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Getting Started: The basics to photographing the Milky Way!

Updated: Oct 27, 2020

Learning to photograph the Milky Way might seem overwhelming. Many terms and alot of equipment can be discussed - causing confusion. As you learn more, you become aware of other tools and techniques that can aid in making a great image. There is definitely a learning path to night photography and I plan on creating an infographic to help explain that - but for now let start at the beginning, here I will explain how to simply photograph the Milky Way. There are 5 things you need to know:

  • When to photograph?

  • Where to photograph?

  • What is equipment is required?

  • What are the camera settings?

The image above is just a simple image of the Milky Way high in the summer night sky. No other technique was done to capture this image such as lighting the foreground.

When to photograph? There are a few parts to this question.

Milky Way Season: Note that since we are located in the Milky Way galaxy, anytime we look up in the night sky, everything we see is technically the Milky Way. However, what do we mean by a "Milky Way season?" In the Northern Hemisphere, the middle of our galaxy, with the dense, colorful nebulas and a multitude of stars, is above the horizon at night between March and October (the core is above the horizon in the daytime the remaining months of the year). We call this the Milky Way season. However, even in the winter months, you can still see the Milky Way, just not the dense, colorful "core." The picture below shows the winter night sky during the Geminid Meteor Shower.

No or Little Moon: The second part is to work around the moon. Any moon (or any bright light in the area) greater than 6% will obscure the Milky Way in your image. It's almost impossible to get the Milky Way and that bright light in one image. So, get to know your moon cycles. If you are planning a trip to photograph the Milky Way, you will want to photograph when there is little to no moon in the sky.

You don't always need a new moon. Depending on the time of year, you can work around a moon rise or a moon set. In the beginning of Milky Way season, the core doesn't rise above the horizon until the early morning hours of the night. As Milky Way season gets further into the year, the Milky Way core rises earlier to the point where the core starts to set below the horizon during the night.

For example, if it's early in the Milky Way season (like March) and you know the moon sets at 1:30 am, you can still capture the core of the Milky Way which may not rise till 2:00 am (even though it's not a new moon). Is there an easy way for figure all this out? Yes! I am a big fan of PhotoPills app and use it for all my night photography planning.

Needless to day, you need clear skies. Make sure to check the weather too! There are several websites that are fairly accurate with providing cloud cover information 24 hours ahead of time.

Where to photograph?

Dark Skies: There are several websites that can show you, on a scale, where you can find dark skies, with little to no light pollution.