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Winchester Lookout 3

Outdoor Photography – How to Capture the Milky Way

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Outdoor Photography
Learn what you need to know to take perfect outdoor photography shots of the Milky Way. Photo: First Beach

My favorite months to capture outdoor photography images of the Milky Way are August and September. The core of our galaxy is visible before the wee hours of the morning and we generally have fewer clouds to block the view.  Besides a cloudless night you also need to have no moon in the sky as it reflects so much sunlight into the night sky that the arc of the Milky Way is faint.

Camped under the Milky Way at Baker River
Camped under the Milky Way at Baker River

The next three New Moons dates are: Tuesday, Aug. 3, Thursday, Sept. 1, and Friday, Sept. 30.   If you head out and up (out of town and up into the mountains) for outdoor photography and Milky Way shots, you can get great images plus/minus 2 days of the actual New Moon.

I have been teaching Night Sky Photo Classes for some time at the North Cascades Institute and leading Night Sky Photo Tours for several years and here are the most important things to remember:

When doing outdoor photography, a full frame camera is preferred but not a necessity. What IS important is that whatever camera you use is to have an effective 10 – 20mm lens for your rig. If you have a full frame body, a 14mm lens is very good, and if you have a cropped sensor body, a 10mm is also fine.

Focusing your lens on infinity at night can also be a problem. The auto function will not work in the dark. You will need to set the lens to manual focus. It’s best to figure out where, exactly to set the focus ring on your lens BEFORE heading out. Here are some simple steps:

ourdoor photography
Dramatic night photo of Winchester Lookout.

Set your camera on manual focus and head outside in the daytime. Find some sign with sharp text, like a STOP sign, stand back about 30 feet. Set your aperture on its lowest f/stop number (as this is what you’ll use at night) using the built in light meter, adjust your shutter speed for a correct exposure. Now turn the focus ring all the way, past the Infinity symbol and take a picture.  Using the zoom function on the camera, enlarge the text on the sign.  Are the  letters perfectly in focus? If yes, great. If not, adjust the focus ring a hair away from the infinity symbol and try again and so on. Each time zooming in on the text, keep this up until you have found the sweet spot for your lens. You may be very surprised where that sweet spot is for your lens! Make a mental note, or use a pencil, or whatever so that you KNOW where to set your lens, on manual focus, so that its set to capture images in sharp focus.

Then you’re all set! Find a spot away from the ambient lights of people, get your rig set on a tripod, use a wide open aperture, and set your shutter speed based on the chart below and you’re ready for action!

outdoor photography

 

outdoor photography
Mount Rainier

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Resources

Learn more about night outdoor photography at the North Cascades Institute or on Night Sky Photo Tours .

 

 

 

For me, photography and outdoor travel have always been linked. In 1976, I planned my first trip on the Pacific Crest Trail. Two of my friends accompanied me - we hitchhiked from Eastern Pennsylvania to the Cascade Locks in Oregon and hiked south through most of Oregon on the trail. I borrowed a friends Nikkormat for the trip and tried hard to capture the look and feel of what I saw. Since that first trip on the PCT I have traveled broadly (50 states, 50 countries), yet no matter where I was living - in the US or overseas - I always felt a tug back to the Pacific Northwest. Finally settled in NW Washington, I am at home and have an abundance of outdoor photographic subjects. My favorite places are the North Cascades and the Olympic Coast. I'm currently offering photography classes in Bellingham, Burlington and Marysville as well as doing photo tours.

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