Milky Way over Clingmans Dome

Last week during a trip to the smokies with a few friends, we had the opportunity to photograph the milky way.  The weather was clear, there was very little moon, and it didn't even rise until after the milky way was to set anyway.  The weather was cooperating, so we just needed a place to shoot it.

After consulting my PhotoPills app and considering a few other places, we decided to try our luck at Clingmans Dome.  There isn't much as far as interesting foreground elements go in the parking lot there, so we decided to make the walk up to the observation tower and use that as a foreground element.  That walk, by the way, is not very fat friendly.  It is only about a half mile, but has an elevation gain of 331 feet.  That probably doesn't sound too bad reading it, but after a 1/4 of the way your thighs will let you know how bad it actually is.  We also did this at 3:00 AM.

We shot a few images at the base of the observation tower then one of my friends and I decided to walk up to the top of the tower to get above the trees and see how the compositions would look.  I'm sure glad we did.  Although the images from the base of the tower were great, what you could see from the top was incredible!  

You could not fit the milky way into the frame, even at 15mm, so this is a 6 shot panoramic image.  This was taken just minutes before the galactic center was to disappear behind the horizon. This was the first image I processed from my trip once I returned home.  I knew it looked pretty good on the camera's LCD, but I was just hoping it lined up and stitched together OK.  Lightroom Classic had no issues stitching the images.  I made sure to overlap each image by about 25% or so.  I'm pretty happy with the way this one turned out.

Equipment list: Nikon D850, Tamron SP 15-30 F/2.8 Di VC USD, Sirui Tripod and K-40 Ballhead

EXIF Info: Manual exposure, 30 sec, f/2.8, ISO 1600, 17mm

 

Milky Way at The Bonsai Tree

I've been out in Utah for a few days now in Zion National Park.  The focus of the trip here was primarily night skies...and the conditions are perfect for it!

Here's an image of the milky way from the first scene we stopped to shoot it at.  I'm not sure this area even has a name, but we have called it "the bonsai tree".  This little tree hanging off the side of this boulder makes for a good image anytime, but when the milky way rises in the valley between the two "mountains", it is a sight to see!

Manual Exposure Mode, 30 seconds, F/2.8, ISO 3200, 15mm

Photographing the milky way is super easy!  The hardest part is doing the research to figure out the time and position of it in relation to your subject.  The camera settings are easy...manual mode, 30 second shutter speed, ISO 3200 and set your aperture as wide open as your lens will allow.

This image was made with my Canon 5D III and Tamron 15-30mm Lens.  All resting atop my Sirui N-3204X and K-30 Ballhead.

Milky Way at Two Mile

The conditions for astro photography were prime while we were doing our workshops in Apalachicola, FL a few weeks ago.

There was no moon for a few days and the other days it was so minimal and it set so soon that it didn't effect us for getting great shots of The Milky Way.

We knew the conditions were right, we just had to find a spot to do it.  I suggested we try this place in Apalachicola called Two Mile.  I didn't know exactly how the milky way would line up there, but I knew there were abandoned boats in either direction you looked, so I knew we had a good solid foreground that wouldn't move.  Now, to just figure out where The Milky Way would line up in relation to either one of those boats.  I left that part up to my teaching partner, David Akoubian.  Once he figured out where The Milky Way's location was we saw that it lined up directly behind one of the abandoned boats.  Score!

Now, all we had to do was dial in our camera settings.  This is the simplest part!  We set our cameras on Manual Exposure mode and our Lenses on Manual Focus Mode.  We set our cameras to an ISO of anywhere from 1600-3200, out aperture as wide open as our lens would allow, in my case F/2.8 and our shutter speed to 30 seconds.  Then we focused our lenses all the way to infinity and pulled them back just a touch.  We brought a long flashlights to light of the foreground so everyone could get their composition set and we just fired off the shutters together.

ISO 1600, 24mm, F/2.8 @ 30 seconds

I made this milky way image using my Sony A7R II, LA-EA3 Lens Adapter and Tamron 24-70mm Lens.  All mounted a top my Sirui W-2204 Tripod.  

I was excited to see how excited the workshop attendees were when they saw their camera's LCDs light up with the image they just captured.  The next day we showed them how to process those milky way images in Lightroom.  Some of the students were pumping out some amazing images!  A few of them went out the next few nights on their own to capture more milky way shots.  That's what it is all about...we want to show you how to create great images and give you the tools to go out and do it on your own when you are back home and not with the group.  Mission accomplished!

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.