How You Can Take Amazing Pictures of the Stars and the Milky Way
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How You Can Take Amazing Photos of the Stars and the Milky Way
I was not planning an epic trip to take photos of the stars and the Milky Way when I was sitting at home enjoying a quiet weekend with my family. Suddenly my computer dinged. Not unusual in itself to ding, but my senses tingled. Somehow I knew this was no ordinary ding. This ding signaled ADVENTURE, and I must’ve known that when I hurried to the screen to see what the message held.
The >DING< of Adventure!
It turns out a new online photography friend was in the area, and had exciting news! She and her family were heading over from Chicago to my side of the lake for an impromptu photo trip. They were heading past Holland, Michigan, to Little Sable Lighthouse just south of Silver Lake to take photos of the stars and the Milky Way. Would I like to join them?
Is there any other answer to this invite than “I’m on my way”? After a quick consult with my husband, I was out the door! I punched in the address on my GPS. About 5 minutes down the road on my 90-minute drive, I realized what I had done and my thoughts started to spin.
What am I doing!? I have never met this person in real life! I am not even following my Safety Tips for Meeting a New Friend from Social Media. What was I thinking!? What if these people are dangerous criminals? I was going against everything I know about internet safety. I was heading straight to a remote location to meet a stranger to take photos of the stars. Is this a good idea?
Just as I was second-guessing myself, my daughter called on the phone, so I quickly made sure she knew where I was going and tried to relax. I would check the people out, and if they were in any way suspicious, I’d be out of there. And since we were meeting at a public lighthouse, there would likely be people around when we met. I pushed those worries aside and kept driving.
I was heading to a remote location to meet a stranger
When I arrived about an hour later, I found a busy parking lot with families coming and going from the Lighthouse site. I parked my car, loaded up my back with my big old bag of camera gear, and went in search of my new friend and her family. Sure enough—they were right where they said they would be—in the wide-open space, a wife with a camera, a husband, and a lovely teenage daughter. I made my way over and introduced myself. What a relief! They were normal. It turns out that maybe they too had concerns about my normalcy (or lack thereof).
We introduced ourselves and made obligatory jokes about stranger-danger and ax murderers., then we made our plans. Unfortunately, our plans involved climbing some dunes to get to our preferred location. Dunes and I do not get along. I try to be friends with them, but it turns out, dunes are kind of, well, (I’m searching for just the right word here), a**holes. Have you ever heard of two steps forward, one step back? Yeah, well, dunes are kind of like one step forward, four steps back.
How to Take Pictures of the Stars - Settings Below
But never-the-less, my new friend frolicked up the dune while I dragged myself up by my hands to our agreed-upon location. We set up cameras and assessed our view. Then we re-located and reassessed. And then yet again. So many options! Her very patient husband and daughter were ready for any of our needs. They were amazing! They schlepped to and from the car for water, charging cords, and anything else we requested (well, except ice cream. They did not bring us ice cream). They even carried our bags and equipment up and down the dunes for us. Again I must say that they were terrific! These are my kind of amazing friends!
Once the sun set, we started getting excited. My friend was using the Photo Pills app, which helps envision the scene and location of the Milky Way in advance, so we tinkered with that and took some pictures of the stars while we waited. She shared her shooting tips with me, so we were ready to shoot when darkness fell, and the Milky Way rose.
At this point, I know you are wondering what those great tips are. Just hold your horses there. I’ll get to those. First, I need to skip ahead and tell you what happened AFTER we took scads of pictures and how the adventure ends.
Every good story has a bad guy!
As we were flitting from dune to dune getting all of our amazing photos of the stars and the Milky Way, we shared tips and joyfully giggled like schoolgirls. We practiced new angles, shutter speeds, and lighting techniques. Suddenly, from behind the giant lighthouse, a giant spotlight appeared (insert ominous music here), followed by two official-looking Park Rangers. My new pal looks at the offensive (yes, they were offensive) Rangers and very politely says, “Would you mind lowering your light? You’re ruining my exposure.” Grumpy Ranger #1 proceeds to shine his light directly at our cameras (rude), and Grumpy Ranger #2 replies, “I’m not really concerned about your exposure since you are here illegally.”
What? WHAT!? Illegally!? We parked our cars in appropriate spaces so they wouldn’t get towed. I did not recall seeing a sign anywhere stating park hours and that the park closed at 10. We came knowing that the best Milky Way shots would not come to perfection until around midnight. How could two giggling girlish ladies wielding cameras be doing anything illegal?! I assure you, most of my adventures do not end in a jail cell. Sigh.
Even when taking photos of the stars.
So I dutifully began disassembling camera equipment while my pal begins a series of questions to the Crabbers, er, I mean, Rangers, about the boundaries of the State Park and where we are allowed to stand and take photos of the stars and Milky Way legally. She even told them, “I drove four and half hours to come here and take pictures. You are very stingy with your Milky Way.” They did not care and met none of her pleas with any compassion or empathy. They merely proceeded to march us out of the park, walking behind us the entire way shining their massive light upon our backsides. Seriously!? As if we would (or could) make a break for it across the dunes and maniacally shoot more contraband photos of their personal Milky Way.
But alas, my friend’s sweet and kind husband was already on his way to return the car a few minutes before the Rangers’ arrival, so we stood on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, humbly waiting for our chauffeur. We may or may not have snapped a few bonus images of the milky way from the side of the road. But shhh. Don’t tell the Rangers. All’s well that ends well, right?
But don't go away yet!
Time for the fun technical stuff so you're ready to take photos of the stars!
So now that I have regaled you with the tale of our fantastic adventure, we can get to the fun stuff.
Here are some tips from me and my pal for photographing the stars and the Milky Way, starting with what to pack in your bag.
Whenever I’m going on an adventure (especially an impromptu one), I find it helpful to have a packing list. So here are the items you just don’t want to leave home without when you are photographing the stars and the Milky Way.
- A Flashlight. I use my favorite headlamp so I can see in the dark hands-free. The handy red light doesn’t enrage all the photographers around me who are also trying to take nighttime photos.
- A sturdy tripod. I absolutely adore the Travel Tripod by Peak Design. It is lightweight and folds down so small! You can’t go wrong with this tripod.
- An Intervalometer/Remote Shutter Release. I have both a corded shutter release and a cord-free intervalometer. I prefer using the cord-free version in the dark, although if you’re dropsy, then be extra sure you have that flashlight to hunt it down when you drop it.
- A wide angle lens. My favorite lens, the lens that I cannot live without is the Tamron SP 15-30mm f/2.8 Di VC USD G2. The lens is perfect for nighttime photography. It is also a rockstar at landscapes and real estate photography.
- Don’t forget a bottle of water and a snack. You will certainly need some refreshment if you arrive at dusk and stay through the wee hours of the morning!
To know where to begin with your settings, you can follow the “500 Rule”:
500 divided by your lens’s focal length equals the longest exposure (in seconds) before stars start to trail.
Remember, of course, that the earth is spinning reasonably quickly, so it doesn’t take long before you get motion blur, also known as star trails.
If you are shooting on a crop sensor, divide that longest exposure by the crop factor.
I shoot with a Canon 70D, which is a crop sensor, so I divide by 1.6. So here’s how it looked for me on my adventure:
Warning! Math Ahead!
I was shooting with a Canon 70D Crop Sensor with an 18mm lens. So I set my camera at the widest open aperture, which is 1.8. I do the math like this:
500 divided by 18 = 27. 27 divided by 1.6 (crop sensor) = 16.875.
The longest exposure I “should” use is about 17 seconds before I start to see star trails. Then I need to set my ISO to suit the exposure triangle, which will be fairly high. I set mine between 3,000 and 5,000 for most shots. The shorter the shutter speed, the higher the ISO. The artistry comes in here. You will have to play with your shutter speed and your ISO to get your desired effect. I recommend taking lots of shots from lots of angles with lots of shutter speed/ISO combos.
You will have to “redo the math” if you change lenses, so I’ve included on this post a handy reference chart so that you don’t have to do math in the dark on the dunes (like me).
The good news is the milky way will not go away as quickly as a sunset, so you will have some time to tinker. You will also have to take into account how much ambient light you have around you. Get to the darkest place possible, as far away from city lights as you can.
Check out the dark sky map to see where you can go to get away from the ambient light that is all around us. You can also learn much more about protecting our skies from light pollution by checking out the International Dark Sky Association’s website.