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5 Essentials Parameters on Milky Way Photography
Plan & Preparation
If you want to take a milky way shot, you need to make sure first that you can see the milky way in a location that you desire. Below are several preparation steps that I take before going onto the photo site.
Checking The Moon Calendar
A detailed milky way can be seen when there is no light at all whether from the environment around you or from the moon itself. Yes, you need to plan your photo session during the dead moon period or when the moon is not seen at all. To get this info, I usually visit this link as I found the presentation is quite simple and accurate. Don’t forget to set your hemisphere part on the dropdown menu above the moon calendar.
Actually, it is still possible for you to capture a milky way shot when the moon is still seen around. As long as it is not during full moon period, the light reflected from the moon will just effect the clarity & the amount of the stars. But still, dead moon phase is the best period to hunt for some star’s shots.
Imagine The Suitable Place While Considering The Foreground You Expect.
In my opinion, solely capturing the milky way will not make an exceptional shot. It is the foreground itself that will add the unique value and transform your image so it can impress the viewer. Explore the possibility around you for any subject which is cool enough to be put in one frame together with the milky way as its background. Need to be noted that such place must be located in a relatively remote area where the light pollution is scarce.
If somehow that the milky way is not positioned behind the foreground you expect, try to wait for several hours since the stars are indeed moving. It will not be always success as you desire but it is worth a try. Patience is the key.
Taken from 2 exposures. Milky way exposure: F2.8 ISO4000 20s
To capture this shot, I patiently waited until the morning to finally found that the milky way was positioned on the frame which I have been expecting. It was a luck anyway since after couple of minutes, the stars disappeared as the twilight begun to spread.
3rd Party Application
If you want to get more details for better planning, I actually use “PlanIt! For photographer” in my Android phone. It is a paid application & seriously, I don’t mean to advertise it at all since I got nothing also to promote that software. But this kind of software did help me a lot especially when I want to predict the location of the milky way relative to the foreground that I expect to capture.
There is as well the details for the milky way duration & position, when it will appear/not appear, sunrise/sunset time, twilight details & many more. I saw there are plenty of such softwares available in the market that you may select as you think it will suit you. For sure, all of those apps are paid-apps. But for me, it is still worth the value it provides to ensure all the plan that I have created will work properly.
Gears & Stuffs
I usually awake for all night long during the stars hunting, hence I would need below items as my basic ammunitions:
Minimum 2 sets of battery.
Sturdy tripod that will not easily moved by the wind.
Mosquito repellent (essential in tropical area).
MP3 player & earphone (important to kill the time! - if you are alone).
Lens cleaner kit (to wipe your lens / filter from moisture).
Smartphone (for watch & compass & some games).
Friends (more fun way to kill the time - if you are traveling in a group).
Girlfriend (much more fun way to kill the time - if you have one).
As I learned plenty tutorials from various famous photographers & magazines, I conclude that below parameters are more than enough for you to begin with.
Gears Does Matter
I wouldn’t lie to you that in astrophotography, gears do really matter. Certainly that it is not everything, but it plays an important role for your final image. Considering below figures as the examples.
Taken from several exposures
Milky way exposure: F2.8 ISO5000 25s
Canon 6D with 16-35mm F2.8 L Lens
Taken from several exposures
Milky way exposure: F3.5 ISO4000 25s
Canon 60D with 10-22mm F3.5-4.5 Lens
High end camera nowadays is well known to produce an image with a minimum noises even when it is shot on high ISO. On this case, 60D is absolutely can’t stand a chance to be compared with 6D even though it was set to a lower ISO. Better camera simply will reduce the noise level significantly.
The most important aspect of lenses that I will bring up here is its aperture capability. Bigger aperture (smaller F number) means that there is much more light that can be absorbed during a single click. For night photography, even 1 stop higher will significantly make differences. Therefore, I’d recommend you to use any lenses with F2.8 capability if possible since there will be much more amount of stars and its details that can be captured. A stop higher in aperture also means that you don’t need to set a higher ISO or longer exposure to compensate the amount of lights that it requires. As you already knew that higher ISO will give impact on noises amount while longer exposure will potentially create a star trail. Better lens for sure can also capture a better details & sharpness.
Don't worry, for sure you can still capture a great milky way using Canon 60D + 10-22mm F3.5-4.5 Lens. Above example is looks pretty bad because that was the first time I took a milky way shot. You can search on google how other photographers can create a brilliant capture using the same gears. However I just want to put an underscore that still, gears does matter. And it seems matter more in Astrophotography.
Below setting is the default mode for what I usually use in the initial shot / base case condition.
The rule of thumb is to get the aperture as wide as possible so you can produce more crisp & colourful milky way shot. Since there will be more amount of lights that can be captured by your camera, hence you won’t compensate other adjustments (which will be potentially lowering down your image quality) in order to get the right exposure for the object. In this case, I prefer to have F2.8 lens.
Above shot was taken on F2.8 using Canon 16-35mm lens.Without any post-processing involved, you can witness how rich the stars detail is. It may not be the richest one, but at least I can minimise the ISO adjustment so it won't create a frustating noises in order to get a correct exposure.
Try to maintain your shutter speed to be not more than 20s. The reason surely is because you don’t want to capture a “moving” stars or star trails. Yes that the earth is rotating and an out of focus stars - if noticed - are capable to bother your mind during post-processing session. Sometimes, the star trails do still appear on the corner of the image when you capture it on 25s shutter speed. That’s why if the lights is sufficient, getting a shot in between 15s - 20s would be preferable. This is another important reason to get a wide aperture lens in astrophotography.
Taken on 20s shutter speed, the shot looks perfect on the mid area, until I noticed something's not right at the corner.
Star trails appear!
From my perspective, I think this adjustment will be quiet subjective since this particular will be mainly influenced by your camera series / brand. A more recent / high-end cameras are claimed to have better sensitivity so it can produce a less noisy image on high ISO setup. That’s the reason why I can only give you an advice based on the camera that I am currently using which is Canon 6D. In my case, I usually limit my ISO to be around 5000. With such adjustment, I am quite satisfy with the reasonable noise amount that it produces which is quite minimum. By then, I do not need to face a fierce battle during post-processing to reduce the noise level - which is a bit frustrating.
Taken at F2.8 25s ISO5000, I am very pleased to look at the result as the noise it produced is quiet low.
By then, I can save my energy to concentrate on improving the image quality during post-process rather than to fight the noises.
F:2.8 S: 20s ISO: 5000
By using the above setup, I usually can capture a good details of milky way with a balance exposure and minimum noise level. Sometimes I play with the adjustment just to get some variations that I can consider to add in during post processing mode. However, this is need to be noted, that the above setting is usually work well only to capture the milky way, not the foreground. Depend on the environment that you are currently standing, usually you need to have a different setting so you can produce a balance exposures for the foreground that you aim. This explains why taking several exposures is the most essential part on astrophotography.
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