** This post is for someone who want to do a planned Milky Way shoot. Remember this post contains only the guidance for shooting, being creative, is up-to you.
** This is going to be a long post. Do not read this in hassle. You have an option to bookmark this post and return later.
I have been dilly-dallying writing about how to shoot Milky Way (MW) pictures for a long time because I knew this is going to be a long post and I was not sure how many people out there would be interested in reading about shooting something so specific and painstaking but beautiful indeed. But when Sonia from Ticking the Bucketlist asked me some pointers for shooting MW, I thought its time I share whatever knowledge I have gathered so far.
I have been fascinated by Milky Way since very long time. I think the first images of Milky Way I saw were clicked in Hanle, Ladakh shared by someone in BCMT forum. Since then I have been looking for opportunity to shoot Milky Way. I visited Hanle in 2013. Hanle is the site of world’s second highest observatory as its climate is suitable for better astronomical visibility round the year. But I was unlucky, as weather was cloudy and not even a single star was visible that day. Unfortunately I had only one night in Hanle and I could not stay there for another day as I was riding with a group. I tried locating MW in Nubhra Valley and Pangong Tso, but I was not happy with images i captured. I was disappointed and decided to read immensely about illusive MW.
What is Milky Way
Milky Way is a Galaxy which contains our Solar System. Its is called MW due to its dimly lit white milky appearance to naked human eyes. MW is estimated to contain over 400 million stars.
Astronomers have concluded that our MW is spiral shaped and all photos of MW galaxy that we see on internet are either artists impression or Andromeda Galaxy. Andromeda Galaxy is another galaxy that is Spiral shaped. No one is yet able to shoot MW from outside. Remember it is very large. We need to travel several million light years to shoot MW from outside.
MW looks like a disc or band structure as seen from Earth. To draw an analogy, consider yourself to be a Olive sitting on a Pizza. All you can see is a disc shaped structure. However, each and every star we see in night sky is a part of MW. So its okay to say we see MW each night through out the year.
What we see as MW images is actually the Galactic Core/Center of MW across night sky. As a photographer we are interested in including Galactic Center of MW in our images. In-fact all images that are titled as MW pics have been composed with Galactic core of MW. Galactic Core gets its amazing structure from interstellar dust that obstructs our view.
When to Shoot Milky Way
Unfortunately, we can not shoot MW round the year. We can see and shoot MW only in specific astronomical alignment of Earth and Sun.
Time of year
What we want to shoot in MW is the Galactic Core. The galactic core is only visible in summers in Northern Hemisphere. So best time to shoot MW start from April and lasts till September. We call it summer MW.
We see a part of MW in winters as well but not the galactic core. In winters galactic core passes through sky in day time so we can not see it.
Time of Month
Visibility of MW also depends on Moon phase. Brighter the Moon, lesser will be the visibility of MW. So new Moon is technically the best time to shoot MW as it is at its brightest in absence of Moon.
Alternatively we have to find out time window when Moon is below the horizon so that it does not interfere with our shoot.
Tip: Position of Milky Way remains same at given date and time every year.
Where to Shoot Milky Way
This is a no-brainier. Farther we are from light pollution, more stars we can see. Finding dark skies has been really difficult for city dwellers. We may have to drive few hundred miles just to locate a dark sky.
Another enemies of astro photographers are clouds. A cloudy night can ruin our plan, so please make sure to read weather forecast before you venture out. A clear cloudless sky is a perfect setup for us.
Humidity and hot temperatures are also bad for shooting MW pics.
How to Locate Milky Way
Well, I met a fellow photographer in a community meet and i asked him “How do you locate a MW?” he said “You know it when you see it”. His answer wasn’t totally convincing as I had never seen it in real then. But now i understand what he meant.
Locating MW isn’t too tough when you know where to look and when to look. I will suggest to use two resources for locating the MW.
First one is my favorite, Sky View Cafe.Unfortunately this only a web page and not a mobile app so we can not install it on my phone. But it helps a lot in planning a shoot. It tells me exact location, time of visibility and orientation of milky Way at given location and time.
For Example, If we plan to shoot MW from Ladakh on 15 June 2016, we can dial-in “Location Setting” and “Date and Time”. Website does the remaining work for us. By changing the time and date (on top left) we can visualize MW at that particular moment. Cool, isn’t it? Now we know at what time of night we need to go out and search for the MW. And at what angle it is going to be. I know night in Ladakh are really chilling and venturing out in night is a big task in itself!
Second resource I use is Stellarium mobile app. Since this is a mobile app and works without internet, we can use it to locate MW at night if we can not locate with naked eyes. All we need to do locate the Sagittarius constellation. The Galactic center of MW is right next to the “Tea pot” spout. In darker areas, we can see (visualize) “Teapot” with naked eye also. Stellarium costs 1.5$ for iOS, but totally worth it.
The constellation as a whole is often depicted as having the rough appearance of a stick-figure archer drawing its bow, with the fainter stars providing the outline of the horse’s body.
Looking for inspirations? Below image has been clicked by Deepak Gupta, a biker and an excellent photographer, on his mega ride to Northern India. You can follows Deepak’s work on his Facebook page.
Scouting a Location
So till now we have enough information to find time, direction and angle of MW rising on any particular day. Next we will scout for a location. Location/composition is very important aspect of shooting MW pics. Its the composition that differentiates a flat MW picture from a eye popping one. Looks for interesting foreground objects like bald tress, pillar stones, camps, old houses, hills, landscapes or anything static. It will best to bookmark your location in day time. Once it is dark, you will not be able to do much legwork. It goes without saying but still I would mention that you may need a compass to know the correct direction. All phones or even wrist watches have compass these days.
Enough for this post now. Pre-planning is over. Time to hit the road and locate a dark sky. I will discuss about best camera equipment and setting in next post due coming Saturday
Tutorial : How to shoot Milky Way pictures – Part 2 (Link opens in new tab)
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