A beginner's guide to shooting the milky-way
Taking a great picture of the night sky can be a daunting task, for beginners and pro alike.This simple guide will help you could get your start on achieving some well earned results. Hopefully this will be a kick-starter that can do justice to your efforts of capturing the glory of the night skies.
Today I'll be going through the basics in a 6 step guide to help you get those stunning shots you see almost everywhere in the Web. This guide is pretty basic and I'm ironing out most of the technical guidelines, and will be giving out practical pointers and techniques so that you can get a great end result.
Before we start, let me get one thing you need to understand if you're a newbie to astrophotography. Don't expect to see the stars you see in a photo, in real life : at least not in the same color and contrast.
In real life, stars can be amazing but are hardly as the photos portray, but this is down to a simple fact : a night exposure photo is something that has collected light for an extended period of time (about 20 to 25 seconds or more) as opposed to the naked eye that takes in light in real time. So what the naked eye sees in real time is far less light (and stars) than a camera that “opens its eyes for a SINGLE FRAME for UPTO 30 SECONDS”
In simpler words : what you see in photographs can be different when you see the actual thing.
Right, let's get started!
Here's a step by step guide to help you through the process.
1.Having the right camera.
Basically you need a camera that you can shoot in manual mode - you can get away shooting on auto in some cases but manually doing it gives far better results. You'll need to be able to alter the ISO, aperture and shutter speed manually.
And let's be honest here : The better your camera rig is, the better your photos are going to be, providing you can use the capability to maximize the end result.
It all comes down to how sensitive your camera light sensor is, and how efficient and effective it is at collecting light in the dark skies.
2. A tripod is a must!
An absolute must. A good and sturdy tripod allows you to aim your rig at the sky with no handicap and it allows a solid base to take long exposure shots.
If you've got a light travel tripod Or if you've got winds shaking things up it's a good idea to weigh the tripod down. A sand bag or a few rocks to secure the legs of the tripod will ensure you have less if not any shaking.
If it shakes you'll end up with a blurred pic. Period.
3. Choosing your photo locations - dark skies and moonless nights
Star light is weak, and the lights from the milky-way are weaker still, and the darker the sky, the better the shot will come out in the end. Having lights around where you take your shots, and light pollution can have a big effect : with the long exposures you will be taking, even small amounts of light can lead to disappointment. It can sometimes be like trying to take a photo of a firefly in front of a floodlight.
Cities , beach fronts with floodlights , and even moonlit clouds make for a no go for astrophotography. You may get some stars but, the strong ambient lights make it a disappointing night shot of the heavens.
Also be on the lookout for moon phases. Having the moon in the sky will drown out the fainter stars leading to fewer stars in your shot.
Get yourself more information about the moon phase online, and nowadays it's easy peasy.
The best time for absolutely dark skies is about a week after the new moon and a week before the next new moon.
I've found that the early hours are the best time to shoot the skies. With almost everyone shutting down their lights, there is a significant reduction in ambient light pollution. But this needs to be worked out with where the milky way is going to be so you need to savvy.
Sometimes a location that seems perfect will not be so, so it's better to scope the place out beforehand. But there is no guide to the personal preference, and sometimes I like to have a little bit of peripheral light in my photos to add that extra flair.
4. A wide lens with a low aperture (something in the range of a 12-24mm wide-angle lens with minimum f/2.8 aperture)
This where things can be a little technical. But to shoot a decent night sky you will preferably want a wide lens with a low aperture(f-stop) , so you can let more light in per shot.
The smaller the aperture (f/4, f/2.8, etc,) the more light your lens can let in. The more light, the more star detail you can capture in your shot.
And the wider the lens, the wider the area you can cover in your shot.
Simple as that.
5. The right settings and the right time
The milky way can be a fickle thing to shoot, and your bound to get little shut-eye in the process. Since the milky-way can be spotted in various times all throughout the year due to to earth’s rotation and alignment of the hemispheres, it's best to have a star chart or nowadays an app that can predict where the milky-way arm is going to be.
Star walk, sky map and stellarium are some of the best apps you can find. You can find them either on your computer or better yet on your phone ( on Google play store for android or app store for iOS)
Weather is also a key factor to consider when you take night shots. Checking the weather before you embark is a must do. I normally use accuweather but there are more accurate weather sites online.
Let's begin shooting. Here are some steps you can use as a baseline to start.
Start with focus - you need to focus your camera manually (some newer cameras have auto focus that perform great, but manual focus is a basic thing you need to master)
Either adjust your lense to the infinity setting (the ∞ symbol) Or go into the live view and focus until you have a clear focus of the stars.
It's always a good idea to do some test shots and zoom all the way to check whether it's in focus or not so you can adjust the focus ring accordingly.
Tip - once you have got the best focus I usually tape the focus ring or mark it with a marker. This makes it easy to handle the camera with no danger of accidentally upsetting the focus in the dark.
Set the aperture to a low amount. A lower aperture means the more light that enters your lens. So lowering the aperture means you get more of the faint starlight in your shot.
Tip - don't go all the way down to the lowest f stop setting. The lowest setting will max out the performance of the camera so it's better have the setting a few notches up than the lowest setting. I have a f stop of 2 on my lens but I always use about 2.8 .this gives a better picture with less noise.
Shutter speed - usually a shutter speed of around 15 seconds will do the trick with the above settings in place. Fire a few test shots and make the adjustment accordingly. Keep in mind that the stars are in motion so longer than 20 seconds means that you will have the risk of star trails.
Finally the iso : the higher the iso, the more sensitive the camera will be at collecting light.
Having the iso around 6400 is the best but you can adjust accordingly. The main thing you need to be aware is that the higher the iso the more noise you will have. So better to have it at a reasonable amount in around 6400 or so.
So you will end up with a setting like this in the end. This is what I use to shoot most of the time. Yours can differ so don't worry. The end result is capturing a good night shot so you can use this as a base to fine tune your setting.
ISO 6400, 12mm, f/2.8, 15s
OR simply - ISO at 6400, A 12mm lense, aperture at 2.8 , and shutter speed for 15 seconds.
Finally when you shoot its best to use a remote or have the camera timer for a 5 second delay or so. This will stop the shake of the camera on a tripod and give you sharper shots.
6. post processing
Use lightroom and photoshop to enhance the results of your efforts. Play around with exposure, curves and saturation, plus add a filter or two to get that perfect picture you are satisfied with. I'll be doing a detailed blog post on how to edit night shots soon so stay tuned.
So that's it for my basic guide to shoot the heavens. Hope you find it useful and helpful in making your night photographs turn out better.
“Photography for me is not looking, it’s feeling. If you can’t feel what you’re looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures.” — Don McCullin