Here in Southern California, Summer tends to be a season which is typically wretched for landscape photography. The coastal low clouds usually roll in during the months of May and June, killing off potential sunsets and sunrises on the coast. The afternoon skies turn hazy and the hills turn brown, and most of us turn on the air conditioner and retreat indoors to work on our shots taken earlier in the year.
There is, however, one fantastic photographic opportunity to look forward to each Summer here in California. For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, Summer is prime time to get out and shoot the Milky Way. Although the Milky Way may be photographed throughout the year, the brightest corner of the Milky Way begins to show up around May along with more reasonable times for shooting it.
For those of you who are new to shooting the Milky Way, there are several challenges to consider:
1) Location. The first challenge is to get far enough away from the glow of city lights for the Milky Way to actually be visible. In Southern California it usually means traveling into the mountains or desert at least 45 minutes or so out from city lights. While the Milky Way may be partially viewed in the San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountains, the best local viewing for most Southern Californians is at Joshua Tree National Park. But for those who truly want to get away from the ambient glow of nearby towns, the best option is Death Valley. For those of you outside of the Southern California area, there might be dozens of locations within an hour or so of where you live. My favorite locations outside of SoCal have been in Yosemite, The White Mountains, Shenandoah, Glacier and the Eastern Sierras, but I am constantly looking for more places to shoot.
2) Timing – The second challenge is having to wait until two or three days before or after the new moon as moonlight can greatly reduce the visibility of the Milky Way. The BEST night to shoot would be on the night of a new moon, guaranteeing that you have all night to shoot the night sky without worrying about the moon. A little moonlight is not necessarily a deal breaker, but once the moon is greater than 30%, it becomes much more difficult to shoot as contrast around the Milky Way becomes greatly reduced.
3) Your Gear – Challenge number three is related to the camera you are shooting with and the lens that you will be using. Your chances of capturing the Milky Way aren’t very high if you are using a 5.6 lens. You might be able to get something at F4, but your best chances are at 2.8 or faster. You will also want to be shooting with a camera that can shoot at a higher ISO setting without noise, preferably around 3000 or higher. A tripod is an absolute must along with a remote for the shutter release.
4) Focusing in the dark – Be sure to experiment with the lens you will be using before heading off into the dark. I would suggest waiting until twilight and then focusing on either the moon or a single bright star or planet in live view. Set your focus to manual and rotate the focus ring back and forth until the star is at its sharpest point and find a way to mark that on your lens. IMPORTANT: For most lenses, inifity is NOT all the way to the left. For my Nikon 14-24, the sharpest point is right in the center of the infinity mark, which is a bit to the right of where the focus ring stops, but this will vary from lens to lens. The important thing to remember is that you need to know where this spot is in advance so that when you are out shooting in the dark, you can manually set your lens to that spot quickly and you will be ready to shoot.
5) Post Processing – Although it is not mandatory to process your Milky Way photos after you shoot, I believe this is where the true magic happens. It would be good to be minimally proficient at post processing, i.e. uploading your shot and being able to adjust some levels with software. Post processing your shots will give you an opportunity to adjust the white balance, contrast, and dynamic range of your photos. Once you have worked a bit with the software, you might feel more comfortable with working with layers, which will allow you to blend in a longer exposure for the foreground since you will be limited to around 30 seconds before your stars begin to blur.
For those of you who have tried to take photographs at night and have only come away with flash filled blurry images of the area immediately in front of your camera, here are some tips to help you come home with some great shots of the Milky Way:
1) Use a fast, wide lens. Any thing slower than 2.8 will make it much more of a challenge to come away with a useable image. If you don’t own a wide 1.4 or 2.8 lens, consider renting one for a weekend. The ideal lens would be at least a 24 mm. Several suggestions for lenses are listed below. Depending on the lens, you might be able to get a slightly sharper image by using a smaller aperture (3.2 rather than 2.8) but depending on your camera, you might need all the light you can get, and most of these faster lenses are reasonably sharp at 2.8.
2) Roll up the ISO – Most of the newer cameras (within the last 2-3 years or so) will allow you to shoot at higher ISO levels without having to deal with excessive amounts of noise. Typically, I try to keep from shooting above 3,000, just to be safe. But depending on your camera and your lens, you might need to experiment by rolling the ISO a bit higher. Most of the other photographers I have been out shooting with seldom go above 4,000, so if you do push the ISO that high in order to get a decent exposure, keep in mind that you might be dealing with quite a bit of noise when you upload the shot
3) To avoid blurring the stars, use the 500 rule. To use the 500 rule, take 500 and divide it by the focal length of your lens. For instance, if I am shooting my Nikon 14-24 wide open at 14mm, I would take 500 and divide it by 14 which = 35 seconds, meaning I can leave the shutter open for 35 seconds before the stars begin to blur in my shot. But if I was shooting a 50 mm , I would only have 10 seconds before the stars begin to blur. The crop factor is also important and should be figured in before shooting. If you have a cropped sensor camera with a 1.5 crop, your effective focal length of your 14 mm lens is really 21, which would only give you 23 seconds to shoot rather than 35 on a full frame. Also, when shooting with a bulbous lens, like the Nikkor 14-24, the outside edges of the frame will always blur at a faster rate than the center, so you might need to subtract a few seconds when possible to avoid blurring the corners. I typically aim for 25 seconds when shooting with my 14-24.
4) Know what time the Milky Way will rise. The entire arch of the Milky Way can be very dramatic but it is only near the horizon for about an hour or so after rising. From my experience, the best program for predicting the Milky Way is Stellarium, which is a free desktop app. Stellarium will allow you to choose the date and location and will show you a 360° view of the night sky, including the moon and the Milky Way. Once it is up and you are shooting 30 second exposures, you will most likely be shocked at how fast it moves across the sky. Once it is directly overhead, you may continue to shoot portions of it but you will no longer be able to capture the entire arch AND the landscape in the foreground once the Milky Way is completely overhead.
5) Know where the Milky Way will rise. In the Northern Hemishere, you can expect the arch of the Milky Way to stretch across the Eastern Horizon with the brightest corner of the Milky Way off to the South East. Whenever you are able, plan to scout out your location in advance, keeping an eye on what will work as a foreground. If you show up to a great location like Joshua Tree but haven’t thought through what you want to use as a foreground, your options will be much more limited.
6) Look For Scorpio – The brightest part of the Milky Way is located just above and to the left of the tail of Scorpio. As a kid, I grew up in a canyon in the mountains of Southern California, and even though I could see the Milky Way on moonless nights along with many of the constellations, I could never see Scorpio as it was located behind the mountain range to the South. I don’t think I ever saw Scorpio until just a few years ago when I made my first trip out to Joshua Tree. The brightest part of the Milky Way intersects with Scorpio’s tail, so if it is easier to find Scorpio when your eyes are adjusting, begin there and look off to your left and you should see the Milky Way.
7) Look for foreground subjects to shoot against the Milky Way and find creative ways to light the subject. In Joshua Tree, there is enough ambient light to light up light colored rocks throughout the park so you might not need to provide additional light, but in many locations, you’ll have to experiment a bit with light. My favorite spot in Joshua Tree is the Arch Rock at White Tank Campground, but there are dozens of other opportunities there. The ancient bristlecone pines in the white mountains are ideal subjects as they reach literally into the heavens and into the Milky Way. Roads, pathways, buildings and automobiles can also make good subjects. Lighting these subjects can be a bit of a challenge as too much light will blow out the background and you will lose the Milky Way. Consider using something to diffuse the light source you are using. In the bristlecone pine shot above, I used a white, plastic grocery bag to diffuse the small headlamp or maglight that I had with me that night. Shining the light behind you will allow your subject to catch just the reflection of that light, and often times a few seconds is all you will need out of the 30 second exposure.
Adding yourself as a subject can also be very effective. I stole the headlamp idea above from Paul Zizka, who is a fantastic photographer from Canada. If you look through his photos, you can see that he uses himself as a subject very effectively in some of the most jawdropping situations imaginable.
8) Don’t forget that you may also shoot the Milky Way just before it sets. Depending on where you are located, the Milky Way will still be visitible during the Winter Months, but the brightest part of the Milky Way will have rotated out of view and it will usually be back closer to the horizon in the very early hours of the morning. In this particular shot taken in February, the Milky Way drew closer to the horizon around 4 AM, but now we were facing Northwest as we caught the Milky Way setting over Emerald Bay in Lake Tahoe:
9) White Balance And Air Glow – If you shoot with your camera’s white balance set to “auto” you may very often find that your photos have a reddish tint to them as some cameras will tend to gravitate to a warmer color temperature when you are shooting the night sky. The color temperature may easily be adjusted in post, especially if you are shooting RAW files. While you are adjusting the white balance, you may come across a green color cast in the sky. If you know you are too far South to be shooting the Aurora, you may have photographed a phemomenon known as “air glow.” From what I have been able to gather, air glow is an effect in which the atmosphere gives off luminescence due to rays hitting the upper atmosphere. The same night I took the photo below, I searched online for other Milky Way photos taken the same night and all of them shared the same greenish tinted atmosphere. In these types of situations, I would embrace the greens and purples of your shot, keeping the white balance in the cooler range. Airglow doesn’t always show when photographing the Milky Way and it can give your photo a completely different look when it is present. Definitely something to keep an eye out for.
Suggested full frame lenses:
a) Rokinon 12 mm 2.8 Fisheye – Many of my most recent Milky Way shots have been taken with this lens and it is available for a variety of mounts, It’s worth noting that you can get the entire arch of the Milky Way in with this lens without having to create a pano.
b) Nikon 14-24, 2.8 – This is my favorite landscape lens, but it tends to be a bit pricey. Even though it’s a 2.8, it’s extremely sharp and combined with the dynamic ranges of the Nikon D750 and 810, I’ve had very good success with it when shooting the Milky Way over the last few years.
c) Rokinon 24 1.4 – While I haven’t shot with this lens, it has had excellent reviews and comes highly recommended.
d) Rokinon 14, 2.8 – I own this lens but stopped using it in favor of the Nikon, but several of my buddies have taken some wonderful Milky Way photos with this lens.
e) Sigma 24, 1.4 – I’ve heard mostly good reviews for this lens as well. Some people have complained about coma distortion, but it’s still getting good reviews on Amazon.
Cropped Sensor lenses:
a) Rokinon 8mm 2.8 fisheye
b) Tokina 11-16 mm, 2.8
I hope this had been helpful. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to post them in the comments section below. I’m still hoping to hit Glacier Point and Bodie to shoot the Milky Way this Summer so if you happen to be in one of those locations, keep an eye out for me. I hope to see you out under the stars!