About 8-years ago my friend Jordan over at Over Flow Media (overflowmedia.net) convinced me to go out and try some star trail photography with him, since then I've been captivated by the idea of photographing the night sky.
Up until about a year ago, I hadn't thought much of trying to capture the Milky Way; I only wanted to create photos of the starry sky and try to create some cool looking star trail photographs. I didn't put forth much effort other than to setup the camera and tripod, frame my scene, and get the time lapse started. I'd later merge the photos and think, "that's pretty cool."
That got a little old, and with Instagram I was seeing all of the cool Milky Way photos being posted, and decided it was time to actually learn a little bit and give it a try. So, I did some reading and video watching, and finally reached out to a few photographers on Instagram who gave me some good advice on getting started (@timkemple and @surfnsnowboard). Their advice was great and helped me feel confident about getting started, but nothing beats trying again, and again, and again until you find what works for you.
So, my first few photos were better than expected and served to keep me motivated to try and get a good Milky Way photo. So, I did some more searching through Youtube, Pinterest, Instagram, and various photography websites, and finally gleaned a lot more knowledge and understanding of capturing the photo I wanted.
My knowledge is by no means complete; there is a ton left to learn, and I intend to keep at it. But I thought it would worth sharing what I've learned so far to help others out there like me. So, I've broken things down into a few different steps/areas and tried to organize things to make it a little easier.
Step 1: Learn and Evaluate Your Gear
This probably seems like a no-brainer, but it needs to be said. Look at your gear and figure out what its strengths and weaknesses are. In order to get the photo you're looking for, you're going to have more success with a wide-angle lens and a camera that can handle some noise at high ISOs. I have two camera bodies I shoot all the time, a Canon 7D (APS-C) and a Canon 5D Mark III (full frame). The 5D Mark III is much better suited for working at high ISOs, but I was limited in my choice of lenses. My 17-55 f2.8 lens was bought specifically for my 7D, and the widest I have for the 5D is a 50mm f1.4. So, I opted for the wider angle lens and was resorted to using the 7D.
If you've just started into the DSLR world, you probably have a kit lens like a 17-55mm with an aperture of f3.5-5.5; this will work well for the start, but if you're looking to buy a new lens find one that is f2.8 or faster.
Once you know what you're working with, go out and test your gear. Put your gear through its paces by trying out high ISO levels, show shutter speeds, noise reductions settings on/off, etc. Get to know your camera, and as you do you'll find you might get some surprising shots.
Step 2: Practice Your Setup
Now that you know your camera and lens capabilities and limitations, it's time to try some setups.
Here are the settings I start with.
- Camera/Lens: Canon 7D, Canon 17-55mm f2.8, tripod mounted
- Focus: 17mm focused to Infinity (set lens to manual focus)
- Shutter Speed: 20sec
- ISO: 3200
- White Balance: 3600 Kelvin
- Image Processing: RAW
- Mirror Lockup: Active
- LCD Brightness: as low as it can go
- Remote shutter release
Now, here's why I use these settings:
- 17mm is as wide as a I can go, and at 20-25sec it keeps the stars from starting to "trail" during the exposure. The wider your lens the more room you'll have before you start to get that star trail. It's good to follow the 500-Rule and this little chart can be super helpful. https://petapixel.com/2015/01/06/avoid-star-trails-following-500-rule/
- 3600 K because I think it's a good start and typically provides a nice night sky color.
- ISO is set to 3200 initially, but I'll often bump it 4000 or 6400; I've even tried 12,800 which did fairly well in lower light pollution environments, but still adds a decent amount of noise to the image.
- Mirror Lockup is a function that allows you to reduce camera shake when the photo is actually taken. When utilized mirror lockup requires two shutter presses, one to lock the mirror up and one to take the photo. When combined with remote trigger and tripod, you virtually remove camera shake from the equation.
- Using RAW prevents any distortion from compression and loss of quality. It also allows you to easily use post-processing software to adjust color temp among other things.
- Setting your LCD brightness as low as it can go will help you keep some of the night vision as you look at the back of the screen to evaluate your histogram.
Here are some of the photos I took from my backyard using these settings as a starting point to deviate from. You'll see a lot of light pollution from street lights, the neighbor's back porch lights, the moon in a couple cases, and a couple other random sources. You'll also see here that my post processing needs some definite tweaking (which I'll get to later).
Step 3: Planning
Once you've got a solid understanding of your gear, and you've practiced and understand your settings, it's time to plan how to get that Milky Way shot.
As you begin to plan you're going to want to know:
- Where's the Milk Way in relation to you, and when/where you can see it best from.
- How the light pollution in your area is, and where to get away from the light pollution.
- The moon's phase and rise/set times. The light of the moon can create/add its own lighting issue, so knowing when it rises and sets, and what the moon's phase is is helpful.
- What the weather is going to be like? Clouds, haze, fog, etc.
I've found the follow apps/websites very helpful:
Night Sky/Star Info
- Google's Sky View app
Once you've figured out the details as best as you can, it's time to go shoot.
Step 4: Shooting
Since you'v already practice and planned, it's time to go out and shoot.
I had practiced in my back yard with heavy light pollution, and not great views to the Milky Way; fortunately, I had been able to get some decent shots and it forced me to do the best I could with setup and post processing, and I wanted to get away. So, we choose a spot in the mountains away from a lot of the major light pollution (an added bonus to the family camping trip).
Once you get to your location, setup early while you still have some light available to you. Try to frame up your shot(s) in relation to the Milky Way, the moon, and other light sources, and take some test shots. As the sun sets, you'll be able to get some great photos before things get dark.
When things finally are starting to line up: shoot, evaluate (histogram, composition, etc), and shoot again. Be sure to zoom in on the LCD screen and check for star trails, noise, etc. and adjust as you can; and with that histogram make sure you're not blowing out the highlights - exposing to the right is okay, but you won't be able to recover the highlights if they are totally blow out. You've got time to adjust and try things out, but remember to have fun and enjoy the night sky in all its beauty.
Step 5: Post Processing
This is by far the hardest part in my opinion. I've watched a bunch of videos and read a ton of articles on post processing Milky Way and star photos, and it seems as with anything there are varying techniques and ideas. Here's what I did after importing my photos into Lightroom:
1. Set my camera lens.
2. Checked my color balance adjusting as necessary around the 3600K color temp and the purple tint. I was looking for a bluish/purple color to be predominate in my images, but use what you like.
3. I adjusted the exposure of my image for overall appeal. Usually this meant bringing down the exposure by as much as one a half stops.
4. I adjusted the highlights slider for the effect of the overall highlight areas that I wanted.
5. I adjust the linear curve to increase contrast, and then tweaked the white/black/shadow sliders to cleanup the look of the overall image. I also added a little dehaze in at this point in time.
6. I added luminosity and color noise reduction as I thought was needed.
7. Using the paint brush I added clarity, saturation, and increased contrast over the sky and Milky Way as I thought was needed, and often checking back to the original image to see the before/current.
8. I added a circular graduated filter in the middle of the photo that was large enough to help bring down the exposure of the top left and right corners of the sky.
9. I finally straightened and cropped the photos as I thought was needed, and added some minor post-processing vignette.
For the photos that had a high level of light pollution I used a combination of graduated line and circular filters to help cut some of the highlights, bring in contrast, and tweak the color. Remember this is what you like; there are a ton of ways to do it.
Step 6: Enjoy and Share.
Once you've got a few shots you like share them and ask for others to comment on them. Most likely, what you're going to hear are things like, "awesome", "great", "cool shot"; so, reach out and ask for constructive criticism from folks you trust to give it to you.
My Milky Way Photos
The photos below were taking during my recent camping trip up at Los Alamos Campground near Pyramid Lake (east of LA and northwest of Pasadena right off the I-15).
I hope that you're adventure in photographing the Milky Way is as successful as mine turned out to be. I also hope that some of what I learned and shared will help you out in your own endeavor. I look forward to hearing about your own adventure and seeing some of the photos you are able to capture.
You can follow me on Instagram: @markhamilton.photos
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