How To Shoot The Milky Way
Photography week|October 28, 2021
Discover expert tips for capturing the night sky in all its glory, with astrophotographer Alyn Wallace
Alyn Wallace

ALYN WALLACE

Alyn Wallace is a landscape astrophotographer and YouTuber from South Wales. His work has been featured by the likes of NASA, National Geographic and BBC Earth, and he won the Landscapes at Night category in Landscape Photographer of the Year 2020. He has designed and released the Starglow filter with Kase, and the Z and V Star Tracker platforms with Move Shoot Move, and is the author of the upcoming book Photographing The Night Sky.

To see more of Andy’s work, visit: @alynwallace www.youtube.com/c/AlynWallace www.alynwallacephotography.com

How many of us have looked up at the night sky and wondered at its vastness? Most of us, right? But relatively few of us will have ever tried to capture the stunning light show in all its glory. Astrophotography becomes complex when you start trying to capture deep space images, so in this feature we’re going to focus on capturing the Milky Way, our own galaxy, consisting of countless stars. In fact, astronomers estimate that there are around 100 to 300 billion stars twinkling in the glowing band in the sky.

Most photographers want their Milky Way to inspire the viewer. But from a technical perspective, these images would ideally be sharp, bold and colourful too. Low-light capabilities and high-ISO handling on DSLR and mirrorless cameras have improved enormously over the past decade, opening up astrophotography to the masses, but the genre is still challenging, whatever your gear.

Planning ahead is vital for a Milky Way shoot, as there’s no point heading out if the sky is full of dense, impenetrable clouds. Over the next few pages, you’ll discover advice for finding the best locations, apps to help with planning, and expert gear suggestions, as pro astrophotographer Alyn Wallace shares his tips for shooting epic panoramas, using star trackers and specialist filters, and advice on editing Milky Way images.

“As the Milky Way core season comes to an end in September, many landscape photographers will forget about astrophotography. But with the long, crisp winter nights you’d be silly not to consider it,” says Alyn. “Especially as the winter night sky is full of some of the brightest stars and best constellations.”

So read on for all the best expert tips, techniques and tutorials, and get ready to venture into the night to shoot your most jaw-dropping astro images yet.

LOCATIONS AND PLANNING

Know where and when to shoot for the best results

DARK SKY HUNTING It’s essential fo find locations that are free of light pollution

Light pollution is a major obstacle to astrophotography, and a sky without light pollution is the most important prerequisite for observing and impressively capturing the Milky Way. It’s obviously best practice to escape the bright lights of a city, but to determine the pollution in your area, try using Light Pollution Map (www.lightpollutionmap. info), a rudimentary but free-to-use website that provides a picture of the Bortle scale – the extent of light pollution. Knowing what phase the moon is in is also an important factor for strong Milky Way photography, as when the moon is full it can scatter ‘extraneous light’ and significantly reduce visibility.

The spring, summer and autumn months are considered good times to shoot the Milky Way, but winter is actually the best season for clarity, as haze and mist are not as prevalent as they are on warmer days and cold nights. In winter, the night also falls earlier and it remains darker for longer, which presents greater shooting opportunities.

The most prominent part of The Milky Way, the galactic core (the part we see when looking toward the centre of our spiral galaxy), is only visible at certain times of the year – and certain times of the night. In the northern hemisphere, the centre of the Milky Way rises to the south-east in early spring, due south by summer, and to the south-west by autumn. Early spring is another favourable time of year for shooting, as the arc of the Milky Way sweeps low across the horizon, making for easier panoramas (see ‘Create a panorama’) – it also makes for a sleek diagonal across a single-frame 3:2-ratio landscape image.

It’s important to understand lunation – the different phases of the moon and its position in the sky – because the light of the moon will easily overpower that of the stars. The times of the new moon, and the moon rising and setting, have to be cross-referenced with the twilight times to indicate prime dates and hours of visibility for the clearest views of the Milky Way. Use one of our suggested apps to help you calculate and predict the stage of the moon on the day that you intend to shoot.

PRO TIP: FOCUSING

There are two methods for focusing at night. Some people prefer to use hyperfocal focusing, but I prefer to focus to infinity. To do this, go into Live View mode and digitally zoom to 10x on a bright star or a streetlight at least 50m away. Then manually focus until the light source is pin-sharp.

TOP SMARTPHONE APPS TO USE Use these handy tools to orient yourself in the night sky and plan your Milky Way shoots

PHOTOPILLS APP

This popular app has a wide range of features that allow you to input any location on Earth at a specific date in the future and get all the important information – including the times of, for example, sunset and sunrise, moon phases, and the blue and golden hours. Importantly, you can check the visibility of the galactic nucleus of the Milky Way, and where it will be located in the sky.

PLANIT PRO

It’s worth paying for the pro version of this Android app. Features include the sunrise, sunset, moonrise and moonset times and direction, twilight time, plus major stars, constellations, nebulae azimuth and elevation angle, star trail planning and Milky Way searching.

LIGHT POLLUTION MAP

This app enables you to locate dark sites where the sky will be less affected by light pollution. You’ll find a Light Pollution Map, integrated cloud cover map and temperature indicator, moon position tool and many different astronomy-related calculators.

STELLARIUM

Stellarium is a sky map that shows exactly what can be seen when you look up at the night sky. Identify stars, constellations, planets, comets, satellites (like the ISS), and other deep-sky objects in real time in just a few seconds by pointing your phone at the sky. There are also desktop and web versions that you can use when planning your astrophotography shoots at home.

CHOOSE THE RIGHT GEAR

Astrophotography is a specialist genre that requires some specialist tools

When it comes to shooting the Milky Way, the most important item in your kitbag will be a sensitive DSLR or mirrorless camera that enables you to open the shutter for at least 30 seconds. Long exposures of two minutes or more are necessary to capture sufficient light, colour, and detail to properly reveal the Milky Way, as well as faint celestial sights such as star fields, galaxies, nebulae, and even gas clouds.

A full-frame camera’s sensor has larger individual photosites than that of a crop-sensor model, which are able to capture more light and therefore enable better low-light performance, and less image noise at high ISO settings. Another essential item is a good-quality tripod to keep your camera steady, while a programmable cable release is also handy, should you want to set exposure durations ahead of time.

Milky Way photography is one area where good glass greatly improves results, and a super-wide-angle lens will enable you to capture a greater slice of the night sky, while fast lenses enable you to shoot at very wide apertures, allowing you to capture precious light in a shorter time. Lens anomalies really do show up in night photography – stars can take on unusual shapes in lower-quality optics, so a top-quality, fast, wide-angle lens, such as a 14-24mm f/2.8 optic is desirable.

One of the main challenges when capturing the Milky Way – apart from the lack of light – is that the position of stars constantly moves in the frame, or appears to, as the Earth rotates. If you want to shoot the night sky with long shutter speeds over 30 seconds, it’s also worth investing in a rotating star tracker.

ESSENTIAL KIT Six core components you’ll need to shoot stunning Milky Way images

HIGH-ISO CAMERA

Most advanced modern DSLR and mirrorless cameras have strong noise performance handling for high ISOs. The Sony A7S range is designed for exceptional low-light performance (‘S’ stands for sensitivity), with models boasting max ISOs of 409,600.

ULTRA-WIDE-ANGLE LENS

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