, my advice is look on Youtube and follow a tutorial there as it will be far easier to follow than I can describe. A good starting point is done in the following video by Kennth Brandon. It’s the one I started with. It’s easy to follow and you’ll get a lot out of it.
So I hope you’ve got some inspiration from this article. Milky Way photography is a fun and challenging thing to try, especially if you live on an island with as much precipitation as the UK. Finding a dark location is relatively easy for anyone outside the south east. However, finding a cloudless night with no moon is a little tricky. But give it a try you won’t regret it.
Gavin Parsons studied photography at Huntingdonshire college one of the most eminent stepping-stones into commercial photography in the 1990s. His career skewed into journalism when he accepted the role of technical writer on Practical Photography magazine and then slid into the water and he became one of the UK’s top underwater photographers and was the editor of Sport Diver magazine.
Gavin is an award winning wildlife photographer, accomplished environmental portrait photographer and now a Youtuber with a growing channel dedicated to all things photographic.