Photo Journal: Milky Way

I really wanted to try photographing the Milky Way, and during my vacation, I took the opportunity  to do so!

Milky Way Close

I used my D5300 with a 10.5mm fisheye lens. The F-stop was set at f/2.8, the widest aperture available, ISO 1600 with a shutter speed of 30 second. Of course, due to the low shutter speed, a tripod was required. But there is a lot of prior work required.

In order to see the Milky Way, you’ll first need to find an area with no or very little light pollution. You can basically forget about taking a photo of the Milky Way if you’re living in the city. You’ll need to drive out, quite a distance away in order to take the shot. There are two sites which you can use to do this: Light Pollution Map and Dark Site Finder. You’ll need to find as dark of a place as possible to ensure the best image quality you can get. I took the photo at Muir Beach Overlook about a 20-minute drive from San Francisco.

Additionally, I took about 15 shots in total with the camera placed on the tripod, without moving it. I then stacked these multiple shots in Photoshop (after post-processing with the same settings on Lightroom). When you use average stacking in Photoshop, you’ll find your long exposures (especially at higher ISO’s) come out better. This is because you’ll be able to eliminate some the ISO noise you create. The reason for this is that ISO noise is random, by nature. Taking averages of a random variable tend to give you its expected value – something that’s great for ISO noise reduction. Unfortunately, you can rarely do this, because your subject is usually in motion.

Speaking of which: the stars move too! Taking multiple long exposures and simply averaging them out will create star trails. So you’ll first have to align the images manually in Photoshop to ensure that the averaging works properly.

I wish I could tell you that there is a magical set of settings you could apply to Lightroom to instantly make the picture perfect. Unfortunately, there’s not. You’ll need to play with the exposure settings and other post-processing settings in Lightroom to make sure that you get a proper contrast between the stars and the night sky. I used the following settings:

Lightroom Settings

Final Result:
Milky Way Full

Taking multiple shots and then stacking them up in Photoshop was a lot harder than I thought, because you’ll need to do it manually to get the best results. Also, getting the right exposure settings in Lightroom is no easy task. You’ll have to play with saturation, vibrance and contrast sliders a lot. Then, you’ll have to mess a bit with the tone curve, and even then, you might not be happy with the results.

As you can see from the picture above, there is a lot of light pollution near the top of the photo. This is because the fisheye lens has a really wide angle of view (almost 180°). It means it can capture a lot. I pointed my camera straight up and it still managed to capture the light pollution from San Francisco, which goes to show you how sensitive Milky Way photography can really be.

This was my first time with long-exposure photography, and while the picture is not perfect, I think it is fine for a beginner, considering I didn’t really know what I was doing. I was mostly improvising by testing different exposure settings and trying to get the whole thing to work. But the learning experience I had with this was a valuable one (adjusting exposure settings in total darkness is pretty interesting) and I no doubt have benefited from it.

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