How to capture the magnificent arms of the Milky Way

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Astrophotography of the Milky Way from the North Shore of Lake Superior
Milky Way from the North Shore of Lake Superior. Photo by Gene Dianoski.

Astrophotography takes a fair amount of dedication. Being middle aged, working a full-time job and living in the city doesn’t help matters when it comes to taking photos of stars and the Milky Way. So, I worked up a plan because preparation is the key to successful astrophotography sessions.

Finding dates, times and location for the Milky Way

Lunar Phases
Lunar Phases provided to timeanddate.com
photopills planner screen

The first thing to figure out was what night would be the best. A night when the moon sets early is a must because it is too bright to shoot the Milky Way. A quick search on the internet brought up a lunar calendar where a new moon was listed a few nights out. That coming Friday looked good and the weather was clear.

There is also a helpful smart phone app, Photopills (https://www.photopills.com/ – $9.99 USD) that also provides moon phases and set times. The app has a “planner” section that details where the Milky Way phase sits in the sky at any given date and time. According to the app the Milky Way was directly vertical at 1:00 AM on Saturday morning, which would make a great image.

darksitefinder
A snip from darksitefinder.com

The next challenge was a little harder: picking a good location to view the Milky Way. A first try earlier this year just outside the city had too much light pollution, so I did some internet research and found Dark Site Finder. This is a graphic map to scan your area for how much light pollution is where you want to shoot. I found a spot an hour away that wasn’t too bad. It was not the best, but it was as good as I was going to get for as far I wanted to drive in the middle of the night.

Equipment setup for astrophotography

Canon 80D on a table top with green cloth.
Getting the Canon 80D ready for astrophotography. Photo by Gene Dianoski

Setting the Canon 80D for the night requires a trigger, a tripod, an ultra-wide lens and a hot shoe bubble level. Everything was ready, including bug spray, in my camera bag. After a nap, I drove for an hour drive in the dark. Setting up in the dark is a pain in the ass. We stopped at the first location on our list: a boat launch site near Two Harbors, MN on the North Shore of Lake Superior. The spot provided easy parking and a stable boat dock. However, the city lights were too bright, traffic was in my shot and the parking lot lights behind me turned on at regular intervals during the shoot.

I moved up the road to another location found on the map earlier, which was a small stretch of pebbly beach a few minutes further North at the mouth of a small river. The Milky Way arms align nicely with a bit of the shore line and Mars sits brightly in the sky. I took a few shots, dropped the tripod all the way down as far as it would go and tilted the camera up to keep some foreground while maximizing the sky.

What settings do astrophotographers use?

Astrophotography
Lake Superior, MN. The Milky Way from the North Shore of Lake Superior. Photo by Gene Dianoski.

Photographers debate the settings for capturing sharp stars and the Milky Way. The rule of 400, 500 or 600? I tried using the math-intensive NPF rule: (35 x aperture + 30 x pixel pitch) ÷ focal length = shutter speed in seconds. None of this means much at 1:30AM without preparation. Make sure to have a flashlight and know where camera settings are in the dark. Focus on the brightest star and if possible, use live view to compose the shots. My camera settings were at 10mm, f/4 (as wide as the lens would go), ISO 6400 and a shutter speed of 30 seconds. The images looked perfect in my camera screen, but were very noisy once I got them back in the computer.

In the next installment of our astrophotography series, we’ll discuss how the Milky Way image was processed Adobe Photoshop. For now, try to get out there and shoot for the stars on your own.

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