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5 steps to photograph the Milky Way

We all wonder about photographing the arms of the Milky Way galaxy from the Earth. It is not a very easy process. I would rather describe it as a lengthy and tedious one. We need to work very hard on and off the field to get a good image of the Milky Way. To photograph the night sky in general, its easier - set a minimum aperture, bump up the ISO, follow the 500/600 shutter rule and you are pretty much done. However, to capture details of the Milky Way core and other deep sky objects is a whole different game altogether. In this blog, I am jotting down 5 simple steps I have followed to click the Milky Way and its details.

Before I dive into the details, let me tell a bit about the location and the weather. I was at Dhotrey, a small village in Singalila range of North Bengal, not very far from the town of Darjeeling. The time was somewhere between 10 pm to about 2 am in the night, and the temperature was nearing 3-4 degrees Celsius. This was more or less the similar settings of what I have captured the Milky Way in. The above video has 2 clips, taken on consecutive nights. The first one shows the rise of the core above the town of Darjeeling (left) and some small villages of North Bengal. The second once is a direct timelapse of the Milky Way core with stars all around!

Now, lets break down two of my favorite images I have captured here. The process is same for both the images, consisting of 5 steps. They are:

  1. Research (on the position of the Milky Way as per the time of night)

  2. Choosing the right gear

  3. Clicking images

  4. Post-processing

  5. Publishing in web and/or printing

Lets take the help of two images I had clicked on my trip to demonstrate the same.

Image 1: The Scutum-Centaurus arm and the Carina-Sagittarius arm

Step 1: Research

I began with the background research as always. I checked the position of Dhotrey and the time and then looked at the virtual night sky in Stellarium, which is by far one of the most used software by night sky watchers. Here is a screenshot from the software during a research I did at home. It includes the latitude, longitude, date and time.

Screenshot from Stellarium

Step 2: Choosing the Gears

I use a Nikon D750. I first thought of using my Nikkor 10-20mm ultra wide lens but later on decided to stay in the Nikkor 24-120mm kit lens since the ultra wide lens would cause the arm to be too tiny, and include too much of foreground in case I am unable to get the composition correct. As usual for a night shoot, everything was mounted on a tripod. Also, the 24-120 lens comes with an infinity mark which is necessary for focusing.

Step 3: Capturing the Image

After setting up everything, it was time for getting the image as good as I can straight in my camera. I could not remove a couple of distracting wires in composing it, I later removed it in post. I turned my focus to manual, removed the VR from the lens, and focused to infinity using the mark on the lens. I tried some sample shots before the final one with varied exposure settings, I finally settled down to the following EXIF: 10 seconds, f/4, ISO 8000 at 24mm. Thus, I got this following RAW image out of my Nikon D750.

SOOC .NEF file from Nikon D750; 10 seconds, f/4, ISO 8000 at 24mm

Step 4: Post-processing

Well, the final SOOC (straight out of camera) image is not that much of a great deal, right? Obviously, because we have to compromise a lot while clicking images like this at night because of the lack of light. That is why we need to edit them. That is why we click in RAW. Now, to post-process:

4a. Adobe Camera Raw

In Adobe Camera Raw (you can also use Lightroom), I made some basic adjustments, cropped the image, got rid of the wires at bottom right and made some color corrections. One useful tip for editing images with high ISO is not to turn on profile corrections, else they will be causing a lot of patterns when you will be working with the noise and sharpness in post-processing. The image after Camera Raw editing looks like this.

The Image after Camera Raw adjustments

4b. Adobe Photoshop with The Pro Panel plugin

After Camera Raw adjustments, it is time to finally enhance the image in Photoshop. I use the Pro Panel plugin made by John Weatherby along with my Adobe Photoshop CC 2022 to edit night images. It is a very useful plugin for this sort of editing. I did some cleaning, enhanced the Milky Way, brightened the stars by using luminosity masks, enhanced the colors in the visible nebulae and clusters and then used a bit of my personal softening to give it an exclusive look. Also, I had to take care of the correct level of sharpness and noise reduction since the image was clicked at ISO 8000.

Step 5: Publish for web and print

After the image is ready, we need to set the resolution, color space and size required for web. This is something I use in general for all my images but I had to be extra cautious with the resolution while saving the image! The final image thus turns out to be pretty colorful, bright and catchy to the eyes!

The Final Milky Way Image

Done!!! My first Milky Way image from the trip is finally published! Now, coming to the second image, it is more or less same but for some techniques and some extra difficulties I had to face while shooting it. Let's have a look at the process of making the second image.

Image 2: The Clusters, Nebulae and Interstellar Clouds in the Sagittarius constellation

Step 1: Research

The background research went exactly the same as the previous image. I had a greater magnification in Stellarium and this is a screenshot of the same, along with the date and time.

Screenshot from Stellarium