As long as the correct exposure and basic compositional skills are applied, it is hard to take a bad picture of the milky way.
Here is a list of steps for photographing the milky way.
- You need to be able to see the milky way, and it is not always visible. Find that schedule. The Photographer's Ephemeris and similar apps are useful for this. Mid-late summer is ideal.
- You need a dark sky. Dark as in no city lights, even in the distance, is most important, and no moon or a small moon is also helpful. Plan for the dark sky location and moon schedule.
- You need a clear sky. Heavy cloud cover is a milky way photography show-stopper.
- A camera is required. Most modern interchangeable lens cameras will work fine, but with equivalent lenses, the full-frame models have an advantage.
- The camera requires a lens, and lens selection is critical.
The lens needs a wide aperture to create a bright enough image in an exposure short enough that star trails do not appear within the acceptable ISO range of the camera.
Think f/2.8 as a minimum, and f/1.4 is awesome.
A wide-angle focal length is needed to get enough of the milky way in the frame.
While 35mm can work, go with 28mm and wider (full-frame equivalent).
Stars are pin-sharp and you want a lens that renders them pin-sharp fully into the corners at the wide-open aperture.
That lens does not exist, but some lenses are considerably better than others for this purpose.
- Mount the camera and lens on a solid tripod and head.
- While the milky way looks great without any other supporting environment, an attractive foreground can make such an image stand out, as illustrated in this image.
- Focus the camera.
If the moon or another very distant light is visible, autofocus on it, and then switch to MF.
Otherwise, or alternatively, use manual focus (pick a bright star and fully zoom in to focus manually).
- Set the camera to manual exposure, and remember that your LCD is going to appear very bright in the dark.
- Use a wide-open aperture.
- Set the shutter speed.
Basically, use the longest possible shutter speed that does not create offensive star trails.
Consider starting at 20 seconds for a 24mm lens on a medium resolution imaging sensor.
Higher resolution imaging sensors more readily show star trails and require shorter exposures for equivalent pixel-level results.
Review the shot until the ideal duration is established.
- Set the ISO.
Too high is the setting most often needed.
At f/2.8, ISO 12800 is probably needed. At f/1.4, try ISO 3200 or 6400.
- Set the drive mode to 2-second self-timer.
- Frame the scene as well as possible (it will be very dark), capture an image, adjust the camera, and repeat that process until perfection is achieved.
- When the composition is just right, cue the meteorite to streak through an ideal area of the composition.
Want a meteorite in the frame?
The odds for any given frame to have a meteorite in it is low, but selecting a date within a known annual meteor shower, such as the Leonids, greatly increases the odds.
After establishing the perfect shot, set the camera's drive mode to high speed, plug in a remote release with a locking button, lock the remote's shutter release down, and walk away.
Tending a second camera setup is a good use of this time.
If available, a bowl of ice cream is also entertaining.
Come back to adjust the composition for the milky way's movement across the sky (I know, the earth is what moves).
Amazingly, and out of the norm for me, was seeing a meteorite streak by while the shutter was OPEN, without using the continuous drive mode technique.
While I welcome meteorites, I do not fancy satellites.
They get removed (this is easy with Photoshop's healing brush and clone tools).
As mentioned, the earth rotates, causing the milky way to move across the sky like everything else up there.
On this evening, I followed the heart of the milky way around Bear Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park until Hallett Peak was a foundational element in the composition.
Despite the 4:30 AM alarm, it was well after midnight before exhaustion overcame excitement.
What is my favorite milky way lens?
Currently, the Sony FE 24mm f/1.4 GM Lens holds that title for me.
The 24mm focal length fills a significant portion of the frame with the heart of the milky way.
The f/1.4 aperture is extremely wide, permitting lower ISO settings for less noise.
This lens's image quality at f/1.4 is excellent.
The size is compact enough that I can take it along as a lens dedicated to this purpose.
A larger version of this image is available on Flickr.