How to... image the milky way
Take your own beautiful photo of our galaxy with these tips
If you’ve ever looked at photographs showing the glittering star clouds and dark dust lanes of the Milky
Way and thought ‘I wish I could take something like that…’, here’s some good news – it’s really not that difficult. All you need is somewhere with a dark sky, a basic DSLR on a tripod and the right settings.
Late September is one of the best times to photograph the Milky Way. By late evening its brightest and most photogenic areas are standing vertically above the south-west horizon, and you can take images showing them with the landscape beneath them, which gives a good sense of scale.
Finding a dark-sky site is important because you’ll be taking time exposures and any light pollution will wash away the subtle glow of the Milky Way. The right lens is important, too. Although a standard 50mm lens will show a lot of stars, you’ll need to use a wide-angle lens to capture the full glory of the Milky Way. An 18mm lens is good, but if you have a 10mm lens that will be even better. With your camera tipped on its side into portrait format you will capture lovely views of the Milky Way looking like a wide vapour trail in the sky. The Cygnus star cloud will stand out clearly, and the ‘Dark Rift’ running down beside it will be very obvious too.
ISO and exposure times are also very important. Set your camera to 800 ISO at first – you can always increase or decrease it after taking some test shots. With an 18mm lens you can take exposures of 20 seconds or so before the stars start to trail, and even longer with a wider lens. If you’re not sure how long an exposure to use, just experiment.
Focusing properly on objects in the night sky can be hard, but luckily Mars will be big and bright in that part of the sky, so can focus on that before starting to take photos. You can also use a distant streetlight as a focusing aid.