What you will need for Dark Sky Photography:
This light pollution map: light pollution map
Camera – You will need a camera that you can manually control your ISO, shutter speed, and aperture.
Lens – A fast wide-angle lens of 1.4 – 2.8 is ideal. If you use a 3.5 or higher (slower lens), you will have to increase the ISO. The higher the ISO, the more grain or digital noise or grain that will appear in your photos. Nikon’s 28mm f/1.8G or Canon’s 28mm f/1.8 are good choices if you are going lens shopping for your night photography trip.
Tripod – A good sturdy tripod is essential for night photography. If it gets windy, you will need a sturdy one, and we never know what Mother Nature will bring us while we are out there. Keep that in mind when you buy one to go in your suitcase if you are going on a plane. It should be sturdy enough to withstand the wind but small enough to fit in your suitcase.
Sky Map – Sky Guide is available through the iTunes Store for $1.99. It has a 5 out of 5-star rating on both the current (3.2) version (1200+ ratings) and all previous versions (8600+ ratings). Android Version? Sky Guide is not currently available as an Android app. The closest thing I can suggest is SkySafari ($2.99).
Flashlight – Our choice is Coast brand for flashlights. The ideal flashlight will have high lumens and you will be able to zoom the in and out on the amount of light emitting from the flashlight. I like a small stream of light, not a wide amount of light. That was I can be specific as to what exactly I want to paint with light. Get the HP7, PX45, or the G50. Ideally, go with the HP7 if you can.
Light Pollution and Moon Phaze Map – The best time to go is during a new moon and you want to be in the darkest area possible.
Remote Shutter Release – When painting with light and you want to go over a 30-second exposure, you must have a shutter release to use your bulb mode. When exposing your pictures in general, you can use the remote release, so you are not using your hand to press the shutter button and make the camera move even a little bit. Without one easily use your 2-second timer.
Step by Step Dark Sky and Milk Way Photography
Manual Mode – Set your camera to manual mode so you can control the Aperture and the shutter speed.
ISO – Start with ISO 100 or 50, your lowest aperture when the milky way is not involved in your image. This is just a standard starting point, and you will adjust from here. Remember the higher the ISO the more digital noise you will have. NYC skyline pictures have enough light always use the lowest ISO, but when you need to expose the milky way your starting point should be about 1600, then adjust. Again, the lower the ISO the better the quality of the image when shooting in the dark.
The depth of field isn’t critical on these shots but letting the light in the camera is; therefore you shoot wide open. (The lowest aperture your camera will allow). A lens that goes very low such as a 2.8 is very important.
Now that you have the ISO and Aperture set in Manual Mode roll your shutter speed until your meter reads (0) zero. Take a test shot and adjust from there.
Remember, the earth is rotating. If you leave the shutter open for too long, you will see star trails which will not make for a crisp image. You can make star trails specifically but that’s not what we are going for here since we are starting out with Milky Way photography. We want crisp non-star trail images when doing this. Here is the formula to avoid star trails. The 500 rule – Divide 500 by the focal length of your lens. So, if you have a 24mm lens on a full-frame camera, you will set your shutter speed to 20 sec. (500/24 = 20.83). If you are using a crop sensor camera, first do the math of the crop sensor to find the focal length. Cannon is 1.6, Nikon is 1.5. Convert to full frame focal length then use the formula. Nikon 18mm x 1.5= 27mm – 500/27 = 18.51 seconds.
Shoot your night photography raw so you can easily edit your images and have more information to work with than if you shot JPEG. When in live view mode you can change your white balance settings and see which looks best for you on each shot. You can shoot in shade or cloud as a standard setting and adjust things later. Add in color in your milky way to match the subject whilst editing in the image then if you would like to also.
Those are all of the essential starting points for doing your Milky Way shots. You will want to find some interesting foreground to make your shot dynamic. Doing everyday old Milky Way shots will not win you any awards.