Stunning starscapes

Dis­cover the tips and tech­niques you need to cap­ture awe­some im­ages of the Milky Way

NPhoto - - Feature -

The arc of the Milky Way is one of the most dra­matic and strik­ing sights vis­i­ble in the night sky at any lat­i­tude. But if you live in a town, city, or any­where af­fected by light pol­lu­tion, the first chal­lenge is find­ing a spot where the sky’s dark enough to see it clearly...


This will mean get­ting at least an hour or so away from any ma­jor town or city. The more re­mote the lo­ca­tion, the more clearly you’ll be able to see the stars.

2 Frame your shot

Next you need the sky to be clear – and you also need to check the po­si­tion of the Milky Way it­self, as this varies de­pend­ing on the date and the lo­ca­tion. You can find this in­for­ma­tion us­ing a star map app, and find­ing the Sagit­tar­ius con­stel­la­tion, which is po­si­tioned in the mid­dle of the Milky Way.

Once you’ve found the cor­rect area, you need to frame and fo­cus on the stars. As al­ways, us­ing Live View and set­ting a very high ISO can help, but even then it will be dif­fi­cult in any dark sky site. The most re­li­able method is to ar­rive at the lo­ca­tion be­fore dark, set the fo­cus on the most dis­tant ob­ject, and de­cide on your com­po­si­tion be­fore the light goes. You’ll have to wait un­til at least an hour or two af­ter sun­set to start tak­ing your im­ages.

3 Fol­low the 600 rule

When shooting starscapes and the Milky Way, you need to choose a shutter speed fast enough to avoid record­ing too much of the move­ment of the stars in your shot. This will vary ac­cord­ing to the fo­cal length of the lens and cam­era that you are us­ing. Many as­tropho­tog­ra­phers use ‘the 600 rule’ as a rough guide to work out the shutter speed you can get away with. All you do is di­vide 600 by the fo­cal length of the lens – so if you’re us­ing a 20mm lens, 600/20 is 30 sec­onds. I find that us­ing this figure pro­duces some star trails, so I’d sug­gest us­ing a figure of 300, giv­ing a shutter speed of 15 sec­onds with the same lens. There will still be some move­ment vis­i­ble at 100 per cent mag­ni­fi­ca­tion, but not enough to worry about.

4 Stack ’EM UP

While you can get good re­sults from a sin­gle starscape ex­po­sure, you can re­veal even more de­tail by shooting four or five dif­fer­ent ex­po­sures and then – as with the star trails tech­nique – man­u­ally com­bin­ing them as dif­fer­ent lay­ers in Pho­to­shop.

The stars will have moved over the course of these sep­a­rate ex­po­sures, so you will have to care­fully align the im­ages so that the stars in each line up. Next, halve the Opac­ity of each layer com­pared with the layer be­low it: so on the first layer above the back­ground layer set Opac­ity to 50 per cent, on the sec­ond layer to 25 per cent, on the third to 12 per cent, and so on.

If your shots in­clude any fore­ground or land, these ar­eas will now be mis­aligned. To solve this, you will need to add a mask to each layer, and care­fully paint over the ar­eas of the mask us­ing a black brush where these ar­eas ap­pear in the lay­ers above. This way, only the land­scape in the back­ground layer will be vis­i­ble in the fi­nal com­pos­ite im­age.

As a fin­ish­ing touch, com­bine your stacked starscape with an im­age where you’ve set the ex­po­sure for the land­scape or fore­ground. Add this as a layer on the top of the layer stack, add a mask and care­fully paint out the ar­eas of sky us­ing a black brush.

Re­mote lo­ca­tions make it eas­ier to see and shoot the Milky Way and other stars

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