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Astrophotography: How to Photograph the Milky Way

2020, for its many flaws, has been a fantastic year for space travel. With Elon Musk’s SpaceX launching his Starlink Satellites up into orbit and the first ever crewed SpaceX launch which carried astronauts to the International Space Station. NASA recently launching their successor to the Mars Curiosity Rover – ‘Perseverance’ just a few weeks ago on July 30. And who could forget the flyby of comet NEOWISE? On top of all these events we also have plans to return to the moon this decade and even get the first man or woman on Mars.

Comet NEOWISE

So, with all of this lining up for a historic decade of space exploration, I wanted to give you the opportunity to connect with the cosmos a little more and get involved yourself by showing you how to snap a great quality photo of our resident galaxy the Milky Way.

 

What Will I Need?

Now when wanting to see and get pictures of space, a pretty common question would be, will I need a telescope? Fortunately, to snap the Milky Way, a telescope isn’t necessary. You’d only need one if you wanted to snap some deep space objects, like our neighbouring galaxy, Andromeda. In order to get a good high-quality picture of the Milky Way, you just need three pretty common things; a DSLR/mirrorless camera, a wide lens and a tripod.

You’ll need a camera that can be put in manual (the little M on the dial), this allows you to adjust settings like aperture, shutter speed and ISO. These three things are what’s going to get you your shot.

Camera Manual Mode

For your lens, the wider the better. The Milky Way takes up a huge chunk of the night sky so you want something that can capture it all. If you’re into outdoors photography, which we’re sure many of you are, then chances are you already have a wide angled lens.

And finally, you’ll need your tripod for a clean and stable image.

Where Should I Take the Photo?

This might sound a bit obvious, but, somewhere where it’s dark. I know how sarcastic that must sound but no really, if you want a crystal-clear photo of the Milky Way Galaxy that looks like a Mac wallpaper, you need it to be really dark and you need to be high up.

Dark Sky

Luckily, Dark Sky Discovery have mapped out all the darkest spots in the UK for you to go stargazing and get the most out of it. They even have Milky Way class spots which are perfect for snapping the Milky Way. Find your nearest Dark Sky Discovery Spot here.

Get Everything Set Up

Now you’ve got everything and you’re on location, it’s time to set up your camera with the best settings to get enough light from the milky way that it shines through clearly. It’s probably best if you get there a few hours early to set up, that way you’re not fumbling around in the dark later on. Here’s how to set your camera up:

Shutter Speed

The first thing you need to find out is your camera’s shutter speed. If your shutter speed is too long, you’ll end up with star trails. Star trails show stars as long streaks across the image, making it look otherworldly. This can look cool in some cases, but for today, we’re just going to stick to our prime focus, the Milky Way.

Star Trails

To find out what your camera’s maximum shutter speed is we use a little trick called the ‘Rule of 500’. Take 500 and divide it by the focal length on your lens (the number in mm on your lens), this will give you the maximum shutter speed. This is the shutter speed you want to use to get as much light into the camera and you won’t experience star trailing.

Aperture

For your aperture setting, use the smallest F number that your lens will allow (e.g. F1.4). As the F number decreases, the aperture in the lens opens up to let more light in. Please bear in mind however, aperture values above 2.8 will make the milky way harder to photograph.

Aperture

ISO

The ISO is the sensitivity of the image sensor in your camera. Usually, the higher the ISO, the more noise and grain will appear on the image, so it’s important to find your maximum ISO without too much noise beforehand. Each camera will behave differently at this step as it’s all down your camera’s ability, so it’s best to spend some time sat down with it tweaking until you get it right.

Now these settings aren’t dependent on each other, so it’s key that you find the right balance, it’ll take some practice in the beginning, but once you get it down, you’re sorted.

Find Your Focus

Once you’ve got your camera set up in position and all the settings are correct, you need to focus your camera to get the best possible image. First change the focus mode on your camera from auto to manual, then switch to the live view and focus in on a bright star using your focus magnifier. You should then see a big blurry white ball for the star, adjust the focus slowly until that thick white ball becomes a fine and clear little point. Then you’ve got your focus.

Say Cheese

So, all the settings are right, you’ve got your frame, now it’s time to shoot your shot. Before taking any photos make sure you’re shooting in raw picture mode, that way you’ll get the highest quality image. Set the self-timer on your camera as well, to avoid any vibrations or shakes that may come from you pressing the button down. Alternatively, you could pick up an external shutter release to make it that little bit easier. Some cameras also have a ‘Mirror Lock’ function, which further reduces shake from the shutter curtain, so if you have this option available, make sure it’s enabled. And then all you have to do, is snap.

Milky Way

By sticking to this guide and ensuring all the steps were followed, you should capture the absolutely breath-taking view of the Milky Way and the hundreds of billions of stars that inhabit it.

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Ben is passionate about the beauty of the outdoors. Stargazing, sightseeing and outdoor photography hold a special place in his heart. Now that beauty is at risk he’s keen to take a stand to try and fight back against this Climate Crisis. In his free time, Ben is a music fanatic. If there’s one place you can find him, it’s at a festival. Plus, he plays guitar, bass and piano, as well as producing his own electronic & UK Garage tracks. He’s also a regular at every Wetherspoons in his local area, so if you ever see him around, pull up for a pint?

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