How to photograph The Milky Way

When you get to see The Milky Way on a clear, dark night it is a sight to behold, for sure.  You will want to make sure if you get the chance to see and photograph it you are prepared and come away with a great image. 

First of all, it helps to be in a very dark area, away from most of the light pollution caused by many city lights.  This usually means a spot far away from any city lights. There are a few website out there that will help you when finding a darker location.  One of those sites is called Dark Sky Finder.  Another thing to consider when shooting The Milky Way is the moon phase.  If the moon is over half full it will be difficult for the sky to become dark enough to see The Milky Way.  Also, check the moonset times.  The sooner the moon sets, the sooner the sky becomes darker.

So, after you establish a nice, dark shooting location, you'll want to nail down your camera settings.  A lot of people think this is difficult, but that couldn't be further from the truth.  You will need to put your camera in Manual Mode.  Set your aperture wide open.  If your lens is a F/2.8 lens, you'll want to shoot it at F/2.8.  Then set your shutter speed to 30 seconds.  ISO is typically set to a high value.  I leave my aperture and shutter speed the same and then I use ISO to adjust my image's brightness.  Let me explain.  If I take a shot at F/2.8, 30 seconds and ISO 3200 and then I check my LCD and the image appears too dark, I'll bump my ISO up to 6400.  If the image looks too bright, then I'll crank my ISO down to 1600.  It's pretty simple if you think of it in a way that the only variable that will be changing is your ISO. 

OK, you've got The Milky Way captured on a nice RAW image...you are shooting RAW, right?   What's the best way to process it.  Well, there is no right or wrong answer here.  However, there is an easy answer!  If you use Adobe Lightroom, that is.  There is a photographer named Dave Morrow that does wonderful Milky Way Photography.  He has also created some Lightroom Presets that are available for purchase here.  I processed both of the images on this post using Dave's presets.  I highly recommend them and they are only $5.00 for 48 different presets.  That's a good deal!  It also allows you, in some cases, have a one click processing job.  In other cases, it gives you a great starting point from which you can create your own vision.  I hope this helps when you decide to go out and shoot The Milky Way for yourself.