How to take Milky Way Photos and other Events in the Sky
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How to take Milky Way Photos and other Events in the Sky
One summer day, I had an adventure and learned how to take milky way photos and other events in the sky.
It was a lazy Saturday 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 Lake Michigan 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. She asked if I would like to join them. This would be an excellent opportunity to learn how to take Milky Way photos, and maybe there would be some other event in the sky I could practice on as well!
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 learn how to take Milky Way photos. Is this a good idea?
Just as I was second-guessing myself, my adult 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.
The Remote Location and the 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, learning how to take Milky Way photos 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 Milky Way and Events in the Sky
Despite my antipathy toward the dunes, I dragged myself up by my hands while my friend frolicked on ahead 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 when photographing events in the sky! Her very patient husband and daughter were ready for any and all of our needs. 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). Those two even carried our bags and equipment up and down the dunes for us. 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 the app and took some pictures of the stars while we waited for the Milky Way to rise. My friend shared information on how to take Milky Way photos, so I was ready to shoot when darkness fell.
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, shooting like crazy at the night sky 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 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 and learning how to take Milky Way photos be doing anything illegal?! I assure you, most of my adventures do not end in a jail cell. Sigh.
Even when taking photos of Events in the sky.
I dutifully began disassembling camera equipment. It seemed my lesson on how to take Milky Way photos was ending. Meantime, my new pal began peppering the Crabbers, er, I mean, Rangers, with a series of questions about the boundaries of the State Park and where we are allowed to stand and take photos legally. She even told them, “I drove four and half hours to come here and take pictures. You are being 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 lights on 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, a few minutes before the Rangers’ arrival, my friend’s husband had already trekked out to get the car and drive it to us. 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!
Fun Technical Details for how to take Milky Way photos
Now that I have regaled you with the tale of our fantastic adventure, we can get to the fun stuff.
Here are some tips that will help you learn how to take Milky Way photos, 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 don’t want to leave home without when you photograph the Milky Way or other events in the sky.
- 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 love my Travel Tripod by Peak Design. It is lightweight and folds down so small! I did not have it when I was learning how to take Milky Way photos, but since then, I have upgraded. This tripod is super easy to maneuver in the dark. You really 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, which 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 undoubtedly need some refreshment if you arrive at dusk and stay through the wee hours of the morning! Helpful hint: You can pack ice cream in a small cooler with some dry ice for a cool treat when climbing the hot dunes!
Begin by setting your aperture as high as possible (low number). A wide-open aperture is the best way to get lots of light into your camera. I open my aperture to 1.8 when I photograph almost all events in the sky at night.
Warning! Math Ahead!
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 was shooting with a Canon 70D, a crop sensor, so I divided by 1.6. Here’s how it looked for me on my adventure:
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.
And now, the artistry!
You will need to set your ISO to suit the exposure triangle. Try to keep ISO as low as possible to avoid grain. I recommend starting around 3,000. Be prepared to tinker with that number. The shorter the shutter speed, the higher the ISO. Here is where your artistry comes into play. You will have to play with your shutter speed and your ISO to get the effect you desire. 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 a handy reference chart on this post 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 all around us. You can also learn more about protecting our skies from light pollution by checking out the International Dark Sky Association’s website.