How to :: Searching for the Milky Way / by Mohammed Ismail

Exposure:   30 Seconds   Aperture:   2.8   Focal Length:   23mm   ISO:   3200

Exposure: 30 Seconds Aperture: 2.8 Focal Length: 23mm ISO: 3200

Hey guys, what is up!

In this blog post I will be taking you step by step through the process of capturing the Milky Way. We will cover:

  1. Searching for the Milky Way
  2. The required gear
  3. Taking the shot
  4. Post-processing

1. The Search

From November to January, the sun is in the constellation Sagittarius, which makes it all that more difficult to view the Milky Way. If you are in the Northern Hemisphere, the best time to view the Milky Way is in the summer as the sun is on the other side of the sky. However, keep in mind that in the Northern hemisphere, the summer nights are hot and short. The Southern hemisphere, on the other hand, enjoy cooler (clearer air) and longer nights, which is certainly an advantage.

With apps like Star Chart, not only do you get the augmented reality feature, but you can also time travel and therefore see where a certain night sky object will be at a certain date and time. You can travel about 10,000 years forward or back in time.

Extensive options on objects to search for as well as in-app upgrades.

Extensive options on objects to search for as well as in-app upgrades.

See where a certain night sky object will be in 2087. 

See where a certain night sky object will be in 2087. 











Information cards on night sky objects.

Information cards on night sky objects.

View the night sky from other points on Earth.

View the night sky from other points on Earth.














You can sometimes see a faint Milky Way with the naked eye, however, if you are unable to do so, look for the following constellations (brightest part of the Milky Way is between Sagittarius and Scorpius) with the Star Chart app and you will find the plane of the Milky Way:

  • Sagittarius
  • Scorpius
  • Scutum
  • Aquila
  • Cygnus
  • Cassiopeia
  • Perseus
  • Auriga
  • Orion
  • Canis Major

Another tool I find incredibly useful is the Photographer's Ephemeris. With this nifty piece of software (available for your computer as well as your mobile phone), you can plan your night photography by seeing when both the sun and moon will be rising and setting as well as where on the horizon they will be doing so. With this information you will be able to drop a pin at the exact location you plan on going to and calculate the best time to take your pictures. 

Simply place the pin at the exact location you want to go to and follow the readings on the right panel.

Simply place the pin at the exact location you want to go to and follow the readings on the right panel.

When capturing the Milky Way, you want to ensure you are capturing the most dense part of it. There are two factors to follow when doing this; face the Southern sky and wait till the Milky Way is as high as it will get. As for the time, keep the following in mind:

  1. Pre-dawn if shooting in April - May
  2. Near midnight if shooting from June - early August
  3. Not long after the sun has set and the sky is dark if shooting from Mid-August - September .

You need to make sure the area you are going to is dark with little to no light pollution. The farther away you are from light, the better. Once you have reached your location, give your eyes about 20 minutes to adjust to the dark. For this reason, I would recommend you use red light when you are there. Moreover, if you are going as part of a group, you don't want to ruin anyone else's shot with your bright, white light.

2. The Gear

  • Tripod :: Think night sky photography, think long exposures; think long exposures, think tripod. Any solid tripod will do.
  • Camera :: As for the camera, you do not need to purchase a camera at this level to shoot the Milky Way. Just ensure it is one which allows you to manually adjust the shutter speed, aperture and ISO. In regards to the ISO, high ISO performance is preferable as you will be cranking it up.
  • Lens :: The Milky Way is somewhat large, so an ultra wide-angle (10-24mm) or even a wide angle (24-35mm) lens is the way to go. You also want to make sure it is a fast lens. If your lens can go down to f2.8, you are on the right track. 
  • Light :: An LED headlamp with a night mode (red light) is all you need. Use the normal white light if you want to light up the foreground of your shot, otherwise, stick with the night mode so as to not ruin your vision in the dark.
  • Intervalometer Remote Timer :: Though not essential, a remote will allow you to trigger your shutter without having to touch the camera to avoid any unwanted shake or vibration which could show up in your image.

3. Taking the Shot

  • Shoot in RAW - you'll thank me when you get to post-processing your image.
  • Turn your camera to manual mode so you can adjust the settings for the best results.
  • While you're at it, opt for manual focus on your lens and set it to infinity. Your camera's autofocus system needs contrast so when pointing it up at the dark night sky, it will be as useful as a marshmallow mug.
    • Turn your Live View on.
    • Digitally zoom on a bright star and manually focus until that star is sharp as possible. Take a test shot and then zoom into the image to see if the focus is correct.
  • Shoot as wide as possible on your lens. 
  • Open the aperture as much as possible. If your lens only goes to f4, then you will still be able to get some results, but the lower the better.
  • Check your histogram to ensure you are not over or underexposed. If the histogram shows peaks towards the centre of the graph, you are on your way!

I've gone and added my settings for the above shot. I tried not to push the ISO up more than I had to in an attempt to avoid too much grain in the image.

Exposure:  30 Seconds  Aperture:  2.8  Focal Length:  16mm  ISO:  2500

Exposure: 30 Seconds Aperture: 2.8 Focal Length: 16mm ISO: 2500

4. Post-processing (Adobe Lightroom)

This is where shooting in RAW comes into play. The RAW file is basically an uncooked image with all the ingredients you need to boost the Milky Way without losing quality. I personally don't like to overdo it when it comes to post-processing, so I would suggest you only need to focus on five things: exposure, contrast, clarity, vibrance and white balance.

I increased the exposure and contrast of the entire image, but then used the adjustment brush tool to increase the exposure and contrast of the milky way even further. Again, when increasing the contrast, be careful not blow your shadows or highlights. Again with the adjustment brush tool, I increased the clarity of just the milky way.

For the white balance, I made a fine adjustment to the temperature from 3150°K to 3350°K and a +4  towards magenta on the tint scale. Finally, I pushed the vibrance to +11.

You may find that you prefer to post-process your images differently. These are just guidelines so there is no set correct way to do this. The most important thing is that you have fun doing this. Have you tried night sky photography? Share your results in the comments section below.