Although we sometimes find ourselves in the right place at the right time, capturing a compelling landscape photo often takes a great deal of planning to ensure the best chance of success. When your goal is taking a photo with the Milky Way in the frame, there are even more variables at play that need to be considered in order to capture a great image. However, with the right kind of planning, scouting, and preparation, you can put yourself in position to create truly attention-grabbing photos.
Intro to the Milky Way
In an astronomical sense, the Milky Way is the spiral galaxy where Earth, the Sun, and the rest of our solar system are located. Earth is situated in one of the spiral arms of the galaxy, and, as our planet rotates, our views of the Milky Way gradually change between the outermost spiral arms and the dense core. To the human eye under a dark sky, the Milky Way looks like a hazy cloud stretching across the sky which gets denser and more defined as we look toward the galaxy’s core. Given that light pollution washes out our view of the Milky Way, however, and that light pollution tends to go hand in hand with dense populations, many people aren’t able to see the Milky Way from the cities and towns in which they live.
When to See the Milky Way
Given that the Earth moves throughout the year in relation to the Sun, our view of the Milky Way changes over the course of 12 months. In both the Northern Hemisphere and Southern Hemisphere the core of the Milky Way—the densest and most photogenic part of the galaxy—is visible at some point during the night from February through October. During the remaining months of the year, the core of the galaxy drifts through the sky during daylight hours, so our view of it is obscured by the bright glare of the Sun. In February, the core of the Milky Way rises to the southeast just before dawn. As the year progresses, the core is visible earlier and earlier throughout the night. By June and July, the core is visible for the entire night, rising in the south-southeast and rotating towards the southwest at the night progresses. By September and October, the core of the Milky Way is only briefly visibly in the southwestern sky just after sunset. Keeping this information in mind can be hugely helpful when scouting a location and quickly determining if it may be a possible Milky Way shooting spot.
Check Light Pollution Maps
Aside from clouds, light pollution is the undisputed enemy of Milky Way photography. Although light pollution is at its worst in cities, the glow from artificial light spoils views of the Milky Way even far out into the suburbs. As an example, I took the photo to the left in Truro, Massachusetts looking southwest over Cape Cod Bay. The nearest town was over 25 miles away, but it was still enough to spill a yellow glow into the core of the Milky Way and wash out its detail. When shooting the Milky Way, I try to get as far away from cities and towns as I can. As a general rule, if I’m going to be facing in the direction of a populated area when taking a shot of the Milky Way, I try to have small and medium-sized towns about 30 miles away, and cities as much as 50 miles away. Luckily, in order to figure out whether or not you’ll have a dark sky overhead at any given location, all you need to do is consult a light pollution map.
Light pollution maps come in a few different varieties. Some use real satellite imagery taken from space to show the glow of artificial light in different areas, while others take a more technical approach and display light pollution data using the Bortle Dark Sky Scale, which describes the darkness of a night sky ranging from 1 (Excellent Dark Sky Site) to 9 (Inner City Sky). The maps that display data using the Bortle scale typically use either a 9-color scale or a 15-color scale. The 15-color scale, which is my preference for the extra nuance it gives, still compares different locations to the Bortle scale, but offers a few extra colors to provide a more specific description of how light-polluted a sky may be. One look at these maps and you can understand how painful it is to be a night sky photographer living on the east cost of the United States. When planning a shooting location, I typically try to find spots with a Bortle rating of 4 or lower, especially when the Milky Way will be out over the open ocean.
You can find each type of light pollution map with the links below:
Choose Your Moon Phase
As much as light pollution for cities and towns can spoil your view of the Milky Way, the glow from the moon can have an equally detrimental effect in washing out a dark sky. Typically we want to photograph the Milky Way when the moon is below the horizon, but there are benefits to having a crescent moon low in the sky. While it may brighten up the sky a bit, having some diffuse directional light from a slender moon can provide much needed lighting on the foreground of your composition, which lessens the need to conduct high ISO long exposures or harsh light painting to get detail in the landscape. In general, the few days before and after a new moon provided the best times to find a dark sky and, as a result, a great view of the Milky Way.
Find Sagittarius, Find the Milky Way
In the Northern Hemisphere, the core of our galaxy is visible just above the southern horizon, making it perfect to include in landscape photos. Knowing where and when the Milky Way is visible is essential not only for getting it to show up in your photo, but also for knowing how it will look relative to the rest of your composition. In order to know all this, we need to learn a little more about the night sky. Don’t freak out, everyone: there are apps to help you out every step of the way. But before we dive into them, I recommend committing one bit of knowledge to memory in case all that trusty technology we keep in our pockets runs out of battery at the worst possible time.
In the event that a smartphone battery dies, or you just don’t want to ruin your night vision looking at that bright, glowing screen, there is a great marker in the sky to point you towards the core of the Milky Way, even before your eyes adjust enough to be able to see it. While there really are some fantastic apps out there to tell you exactly where and when the Milky Way will drift into view, being able to recognize the constellation Sagittarius is a perfect way to ensure that, if all else fails, you’ll have a little stargazing knowledge to guide your way and impress your friends (assuming that pointing out made-up, connect-the-dot shapes in the sky is a thing that your friends are impressed by…).
As you can see in the photo below, Sagittarius is a simple constellation that resembles a teapot. The handle is on the left, and the spout is on the right. And while the recognizable shape makes it convenient to pick out among the rest of the sky, the most convenient part of all is that, to the naked eye, the core of the Milky Way looks like steam escaping from the spout of the teapot. Honestly, if your friends aren’t impressed by something as painfully helpful and harmoniously artistic as that, they’re probably impressed by nothing at all…
The Best Apps for Milky Way Photography
There are many different apps that can help you determine where and when the Milky Way will be visible at your shooting location. Some are simple and specific, while others try to be the one-stop shop for you photography planning needs.
Complete Planning Apps
- PhotoPills (iOS – $9.99) – PhotoPills is the crown jewel of photography planning apps for the iOS operating system. It incorporates mapping functions; ephemeris functions for locating the sun, moon, and Milky Way at a given time; and technical tools which can help determine settings for determining depth of field, timelapse sequences, long exposures, star trails, and more. The prize feature of PhotoPills is the Augmented Reality mode, which allows you to take a photo of a location and overlay where the Milky Way will be at any given time, allowing you to visualize your shot in advance and return when the core of the galaxy is ready for its closeup.
- Plant It! for Photographers (Android and iOS – $5.99; Limited version free) – Aside from being a grammatically confusing and overly excited name for an app, Plan It! for Photographers (which I will from now on refer to as “PIFP”) is the Android answer to PhotoPills. PIFP also tries to be the ultimate photography planning app in many of the same ways that PhotoPills does. PIFP essentially incorporates the same mapping and technical tools that are included with PhotoPills, but with what I consider to be a distinct advantage. PIFP incorporates a light pollution map as one of its map layers, which means you can reference the Bortle ratings for a given location without having to leave the app. Since I haven’t found the light pollution maps listed above to work very well on mobile devices, this feature was what made me love PIFP the most. PIFP also incorporates elevation data, which allows you to select where you want to stand and where you want to point your camera, and have the app show you if the Milky Way will be visible or hiding behind a mountain.
Virtual Planetarium Apps
- Stellarium (Android – $2.49; iOS – $2.99; Desktop – Free) – Stellarium is my go-to desktop app for the night sky. It’s a virtual planetarium, showing you exactly what the night sky will look light from any location on Earth at any time, while also providing a wealth of astronomical information including constellations, star, and planet names; information and locations of planets and deep sky objects; and location of the sun and moon. If it’s visible in the sky, Stellarium will tell you when and where.
- Sky Guide (Android and iOS – $2.99) – An alternative to Stellarium, SkyGuide uses an overlay of Nick Risinger’s ridiculously awesome 37,400-exposure and 5,000 megapixel shot of the entire night sky. That's all I have to say about that.
- Star Chart (iOS and Android – Free) – My preference for a virtual planetarium app on a mobile device, Star Chart functions in the same way that both Stellarium and Sky Guide do, but without the added price.
- Lunar Phase (Android – Free) – Although the other apps listed above can provide the same information that Lunar Phase does, I keep it on my phone for the simplicity. Lunar Phase is a quick and easy reference for planning around moon phases for a given location by overlaying the phase of the moon over each day of a calendar. You can click on any day and see the percent illumination of the moon on that day, as well as when the moon will rise and set. I don’t believe this specific app is available for iOS, but many similar alternatives do.
Keep an Eye on the Weather
Once you know where to find a dark sky and when the Milky Way will be visible, you still need to make sure clouds won’t obscure your view. A good understanding of weather patterns in your shooting area will always be beneficial, but a basic check of a few forecasts should typically be enough to let you know your chances of being clouded out on a given night. While I like to check a few different weather sources and compare information, my go-to weather source this year has been Weather Underground. Weather Underground has a customizable graph showing hourly forecasts that can include cloud cover, which I use to get an idea how what percentage of cloud cover I may be dealing with when I want to be shooting. While some forecasts may just say “mostly clear,” Weather Underground will break it down further and let you know that you may have 40% cloud cover to contend with during the Milky Way’s best viewing time, and that you may want to stay home and try again another night.
In addition to a traditional weather forecast, astronomy viewing forecasts are also available to help with planning. Clear Dark Sky provides hourly forecasts for a given area that go beyond cloud cover to include things like sky transparency, “seeing,” darkness, wind, humidity, and ground temperature, all of which can affect the clarity of your view of the Milky Way.
After learning in what direction the Milky Way will be visible, it’s time to figure out shooting locations where you can incorporate the Milky Way into your image. While it’s exciting to see the Milky Way pop up on the back of your camera, the Milky Way is going to look the same every time you take a photo of it, so it’s the addition of a terrestrial landscape that makes the photo something unique. Photography platforms such as Instagram and 500px can be extremely helpful to spawn ideas for locations to shoot, but mapping tools like Google Earth will be what shows you if the viewpoint you’ve been eyeing will face in the right direction. This type of planning is where PhotoPills and PIFP really shine because they use mapping features to tell you exactly when the Milky Way will line up with your intended shot.
Since I live in an urban area, I have to drive a minimum of two hours to reach a truly dark location where I can shoot the Milky Way. For that reason, I always have location scouting in the back of my mind, and I consider during my daytime drives through the mountains or along the coast whether a scene could be a possible candidate for a Milky Way photo. If ever I think that it may be at a potential winning location, I pull out the compass I keep in my car to orient myself, snap a few photos so that I can reference the scene later, and take a look around to determine how easy or difficult it would be to access the location at night. With this information already gathered, setting up a photo when I arrive on location after dark becomes significantly easier.
Contact Possible Land Owners
This may seem like an odd tip, but I normally try to contact whoever owns or operates the land to which I'm traveling to take a Milky Way shot. Since I live in an urban area, I’m typically driving between two and four hours to reach my shooting location, so if I’m going to end up finding a locked gate at the end of that trip, I want to know about it before I leave my house.
While contacting the land owner or operator before traveling can potentially be a benefit by helping to avoid possible trespassing, it’s also directly beneficial to your photography. By placing a simple phone call before leaving home, I’ve been able to get tips on spots I had never visited before, ensure nearby lights would be turned off to keep the location darker, avoid locations that were no longer accessible, and make connections with land owners who were later interested in sharing and purchasing my photography. Every person you interact with has the potential to be a valuable resource when it comes to furthering your photography, so a simple phone call is worth your time. And most importantly, in all the times I’ve called and asked permission to shoot at a location, I’ve never been turned down.
Get to Know Your Gear
Adjusting the human eye to see effectively at night is a slow process. While standing outside in the darkness for a few minutes can allow our eyes to adjust to the low light conditions, it can take up to 20 or 30 minutes for our eyes to fully adjust to being outside at night. Unfortunately, that night vision adjustment can be sent back to square one with each bright light you look at. Therefore, it’s a good idea to learn how to use your camera and lenses without the benefit of sight. For practice, go into a dark room or put on a blindfold and train yourself to be able to change ISO, aperture, and other settings without looking. The less that you have to look at the LCD screen on your camera or turn on your headlamp while shooting means the more that you can enjoy the starry view.
For most people, the choice of what camera to bring with you for a Milky Way shoot is decided simply because most people only have one camera. However, if you happen to be in the market for a new camera, are planning to rent a one, or have the option to choose between a few different bodies, there are a few things to consider.
In general, the size of the pixels on a camera sensor is related to how noisy a resulting photo will be that is captured on that sensor. Smaller sensors such as cell phones, micro four-thirds, and crop sensor bodies generally don’t perform as well in low light situations as full frame cameras do, meaning that a full frame is the best choice for producing a clean photo. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that it’s possible to work around this rule by image stacking, which can increase the signal-to-noise ratio in the image and produce a cleaner photo, meaning it’s even possible these days to capture respectable Milky Way photos with a cell phone.
Lens selection in Milky Way photography is arguably more important than selection of a camera. Lenses determine how large the Milky Way will appear in your frame, how sharp it will be, and, based on the maximum aperture of your lens, how to determine your exposure triangle.
While sharpness of a lens is important, how a lens handles aberrations can have an even more noticeable effect on your Milky Way photo, because night photography often tests the limits of our gear and shows off its imperfections. There are many types of lens aberration, but when it comes to wide angle astrophotography, the most noticeable ones are chromatic aberration and sagittal astigmatism, which is often incorrectly referred to as “coma” (something I’ve definitely been guilty of).
Chromatic aberration is common in photography and is often apparent in high contrast areas where light and dark meet, such as stars and a dark sky. Chromatic aberration tends to manifest itself as a color fringing along the boundaries of these high-contrast edges, often as unwanted purple coloring. While this is fairly easily correctable in post-processing, higher quality lenses tend to not have as much of an issue with chromatic aberration.
Sagittal astigmatism varies greatly from lens to lens, but is most often noticeable at the very wide apertures which are needed for Milky Way photography. In night sky photography, sagittal astigmatism shows up by making stars, which should be small circles of light, look as if they have wings on either side. These unsightly “wings” orient themselves as if they are rotating around the center of the image, and are far more difficult to correct in post-processing. The severity of the sagittal astigmatism and the patterns created by it vary greatly from lens to lens. The shot below was taken with a Canon 28mm f/2.8, which showed exceptionally noticeable sagittal astigmatism.
With that said, a good lens for Milky Way photography is one with a fast maximum aperture. Common ultra wide angle Milky Way focal lengths are anywhere from 14mm to 18mm on a full frame camera, which tend to be accompanied by a maximum aperture of f/2.8. Tighter focal lengths such as 20mm, 24mm, 35mm, and 50mm, tend to be available with maximum apertures of f/1.8 or even f/1.4. These wide apertures are important because they let in enough light that ISO and shutter speeds can be minimized, which leads to less noise in an image and less streaking of stars, respectively. Lastly, don’t be afraid to go for a fully manual lens when shooting the Milky Way since you most likely won’t be able to reliably autofocus at night anyway. Below is a list of a few lenses commonly used for Milky Way photography, although it’s far from a complete list:
- Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 (for Canon, Nikon, and Sony)
- Canon 14mm f/2.8
- Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8
- Zeiss 15mm f/2.8 (Canon and Nikon)
- Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8 (Canon, Nikon, and Sony)
- Tokina 16-28mm f/2.8 (Canon and Nikon)
- Canon 16-35mm f/2.8
- Sigma 20mm f/1.4 (Canon and Nikon)
- Nikon 20mm f/1.8
- Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 (Canon, Nikon, and Sony)
- Sigma 24mm f/1.8 (Canon and Nikon)
- Basically any 50mm lens with a max aperture of f/1.8 or faster
Of the list above, my lens of choice is the Tamron 15-30mm. It’s a beautiful lens from the standpoint of build quality, sharpness, and versatility. Most importantly for me, the Tamron 15-30mm handles sagittal astigmatism very well, something that cannot be said by many lenses with comparable focal lengths. The Nikon 14-24mm and Rokinon 14mm also handle sagittal astigmatism very well, but the Nikon costs a whopping $700 more for arguably minimal improvement, and the Rokinon, although extremely affordable, can suffer from sharpness, focusing, and quality control issues.
Tools and Accessories
Outside of camera-specific gear, there are several other tools that are a must for Milky Way photography. A good headlamp, such as the Black Diamond Spot, is indispensable when doing night photography–especially one that has a red light function which doesn’t kill your night vision. Similarly, unless I’m going on a long hike and need to save weight, I always bring a 12” LED Maglite with me, which shines a very strong beam of light and brightens up my surroundings more than my headlamp can.
Below is my standard packing list when getting ready for a Milky Way shoot:
- Nikon D750 with charged batteries
- Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8 and Nikon 50mm f/1.8
- Headlamp and Maglite
- Hand warmers, rubber bands, and a sock (for wrapping around the lens to prevent dew on humid nights)
- Cable release
- Old white shirt sleeve to diffuse headlamp for light painting
- Extra clothing layers
- First Aid Kit
- Bug repellent
- Charged cell phone
- Clif Bars
- Some sort of caffeinated drink
- Probably another caffeinated drink
- Sleeping bag (just in case those caffeinated drinks didn't work and I need a nap before making the drive back home)
The need to be safe can’t be overstated in landscape photography, especially at night where you’re more likely to be injured and less likely to come across help when you need it. When one twisted ankle or slip and fall can be the difference between making it home or not, it’s important to air on the side of caution when out shooting at night. The best case scenario is not to go out shooting alone, but since not everyone has friends or family willing to wreck their sleep schedule in the name of astrophotography, this isn’t always possible. Do you best to take common sense steps to inform friends and family of what your plans are, and don’t test your limits. It’s great to get a unique photo, but pushing too hard and risking injury or death just isn’t worth the shot. Bring along a first aid kit and be familiar with how to use it.
In addition to staying safe during the shoot, make sure not to test your limits when it comes to traveling either. I’ve had nights out shooting the Milky Way where I feel like I go from wide awake to incoherently exhausted within minutes, and if it happens while I’m on the road driving home, I could be in serious trouble. If you have any question about whether or not you can make it home in one piece, take a nap and recharge before heading home.
Putting the time into planning a Milky Way shoot can make the difference between capturing a good photo and a truly unique one. The almost pure darkness that comes with photographing the Milky Way can make typically simple tasks unbelievably frustrating, so proper planning can make the night go more smoothly, ensuring that you spend more time taking photos and less time trying to decide which ones to take. Milky Way photography can be an extremely rewarding and relaxing experience, so start planning, get out there, and starting capturing some night photos.
UPDATE: Once you've planned your Milky Way shoot and are ready to get out and start taking photos, check out The Ultimate Guide to Shooting Milky Way Photography for how to capture images while under a dark sky.