How to Find and Photograph the Milky Way
Chasing the Milky Way has been my drug of choice for the past year or so. Unfortunately, between about September and February, the milky way is not able to be seen at night here in Michigan. This creates a bit of a frustration for us astrophotographers. Finding the Milky Way and then shooting it are two difficult tasks on their own, but I'll show you my process for how I plan out a trip and execute a Milky Way photo-adventure.
The Milky Way on Blackrocks at Presque Isle in Marquette, Michigan.
When and Where
Finding the Milky Way is not difficult if you've got the right resources. One of the most challenging barriers is finding a good location. Not only do you have to escape strong light pollution, but you've got to keep in mind good composition practices and, if you're searching for the core of the Milky Way, you need, at this time of year, a good view of the southeastern horizon because even though the actual Milky Way stretches across the entire sky, the 'core' people like to see is low and close to the horizon right now (as it is for me here in Michigan, USA in the month of April).
Before you go out and hunt for locations, you'll want to have a more precise visualization of exactly where you'll be aiming your camera. I use an Android app called Stellarium for this. It is currently on the Play Store for $2.49USD and offers a really intuitive, easy way to view where different
astro-related objects will be in the sky during any time, on any date. There is a free PC version that works just fine and is what I used for a while, but the mobile version leverages different sensors in your phone that offer the app even more functionality than the PC version. So, in the field, when I find a cool spot that I know generally faces southeast, I just open the app, quickly change the time to about 3:30am and turn on the 'Sensors' mode that allows you to hold your phone up and visualize where the Milky Way will be in the sky as it tracks it on your phone and then I just swipe slowly to view the actual trajectory for the way the Milky Way will move across the frame for the night. I often timelapse this, so I need to know ahead of time when I set up around 3am where I should be aiming when I know I need to consider that the Milky Way will at some point leave my frame.
It's not impossible to find the Milky Way before actually going out, but I want to provide an honest report of the way I do things, and I have to give props to the developers of Stellarium for making that process really easy.
Shooting and Processing
Now we'll skip ahead and talk about camera setup and what you actually need to do to get a shot of the Milky Way. Firstly, as with astrophotography in general, you need a tripod. There are less effective ways around it, but a tripod will make this task so much easier because you absolutely need your camera to be still during the shot. Secondly, you have to understand that what you're asking of your camera will push its technical limits. I'm realizing more and more that trying to take "clean" photos of the Milky Way with my D5300 (a crop sensor body) is a near-impossible task. You can add more to that frustration if you shoot with a compact camera (1 inch sensor). Your settings have to be pushed in such a way that you can't expose for too long because you'll get unintended star trails. Your aperture should be wide open, so that leaves your ISO. When you've exposed for as long as possible, and you're already wide open and your image is still under-exposed, that only leaves ISO as an option to go up, and if you've shot with high ISO before, you know the extra noise that comes with. Well, on a crop sensor body, I can only comfortably push my ISO up to about 3200, but absolutely no more, as a personal preference. Even 3200 has some noise that I really have to work on to become acceptable for me. On location, there isn't really much more you can do about this aside from upgrading your camera body or grabbing a lens that has a wider maximum aperture, but, this is where post processing can help.
I've been a heavy follower of Ian Norman and Lonely Speck for the past few months and have really come to love Ian's tutorials for how he processes his Milky Way photos. He has a couple tutorials focusing specifically on how he processes his images to reduce noise via stacking in PhotoShop and I can say that I've had major success with his methods and I absolutely recommend watching him because if I try to explain it in words, it would only be one tenth as helpful as the videos he's made. Go watch him and try it for yourself to really get the best help in reducing noise in post processing.
I'm not here to tell anyone about how they should make their art. The variation we have in this world among artists is what makes our industry so alive with creativity and innovation. I can say, however, that unless you're purely intending to properly document the night sky, a lot of photographers do take some creative direction with their Milky Way photos as far as color is concerned. There is no one answer, but if you were to ask me how to color correct a Milky Way photo, I wouldn't tell you to find a neutral color balance and leave it. I would, however, tell you to find a neutral color balance to work on exposure correction first and then come back to your color sliders and tweak the values so that you get an image that pleases you. If you've followed my work, you might notice I tend to lean toward blues and magentas in my astro shots and especially when it comes to Milky Way photos, I treat them with a little more color-freedom than most of my other work. This all comes down to individual style, not any rule I follow, and I would certainly promote creative thinking if you're producing these images for yourself.
The Milky Way over KI Sawyer's in Michigan.
I hope you've enjoyed another astro-related blog post! As always, you can find me on a bunch of other social media platforms. I'm on Instagram and Twitter @_DavidSargent and you can find me on Facebook here. As I briefly mentioned earlier, I do also timelapse my astrophotography compositions as well, and you can find those at my YouTube channel here.
Thanks for reading and comment below if you have any questions or suggestions for my next blog post topic!