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How to take Milky Way photos: experience from our trip to Turkey

Around 7 years ago I bought myself my first DSLR camera. If I remember correctly it was Canon 400D. Then after some 4 years later I switched to a Nikon d5100. The difference was astonishing; especially the light sensitivity difference between cameras was huge. However some months back I bought my first full-frame DSLR camera – Nikon d610. Currently I try to get used to this camera – everything is new to me. I also switched to a manual lens (Nikon 28 mm f/2.8), so each photo I take now is a challenge for me. I'm not an everyday photographer – most of the pictures I take on my domestic or international travels.

In the context of my previous post – a trip review to Turkey I wanted to add a separate paragraph on taking photos on my last trip. Usually on our travels we are quite tight regarding the weight of our baggage. It is why I have to choose a universal lens and nothing more. For the trip to Turkey I had my new Nikon D610 and the mentioned Nikon 28mm f/2.8 lens + a 50 mm f/1.8 lens. At the beginning of the trip I was really struggling with all the variety of settings on Nikon D610 and especially with the manual lens. All the time I was picking up the wrong exposure times or the wrong ISO's, or even my manual focusing was out of sharpness. All after my new lens didn't have automatic stabilization. But all of those factors didn't matter just because of one evening for which I've been waiting quite a long time. Since I started making photos I was always willing to capture Milky Way on my photo. Canon 400D was a great camera, but almost couldn't capture that (even with very long exposures and almost no light pollution). Nikon d5100 was a bit better in this respect – I managed to get some blurry (because of the very long exposure the stars were starting to "rotate") pictures of Milky Way in the middle of nowhere in Iceland.

However now, somewhere in the south of Turkey I managed to find clear skies, a distant place away from light pollution (not 100%, but enough for the results I was hoping to see in the end) and I had all the items needed for a good shot of a Milky Way:

·         A camera with great light sensitivity (3200 or higher ISO);

·         A tripod;

·         Lens with a large aperture (at least f/2.8);

·         Clear sky and a location away from city lights;

·         And my wife Anna who would carry the flashlight. J   

 These are results I got:

This is a particularly interesting photo. In the right part of the image you can see a dotted line – that's an airplane that was crossing the sky at the moment of my long exposure. :)

There are different ways of achieving a good night-sky photo (and the main of them is – practice), but I suppose the main suggestions would be:
1) Keep the settings in manual, so you can adjust exposure time, ISO and aperture;
2) Set focus to manual and infinity (the automatic focus won't catch the stars J), however check how to reach the infinity setting on your lens before going out into the dark;
3) Choose a lens with a high aperture – f/2.8 or higher (remember – higher aperture means lower number);
4) Put your camera in a lagged shooting mode (or a use a remote shutter release) – otherwise you'll shake the camera by pressing the button;
5) White balance: this is another thing you need to think of, but is more a personal preference – some like to shoot in daylight WB, some in incandescent WB, but some even in fluorescent WB. However if you shoot in RAW (which I suggest you do) you can adjust WB in post-processing.
6) Exposure time: it differs depending on various factors – your camera's light sensitivity, sky clearness etc., but for the starting point I would go with 20-22 seconds and adjust if needed;
7) The art of Milky Way photo definitely is in finding the right exposure time vs. ISO. It is easy to get a shot of the stars at ISO 6400 and 15 seconds. However in post-processing you'll see quite a lot of noise. So I would suggest to stick to ISO 3200 (or something in between) and longer exposure time. In that case there is a chance that you'll get a low-noise photo which is good for post-processing. However – try yourself different settings; successful pictures can be taken with different settings depending on the differences in the shooting environment.
In the post-processing you don't have to do much. Increase a bit contrast, highlights, shadows and whites. Look if there is a need for a decrease in blacks – that can give additional contrast. In the end try to lower the noise level and adjust the white balance. However the general tip is – don't overdo. Internet is full of comics-style Milky Way photos which have been clearly overdone and don't remind you of the original place.
P.s. Be careful when shooting in the darkness. By taking these photos I accidently hit my tripod with my brand new camera on it. The tripod fell down (I was trying to catch it in the dark but missed...) and we could only hear an unpleasant metallic sound. For a while I thought that the camera will be dead, but I was lucky enough – the camera fell with the front and now I have a large dent on my metallic lens-hood reminding me of the necessity for a nice, sturdy tripod... :)

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  1. Uz šo brīdi nav tādas Nikon D650 kameras. ):

    1. Paldies par komentāru/labojumu. Nezinu kāpēc man pēkšņi uznāca apmātība ar 650 :D Protams, ka d610. Dienā, kad rakstīju šo daudz operēju ar skaitļiem, acīmredzot kaut kas nojuka :)

  2. Very cool experiments buddy, why didn't you tried ISO 100?
    Although I have find that higher ISO can result in pretty decent pictures as well, and yours are great one. Thanks for sharing tips on Milky Way photography!

  3. Hey, Reinis!

    Thanks for your comment! :)

    The reason why I stick to high ISO figures is that by lowering the ISO you have to compensate that by making your exposure time longer. In a still image that wouldn't be a problem, but in case of star photography on exposures longer than approx. 25 sec. you'll experience phenomena called "star trailing". The earth is moving, and the stars will start to leave prolonged marks in the photo. So you have to find the right balance for your camera between exposure time, ISO and aperture. On the other hand, if you'll have ISO 100 and a really long exposure (above 15 minutes), you can get really artistic pictures of star trailing. :)

  4. Wow, buddy - I had to wait about 10 months to get your response (blogger is not your best friend - in term of user notifications). I was actually doing a google search for my name - yes I know - lame, but we all do once in a while - and then your blog popped again.. ha ha - it took about 10 months to receive your reply!

    Anyway - cool Igor, very cool - star trail photography rocks - have done few and will definitely do more this fall/winter.

    Will check back for a reply - next year (Ha, HA)


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