Andrew here. Sometimes you don’t have to go as far away as you think to get something interesting.
I live a few minutes outside Washington D.C. For years, I’ve wanted to try my hand at photographing the night sky and Milky Way, but there’s far too much light pollution where I live. All my travels over the past few years have been to other urban areas or to remote areas that were completely clouded over at night (with the incredibly fortunate exception of our one aurora night in Iceland last March), so I’ve just never had a good opportunity to try to see the Milky Way.
This summer, a couple of my photographer friends decided to visit Shenandoah National Park in Virginia and came back with some great night sky shots. This past weekend, I joined them.
It was amazing to be less than two hours from D.C. and able to see the Milky Way with my naked eye. There was some city glow in the distance and some hazy fog along the horizon, but there was no question what I was seeing up above.
There are many websites with detailed guides to shooting the night sky, so I’m not going to try to recreate those here, but here are a few quick tips:
– Use a program like Stellarium to find out when you’ll have the Milky Way visible where you’ll be, and what the sun and moon cycles will be like to get good, dark skies.
– Scout ahead of time – having a clear view of the night sky is easy enough in most places, but if you want any other compositional elements (and just for safety) it’s good to scout out the area before it gets dark.
– Use a headlamp with a red filter to help you work in the dark. The red filter will help protect your night vision and the headlamp means you’ll have your hands free.
– You will, of course, need a good tripod and a wide aperture, wide angle lens for best results. That said, you can do some creative things with other lenses, so if you don’t have the “right” one, give it a go anyway.
– Finally, focus on a light in the far distance (or focus on something far away if it’s still light out) and lock your focus in place by turning off autofocus and taping your focus ring in place with gaffer’s tape. (I failed to do the latter part and it cost me a lot of shots when I apparently bumped the focus just slightly at some point.) Just racking the lens to infinity usually doesn’t quite get you where you need to be on most lenses.
For more details on planning your trip, Dave Morrow has a great three part tutorial on Youtube here. It’s very worth checking out if you’re planning your first shot at the Milky Way.
One last recommendation: Make sure to put the camera aside for a couple of minutes and appreciate what you’re seeing. At night, the curtain of the sky gets pulled back and lets you see the galaxy we live in. Realizing what you’re really looking at is a truly amazing experience once that sinks in. It’s hard to imagine a more inspiring vista than 200 billion stars spread out over 120,000 light years of space. What a view.
This image is not a composite — it is a single image shot using a timer delay. I composed, set the timer, ran out and tried to stand still for the 8 seconds of the exposure. As you might imagine, it took a few tries to get right, but I think it was well worth it.