Discover the tips and techniques you need to capture awesome images of the Milky Way
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...
1 GO SOME WHE RE DA RK!
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