Taking Pictures of the Milky Way

Beginning a Hobby in
Milky Way Photography

The beauty of the dark night sky is covered by light pollution for the majority of Americans and and many people don’t get the opportunity to truly experience dark skies. I really started to appreciate the depth and of brightness of the stars visible under dark skies while we were staying with our dogs at an AirBnB in northern New Mexico, in March 2020. It was remote and so dark outside, there weren’t any city lights in sight. But even in those dark conditions, it’s difficult to capture a picture of the amazing night sky with standard camera and smartphones.

While I was researching what camera settings would take pictures of the stars successfully, I learned about the Astrophotography mode on my on own Google Pixel smartphone. This let me take some long exposure photos on my phone – and I was pretty excited about the results!

Star filled night time sky
Taken near Arroyo Seco, NM with Google Pixel 3XL smartphone camera (f/1.8 4s 4.44mm, ISO2682) on March 14, 2020

Due to the burgeoning covid-19 pandemic, this happened to be the week that my client offices as well as my own converted to 100% remote work. Fast forward a few crazy, stressful months later and in late spring we again loaded up ourselves and dogs and spent some time in quarantine by ourselves off in an AirBnb situated up in the cool mountains and trout-filled rives of Pecos, NM. I had spent time starting to research online what kind of camera and lenses would perform well for astrophotography, and used my work bonus to buy a nice camera and my first nice lens. This kind of photography requires a camera that can take 10-20 second long exposures (or more) and a lens with low f-stop, which will allow a lot of light to be captured.

I enjoyed spending a few nights learning the mechanics of my new camera with a lot of experimentation. A couple of learnings included:

  • The #1 take away was that I absolutely needed to invest in a tripod that could support a heavier camera and lens. I took everything that week trying to balance the camera on different surfaces, with varying degrees of success.
  • Experimentation at different f-stops, ISOs, and how long the exposure was is also critical. And time consuming.
  • I needed to learn where to aim accurately to find the milky way and interesting things to shoot in the night sky
  • Later I discovered that I shot everything in .JPG without any .RAW image formats, which would have meant they were much less editable in Photoshop or Lightroom. Fortunately there wasn’t anything of quality taken!!

That said, I was pleased with the results of my experimental work. Although it wasn’t anything of decent photographic quality, I learned a lot and built my confidence in using my new camera. I had more to work on and learn about for sure!

It wasn’t until July 2021 when I had the opportunity to practice under dark sky conditions, in far southwest Texas, near Terligua, TX and Big Bend National Park. Some of the things I did to improve my results included learning how to use Stellarium to find night sky objects and Photo Pills to help plan my shoots in advance. I also learned a lot through following several skilled photographers on Instagram who regularly share the settings their photos were taken with, and sometimes share the locations!

My 35 mm lens wasn’t bad but it wasn’t an ideal focal length for capturing night landscapes. I added an ultra-wide-angle Sigma 14-24mm f/2.8 wide angle lens to my kit, and loved the difference that made!

Taken July 17, 2021, tripod mounted Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Sigma f/2.8 lens at 16mm, single shot of 30-second exposure time. Edited in Lightroom after.
  • I learned that I need to spend time reviewing my pictures between nights on a computer-sized screen with high resolution so that I can anticipate what settings to experiment with the next time.
  • To improve even further I want to learn how to take pictures using a motorized tripod mount and remote trigger release so that I can take even longer exposure ones without the stars blurring due to Earth’s rotation
  • Outside of camera equipment and the scene itself, I want to improve my techniques in Lightroom for bringing out the best of my pictures and learning to make both composite images and stacks to improve the depth.

I’m looking forward to the next time I get to plan a trip under dark skies and spend time learning and improving my skills!

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