The best photographs of the Milky Way show the most photogenic part of this luminous band of light soaring over a dramatic landscape. To make such photographs, you need to go to the right place at the right time of night and the right time of year. Here’s how to find and make your best Milky Way images.
You can photograph the Milky Way any clear, dark night of the year, but the best images almost always include the galactic center, the brightest part of the Milky Way, which is also the region that contains the most dramatic clouds of gas and dust. Like any celestial object, the galactic center appears to rise and set as the Earth rotates. For any particular location, the angle of rising and setting is fixed. For example, in Boulder, Colorado, at 40 degrees north latitude, the galactic center always rises at an azimuth of 129 degrees (southeast), reaches its highest altitude, 21 degrees above the horizon, when it is due south, and sets at an azimuth of 231 degrees (southwest). If you’re planning a shoot in Colorado or Utah, therefore, try to identify spectacular landforms that are best viewed when looking in an arc from southeast to southwest.
Best Times For Milky Way Photography
Several other factors affect the timing of a Milky Way shoot. First, choose a clear night. I like the National Weather Service’s point forecasts, found at weather.gov. Enter the name of the city that’s closest to your shoot, then refine the forecast by scrolling across a map and clicking on your exact shooting location. Point forecasts cover an area of just two or three square miles, which makes them particularly valuable in the mountains. In terms of weather, the summit of 14,259-foot Longs Peak may as well be on another planet compared to conditions in Denver 9,000 feet below. The NWS’s point-forecast web pages also contain a link to an hourly forecast with details on temperature, chance of precipitation, wind speed and, most importantly, percentage of the sky that will be covered by clouds. For a second opinion on cloud cover, check out cleardarksky.com.
Second, get as far away from city lights as possible. For a map of light pollution, try darksitefinder.com.
Third, choose a night when the moon is below the horizon when the galactic center is in the right position. That doesn’t mean you can only shoot one night a month, on the night of the new moon. For example, if the galactic center is positioned correctly shortly after it rises in the evening and the moon doesn’t rise until midnight, you’re good to go. Similarly, if the galactic center is in the right position two hours before sunrise and the moon sets at midnight, you’re golden.
Fourth, plan to shoot between astronomical dusk and astronomical dawn, the period when the sun is 18 degrees or more below the horizon and the sky is as dark as it’s going to get. At the mid-latitudes, astronomical dusk occurs between an hour and a half and two hours after sunset, depending on the time of year; astronomical dawn occurs the same amount of time before sunrise. The Photographer’s Ephemeris (iOS, Android and desktop), PhotoPills (iOS and Android) and Sun Surveyor (iOS and Android), among other apps, provide information on the times of astronomical dusk and dawn.
To be most photogenic, the galactic center should be 10 degrees or more above the horizon. The sky is always brightest at the horizon, even at night. It gets darker as you look higher in the sky. By shooting when the galactic center has an altitude of 10 degrees or more, you can make this relatively dim object pop against a dark background.
As I mentioned above, the angle of rising and setting of the galactic center is fixed at any particular location, but the time of rising and setting varies throughout the year. The galactic center is only 10 degrees or more above the horizon during the period between astronomical dusk and dawn for certain months of the year. In Colorado and Utah, for example, the Milky Way season extends from about March 1 to Oct. 1. Note that on March 1, you’ll only have about 45 minutes to an hour between the time when the galactic center rises above 10 degrees and astronomical dawn. On Oct. 1, you have about the same amount of time between astronomical dusk and the time when the galactic center sets below 10 degrees. There’s a two-week shoulder season on either side of those dates when the window of opportunity is shorter, but you can still get a few shots if you’re quick.
The direction of the galactic center and the best time of night to shoot varies by season. In the spring, at mid-northern latitudes, you’ll want to shoot right before astronomical dawn, when the galactic center is rising to the southeast. In mid-summer, you can shoot for most of the night, looking southeast at astronomical dusk, south around midnight, and southwest at astronomical dawn. In the fall, you can only shoot the galactic center if you’re looking southwest just after astronomical dusk.
The Milky Way season is longer as you go south and shorter as you go north. For example, in Big Bend National Park, Texas, the Milky Way season runs from about Feb. 15 to Oct. 15—about a month longer, total, than in Colorado. In Fairbanks, Alaska, the galactic center never rises. That doesn’t mean you can’t shoot the Milky Way in Fairbanks, but it does mean you can’t shoot the most photogenic part of it. Rather than trying to memorize all these times, dates and azimuths, refer to the iOS version of the Photographer’s Ephemeris or Sun Surveyor (iOS or Android) for detailed data on the position of the galactic center.
So far I’ve been discussing single-camera-position shots of the Milky Way in which the galactic center is the main celestial subject. The geometry is different if you want to shoot the full arc of the Milky Way as it stretches from horizon to horizon. For these shots, you’ll want to be looking east during the new moon periods in April, May and June. In those months, at the right time of night, the highest point of the Milky Way arch will be about 30 to 45 degrees above the horizon and roughly east when the galactic center is 10 degrees or more above the horizon. In July and later, the top of the Milky Way arch is so high above the horizon by the time it gets dark enough to see it that it becomes difficult to shoot. Sun Surveyor offers data on the direction and altitude of the highest point of the arch, making it invaluable in planning that kind of shot. The full Milky Way arch is an immense subject in an angular sense, with the left limb of the arch intersecting the horizon to the north and the right limb intersecting the horizon to the south-southeast. To capture the full arc, you’ll need to shoot a stitched panorama.
Here are two examples of how you can put this information to work. I’ve chosen locations that are close to the road and offer a long window of opportunity for making an excellent image.
The view of Longs Peak, Pagoda Mountain and Chiefs Head Peak from Bear Lake is one of the scenic climaxes in Rocky Mountain National Park. The bearing of Longs Peak from Bear Lake is 158 degrees. You’ll want to shoot when the galactic center is to the right of Longs Peak so that the Milky Way arcs up and over the peak. If you want a reflection, you’ll also need to wait until the lake thaws, which usually occurs by early June. Single-camera-position images work well with the galactic center at an azimuth of 167 degrees or greater. On June 15, for example, the galactic center reaches an azimuth of 167 degrees and altitude of 20 degrees at 12:18 a.m. This is the earliest time of year, and the earliest time of night, to shoot a well-composed single-camera-position image that includes a reflection. As the season progresses, you can make the same shot earlier in the evening. For example, Sun Surveyor shows that the galactic center will be in the same position at 10:18 p.m. on July 11. Stitched panoramas such as Milky Way over Bear Lake with the galactic center at an azimuth of 206 degrees and altitude of 16 degrees are feasible at some time during the night from June 25 until the end of the Milky Way season.
Utah’s Goblin Valley State Park bills itself as one of the darkest locations on the planet. It’s a great place to shoot the Milky Way at any time during the season, but it’s particularly appealing in April, May and June, the best months for shooting the complete arch of the Milky Way. To make my image Milky Way Panorama over Goblin Valley, I first used Sun Surveyor to determine the azimuth of the galactic center when its altitude reached 10 degrees on April 2, my shooting date—140 degrees at 3:20 a.m. Sun Surveyor also told me that the altitude of the highest point of the Milky Way arch would be 26 degrees, with an azimuth of 71 degrees. That put the left-hand end of the Milky Way arch at an azimuth of about 2 degrees—essentially, true north. In daylight, I wandered around among the bizarre hoodoos dotting the floor of Goblin Valley with a compass in my hand until I found a location where the galactic center would fall between two interesting goblins and the rest of the Milky Way would arch over more sandstone spires. I returned that night and shot the image as a stitched panorama.
Nighttime landscapes, even more than daylight ones, benefit from careful planning. Master the techniques described here, and you’ll soon be making stunning Milky Way images.
The Basics of Shooting the Milky Way
The easiest way to shoot the Milky Way is to use an ultra-wide-angle lens with a fast maximum aperture. A 16-35mm or 14-24mm f/2.8 is ideal. Set the lens to its shortest focal length. Focus at infinity in daylight if possible, then tape the lens to secure the focus ring; if you can’t focus in daylight, you’ll have to use Live View, magnified to 10x, to focus manually on a bright star or planet. An exposure of 30 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 6400 will give you a bright Milky Way straight out of the camera, without having to adjust exposure in software. Some cameras will deliver less noise if you lower the ISO, then increase exposure in software. Test yours before committing to this technique for an entire shoot.
If your focal length is 16mm or shorter, a 30-second exposure will render stars as reasonably round in a normal-size print. (The stars will be rendered as short streaks if you view the image at 100 percent.) I use a daylight white balance to preserve star colors, then shift the color of the sky toward blue in Lightroom. If you want good detail in the land, you’ll probably need to shoot a second exposure that is about two stops brighter than the sky exposure. I typically use 2 minutes, f/2.8, ISO 6400. You’ll need Photoshop to combine the two images using layers and layer masks.
Composition is a matter of guess-and-check. Shoot a test frame, check the composition on your LCD, adjust the tripod head and test again. I turn off in-camera long-exposure noise reduction (helpful but time-consuming) and high-ISO noise reduction (ignored by all software except the camera manufacturer’s), and reduce noise in Lightroom. Newer cameras generally produce less noise than older ones, so bring the newest model you have.
A solid tripod is a must. An intervalometer, which allows exposures longer than 30 seconds, is helpful. A red headlamp that can be set to a very dim output will help preserve your night vision. A companion will increase safety and reduce the irrational but all-too-human fear of things that go bump in the night. Scouting your shooting location in daylight will make it easier to achieve the best composition when you return at night.