How to shoot the milky way - Mohamed Hakem's Photography

How to shoot the Milky way

Milky way and Stars pictures are one of the magical photos that all of us admire. It helps you understand a lot about astrology and how tiny we are. Tons of websites shows how to photograph the milky way. It seems easy, but in reality it’s a bit different. It need a little bit of understanding for both the camera and the surroundings. It will help you see the unseen. For me it was one of the best experiences that I ever had.

To be able to photograph the milky way we just need to understand a little about light pollution and earth movement, the rest will be try and error using your camera. so here is what you need exactly. If ANY thing of the below is missing, don’t expect good results. In fact don’t expect results at all.


What you need to know and get:

1. The right time to plan your trip,

First we should understand a little about earth movement and the milky way. Imagine the milky way as a donuts with sugar. The earth is a sugar particle. So to see the famous strip of stars you should aim for the timing when the other side of the donuts is above you. The milky way is not a dense cloud, in fact you are part of that circular cloud and you need to look through to the other edge. So first thing Aim for the nights that has no moon, you can check the moon phases using this link: http://www.moonconnection.com/moon_phases_calendar.phtml . If the moon is there it will block everything as if someone is aiming his flash light to your face while watching a movie in a cinema. To know the rising times of the milky way, you can download any sky app on the smart phone (having a compass) I use skysafari, there are other apps that accurately shows the exact timing the milky way rises at night of no moons.


2. A far remote place with NO light pollution whatsoever.

I never imagined what light pollution is until I experienced it in a desert camp. I was able to see the fire of another camps few kilometers away, your eyes magically adjust its iris to receive more light. The light of a smart phone screen can be very irritating so imagine the city lights where there are millions of light sources. Each one contributes to an opposing light to the light coming from the stars leading to complete star disappearance. Another factor of course are the clouds, fog, dust and other weather conditions. You will have to be lucky!.


3. A camera with a decent ISO performance of 3200 and good Dynamic range(most above entry level SLRs and mirrorless are).

The better the camera the better the appearance will be. Sounds logic but on some cases the cameras doesn’t differ that much, but in this case it does. I use a Nikon D800 and it has an insane dynamic range so it helps a lot, but other cameras will still do.  Don’t worry about the noise on 3200 as the noise has a very little effect on stars pictures.


4. A wide lens 24mm and under (18mm on APS-c) with an F number of a minimum F4 (on full frame).

Wide lens with a decent aperture! Again wide lens with a decent aperture!. I use the Nikon 14-24 mm F/2.8, I also used the fuji X100 (23mm APS-C F2 lens) and it worked. The wider the shot the sharper the view. Forget teles and normal lenses. The stars does not get bigger with our ranges of zooms of 200-400 and tend to move very fast. 


5. A Decent tripod.

You won’t find steady grounds in a desert, you’ll most probably find sand or mud in forests. You’ll be lucky if there are steady rocks so you will need a sturdy tripod. .


6. A smart phone with a compass

(I use ipad and skysafari) a smartphone app that uses the built in compass to identify the timing and location of the rising of the milky way. A small app will save you tons of calculations I use sky safari, search for pluto as is always near the dense part of the milky way and check the rising time and the direction, that’s all I need.


7. Preferably a remote shutter trigger (10 sec counter will do bit with a maximum shutter of 30sec).

A shutter trigger will be a very good friend. The tiniest movement contributes in ruining your photo. So I advise bringing a shutter remote to totally avoid camera shakes. Another option is using the 10 sec timer, so you press the button, wait 10 seconds till all the shake disappears and fire. But this prevents the bulb mode option, you will only use a maximum shutter of 30sec. 8. A normal flash light. Flash lights will be very important, no need for powerful ones, small flash lights will do. They will not only help you see, but can be a very good friend after finding the best setting to capture the milky way. They can help in better composition for your photo by lighting a tent or ever an entire area! Yes the small flash can light up hills in a 30 sec shutter of ISO3200, forget flashes.


After getting the above now is the time for a great picture!:

1. When arriving at the location, start by studying the surroundings, look for hills, rocks, tents, 4x4 cars, high hills, low hills, etc.

2. After knowing by the app that the milky way is now visible. Look at the direction by your naked eye, lay down and relax and take all light sources away! By light sources I mean mobile screens and camera back screen! Stare to the view for more than 20mins in complete darkness. Your eyes will adapt itself to the low light conditions and you will see the milky way clearly by your naked eye! If a mobile rings in front of you all will be gone and you will have to wait for another 20mins. Enjoy the scenery and then move to step 2.

3. Point the camera to the scene, open up the live view, digitally zoom in the live view and point to the brightest star. FORGET AUTO FOCUS and rotate to infinity and decrease very slowly afterwards. Your focus should be a little before infinity. If this method fails for any reason, set your highest ISO and 5sec shutter and make a test shot. This is the hard way though.

4. Now your focus is set, try not to touch it again. a. set your camera to RAW b. Widest aperture c. forget WB d. shutter 30 seconds e. ISO 3200 f. widest mm g. Mirror lockup setting to avoid shakes done by the mirror going back and forth (in case of DSLRs only).

5. I would be lying if I tell you that these settings will work. Unfortunately it will never be the same for every camera , location, weather conditions and many other contributing factors. So now is the time for tweaking after knowing a good starting point, try the next aperture stop for a sharper result, if it didn’t differ much restore it back and lower the ISO a bit. Take pictures with different setting combinations, lower IS, increase the ISO, underexposed , Over exposed sometime. This will be very useful afterwards when you sit in front of your PC trying to get the best one you will never know which is the best combination for post processing. For me underexposed images on the D800 were much sharper as the stars moved less so when I bumped up the exposure manually the stars appear better and better.

6. After having some shots for the milky way now is the time for composition. Knowing the interesting areas around start playing with the composition, go behind a tent and place a flash light inside, behind a car, start doing your job that firstly you came for!. You don’t want just another milky way shot!

7. After going home. Open up your pictures on your prictures and try playing with the exposure, clarity, contrast, and white balance. Each of the 4 items will offer a totally different view.


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