I am occasionally asked the process I use to photograph the Milky Way over different Texas landscapes, so I thought I’d take a few minutes in an attempt to explain my thinking process.
First and foremost, I’m a planner. And I also like my sleep. So when I do give up sleep and head out to capture the night sky, I want to leave few things to chance.
If at all possible, I always scout the area I plan on visiting. I like to take a few shots from the location during the day just to see how different compositions look. I don’t want to get home after all-night shooting event and be disappointed at lay of the land on my computer.
Next, a downloadable app called Stellarium really comes in handy. This free program lets you know where and when the Milky Way will appear at any given location and time. It also shows the moon, so you’ll know if the moon could be a hindrance to a dark sky. It has proven invaluable in my nightscapes, and I always reference it before heading out.
As a sidenote, the moon will not necessarily interfere with your night sky shooting, but you need to know what phase and what location it is in. If the moon is more than a quarter showing, I’d wait. If the moon (in any phase) is in the same half of the sky as the Milky Way, I’d again put off shooting until better conditions are available. Personally, I will not shoot the Milky Way if the moon is anywhere in the sky, but I have friends that do.
So with the preliminary work done, I head out. If I’m shooting after sunset (as opposed to early morning), I’ll often arrive at my chosen location just before the sun sets in order to photograph the location during magic hour. About 45 minutes after the sun sets I’ll take some foreground images using the bracketing function (taking several exposures of the same image to use later).
And then transition into night shooting mode. For this, I do a few things:
* switch the camera into bulb mode
* set the ISO initially to 2500 (this will move down to 800 when I’m ready to take the “real” shots”)
* hook up my IOptron Startracker (this entails knowing setting the latitude, aligning the machine with a scope to the North Star, leveling everything with the level-bubbles on both my tripod and Startracker.)
* plug in my remote that allows me to take long exposures
* calibrate my GPS/compass
After everything seems ready, I wait for the stars to appear. When I start seeing stars, I try to manually focus my camera on a star using the “LiveView Mode.” This is the most tedious portion of the evening. Sometimes even finding a star is difficult because you have to have the focus just right, as well as have your camera zoomed onto a bright star. Have patience, and keep plugging away until you finally find a star in your screen. (Make sure autofocus is turned off! I’ve located the star before but forgot to turn off Autofocus. When you press the shutter button, the camera then continues in vain to attempt to find stars. Then you have to repeat the process again.)
Using the compass, I know where the North Star appears, so when I finally do see it, I align the scope. Once finished, I point my camera (on manual focus) towards the Milky Way. With the ISO set to 2500 and the aperture to ~ f/2.8-4 (depending on which lens I use), I take a 20-30 second exposure, check the screen to view my orientation of the Milky Way, and adjust accordingly. At this point in the shoot, I don’t care about the foreground. I try to have a small portion of the horizon showing in my image, but that is strictly for reference. With the Startracker on, I reset the ISO to 800, then start shooting longer exposures. I’ll check the focus again after a longer exposure to make sure there are no star trails or tails, then gradually increase the exposure time up to 3-4 minutes, depending on the ambient light and how much it is lighting up your image.
During these long exposures, I’ll use my phone to time the shot. One very important thing here… while your camera is rolling, please take the time to look up and marvel at the night sky before above you. Sometimes I can get caught up in the technical aspects of this and forget why I’m really out there – to appreciate the beauty of the heavens and share this wonder with others.
One other thing I like to do that helps increase final size is take several images of the Milky Way in a horizontal orientation. I’ll take three images, moving my lens upwards after each shot. Back at home, I’ll stitch these images together producing a large and detailed photograph of the Milky Way.
From here, I’ll go back and blend the Milky Way with the foreground shot taken before dark. I’ll use masks, layers, refine mask, some lightening and darkening as needed, and work on the details until I have my final image. I usually like to leave the foreground pretty bright so the viewer can see the details of the landscape as well as the amazingness of the night sky. This is just a personal preference. Adjust the exposure to your liking.
Here is a finished image from Enchanted Rock State Park in the Texas Hill Country. It is comprised of several shots before dark, along with a vertical stitched panorama of the Milky Way.
And that’s it. There are details aplenty, but you’ll figure those out soon enough – it just takes time, trial, and error. And how you handle many of those finer points is dictated by your likes and preferences.
Enjoy your time outdoors!