Have you ever seen the Milky Way? It’s estimated that about 80% of Americans can’t see the arc of the spiral arms of our home galaxy anymore due to worsening light pollution, but that rarity is spurring an interest in searching it out—and capturing it on camera.
Travel photography blog Capture the Atlas has just published its 5th edition of its annual Milky Way Photographer of the Year, a collection of the best 25 photos of the Milky Way.
Here are 10 of the finest images from the competition, which includes images created in 12 countries, along with some commentary by Dan Zafra, editor of Capture the Atlas, who curates the competition.
Why is photographing the Milky Way so popular?
“Part of the excitement of photographing our galaxy is to capture a subject with plenty of details, colors, and textures which are not fully visible to the human eye,” said Zafra. “Our vision is very poor at night, we can see some light and dark nebulae but our vision hasn’t evolved to see colors or all the details that our cameras can capture.”
“Seeing our Milky Way photographed in the back of the camera screen is a very moving experience for most photographers, and the opportunity to see our MW in different positions and angles depending on the latitude and hemisphere makes it even more exciting.”
How to take a quick photo of the Milky Way
All of these images are painstakingly created using star-trackers and multiple exposures, but there are easier ways of doing it—though you do need a manual camera on a tripod. “For anybody shooting the Milky Way for the first time, apart from the basics of shooting during or around the new moon and staying away from sources of light pollution, I’d recommend the following settings,” said Zafra. So here goes:
- Using the maximum aperture of your lens
- Setting the maximum ISO allowed by the camera while keeping the noise under control
- Adjusting a shutter speed between 10-25 seconds depending on the camera and focal length.
“Also, using a wide-angle lens with a fast aperture makes a big difference regardless of the camera model,” said Zafra.
Are star-trackers used in all of these images?
“17 out of the 25 images featured in this year’s edition were taken using a Star tracker, whereas until a couple of years ago, we never saw more than two or three tracked images in the list,” said Zafra. A star-tracker tracks the rotation of the Earth, so instead of blurring as they move across the night sky the stars stay pin-sharp. It enables photographers to take ultra-long exposures. “This speaks a lot about the current trend in wide-field astrophotography, where photographers are using star trackers and the before mentioned Astro-moded cameras to capture more details, colors, and general quality of their images,” said Zafra.
The trend for astro-mod cameras
Astro-modified cameras have become very popular in the last couple of years. An Astro-moded camera is a camera that has the low-pass filter removed from the sensor and replaced by a different filter that blocks the UV and IR light but enables more light transmission, especially in specific color wavelengths depending on the filter. “The most popular for astrophotography is the h-alpha (hydrogen-alpha) filter that captures the red nebulosity in some regions of the night sky,” said Zafra. You can see that in several if the Milky Way images featured here.
Why to use an astro-mod camera
The common belief is that these modifications are made just to capture the colors in the nebulae,” said Zafra. “However, the biggest advantage of Astro-mod cameras is the ability to capture more light, which translates into cleaner images with less digital noise.”
Do they make the Milky Way look unrealistic? “In my opinion, these filters don’t make it look unrealistic, they simply help capture something that our eyes can’t see but that it’s out there in the night sky,” said Zafra.
Other trends in Milky Way photography
The main trends are the use of star-trackers and Astro-moded cameras. “However, technology is constantly evolving and we are seeing a big trend towards automatization in astrophotography,” said Zafra, who is currently testing a device called the Benro Polaris that can automate different processes including polar alignment, panoramas and tracking exposure times. “I think that the future is leaning towards automating all the technical steps and leaving more room for the creative part of the astrophotographer,” said Zafra.
The growth of astro-tourism
“Other trends are more related to Milky Way destinations or astro-tourism, “said Zafra. “Key destinations where astrophotographers are going to photograph the night sky include La Palma and Tenerife in the Canary Islands in Europe, the US National Parks in western North America and the Atacama region in South America.”
These are also the three top places on the planet for the world’s biggest and best telescopes. It’s no coincidence.
Where else to do astrophotography
There are endless places to do astrophotography where not many people have photographed the Milky Way before. “Examples in North America include public lands outside National and State Parks, which are less crowded,” said Zafra. “One good example here are the BLM lands located on the Eastern side of the California Sierra or National Monuments like the Grand Staircase Escalante in Utah.”
Zafra also mentions some other otherworldly places for adventurous astrophotographers like the Peruvian Andes. “You can see our Milky Way at higher elevations with no people and with no light pollution at all,” he said. “Other regions in Africa, Australia, and New Zealand also offer exceptional opportunities for original Milky Way images. I highly recommend checking light pollution maps and do some research online to find some of these areas.”
The best place to take photos of the Milky Way
One of Zafra’s favorite places for Milky Way photography is Death Valley National Park. “This is a vast National Park, with endless miles of beautiful landscapes and foreground elements that offer the opportunity to find original compositions while being relatively accessible,” he said. “This is also one of the best places to photograph Milky Way panoramas, since there aren’t elements blocking your view on the horizon.”
The Capture The Atlas competition’s timing is no accident because late May is at the peak of Milky Way season when it’s easiest to see it rising from both hemispheres (though it can be seen from February through October in the northern hemisphere and from January through November in the southern hemisphere).
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.