A perfect night for Milky Way Photography – How to get the shot?

October 5, 2017 Brian Leary

If you are a regular reader, you will recognize this photograph above from my last article. I had just made the best out of a cloudless sunset at Mono Lake, a location known for it’s stunning cloud formations, only to be left with a perfect night for Milky Way photography. Normally I like a slight crescent moon to help illuminate the foreground in my night landscape photography. On this moonless night though I was left using my headlamp to fill in the otherwise silhouetted foreground to create the photograph you see above.

© Brian Leary, Sony A7S ii, ZEISS Loxia 2.8/21, f/2.8, 25 sec., ISO 8000

After the golden hour you enter a period known at blue hour. This is essentially twilight. There are three phases to this time after the sunset until total darkness. They are civil twilight, nautical twilight and astronomical twilight. You can think of it more as when it’s dark on the ground, when it’s dark over the open waters and when it is truly dark in the sky. The dense part of the Milky Way that we are often trying to capture in our photos is known as the galactic center. Earth is on the outside of the spiral that makes up our galaxy and that bright and colorful area is the direction facing the center of our galaxy where most of the stars are contained.  You don’t see the Milky Way at its brightest until you’ve entered astronomical twilight. Also, the lager the moon, the less bright the Milky Way will appear in your photos. The image above was taken after nautical twilight, but before full astronomical twilight. Because of this there was still some light in the atmosphere helping to illuminate the tufas (rock formations) in the foreground and you can see a slight blush of the sunset lingering on the horizon. The part of the Milky Way in this picture is not the galactic center. There is still a pronounced stripe of stars relative to the rest of the sky, but nowhere near as dramatic and impactful as the galactic center.


© Brian Leary, Sony A7S ii, ZEISS Loxia 2.8/21, f/2.8, 30 sec., ISO 10000

The next night I had similar conditions, and my camp spot just outside of Great Basin National Park put the galactic center just over my car before I went to sleep. Had I used a light like the previous night to illuminate the foreground, it would of reflected off the cars lights causing glares and hot spots. Instead I used the ridiculous ISO capabilities of my Sony A7s MK2 to capture the foreground detail at ISO 10000. As you can imagine, focusing under such low light conditions can be a pain. Auto focus lenses often don’t have enough contrast to accurately achieve focus. I will occasionally set up a flashlight or a phone and try to auto focus on that, but nothing is more frustrating than not being able to consistently achieve sharp images in the field, especially when each exposure takes seconds or minutes. I personally use the Loxia line of lenses on my Sony and the Milvus lenses on my Nikon because of the ease of setting up focus in a landscape scenario.

Let me show you what I mean. By using the distance scale built into the lens, you can be confident that your subject is in focus. If you have a nice little bush or rock that is about 3ft or 1m away that you want in the foreground, how do you know if it is in focus or not at a given aperture? In photography, as you select a higher aperture number, the area in focus grows. This area that is reasonably sharp and in focus in your image is known as the depth of field – the higher the aperture, the greater or deeper the depth of field. If you take an autofocus lens and focus on the horizon, it is like you have taken a manual focus lens and rotated the focus until the little infinity symbol is directly over the center mark (see top photo on the left). By using the scale on the lens you can see that at f11, everything from just inside 4 feet (1.3m) through infinity is currently in focus. Here, your little bush or rock would be just out of focus causing you endless torture every time you see this image in your filmstrip. If you were to use the 11’s on both sides of the center mark as a bracket (see bottom photo on left), they will show you what is known as your hyperfocal distance. The auto focus Batis line of lenses for the Sony e-mount use an OLED display that is subtly lit in the dark to give you this same focus information.

© Brian Leary, Nikon D800E, ZEISS Classic 3.5/18 ZF.2, f/3.5, 30 sec., ISO 3200

By using these markings on the lens, I knew with confidence that the rock on the bottom left would be just as sharp as the arch and stars in the background of the image to the left. This method works well for landscapes both day and night, but it is not limited to pictures that contain rocks and bushes. As long as you are looking to have everything to the horizon in focus, you can set your hyperfocal distance and head out for some street photography. It is amazing how much more you notice happening in the world around you when you aren’t fidgeting with your focus all the time. These days if you peer into my toy chest, you would see that I use 3 different systems. Each one for me is like a different tool with a different application. Despite the fact that I own some phenomenal zooms, I find that fixed focal length, manual focus lenses are still what I gravitate towards the most. Between the ease of focus and reliably knowing what you are going to get, I don’t see that changing anytime soon. The fact that Zeiss makes lenses for so many mounts means that the signature look that defines their lenses can be used on each of my cameras, regardless of manufacturer; and makes them a pretty clear choice for me.

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