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Astrophotography Basics – Capturing the Milky Way

One of my favourite photography adventures with friends is a night shoot to capture the Milky Way. In Australia, the best time to do this when the core of the Milky Way is visible above the horizon at night is during the colder months, between May and October (don’t forget to rug up!).

There are hundreds of articles on this topic, and I don't claim to be an expert, so I am going to stick with the basics, assuming you know your camera’s capabilities and understand manual camera settings. It also helps to be familiar enough with your camera to know where the buttons are to change settings and review images by feel, so you don’t have to keep turning on a torch to check what button you’re pressing.

Essential Equipment for Night Photography

  • A DSLR or mirrorless camera that allows for full manual control of the exposure settings of aperture, shutter speed and ISO. You also need a camera and lens setup that allows for manual focusing. I shoot with a Nikon Z6 mirrorless camera.

  • A wide angle lens with its widest aperture at least f/4, but ideally f/2.8 or wider. I use the Z 14-30mm f/4 and am still able to get great results, but need to push up the ISO further to do so.

  • A sturdy tripod is essential. Night time exposures for Astro are 15-30 seconds; it’s not possible to shoot handheld, and you want a tripod that stays steady even in windy conditions.

There are other things that come in handy, but aren’t essential, such as a remote camera trigger, a torch or flash for lighting the foreground or light painting, and apps such as Sky Guide or SkyView Lite and PhotoPills for working out where in the sky the Milky Way (and the moon) will be at the specific time of your shoot.

Pick a night when the sky is cloud-free and the moon won’t be above the horizon so the sky is at it's darkest. I use PhotoPills app to check approx what time the core of the Milky Way will be above the horizon and check that the moon won’t be in the sky at that time. Pick a location that is as far from city light pollution as you can. In a 20 second exposure even a tiny flashing red light on a far away tower in the distance will end up creating a significant glow in your image. Sometimes this can add to the appeal of your image but may also affect how well you can capture the Milky Way. I also wouldn’t recommend going somewhere deserted and unfamiliar alone late at night, so take a friend!

Astrophotography Camera Settings

Focusing your camera at night time can be tricky. I find the easiest way is to find a light in the distance, or the brightest star you can and zoom in on your viewfinder to manually focus on that. Then don’t touch focus again. Shooting on a wide angle lens at the widest aperture, your foreground will still be reasonably in focus, but if you want to get complicated you can shoot one exposure for the foreground and one for the night sky and focus stack or combine them in Photoshop later.

The other complication is, you should be somewhere so dark that you can hardly see the foreground and so composition is trickier. If you can, shine a torch on the foreground while you line up your shot and stabilise your camera on the tripod.

I find astro exposure to be a bit of trial and error because it depends on your light pollution and how bright the sky is. A starting point for me for an astro shot is setting my aperture to its widest setting, pushing my ISO up to around 6000, and choosing a 25 sec exposure, and seeing how it turns out. There are some more complicated methods to determining what your longest exposure should be to avoid tiny star trails rather than stars as sharp dots, but the method and the math always escapes me on the night, and if this is your first time shooting astro, forget all of that and just have a go and see how it turns out. If it’s too bright, reduce your ISO. If the stars are starting to trail, reduce your shutter speed (and bump up your ISO to compensate if the image will be too dark). Your image straight out of the camera should cleary show the Milky Way, however additional editing will be required to really make it pop (another blog post to come!)

I spent a lot of time reading about how to shoot astro before I ever attempted it, but at the end of the day I learned a lot more by just getting out there and having a go. Initially I just stood out the back of my parents’ rural property and had tops of trees in the lower part of the image and Milky Way above. When I had a bit of practice I ventured to an old abandoned jetty in a very dark, quiet town (that was eerie as heck, even though I was with a friend). These days my favourite astro location is in the sand dunes, because late at night, even with some distant traffic noise and the sound of the ocean, to me it feels like I’m on another planet when all you can see around you are the dunes.

Let me know how you go ;)

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