The Milky Way is one of the most breathtaking natural scenes to photograph. There’s always something special about seeing our galaxy in a dark sky and capturing the moment with your camera.
Seeing the Milky Way with the naked eye is possible but it turns into real magic when you look at the back of your camera after just a few seconds exposing at the sky.
However, photographing the Milky Way is not as easy as it seems; it requires great planning, the right gear, and the skills to make the most out of your camera. On top of that, a bit of luck with the conditions is always necessary.
To help you succeed in your next night sessions, I’ve put together a list with the best tips to plan your Milky Way shootings that I learned after many nights chasing and capturing our galaxy. Let’s get started!
#1 Start planning the best days of the year to photograph the Milky Way
The first step in your planning should be aimed at checking which are good days to find the Milky Way in the sky.
The basic element you need is darkness, so you have to consider nights with the new moon or with a moon not too bright (Less than 30% luminosity is a good reference). You can use any Milky Way app or calendar to see the hours when the Milky Way will be visible in the sky according to your location.
To help you in this step, I created a Milky Way Calendar where you can see at a glance the best days of the year to photograph the Milky Way.
You can download more calendars for photographing the Milky Way at Capture the Atlas, where you can find more locations.
*Note: Milky Way Calendars are based on latitude. You can use a calendar for a different region/country as long as you’re at a similar latitude. For example, if you are located in Southern England at a latitude similar to London (51º), you can use the Calendar for Canada, since it was created for a similar latitude (51º). (Just consider the time difference between both locations).
#2 Find a location away from light pollution
The second key factor for planning your Milky Way photography is light pollution. Today, the chances of living in a heavily light-polluted area are very high. People are concentrating in bigger cities and metropolitan areas where seeing the stars is almost impossible.
On the other hand, this means that some rural areas are less populated and, therefore, less light-polluted, which will improve the night sky conditions. Most of the countries have designated spaces like natural, state and national parks where infrastructure is limited and you can find big dark skies.
You can also use a light pollution map to check which areas are the best near you.
#3 Check the cloud cover forecast
It can be the best day to shoot the Milky Way of the year in a dark area but if there are clouds in the sky, you won’t be able to see our galaxy.
Checking the cloud forecast is essential for planning your Milky Way shots. There are dozens of useful weather sites where you can see not only the percentage of clouds in the sky but also the type of clouds like low or high clouds. The wind is something to consider and my tip is to keep checking the forecast during the night. Some nights it might be completely cloudy and become cloudless in a matter of minutes.
#4 Plan your shots according to your composition
The Milky Way season changes depending on the latitude and the Hemisphere; In the Northern Hemisphere, the season goes from March to September, whereas in the Southern Hemisphere, the season starts in February and finishes in October.
Besides, the way the galactic center and the Milky Way are seen in the sky changes depending on the time of the season.
Taking the Northern Hemisphere as an example, early in the season during the months of March and April, the Milky Way appears as a full band or arch in the sky just above the horizon. As the months pass through June and July this arch can be seen at a higher elevation, and as we move into the end of the season in August and September, the Milky Way moves into a diagonal and vertical line.
This means that each time of the season offers different photographic possibilities:
- You can use the Milky Way arch to create panoramas capturing the full band of the Milky Way. In the early months, a row of vertical shots is ok to capture the landscape and the Milky Way. However, as the Milky Way rises in the sky during the following months, you’ll probably have to shoot several rows (usually 2 or even 3 or 4) to create your composition of the landscape and the Milky Way.
- When the Galactic center appears as a diagonal/vertical line in the sky, you can try vertical compositions where you can highlight a subject with the Milky Way.
#5 Take the time to be familiar with the location
One of the biggest mistakes when planning Milky Way shootings is to show up at the location at night for the first time.
Apart from possible hazards that can be obvious during the day where you can fall and risk your gear and yourself, composing in complete darkness is a challenging situation even for pro photographers.
Take the time to visit the location during the day to scout for compositions and to stay away from possible dangerous areas. Observe the different elements and subjects, and save the coordinates in your mobile GPS so you can return later at night and go straight to easily compose your frame.
Not only you’ll be safer but your chances of taking better photos of the Milky Way will increase drastically.
#6 Get your gear ready
Shooting at night also requires some specific gear and accessories that are not necessary during the day.
Some of these must-have equipment for night photography includes:
- A headlamp: The most essential tool; it’s absolutely necessary to operate your camera comfortably with both hands. Make sure that your headlamp has a red-light mode so you don’t flash and bother other photographers.
- A flashlight: Useful for seeing at night and also for artistic purposes. You can point a flashlight at your lens to create a light halo and drag the interest to your subject.
- Extra batteries: When you shoot at night, the battery life dies quicker than when you photograph with daylight. Shooting the Milky Way doesn’t require a very long night exposure but if you’re photographing panoramas or several compositions all night long, you’ll need at least 2-3 batteries.
- Clothing: Even in hot places like deserts, temperatures can drop quickly at night. Check the temperatures forecast for your location and prepare your clothing accordingly. Gloves, a wool hat, and boots are recommended in places that can reach low temperatures at night like mountains.
- A shutter release: You can use the shutter delay mode built-in your camera to reduce the possible shakiness caused by a remote trigger. However, if you’re planning to shoot star trails or other types of night photography or time-lapses in addition to the Milky Way, it might be a good idea to have a shutter release or an intervalometer.
As you can see, Milky Way photography involves extensive planning. This requires some basic knowledge of how you can see the Milky Way in the sky depending on your location and the time of the year, and how other elements will affect the Milky Way visibility, like the moon, the light pollution or the clouds.
Don’t forget that camera gear for Milky Way photography is important, and that the planning is just the first step; once everything is ready and you see our galaxy with your eyes, it’s time to put into practice the right technique to photograph the Milky Way!
I hope all these tips and the Milky Way Calendars are useful and please, don’t hesitate to leave any questions in the comments below.