A lot of readers and followers on social media ask me how to shoot the Milky Way properly. I'm entirely self-taught, and the good news is, all the resources I used to learn are easily available online, right now.
In this post, I hope to save you the time and hassle of looking for all the best basic tutorials out there by linking you to the most essential reads from the one and only website I used to learn: Ian Norman's Lonely Speck. I love Ian's website because I think it has the best balance between being thorough and being easy to read. I also add in a couple of answers to frequently asked questions that may not be covered by the articles.
This single, comprehensive guide covers everything from gear, to apps, settings, how to find the Milky Way, how to focus in the dark etc.
2. Gear Guides
If you just want to find out about the right gear, here are two guides that will help:
This article covers all the basics. If you want to get more in depth on specific lens choices for your camera system, whether it's full frame, APS-C, or micro 4/3, read this:
- Sony A7RII (from Henry's Trinoma) - the best full frame mirrorless camera currently on the market. While the Sony A7S / A7SII have better low light performance, the huge resolution on the A7RII allows me to print at very large sizes. I used to shoot on a Sony A7S and that remains a fantastic low light camera.
- Samyang 24mm f/1.4 (from Macy's Camera Shop) - Lonely Speck's top rated full frame Milky Way lens, top quality at a reasonable price. MF only.
- Samyang 14mm f/2.8 (found on TipidPC.com) - a cheap, great quality full frame ultrawide. MF only. Not as bright as the 24mm, but the wider focal length lets you get slower shutter speeds than the 24mm.
- MeFoto RoadTrip tripod - a very lightweight and compact but sturdy and reliable tripod. I bought this from the US but I see copycat tripods from Benro and the like in camera stores. Look for ones that fold up like the MeFoto in the picture.
- Generic IR remote (from Lazada) - To trigger the camera without causing any camera shake
- Headlamp (from ROX Bonifacio High Street) - To see in the total darkness necessary for good Milky Way shots
Take note that you can get great shots with cameras that cost half the price of or less than the A7RII. My current recommendation would be a Fuji XT1 or XT10, also mirrorless. Their lenses are excellent and good value as well. Unless you want to print large format (30" and up on the long side), there's no need to spend so much on the camera. Spend on the lens and the tripod.
3. Apps and Software
Smartphone apps are an indispensable tool for planning a Milky Way shot. The best ones I know of are:
I use Sky Guide most of the time. PhotoPills is comprehensive but extremely intimidating to learn and not user-friendly, so I would suggest leaving that until you're ready to invest the time and effort to learn it, but it's only app I know of with a dedicated Milky Way planner. I'm a big fan but it took me a few days to figure it out.
I rely entirely on Adobe Photoshop Lightroom CC and Adobe Photoshop CC for all my post-processing. All basic edits in Lightroom, compositing and sharpening in Photoshop, then printing in Lightroom. You can purchase a subscription for those two apps for only PhP 405 a month here. Just choose the Photography plan.
These two tutorials were a huge help in helping me produce the images I wanted:
5. Other Frequently Asked Questions
Q: What is the best time to shoot the Milky Way?
A: It depends entirely on where you live. In the Philippines, Milky Way Season is during the summer, with peak visibility varying as the months go along. I prefer shooting in March-April at around 3:00 a.m when it's around new moon time.
Q: Is the Milky Way visible with the naked eye?
In extremely dark places, yes, though not as bright as it appears in photos. It still looks amazing, but in a different way. That said, you can get a decent Milky Way photo even when it's barely visible to the naked eye.
Q: Where can I shoot the Milky Way?
Just travel far enough to get away from light pollution. I definitely recommend traveling somewhere where is little to no light pollution, some elevation, and some kind of object of interest in the foreground. Many times, in the Philippines, you will be shooting the night sky from a beach, but be wary of 1) the damage the saltwater can inflict on your camera, and 2) On a windy night, your lens will fog up very quickly near the sea.
Q: Do I need a full frame camera?
No, although it's ideal. A good APS-C mirrorless like the Fuji XT10 or Sony A6000 will do really well with the right lens.
Q: How do I focus in the dark?
The best thing about shooting on the Sony A7 series of cameras is that, with a good lens like the Samyang 24mm f/1.4, you can use peaking (a focus aid) to focus by eye, especially on the A7S or A7SII. On DSLRs, it's a little more difficult. Refer to this guide, under "Focusing in the Dark."
Q: Why are my Milky Way photos not sharp?
Second, there might be something causing vibration on your camera. That could be for a number of reasons:
- On a DSLR, you need to make sure you enable mirror lockup. Google how to for your specific camera and try it.
- Especially in high winds, your tripod might be too flimsy. Invest in a good tripod that's the right size for your camera and lens.
- You're not using a time-delayed shutter or a remote shutter release. Either enable a 2-second timer on your shutter or use a wired or wireless remote trigger.
- You are touching or bumping the camera during exposure. Stop that!
- You forgot to turn off your the IS/Steadyshot/VR on your camera and/or lens.
That's it! Did I miss anything? Do let me know in the comments!
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