A Photographer’s Guide to the Milky Way

It’s January… the nights are long, the sky is crisp and dark– so why can’t you see the Milky Way very well, much less get those amazing shots you see online?  This tutorial will help teach you everything you need to know about when and where to view our galactic home.  Let’s dive in.

Milky-Way-Core-Andrew-Rhodes

Understanding the Geometry of the Galaxy

The Milky Way is a disk-shaped structure, centered around a bar-shaped ‘core’ near the center.  This is the region you typically see featured in the dramatic astrophotography images that have become popular in recent years, as powerful low-ISO consumer DSLRs have made their way into consumers’ hands.  Because of its disk shape, the Milky Way appears as a faint milky-colored band, approximately 30 degrees wide, arching across the sky at just about all times (but visible only at night).

Our Solar System is located in one of the outer arms of the Milky Way, as shown below in this NASA illustration (click to enlarge).

Milky_Way_Annotated

The plane of our solar system is at an approximately 63 degree angle to the galactic plane.  So what does that mean and why is it useful?  It means that objects in our Solar System are rotating at almost a perpendicular angle compared to the angle of rotation of all the objects in the Milky Way as a whole (including our Solar System).  Practically, this means that the Milky Way will appear at different angles in our night sky depending on both the time of night and time of year.

Geometry-of-Milky-Way-Galactic-Plane-by-Andrew-Rhodes

The geometry of the galaxy brings up several important points.

First, since our Solar System is not positioned in the Milky Way core, that means the core only forms a small part of the overall view from Earth.  As our gaze moves away from the core (in either direction), the Milky Way begins to fade, since there are fewer visible stars to brighten the band.

The second, and perhaps the most important consideration, is Earth’s relative position to the Sun.  Since the Earth rotates around the Sun every 365 days, that means that during part of the year, our view of the galactic core is blocked by the Sun.  In other words, the core is only above the horizon during daylight hours for a certain part of the year.  So when is this? In the Northern Hemisphere, the core is not visible in most of November, December, January, and the first half of February.  On the flip side, this means the best time for viewing is from late May to early August.

Milky-Way-Core-View-From-Earth-by-Andrew-Rhodes

Time of Night, Location and Seasonal Factors

Now that you understand the concepts behind the Earth’s orbit around the Sun and the visibility of the core, it follows that the core is only visible at certain times of night during its visible months.  In mid-February, for example, the core becomes visible in the pre-dawn hours just before sunrise, and remains above the horizon during daylight hours.  Gradually, the core becomes visible for longer and longer each night, peaking in June & July when it is on the exact opposite side of the Earth as the Sun.  During this time of year, the core will be viewable all night, with it being at its highest point in the sky around midnight.  From July on, the cycle goes in the opposite direction, as core visibility begins to decrease and optimal viewing time moves towards after dusk, until it disappears from our field of view again in the winter months.

The following image depicts the night sky field of view at peak viewing in mid-summer in the Northern Hemisphere.

Milky-Way-Visibility-by-Month-Andrew-Rhodes

Viewing Location

When discussing the visibility of the Milky Way, many people reference the hemisphere, but don’t explain how exactly this factors in.  The reason that your location in either the Northern or Southern Hemisphere matters is twofold.  First, the duration of daylight is different during the time of year when the Milky Way’s core is most visible.  The Southern Hemisphere has the built-in advantage of being in the middle of their winter (i.e. short days, long nights) when the core is most visible.  Meanwhile, the Northern Hemisphere is experiencing long days and short nights in its summer months, thereby limiting the available viewing (and photographing) time of the Milky Way’s most visible section.

Secondly, your view of the Milky Way is different based on your location as well.  The core of the Milky Way is approximately lined up with the constellation Sagittarius, which is situated at a declination of about -30 degrees.  This means that both Sagittarius and the Milky Way core are viewable directly overhead to those living at a latitude of -30 degrees.  For those of us in North America or Europe, at latitudes between 25 and 50 degrees, this means we will always see the galactic core rising up from the horizon in our southern sky.  Now this isn’t all bad news for Northern shooters, since this allows for the easier incorporation of the landscape into our shots, but it does offer some awesome views the further south you travel.

How to Find the Milky Way

Precisely lining up your shot is a matter of trial and error, but some general celestial landmarks will help you locate where you should be looking.  As a general rule, if you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, look towards the southern skies to see the galactic core.  This can be southeast (Spring), due south (Summer), or southwest (Fall) depending on the time of year.  As mentioned above, Sagittarius is found nearest the galactic core.  Here is a fantastic map of the Milky Way alongside every constellation by Richard Powell:

Don’t forget that in the winter months you can still see the Milky Way, just not the core.  You can use Orion and Gemini as reference points during these months (The Milky Way goes right between them), as well as Cassiopeia (all year), which cuts right across the faint milky arc at almost due North.

I highly recommend downloading both the Google Sky Map app to your phone for on the go reference, as well as downloading the incredible Stellarium program (free) to your laptop or desktop.  The latter allows you to preview the night sky at any given point in time, and is an essential utility when preparing for an astrophotogrpahy expedition.

Final Considerations: Moon Phase, Weather and Dark Skies

As if there weren’t enough factors to consider already, the phase of the moon and the weather are the final two pieces of the puzzle.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a free weekend in June, only to be cursed with a full moon or overcast sky.  Keep a moon phase calendar handy in your bookmarks or on your calendar, and know when the moon rises and sets each day.  You can usually find this information wherever you get your weather online.  It goes without saying that you want an almost completely clear sky for optimal star shooting, so keep an eye on the forecast during the days when the moon is not a factor and base your shooting around that.

Milky-Way-Core-Shenandoah-Andrew-RhodesFinally, if you’re new to astrophotography, learn where to find dark skies.  A handful of resources are available, but I prefer to use Jonathan Tomshine’s Dark Sky Finder website.  As you become a more experienced astrophotographer, you will find some favorite spots and learn some tricks to block out light pollution (i.e. shooting towards mountains or the ocean) as you go.

As to the equipment you need and settings to use?  That’s an entirely different discussion, and plenty of information exists online to assist.  As some general advice, I shoot with a Canon 6D that I can’t recommend enough, along with two f/2.8 L lenses (the 16-35 and 24-70).  A rock solid tripod is also a must (I use a Gitzo 2540 with a Really Right Stuff BH-55 ballhead).  Your exposure length should never exceed 30 seconds if you want sharp stars (15-20 sec is ideal), shoot wide open at f/2.8, and play with a variety of ISOs to get your ideal exposure (I’ve gone up to ISO 6400 using my 6D with great results).

I hope you’ve found this information useful, and feel free to drop me a message if you have any questions or comments about anything I’ve written!  If you get a chance, go check out my astro album:  andrewrhodesphoto.com/Portfolio/Astrophotography

-Andrew

Best Photography of 2013

I recently counted down my top 10 (err 11) photos of 2013 on Facebook, so I wanted to put together a blog post with the recap.  One of my resolutions for 2014 is to really take advantage of my blog and do a lot more posting, even if posts aren’t in depth or detailed as I’d like.  I’ve found that worrying about how long it will take to write a blog post, and then never doing it, has been the biggest reason I haven’t posted more in the past year.  Here’s to changing that!  Now to the pictures:

#10 – Tidal Basin Sunrise, Washington, DC, February 2, 2013

#9 – Assateague Pony, Assateague Island, MD, August 3, 2013

#8 – Cherry Blossom Sunrise, Washington, DC, April 10, 2013

#7 – Gargoyle of Notre Dame, Paris, France, June 9, 2013

Gargoyle

#6 – Iceland’s Majesty, Kirkjufell, Iceland, September 22, 2013

#5 – Into the Abyss, Richfield Pier, Ventura County, CA, October, 12, 2013

RinconPier

#4 – Over The Edge, Seljalandsfoss, Iceland, September 19, 2013

Seljallandsfoss

#3a – Capitol Spring, Washington, DC, April 13, 2013

Washington DC Spring Capitol Tulips

#3b – Valley of Gold, Shenandoah National Park, VA, February 24, 2013

#2 – Aurora Over Iceland, Kirkjufellsfoss, Iceland, September 23, 2013

#1 – Meteor in a Haystack, Delaplane, VA, August 15, 2013

 

Thanks for checking out my post, and I hope you enjoyed my best of 2013.  Vote for your favorite below!  I have so many more exciting photos to share with you from the past year, and the one to come, so be sure to follow along with my blog, Facebook page, and website.

Andrew

http://www.AndrewRhodesPhoto.com

http://www.facebook.com/AndrewRhodesPhoto

Back From Iceland and Post-Processing Away

Iceland-Glacier-Open-Road

 

It’s been a busy month so far, with the highlight being an incredible 8 day journey to Iceland in late September.  The sole purpose of my trip was to photograph Iceland’s immeasurable natural beauty, and on that note the trip was a resounding success.  The weather was fantastic, tourist activity was minimal, and I got one incredible night to shoot the Aurora.  I have a lot to write about Iceland in the coming months, but in the mean time, check out my Iceland Photography page on my website for the best photos of my trip so far.

Social media user? Connect with my photography on Flickr and Facebook.

DictionArt: A New Shop is Born

In the past few weeks, I opened a new Etsy shop where I offer an ever-expanding selection of Vintage Dictionary Art Prints.  My collection has started out with state and collegiate-themed prints, as well as vintage photos of animals, places, cocktails, and more.  Business is already taking off, but we’re only getting started.  Bookmark my site and come back often as I expand over the coming months!

Vintage Dictionary Art by Andrew Rhodes

-Andrew

Tidal Basin Sunrise Widescreen Edit Washington DC

Photographing DC: Tidal Basin Sunrise

Several months ago, I got up at 5:30 in the am and headed out for a frigid sunrise photoshoot downtown.  I wasn’t quite sure where I was headed, but I parked near the Tidal Basin and ended up across from the Jefferson Memorial just as a hint of light started appearing on the horizon.  This was only my second trek out since I got my new Gitzo GT2541 tripod and Really Right Stuff BH-55 ballhead, so I quickly assembled my support, and started adjusting my settings.

Setting up the Tidal Basin shoot by the early morning light

Setting up the Tidal Basin shoot by the early morning light

I almost always find myself shooting in Manual mode these days, especially when using a tripod.  Otherwise the camera will compensate for the low light with a high ISO and wide open aperture… exactly what you don’t want when you’re looking for tack sharp shots and have an excellent support system.  As usual, I wanted ISO 100 with an aperture of at least f/8.  If you’re not familiar with Manual settings, then the quick explanation is this… the lowest ISO gives you the least amount of noise, while the “sweet spot” for sharpness with most lenses falls around f/8 to f/11.  Even though I shoot with an EF 24-70 f/2.8 L lens, shooting at f/2.8 would give me way too shallow depth of field for a “tack sharp” landscape shot.  At any rate, the only variable left was shutter speed, and with a great tripod, that could be as long as I wanted.  All set up and ready to shoot.

Tidal Basin Sunrise. 1.6 sec @ f/7.1, ISO 100

Tidal Basin Sunrise Washington DC Jefferson Memorial

Sunrise over Washington DC and Jefferson Memorial, reflected in the Tidal Basin.

Washington Monument Sunrise. 1.0 sec @ f/18, ISO 100

Washington Monument Sunrise DC Tidal Basin

Sunrise over the Washington Monument as it reflects in the Tidal Basin.

Pinks. 1.0 sec @ f/13, ISO 100

Jefferson Memorial Sunrise Pink Sky Tidal Basin

A stunning pink and yellow sunrise behind the Jefferson Memorial.

Long Exposure.  Time to get out the 10 stop ND filter for a nice looooong shutter.  60 sec @ f/8.0, ISO 100

Tidal Basin Washington DC Long Exposure Sunrise

A 60 second long exposure with a to stop ND filter at the Tidal Basin.

Hope you enjoyed.  Looking to many more early morning trips out this year.  Now that you’re done reading, take a look at my complete Washington DC Photography gallery at my Andrew Rhodes Photography website.

The entire gallery for this shoot can be found at my Flickr account.

Thanks for reading!

Andrew