The Sky’s the Limit: Top Tips to Capturing the Milky Way
We’ve all looked upon the night sky and felt that starry sense of wonder and awe, yet capturing this feeling with a camera is no easy feat. Photographer David Magro shares everything from ideal conditions for a Milky Way shoot, to composition techniques that will help you do the night sky justice.
Growing up in the small country town of Glen Innes, David Magro’s fascination with deep space began early in life, spending nights watching meteor showers, eclipses and stars from his backyard, with no city lights to obstruct his view.
“I’m now lucky enough to find myself traveling all around Australia, teaching Milky Way Landscapes to beginners and enthusiasts, and showing them how to best capture the stars.”
David shares some of his top tips in Milky Way photography, and how you too can capture awe inspiring images of the night sky.
LIGHT POLLUTION ISN’T A DEAL BREAKER
A common misconception with Milky Way Landscapes is that light pollution should be completely avoided to capture the night sky with perfect clarity.
However, opportunities to travel far and wide to dark sky locations is not always feasible, and there are many locations within distance of your home offering great subject interests that can be captured under the stars.
David says wherever there is an interesting foreground subject, he will shoot the Milky Way regardless of light pollution conditions. He’s even photographed the Milky Way with the Sydney Opera House, and in the middle of Bendigo at the Sacred Heart Cathedral.
“The most interesting and relatable landscapes are close to cities and offer good conditions to shoot the night sky,” he says. “As long as there is no direct light such as street lights, you can photograph the Milky Way.”
In these conditions, David uses a 14mm lens, shooting 15″, f/2.8 with an ISO 12800 or 16000.
“This produces a substantial amount of noise, however with stacking I will capture multiple images to remove the unwanted noise,” he says. “I generally use these settings for open starlit skies, making slight adjustments based on the shooting location.”
RESEARCH THE MILKY WAY’S POSITION
Planning is essential to Milky Way landscape photography in order to scope foreground interests that will add depth to your shot, whilst making sure they will align with the night sky.
David recommends using online tools in advance of a shoot. “Using stellarium-web.org or other Mobile apps you can see the Milky Way’s position on any date and know if it will face east, west or directly above you.
“You can then search with Google Maps along the coastline, looking for lakes, rock formations, public reserves, old churches, waterfalls, jetties, and other interesting foreground subjects to photograph alongside the Milky Way,” he says.
Once he has a location in mind, David will scout during the day to look at the positioning of both subjects and plan how he will capture the landscape in alignment with the stars.
COMPOSITION IS KEY
For a pleasant viewing experience, a well- composed and balanced image will help guide your audience in your photograph.
David’s most commonly used composition technique is to align both the foreground subject with the Milky Way centrally with ‘empty’ space surrounding his subjects.
“This ensures the viewer understands what they are seeing easily without distractions on the sides of the photo – think of it as framing your subjects,” he says.
“For example, if you were photographing a rock formation at a beach with the Milky Way, place the Milky Way and rock in the centre frame, with water and other stars on the edges of the frame with a good amount of spacing.”
It’s also important to take this into account when cropping your final image, in order to balance the ‘mass’ of subjects in the image against ‘empty’ space.
WHAT’S IN THE TRAVEL KIT?
Capturing Milky Way landscapes is challenging, and with limited opportunities it’s essential to have a fool-proof workflow in place to keep your files safe.
“I carry 6 SanDisk Extreme SD cards and various portable SSDs with me to guarantee I go home with my photographs after long weeks and nights out shooting the stars.
“I also bring 3 tripods and 2 flashlights to ensure I am prepared for all situations, as I can be in remote areas a long way from home,” says David.
After every session, David then transfers his files to an SSD in a labeled and hyper- organised set of folders dedicated for that particular shoot. First by year, then month, location, and finally folders labeled as either a panorama, stack, time lapse or star trail.
“Organizing my storage saves me a lot of time finding images without searching random folders. I do this after each shoot on the go so I’m always staying on top of storing my photographs,” he says.
David Magro is an industy-leading Milky Way Landscape photographer with over 10 years’ experience. A Multi award winning Milky Way Photographer, Educator and NFT Artist.
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