Joel Leindecker Photography

Tutorials

Capturing the Milky Way

Posted by Joel on September 23, 2012 at 10:55 PM

This tutorial is designed to teach the reader how to capture the Milky Way Galaxy in still shot images with a digital SLR camera.  This tutorial will advise on what lenses and shot settings work best for achieving stunning still shots, and I will incorporate images I have taken to give examples of what can be achieved with these tips.  Also, I will detail how to set up a shot for maximum results.


Capturing the Milky Way Galaxy


Step 1: Preparation

Any time you plan on shooting at night you need to know what you are getting yourself into, this includes a few things:

1. Check the weather.  There is nothing worse than planning a solar shoot just to have a blanket of clouds cover the sky in the middle of the shoot.  This becomes an even bigger issue if you are shooting star trails, which I will detail in my next tutorial.  Also, you never want to be stuck in the rain in the middle of the night.  It is also important to note the lunar cycle.  During a full moon the landscape will be better lit, but the moon fills the sky with light, and this will take away from the number of stars you will see.

2. Scout out your location in the daylight.  At night it is hard to find your way around, and if you are like me you won't be taking these pictures in your backyard.  Walking around blindly with a flashlight will draw the attention of onlookers, and this could lead to a visit from the police.  If you just do the scouting ahead of time you can save others from worrying about you, and ultimately get better results.  Also, it always hurts when you think you have a great shot just to pull it up on your computer to see brush in the way of the subject, or a telephone line crossing the sky.

3. Double check your equipment.  I will detail what equipment you should use in the next step, but it is important to bring what you will need.  It is the worst feeling ever to walk to your location just to learn that you forgot the clip to your tripod, or a memory card.

 

Step 2: What you'll need

Great photos can be captured with all sorts of equipment, and this list merely constitutes what I would suggest bringing.  I specialize in night time photography, and in my experience these tools have come in handy.

1. SLR Camera: At the very minimum a point and click camera with manual settings, but the quality achieved with an SLR is far better.

2. Tripod: If the camera were a car the tripod would be the keys; without this you would really have to work to get where you are going.  Any time you are shooting in low light you should have the tripod with you.

3. Laser pointer: This might seem like an odd tool to carry with you, but you will never leave home without one once you use it.  By setting a focus point in the camera on a spot lit up by the laser you can catch instant focus every time, no matter how dark it is outside.

4. Wide angle lens: The wider the angle the more stars you can capture.

5. Shutter remote: This is more important with star trails, but it comes in handy with any night shooting.

6. External flash or flashlight: The external flash will help to freeze the foreground in a set location, and the flashlight will release less light over a longer time period.  This allows you to paint a selected area, and you can use it to show motion with a moving subject in the foreground.

Step 3: Setting up the Shot

Every beginning photographer is taught the rule of thirds (dividing the frame into nine sections; three horizontally and three vertically).  This can work with star shots, but I think it works better to stay away from it.  The more sky you can include in the frame the better.  I like to hug the foreground along the very bottom of the shot, and leave the main area for the stars.  When selecting a subject for the foreground I try to stick with either natural things like a field or an old tree stump, or something celestial like a telescope.  Here is an example of a foreground I would use:

 

 




Step 4: Shot Settings

There are a few things to keep in mind for this.  First and foremost, you should always shoot these shots on full manual. Shutter priority, aperture priority, and full automatic are designed to capture images in daylight; they will not help you out with these shots at all.  The most important thing to control is the ISO.  This will determine how quickly your camera processes the image, and this will control how much light the camera absorbs in a given shot.  However, the quicker the camera processes the image the more noise the camera allows in.  I look at this like reading a book.  You can skim through and just get the main ideas, or you can read through for content, and learn the subtleties in the writing.  The lower the number on your ISO the more details the camera processes.  With Star shots you want the sensor to process quickly, so you want to use a high number ISO. This will vary by camera, but with my 5D Mark ii I use ISO 6400.

Why do we do this?  At night the stars provide most of the light, and you want to capture as many as possible.  Also, higher ISO means higher shutter speeds.  The earth is constantly spinning, and this means the stars aren't stationary in the sky when we view them.  If you want to capture all the tiny stars in the sky you will need to use a shutter speed quicker than 15 seconds.  Even by 30 seconds some stars will have blurred together.

When I set up my shots I use a floating aperture.  By this I mean that I will set my ISO and my shutter, and I will adjust the aperture accordingly in order to get the correct exposure.  I try to keep the shutter less than 15 seconds, and I set the ISO at 6400.  This allows in a large amount of grain into the shot, but the number stars offset this in my mind.  In perfect lighting conditions I will set the camera ISO to 6400, Shutter to 10 seconds, and Aperture to f/8.

I hope this tutorial has served you well, if you have any questions please either comment below or email me.  Please browse my portfolio to see other shots I have taken, and I have posted a few more shots below.  Thanks for reading and happy shooting.






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