How to Take Amazing Photos of the Stars and the Milky Way

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I was not expecting a call from 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 was the ding of Adventure, and I must’ve known that when I hurried to the screen to see what the message held.

This was the >ding< of adventure….

Turns out a new online photography friend was in the area and here’s what she had to say, “I’m sorry this isn’t much of a heads up, but this is all on a whim, lol. We came up this afternoon for an impromptu visit with my son at scout camp. We are now headed to Little Sable Lighthouse just south of Silver Lake for sunset and possibly Milky Way if you’d like to join. I’m not sure how late my we will stay as we do need to drive back tonight.”

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, and 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 own 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 complete stranger.  Is this really 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 outta 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 complete 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, and turns out that maybe, just maybe, they might have had a concern or two also about my normalcy (or lack-thereof).

Once introductions and obligatory jokes about stranger-danger and ax murderers were made, we made our plan.  Unfortunately, our plan 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 turns out, dunes are kind of, well, (I’m searching for just the right word here), just a**holes.  Ever heard of two steps forward, one step back?  Yeah, well, dunes are kind of like one step forward, four steps back.  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 re-located and assessed again.  And then yet again.  So many options!  Her very patient husband and daughter were at the 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 amazing!

Once the sun set, we started getting excited.  My friend was using the Photo Pills app (click HERE for more info), which helps envision the scene and location of the Milky Way in advance, so we tinkered with that while we waited and she shared her shooting tips with me so we were ready to shoot when darkness fell and the Milky Way arose.

Picture of Milky Way with quote that states "Adventures are the best way to learn..."

At this point, I just know you are wondering what those great tips are.  Just hold your horses there.  I’ll get to those…  But first I need to skip ahead and tell you what happened AFTER we took scads of pictures and how the adventure ends.

As we were flitting from dune to dune getting all of our shots, sharing tips, joyfully giggling like schoolgirls and practicing new angles, shutter speeds, and lighting techniques, suddenly, from behind the giant lighthouse, comes a giant spotlight (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 had taken careful measures to be sure our cars were parked appropriately so that they would not be towed from the parking lot, which closed at 10pm.  I did not recall a sign anywhere stating that the park itself was closed at 10.  We came knowing that the best Milky Way shots would not come to perfection til 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.  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 legally stand and continue photographing the Milky Way.  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.  None of her pleas were met with any sort of 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 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, her sweet and kind husband had already been dispatched for 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 ride.  We may or may not have snapped a few bonus images of the milky way from the side of the road.  But shhhh….  don’t tell the Rangers.  All’s well that ends well, right?

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 shooting the Milky Way, starting with what to pack in your bag.  If you want some more information on shooting nighttime photography so you can really stretch your creative juices, check out EVERYTHING YOU EVER WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT NIGHTTIME PHOTOGRAPHY.

Here are some ideas for what items to bring and I used similar items with my Canon DSLR (or similar):

  • Headlamp

  • Sturdy tripod

  • Remote Trigger       

  • Wide Angle lens

 

It's simple when you use the 500 Rule

And now the settings part…  In order to know where to begin with your settings, you can follow what is commonly referred to as the “500 Rule”:  500 divided by the focal length of your lens equals the longest exposure (in seconds) before stars start to trail.  Remember, of course, that the earth is spinning fairly 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:

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.  So the longest exposure I “should” use is about 17 seconds before I start to see star trails.  I then need to set my ISO to suit the exposure triangle, which will be fairly high.  Mine was set between 3,000 and 5,000 for most shots.  The shorter the shutter speed, the higher the ISO.  This is where the artistry comes in.  You will have to play with your shutter speed and your ISO to get what you are looking for.  I recommend you take lots of shots from lots of angles with lots of shutter speed/ISO combos.  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.

Cheat Sheet for stars and milky way

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).

After all of this hard work, I was happy to have achieved a few rock solid raw images.  With a little editing, you can end up with a little something like this.

Milky Way Picture with a lone tree in the foreground
Landscape-Photographer-Holland-Michigan-BigSable

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6 Comments

  1. What a fun read! I’m glad that you came on the adventure! I’m not sure that I would say that I frolicked up the dunes, lol. I remember thinking that I had forgotten how hard it was to walk up a dune! That was hard work!!!

    • Dunes and I are not friends…. 🙂 But I do love the way they look, even if I don’t love climbing them!

  2. Haha. Love that you were escorted out with your friend complaining. I don’t know why people can’t realize that you won’t damage anything by just getting a picture of it! All in all, I wish I could have been there.

    • haha! Yes – my friend said it best when she told the ranger that he was being stingy with his milky way! Although it’s technically not “his”!

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