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Photographing the Milky Way

Photographing the Milky Way is possible all year round, but between March and September we have a beautiful view of the core of the Milky Way in the Northern Hemisphere. This is the brightest part of the Milky Way and therefore also a subject we love to photograph. Photographing the Milky Way is not difficult and it is also possible in the Netherlands. The only thing you have to take into account is the light pollution.

Photographing the Milky Way

How to find the Milky Way

The Milky Way is in the southeast. The easiest way is to use an app where you can find the Milky Way and see what time the core may be above the horizon. There are several apps available but my favorite is Photopills. The hardest part is finding a dark place without too much light pollution. As you can see on the map of Darksitefinder.com the best chance is in the north of the Netherlands or on the islands. That said, I’ve taken pictures of the Milky Way in the dunes along the west coast so it’s not impossible.

Check the website for your location and see if the surroundings are dark enough.

Darksitefinder
In the red areas it is really difficult to photograph the Milky Way as the horizon will be flooded with orange light.
In the Northern part of The Netherlands the chances are much better.
If you go to one of the islands there is a good chance of capturing beautiful images.

Equipment to photograph the Milky Way and stars

To be able to photograph the Milky Way, you need a camera that does not give too much noise at ISO 3200 or ISO 6400.
In addition, a sturdy tripod is of course indispensable. A wide angle lens (12 to 24 mm) with an aperture of f/2.8 or lower is the best to work with. After all, you want to capture as much light as possible.
A flashlight for in the dark is certainly not a superfluous luxury. Attention: take a lamp that emits red light. This way your eyes stay accustomed to the dark and you keep your night vision. If you shine with a white light, your eyes have to get used to the dark for 30 minutes before your night vision returns.

Images courtesy of: Rick Hatch and John Fowler

How to photograph the Milky Way

First of all you have to find a dark place where you don’t suffer too much from light pollution in the direction you want to photograph (south-east on the Northern Hemisphere). The moon must be below or in its first quarter, but not too close to the Milky Way.
In terms of weather, you have to find a quiet and clear night. Even a bit of cloud cover can ruin your picture quite a bit.

As a basic setting I recommend starting with ISO 3200, f/2.8 and 20 seconds.
You certainly don’t want to expose for more than 20 seconds because then you will see the rotation of the earth in the stars. Depending on how dark it is you can adjust the ISO. Generally speaking, the wider the lens, the longer you can expose.
Experiment especially with the settings and do not stare blindly at your screen. Your eyes are fully adjusted to the dark after 30 minutes, so your screen looks pretty bright. Don’t rely on what you see there, just look at the histogram. Of course you shoot the pictures in RAW to capture the maximum amount of data in your file.
Composition

Try out different compositions and be creative. Don’t just point your camera towards the sky but try to find an interesting foreground element. This can be anything: a beautiful big tree, hills, mountains and of course you. Selfies with the Milky Way are and remain fun to make and to watch.

How to focus at night

Focusing in the dark can be quite a challenge but is certainly not as difficult as it seems. Focus your lens manually and do this via live view. Focus on a bright star or take an illuminated point on the horizon and zoom in fully. This way it is fairly easy to get the right focus.
In any case, do not rely blindly on the infinite symbol on your lens or the hard stop at the end. This is a good reference point, but because of the lens design it is never quite right. So it is really necessary to zoom in well in live-view and check your focus.

Filters

Even in night photography, filters can help. Several brands have a special night filter that reduces the orange glow of light pollution. This can help you a lot in the Netherlands to take good pictures of the Milky Way. Keep in mind that they take away about half a stop of light, so you have to compensate that with your ISO or shutter speed

I use the Nisi Natural Night filter.

How to photograph the Milky way

Post processing your Milky Way images

The post-processing of the photo is of course entirely dependent on taste. Especially if you have photographed in RAW, you can still get quite a lot out of your photo.
The most important adjustments are ‘clarity’, highlights and white point. Adjust these operations with a radial adjustment layer across the Milky Way and you will see that you can improve it a lot. Make sure it doesn’t seem unnatural.

Tips for photographing at night

  • Find a dark place, away from light pollution
  • Check when the core of the Milky Way is visible, times vary throughout the year
  • Use a sturdy tripod
  • Use a fast wide-angle lens
  • Focus with live view
  • Set your camera to 2 seconds self-timer to counteract motion blur
    or use a remote control
De sterren fotograferen
Martijn.Kort

Author Martijn.Kort

Fine art photographer focusing on architecture and cityscapes as well as capturing unique moments from the cockpit. Writing about photography techniques and sharing reviews. Ambassador for both ZEISS Netherlands and Nisi Filters. If you like my work, consider following me on Instagram!

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