Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Tips for Milky Way Photography

Ashcroft Observatory, Cedar City, UT. Camera settings: Canon 7dMii, Tokina 11-16mm lens at 11mm, 10 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 6400.
 Nearly half the time we spend on this planet it is dark, but because we usually sleep when it's dark and use lights to light up our surroundings at night and go inside lighted buildings, most of us don't pay too much attention to the night sky. I've been making a dedicated effort to learn more about it since Great Basin National Park started having Astronomy Festivals and regular Astronomy Programs.

It was in 2008 that I first heard the term "astrophotography," when I met a traveling astrophotographer. I didn't really do much with night sky photos then (here's a weak attempt in 2012), but I kept it in the back of my mind.

On a backpacking trip in 2014, I played around with some night sky photos with bristlecone pine trees as my foreground. One photo came out great, and got me started with a hobby I continue today.
Ancient Bristlecone under the Dark Sky with a Hint of Wildfire. Camera settings: Canon T3i, Tokina 11-16 mm lens @ 11mm, 25 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 6400; camera on ground, light painting with headlamp.
The think I like best about this photo is the orange glow in the background. I didn't see that when I took the photo. But the long exposure captured the glow of a wildfire in the next mountain range.

A friend encouraged me to sell the photo, and I decided why not give it a try. I had a canvas made and took it to the Art Bank in Ely, which features local artists. Lo and behold, it sold and they wanted more. I was encouraged to try more photos. You can see some of my results on my website, which features little stories about the photos and also free eCards you can send.

General Advice
Some of the things I learned over the years to do my simple, single-shot Milky Way photos:
  • Pay attention to the moon cycle. The best time to shoot is usually a week on either side of the new moon.
  • The southern Milky Way is the brightest, because we're looking into the center of the galaxy (compare the photo above looking to the northeast with those below, looking south)
  • The lens is the most important part of your setup. There are several lenses that are recognized as astrophotography lenses, and many can be bought used on eBay.
  • Keeping the camera steady is very important. You can set it on the ground, table, tripod, or anything else sturdy.
  • To avoid camera shake, put the camera on a 2-second timer or use an intervalometer.  
  • Use manual focus and make sure your lens is really focused on the Milky Way. For some lenses it's in focus at infinity, but for many it's a little different depending on temperature. Live view may help you focus.
  • The length of exposure depends on what lens you are using. I usually shoot a 20-25 second exposure; any longer and I will have star trails. If I used a 50mm lens, I would have to shoot a shorter amount of time.
  • Use the biggest aperture you can to let in the most amount of light. I use f/2.8. Some cameras can get bigger, like f/2.0, f/1.8, and even f/1.4
  • ISO affects how grainy the photo is. For sunny photos I use ISO 100. For night sky photos, I use ISO 4000, 5000, or 6400 depending on elevation and how clear the sky is.
  • Shoot in RAW. Even though I don't do a lot of post-processing, I do have more options when I shoot in RAW.
  • There are great tutorials out there if you want to learn more. 
  • Pick some interesting foregrounds.
 What's interesting? That's different for everyone! Vehicles can be great, as you can move around to find a great place to feature the Milky Way. Then light paint (briefly flash a light) at the vehicle. Since I live on a ranch, I find farm equipment interesting. Who knew tractors could look so sexy?!
New Holland Tractor and Milky Way. Camera settings: Canon EOS 7dMarkII, Tokina 11-16 mm @ 11mm, 20 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 4000.
I really like bristlecones as a subject with the Milky Way. We took a family backpacking trip to the Table in Mt. Moriah Wilderness. When we went to bed the sky was cloudy, but in the middle of the night, I woke up and found fantastically clear skies. I wandered around for a couple of hours having fun. I didn't have the best camera (a Canon Rebel EOS t3i), no tripod, and was just doing a lot of trial and error, but came up with some photos I really liked.  
Mt. Moriah Bristlecones under the Milky Way. Camera settings: Canon Rebel EOS t3i, Tokina 11-16 mm lens @ 11mm, 25 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 3200.

 If you don't have something in your foreground, you'll need something to make your background more interesting. And it can be a challenge to get a light that far. For the shot below, the snow on the mountains helped me define them, plus I used the silhouette of a tree to help frame the photo.
Milky Way over Doso Doyabi. Camera settings: Canon 7dMii, Tokina 11-16mm lens at 11mm, 20 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 6400.
Sometimes a vertically-oriented photo can be fun. Here's a photo of our local cell tower. Note how different the tone of light is in each. This is usually something you adjust after the photo is taken, although you can adjust your white balance in your camera. I think the tone is a matter of personal preference. Which one do you like best?

Cell tower and Milky Way. Camera settings: Canon 7dMii, Tokina 11-16mm lens at 11mm, 20 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 6400. 

Sometimes your foreground is something simple, like a road sign. The distant glow in the background is from Las Vegas, over 200 miles away.
Nevada Sign and Milky Way. Camera settings: Canon 7dMii, Tokina 11-16mm lens at 11mm, 25 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 5000.                  
I didn't want to leave Utah out, so here it is! When I took this photo, there happened to be a lot of planes in the photo. Planes leave a short line in the photo, and I usually try to take them out in post-processing. I can do it in Google Picasa, which is an old and very simple photo editor. But it's a little faster to do in Photoshop with the heal tool. 
Utah Sign and Milky Way. Camera settings: Canon 7dMii, Tokina 11-16mm lens at 11mm, 25 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 5000.
Even though I know the Milky Way is brighter to the south, sometimes my foreground just won't line up. This is a shot of the amazing metalwork by Bill and Kathy Rountree at the Ranching Exhibit near Great Basin National Park, looking to the northeast. The glow in the background is from the moon rising.
Ranching Exhibit and northern Milky Way. Nevada Sign and Milky Way. Camera settings: Canon 7dMii, Tokina 11-16mm lens at 11mm, 20 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 6400.

More Milky Way Tips
  • The main season for Milky Way photography is approximately March to October. That's when the galactic core is above the horizon, so you get the bright, exciting part of it. In March, the galactic core is rising just before sunrise. In the fall, it's just after sunset. And in the summer, you are lucky, it's out most of the night, depending on your location.
  • The Milky Way also changes position during the night. The app PhotoPills can help you plan your photo by showing just where the Milky Way will be at what time. If you're trying to line up something specific, do your research ahead of time!
  •  You can make the Milky Way stand out a little more in your photos in post processing by adjusting contrast. In Google Picasa, I click Auto Contrast and then increase the shadows a little more. In Photoshop Raw Converter, I just play with the levels a bit, including increasing whites and highlights and decreasing shadows and blacks to make the Milky Way more visible.
  • Some light pollution is okay, but generally you want to go to a dark area to get better Milky Way photos.
 Lakes can provide the opportunity for some reflection. In the photo below, taken at Comins Lake near Ely, I didn't manage to get the reflection of the Milky Way, but rather the light pollution from St. George. A passing car gave me some extra light on the reeds in front of the lake.
Comins Lake and Milky Way. Camera settings: Canon 7dMii, Tokina 11-16mm lens at 11mm, 20 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 5000.

 One night I tried to get the Milky Way above the pivot (irrigation for our fields). I had no idea that the pivot light would make so much light. And the glow in the back? The moon rising in this case.

Pivot and Moonrise with Milky Way. Camera settings: Canon 7dMii, Tokina 11-16mm lens at 11mm, 20 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 3200.

And for a very different perspective on a pivot, here's one on a darker night with no extra lights.
Pivot and Milky Way. Camera settings: Canon 7dMii, Tokina 11-16mm lens at 16mm, 15 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 5000.

It's exciting when you're going to high elevation with really dark skies. This photo was taken in the Ruby Mountains near Elko. There were a lot of cool mountain mahogany trees up on the mountains, and this silhoutted skeleton was my favorite. I figured the sky would be really dark because there aren't towns south of there. But I saw big lights. From where? The lights in the background are from big mines. And what's the bright light to the right of the Milky Way? That's Jupiter.
Ruby Mountain mahogany with Milky Way. Camera settings: Canon 7dMii, Tokina 11-16mm lens at 21mm, 20 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 3200.

Back to bristlecones! Why do I like them so much? Probably because they are thousands of years old and a bit hard to comprehend. The juxtaposition of them under the Milky Way, which is millions of years old and even harder to comprehend, makes my heart soar. I call this photo Old and Older. You can see some clouds in the background. It's okay to shoot with some clouds, sometimes they make the photo even more interesting.
Old and Older. Camera settings: Canon 7dMii, Tokina 11-16mm lens at 11mm, 20 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 4000.
It's not always new moon. Then what? Don't despair! There are some cool opportunities during full moons. The photo below was taken during a lunar eclipse, so it was a full blood moon. I was in bed thinking about the eclipse and how cool it would be to get a photo of an owl silhouetted by it when I heard a Great Horned Owl hoot. It was winter and cold outside, but that hoot was enough to get me out of bed, and amazingly enough, I was able to get a shot of the owl in front of the moon!
Owl and Supermoon Eclipse. Camera settings: Canon 7dMii, Canon 100-400 mm lens at 400mm, 2 seconds, f/5.6 ISO 2000.
Sometimes I'm not sure what to take a photo of. I just get a feeling I should get out there! So one night I was brainstorming and thought it would be fun to get some sunflowers, my favorite flower, with the Milky Way. I drove around the ranch until I found a nice bunch. But it was a windy night, and when I did the light painting, they were blurry. It took me a bit, but eventually I realized that all I had to do to get rid of the blur was to make the light painting really brief. So I flashed the light quickly, and presto, came up with this result.
Sunflowers and Milky Way. Camera settings: Canon 7dMii, Tokina 11-16mm lens at 11mm, 20 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 5000.

I had the opportunity to go on a backpacking trip to Johnson Lake, about four miles from the trailhead and over 2,500 feet higher. Staying the night meant I could try and get some night sky photos there. Something I was reminded on this trip was to keep checking your camera settings. It turned out I accidentally bumped the aperture to f/3.5, and for the photo on the left, the exposure to just 15 seconds. Nevertheless, the photos came out pretty great. On the left, the light painting at lake level brought out the green color. My friend Julie helped provide some perspective to the scenery. And on the right, the weird white track is from a bat! You can even see each beat of its wings!
 Milky Way at Johnson Lake. Camera settings: Canon 7dMii, Tokina 11-16mm lens at 12mm, 15-20 seconds, f/3.5, ISO 6400.

 I'm going to end with these final two photos. The spring of 2019 was extremely cold and wet. In fact, in late June, Stella Lake was still frozen over. I thought it would be cool to get the Milky Way with the frozen lake. My friend Jenny hiked in with me (Yaktrax saved us on the icy trail!), and we set up on the shore. We had to wait awhile for the Milky Way to rise to just where we wanted it, coming out from Wheeler Peak. But the wait was so fast, it was an amazing night and we had so much fun.
Frozen Stella Lake and Milky Way. Camera settings: Canon 7dMii, Tokina 11-16mm lens at 11mm, 25 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 6400.
And sometimes the best Milky Way photos are just fun! Here my friend Jenny and I do some selfies as we're waiting for the Milky Way to rise into optimum position. I ended up liking this photo better than when it was emerging right from Wheeler Peak (above).
Selfies at Stella Lake at night. Camera settings: Canon 7dMii, Tokina 11-16mm lens at 11mm, 15 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 3200.

Final Tips
  • If you want to try Milky Way photography, give it a try! If you don't have the gear, ask around and borrow some. You can also get some nice results even if you don't have the optimum gear (Dedicated astrophotographers have a different set up than me). 
  • Many times the photos look good on small screens. When you enlarge them, you will see more noise and blur. Test out different sizes for printing. And I really like printing on canvases, as they help hide some of the imperfections.
  • Keep learning! I have a set of goals for the winter, like experimenting with a tracker and working on post-processing (specifically stacking and blending). 
  • Most of all, have fun! Taking Milky Way photos is a great opportunity to enjoy our beautiful world.
That's what I have for now. Milky Way photography is a fun hobby and gets me out more, appreciating the amazing night sky. Thanks for taking a look. And I can't help but be curious: Which photo do you like best?

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