With Milky Way season in full swing now I thought I would do a quick blog post with some milky way photography tips you can use to get the best out of your milky way and night sky photos. It's tricky enough to practice these things at home and in daylight let alone out in the bush, in the dark and on uneven surfaces (sometimes).
The tips below are pretty important as you mostly have your shutter open for 15-20 secs for usual milky way shots so that's plenty of time for things to go wrong and ruin your shot. They also assume you are shooting in manual settings with no camera "automations" which may change things while shooting.
Ok, so let's get into it!
- Planning. Before you even go out shooting there is plenty to do. Firstly make sure the moon phase is right. You don't want to get out there and realise the moon is going to ruin your shots. A crescent moon can be good sometimes to illuminate the landscape but you don't want it too bright. There are plenty of apps for shot planning now, I use one called PlanIt Pro which is great. You will pay a small price for the Pro version but it's well worth it. Also before you go out make sure everything is clean and all your batteries are charged. Make sure you have a good headlamp or torch. Tell someone where you are going if heading out alone. Make sure you have everything you need before leaving home like your tripod baseplate! That's a common one people leave behind.
- Sturdy Tripod. I go on about this all the time because it is very important. Using a flimsy plastic tripod for this type of shooting just results in disaster and poor quality shots. The more heavy duty and solid your tripod is the less chance there is of any movement during your shot. If it is windy this is even more important. Spreading your tripod legs out wider and lower can help when it is windy. Also hanging your bag under your tripod can weigh it down which helps also. Look for this feature when buying a tripod along with sturdy carbon fibre legs (strong and light), a good solid ball head and also a panning feature adjustment which some tripods don't have. I am a reseller for Sirui tripods and they are arguably one of the best brands for landscape photographers. I highly recommend and use the Sirui W-2204. Check out my Photography Accessories website HERE.
- Remote Shutter or Delay Timer. Even a simple thing like pressing your shutter button can move your camera and ruin your shot. Using a remote shutter release or the 2 second timer on your camera will prevent this.
- Clean Lens. Having a clean lens will prevent any light defraction caused by dirt or smudges on your lens glass. You will get better shots if your lens is clean. I also do not use any type of protective filter when shooting at night. Even a UV filter can give odd light defractions. The less your camera is looking through the better for optimal performance and image quality. Be cautious of dew when out shooting as this can ruin your shots too. Regularly check the front of your lens in between shots.
- Setting Up. Try to pick a clear area to shoot from. You will be in the dark and you don't want to be tripping over rocks or even your bag! Put your bag under your tripod or hang it from your tripod as per above. I have tripped over bags on workshops a few times before.
- Composing Your Shot. Make sure you have a foreground interest where you setup. You can light paint that during shooting to create more interest in your photo. Don't just shoot sky only unless there's a tree or something in it or you want it for a composite shot to add a sky to another image. You may have been at another location but it was cloudy and you want to replicate the shot you should have got but couldn't due to the clouds. Be wary of things in your shot that may move like a tree blowing in the wind. This can create blurry parts of your image. Either compose it out of your shot or a good tip for moving trees is to use flash to briefly illuminate or light paint to the tree! This works really well.
- Focus. Probably the most important aspect of astrophotography. You need those stars and that milky way to be sharp! There are other things that can affect this like good seeing conditions with the earths atmospshere. If it's a really clear sky then your shots will be better. If conditions aren't as good like thin high cloud which can be hard to detect then it's a struggle. You just have to make the most of the conditions and different bortle class skies give different results. The further away from light pollution you can get the better also. Back to focusing...the best way to focus is to use manual focus in live view. Most cameras have this nowadays and they also have a zoom function usually up to 10-15 times which enables you to zoom in on the night sky, pick a bright star or planet and fine tune your focus. The smaller you can get the stars the better!
- Settings. Good typical settings to start with are: Shutter speed - 15-20secs, Aperture wide open - F4.0 or bigger (smaller f/no) is best, ISO 3200 or higher to start. I usually start with say ISO6400 and a shorter shutter speed (6-10secs) when setting up my composition. This saves a bit of time and quicker than waiting for a 20sec exposure for a shot you're probably not going to keep anyway. Once I get my composition right I then start dialing in the settings to fine tune the image. Once that shot is done, I repeat the process for the next composition.
- Image Stabilisation. If your lens has an image stabilisation switch on the side, or your camera has it on an internal menu, make sure this is switched off when shooting from a tripod. IS can reduce image sharpness in some cases due to the camera being fixed and the IS trying to stabilise! Some cameras/lenses now have smarts that detect when a tripod is being used which is a great feature.
- White Balance. Selecting a cooler white balance will make the images on the back of your camera during shooting seem a bit more realistic. I usually select "fluorescent" WB when shooting astro. If you are shooting RAW files you can change this after anyway to suit but it's good to see the best results on camera.
- Long Exposure Noise reduction. It's best to have this selected to Off when shooting. Find it in your camera menu and disable it. LE NR works by taking another exposure of the same length internally in your camera to reduce noise. You may have noticed sometimes your camera says "busy" or the like while it's doing that. If you have a 20sec exposure set, your camera takes another 20sec exposure after your first shot. This wastes a lot of time and is not really necessary. Most software programs have good noise reduction functions nowadays. The internal NR can work a bit though and if you don't have a software program then it's worth doing. A tip though, go through your whole setup process and then just turn the LE NR on for your final "money shot". Mark that photo somehow like a rating function in your camera or even just putting your hand over your lens and taking a photo so you know it was the photo before that one!
- Battery Life. Long exposures and shooting in live view can chew through your batteries a lot quicker than normal. Make sure you have plenty of spare batteries and that they are all charged. Also make sure things are not operating in the back menu of your camera like GPS or Wi-Fi. These can drain your battery quicker also. Turning your LCD brightness down at night can help too. I usually have mine set high so I easily see images in sunlight or bright conditions.
That's about it. If you are going out shooting this season try to go with someone for safety and enjoy the night sky. Being prepared will also make your trip more enjoyable.
I hope you enjoyed these milky way photography tips. I am happy to help if you have any questions, feel free to send me an EMAIL.
See below some of the photos I have captured over the years using these techniques.
Till next time, happy shooting!