One of the biggest challenges in getting good shots of the Milky Way is simply getting far enough away from the ambient light of “civilization.” Once you’ve already lugged your stuff, not to mention yourself, all the way out to some fantastic spot to camp, why not take advantage of it by getting some shots of the Milky Way?
Nowadays, I find myself planning my trips around the moon cycle so that I can get to some remote, cool spots for astrophotography.
The basics of capturing good shots are not really very complicated. You’ll need a decent DSLR, a wide angle lens (anywhere from 14mm to 24mm), a cable release and a tripod— and a headlamp so that you can see what you’re doing!
Once you get the camera all set up on the tripod, just set your aperture wide open, your shutter speed to anywhere between 10 and 30 seconds and get started. As a note, I have two tripods, one “nice” one that I use near home, and one cheap version I got for $40 at Best Buy. It’s light and mostly plastic, but it works just fine. Who wants to carry a 5 lb. tripod 30 miles?
One of my first efforts at nighttime photography was derailed because I didn’t know that I needed to manually focus my lens (The camera finds it hard to autofocus in the dark). You’ll need to check out your lens manual, or consult the manufacturer’s website, in advance and find out how to focus the lens on infinity manually.
Use a cable release so that you don’t in any way move or shake the camera when you’re taking shots. There are different variants on remote shutter releases— ones that connect with a cable and others that work like a remote control. No matter which you get, it’s an important piece of equipment.
Setting the exposure is variable, depending on your camera and lens. You may think that you’d have the shutter open for minutes, not seconds— but, actually, there is a definite limit for shutter speed when doing Milky Way shots. If you go over the limit (usually 10 to 30 seconds) the stars in your image will become blurry due to the movement of the earth.
There are a whole host of websites you can find easily that detail more of the technical end of nighttime imaging— my advice is to watch tutorials, practice near home, and try to get the bugs out before you head off to that magical, once in a lifetime spot to get milky way shots!
There are also websites where you can find a chart that shows the maximum shutter speed for different focal length of lenses. Generally the shorter the lens the longer you can have the shutter open.
Mountain landscapes provide a wonderful foreground for Milky Way images. Tents, mountains, trees and lookout towers, to name a few, are awe inspiring. You’ll have to experiment with different ways to light the foreground. Sometimes a simple head lamp in the tent works fine. Be sure to try lots of different things when you’re out there.
Next time you’re headed out, check on the moon cycle and go for some Milky Way shots. You’ll be glad you did!