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Tutorial : How to shoot Milky Way pictures – Part 2

Window to space

My Window to space

This is part two of tutorial. In first part I have discussed about how to plan a MW shoot by determining time,angle,direction and location of MW before the actual shooting day. Please read Tutorial : How to shoot Milky Way pictures – Part 1 (Link opnes in new tab) before you jump to this part.

Equipment’s Used

Camera

We will be shooting a long exposure of night sky so a camera with low noise sensor is good to have. Beginner level nikon cameras like D3xxx, D5xxx or similar canon counterparts have high noise to signal ratio so exposures would be a bit grainy and less ability to recover details in post processing. A full frame sensor would be best suited for this kind of photography. Any camera that have manual settings control will do the job. Most DSLRs, mirror-less, Bridge/Super zoom and P&S cams have manual mode these days.

Lens

Wider the better. Since we are interested in capturing a considerable amount of foreground with large section of Milkyway, a Wide angle lens is our lens of choice. I find my Samyang 14mm lens quite good for this purpose on a full frame (FX) sensor. On a DX format sensor, I used a tokina 11-16mm lens and it provided quite enough field of view. Any lens which provides a coverage less than 20mm (Full frame equivalent) will be a desired lens. If you are shooting with a mid range zoom lens considering shooting a panormama.

Faster the better. In Night time scene we want more light to reach to our camera sensor. So a faster lens which can open aperture from f/2.8 to f/1.8 will be desired. However any lens can be used for clicking milky way, just use it at its maximum aperture.

Tripod

Good to have a stable tripod as we will be clicking a multi second exposure. We may even put  camera on a rock or any stable object but having a tripod provides flexibility in composing the frame and less vibrations.

Cable Release or Wireless remote

We do not want to shake the camera while pressing the shutter release button so it is good to have a cable release or a wireless remote. We can also use a 2sec or 5sec self-timer for this purpose.

MilkyWay_GiliT

MilkyWay at Gili Trawangan

Camera Settings

Focus

Auto focus of modern cameras can not focus on stars in night time. Its is best to use manual focus to achieve critical focus to infinity. If your lens does not have a hard stop at infinity, it will be tough to focus at night. I would normally find infinity focus of my lens during day time and mark it with a permanent marker on my lens.

Alternatively we can also focus manually on any distant light like buildings, street lights, or moon to focus at infinity.

Using live view is a great option to get stars in perfect focus. Start by setting focus to infinity to get relatively close, then turn on live view and zoom in Live View display on a bright stars, now manually turn your focus ring, you will see the star turn into a bokeh or out of focus when turned in one direction, simply dial this in opposite direction until the star is a sharp point of light.

Aperture

We are shooting in low light situation. It is best to go for maximum aperture of the lens used to gather maximum possible light. An aperture of f/1.4 to f/2.8 would be ideal but anything upto f/4 can be used.

Shutter Speed

Due to rotation of Earth, stars apparently move across night sky. This might be a desired effect in capturing star trails but a negative factor while clicking milkyway. A photographer might be tempted to use a longer exposure to get more light but due to star (apparent) movement one needs to restrict exposure duration to avoid stars from trailing in image.

A simple rule of 500 has given satisfactory results to me so far. The rule stats to not use more than (500/focal length) sec of exposure if we want to avoid star trails. This rule is applicable to Full Frame cameras so we need to consider crop factor as well when applying on cropped sensor cameras. To make life a bit easier I have put on a cheat sheet for ready referral.

Mathematically, Shutter Speed (in Sec) = 500 / (Focal Length * Crop factor)

Exposure time to avoid star trails

ISO

ISO rating determines how sensitive the camera is to incoming light. More the ISO, more with the overall exposure of image. ISO is actually a digital multiplication of light signal to amplify low signal. This digital boost not only increases the light signal but also amplifies the noise in shadows so low ISO is desirable as a general rule in night photography. 

Beginner level camera suck at moderate ISO. My first camera D3100 used to give horrible noise even at ISO 1600. Nikon D7xxx, Canon 70D etc have a well controlled noise to signal ratio and can be easily used from ISO1200 to ISO3200. Modern Full Frame camera have even lower noise generation at moderate to High ISO. Just stick to lowest possible ISO that your camera may allow. However going below ISO1600 or ISO 3200 may be unavoidable.

Metering

Metering mode does not really matter while clicking milkyway. Since large portion of sky is black, in camera metering goes for a toss and shows under exposed image at all settings.

Mirror Lock up

If your camera has Mirror Lockup mode, use it. Lets minimize any vibrations that shutter release may generate. In Nikon it is represented by Mup on top dial.

Post Processing (in Adobe Lightroom)

Whatever camera/lens/setting you use while shooting, in camera image will need a certain degree of post processing to make milkyway pop. Always shoot in RAW format so that all details are preserved in camera for post processing.

Check this wonderful and detailed video where Michael discusses how to process MW pics in LR. I refer this video even today when I process my pictures.

If you are interested in knowing about my Camera gear. Check this post (link opens in new tab)

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