It’s Milky Way season, but not for long. We live in a great river of stars, and September is a great time to gaze at the 100 billion-or-so other stars that make up our galaxy right after nightfall. If you have clear skies, look to the southwest after dark (this week you’ll also see a lovely Crescent Moon), but hurry – the bright galactic centre will soon disappear below the horizon until spring.
September is also a great time to photograph the Milky Way. So I asked some astrophotographers, each nominated for a prestigious award this month, for their tips and advice on capturing our galaxy.
The first tip is to get yourself to a dark sky destination anywhere on the planet between March (if you get up before dawn) and October (right after dusk). With no light pollution to block your view, you’ll see the Milky Way galaxy looping across the night sky. Although you can see it from the northern hemisphere, it’s at its biggest and brightest close to the southern horizon near the constellation Sagittarius, so it makes sense that the southern hemisphere gets the very best view.
So it’s no surprise that some of the nightscape photographers nominated in the Insight in the Astrophotographer of the Year competition, run by Greenwich Observatory in London, took their images in the southern hemisphere.
Mark Gee at The Art Of Night has been nominated for ‘Cable Bay’ (main image, above), a panorama of 42 individual images stitched together. They were taken at Cable Bay near Nelson in New Zealand. Gee used a Canon EOS 6D Mark II camera, a 24mm f/4 Sigma Art lens, and took 42 exposures each of 30 seconds each at ISO 6400. The camera was mounted on a GigaPan robotic panohead mount. “I generally scout-out locations based on interesting composition opportunities,” says Gee. “I work out where the Milky Way will be in the sky with apps like PhotoPills, and see how I can best incorporate that into a composition with the surrounding landscape.”
Gee also takes photos in the day of the planned composition to make sure everything lines up. “I even make a mark with a pile of rocks or something similar where I will set my camera up for when I return to do the shoot at night.” Gee likes to think of such shots as ‘nightscapes’ akin to landscape photography, which makes composition critical. “Just about anyone can learn to point a camera at the night sky and take a reasonable photo, but the images that really stand apart from the rest are those with really good composition,” says Gee. “Spend the time to plan and find the best compositions possible at your locations.”
This image (above) was taken by another nominated photographer, James Stone, at Cape Bruny Lighthouse on Bruny Island in Tasmania’s southeast. It was shot with a relatively modest set-up; a Nikon D750 DSLR camera with a 14-24mm f/2.8 lens using a 15 second exposure at f/3.2 on ISO 6400. “I spent six weeks living in the old lighthouse keepers cottage at Cape Bruny as a volunteer caretaker and artist in residence, taking weather observations and general maintenance duties, and spending any clear nights out photographing the night sky.” That gave James after-hours access to the lighthouse to illuminate the lantern, and time to plan his composition for the best position of the galactic centre of the Milky Way. “I like to use a human figure – in this case myself in the lighthouse – to provide a sense of scale.”
This fabulous nightscape was taken by Ainsley Bennett from Kynance cove on the Lizard Peninsula in Cornwall, U.K. “I had visited the location during the day and I decided to head back as night fell because the scenic rocky coastline had given me several ideas to try out,” says Bennett, who used a Nikon D800 camera with a Sigma 35mm 1.4 art lens. “It was one of the darkest locations I have witnessed (so) I had to use two exposures to capture the scene effectively – the sky was shot at ISO 4000, f/2.2, 13 seconds, and the foreground at ISO 1600, f/3.2, 310 seconds.” By doing a separate foreground exposure Bennett was able to produce a more evenly exposed image. “Composition is vital in Milky Way photography, because by adding an earthly element such as some coastline, a tree, or some rolling countryside, it adds far more interest, and binds us to the night sky,” says Bennett. Instead of waiting for the Milky Way to move into the correct alignment to fit a composition, he advises using The Photographers Ephemeris and PhotoPills to plan shots months in advance.
How to photograph the Milky Way
– Use a manual camera and a wide-angle lens
– Always consider your foreground and composition as you would for any landscape photograph
– Ensure your focus is spot-on for the stars
– Make sure your exposure time short enough to avoid star-trailing due to the rotation of the Earth
– Get out there and learn by your mistakes in the field and don’t be put off by failed attempts
– Don’t over-process the image, being especially careful not to increase the saturation too much
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes
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