Shooting the Milky Way

I had a few friends ask me about my Milky Way photo from Salt Point State Park and how I was able to compose and shoot my photo, so I figured I would  pass along my “field notes” from my trip. 

Honestly, I am no expert in astrophotography and there may be any number of methods to yield the same or similar results. However, this practice works for me and hopefully it will help you!


PLANNING

First and foremost is planning. In order to shoot the best Milky Way photography I make sure to find a dark location with very little light pollution. One of the best apps I have found is the Dark Sky app by @darkskyfinder. This app allows me to find locations with very little light pollution for my next shoot. I always pull the geo coordinates from the web app and pin them on my Google map so I can then access them from my mobile app when driving to the location. There is also a great website that does all the same as the mobile app.

Second, I use @photopills to determine the next new moon phase. Why a new moon phase? Generally astrophotography is shot at 1600 ISO and higher. Just as you would avoid cities because of high light pollution, you can assume the moon will do just the same, but from an even higher point in the sky. When shooting the Milky Way you want your sky dark and Photo Pills will allow you to determine where the Milky Way will be sitting in the sky during a new moon phase. This isn’t to say you cannot shoot any other time of the month, but try to keep it within +/- 4-6 days from a new moon cycle. 

Now how does Photo Pills play into this? Watch this video to better understand the app. For $9.99 in the app store, I use PhotoPills every time I shoot.

Also, a shout outs to The Photographers Ephemeris for their great mobile app in tracking sunrise/sunset/moonrise/moonset times and paths. Great for landscape photography set up and golden hour/blue hour timing. Also, Stellarium for their fantastic desktop app to determine where the Milky Way will be sitting in the sky at the time you plan to shoot.


SCOUTING

Next up is scouting your composition. One of the worst practices is to arrive at your location right when you plan on shooting the Milky Way because the sky is going to be dark. How can you get a light read of your landscape when their is very little natural light? What if their was a BETTER composition merely 50 feet away that you didn’t even see? Not to mention the fact that walking through the wilderness for a good shot in the pitch dark can be dangerous. 

I try to arrive usually an hour ahead of time. This gives me enough time to walk around the area (or drive) and set up my cameras for the shoot. An hour may be extreme; It may also not be enough time. I have no idea. But, it also allows me to take a few photos during golden hour/blue hour where I can still get a bit of light off the landscape in front of me.

Oh, and the most important part. Shoot south. The Milky Way will not appear in the north… sorry.


SHOOTING

Everybody has their special formula to shooting a great photo. I by no means suggest my process is the best, but I am learning and getting better everyday. Once you are ready to shoot the Milky Way think about what you are trying to accomplish. 

  • Do you want to highlight just the stars? 
  • Is there a beautiful landscape in front of you? 
  • Will you be light painting any structures in your shot? 

All of these questions will alter the way you shoot your photo and generally answering at least 2 of them will yield a good result with your photo.

I enjoy time-lapse photography, so I try to shoot up to 240 photos (24 frames per second for 10 seconds). But this isn’t always possible and often times very tiresome. However, I shoot like this every time. If I don’t get 240 I shoot as many as possible until I leave, that way I am not just limited to 1 photo. 


POST PROCESS

The last task is editing your photo. There are numerous videos on how to properly edit a milky way photo that are excellent resources made by amazing photographers. Here are a few of my favorites:

Astrophotography tutorial. How to photograph the milky way by @nickpagephotography

How to plan, shoot, and edit the Milky Way by @thefinerphoto @roydufek

Milky Way Photography: Lightroom Tutorial - Basic Workflow by @robnelson4

Milky Way Stacking for Noise Reduction by @j.snow_photo


With all of the above said these were the  camera settings for how I shot the above photo:

September 3rd, 2016

Fujifilm X-T10
20 second
f/2.8
14mm
3200 ISO
203 total exposures over 75 mins


If you liked this post please feel free to share and add me on Instagram @designingformiles or Twitter @designing4miles

If you have any questions or pointers feel free to ask!

Thank you!
Steve