Shoot with Spike Saturday: Milky Way Season is Here!

Hello to everyone. It’s Spike with another Shoot with Spike Saturday. Thanks to Rick, as always, for having me.

“Milky Way Season” is here again! It’s a great time of year to photograph the core of the Milky Way. As of today, the core is rising above the horizon at about midnight. As each night passes into summer, the Milky Way rises another minute or two earlier. Let’s get right to it and go over some quick basics, so you can be out shooting in no time.

Guideline Settings

We will start with some basic settings. Manual mode is a must. I always start with a pretty high ISO, say even 6400. This is strictly to shape my composition and see what's out there in the dark. Once I have my composition set, I will settle the ISO back down to around 1600-2500 area. I try to keep exposure time near 15-20 seconds. 30 second exposures are just as common, and you will be just at the cusp of starting to see star trails if you look at your photo close enough, unless you are extremely wide. For the most part my aperture is always at f / 2.8, which is the widest my lens can open. These are rough starting points. If you think you need an adjustment, do not hesitate to do so. If your shot is still dark, for example, raise your ISO.

Shoot in RAW

You will want to always be shooting in RAW. RAW does not process your picture at all and gives you total control to do the adjustments yourself in post processing. RAW files also capture the most amount of data, they do not become compressed like jpegs, and can be sharpened with more control, which can be essential for these shots at night.

White Balance

The short story here is to leave your white balance on auto. Most of the time it will be fairly accurate, however, shooting in RAW allows you to change this in post processing to your liking regardless. I tend to favor a temperature near the 3500-4k mark.

Manual Focus

An important part of your final piece will be ensuring your shot is in focus. You will want your lens to be set at infinity focus. The infinity mark is not always the exact mark on your lens. You can focus on something far away in the daytime and note this spot on your ring and keep it here until nighttime shooting. I also encourage you to fine tune the focus as you go. Take your shot, and then zoom in on the viewfinder and check out the stars. Make subtle adjustments as needed until tack sharp.

Where is the Milky Way?

To clarify, we are actually in the Milky Way galaxy. The photogenic part you see captured in so many photos is the Milky Way Galactic Center. You can only see the core from roughly March through September. Allow yourself about 20 minutes for your eyes to adjust to the darkness when viewing. Prime season is considered June through August. Generally speaking you will look south to find the core... southeast during the start of season, slowing making its way southwest towards the end of summer. Note that for the Southern Hemisphere, you would still look south, but the direction moves opposite.

Pay Attention to the Moon

The light that the moon illuminates can quickly damper your chances of seeing the Milky Way, so the ideal time to shoot is during the new moon. Shooting during the new moon also gives you the entire night to shoot without having to worry about moonlight.

You should also pay attention to what time the moon rises and sets. For example - if there is a 35% moon but it sets at 2 am, then you can easily shoot the Milky Way past this time, providing it's the right time of year. The same can be said with a rising moon. If the moon will be bright on a particular night, but doesn't rise until 11 pm, then you may have a few hours to shoot before this (this example would need to be late summer, when you can see the core earlier in the night).

Light Pollution

This is a tricky one, but manageable. To begin, if you live in a metropolitan area, don't count on seeing the Milky Way without doing some driving to get away from town. The bigger the city, the more light pollution, the farther you will need to drive. Light pollution can be seen from even a few hundred miles away. You can also increase your odds by positioning yourself correctly for viewing. I live outside of Phoenix, but I can travel just 30 minutes south of Phoenix and see the core nicely. I position myself so I am looking away (southern) from the light pollution and towards the Milky Way. Consider this same approach.

Finally, here are a few iOS apps I recommend to make the most of your night shooting.

iCSC: Clear Sky Chart Viewer - This app shows observation forecast for 5000+ locations in North America, along with important visibility factors such as cloud cover and transparency.

Moon - (by CDV Concepts) This app is very simple and that's why I like it. I can easily and quickly see the times for the moon rise and moon set.

Sky Guide - This app allows you to plan your shots. You can simulate the time, place and day to see exactly, what is where, in the night sky. You can also search for specific stars, satellites, constellations etc.

That’s it from me today, I hope everyone gets some great night time shots this summer!

Swing by my site for a quick visit when you have time!