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Photographing the Milky Way

Landscape photography is all about light, the golden light of a sunrise or sunset, diffused light, harsh light etc. But what if there’s hardly any light at all? Can you shoot a landscape at night? Why would you even want to try? And if so, how would you go about it? Those are the questions I’d like to address in this post. You’ll see that night sky photography isn’t as hard as you might imagine and is a fantastic alternative if there’s nothing interesting to shoot at daytime.

Toolset

So, can you shoot a landscape at night? Absolutely, I did that before in Photographing a lunar eclipse as you may remember. The obvious limitation here is, of course, available light, so let’s check what tools we have at our disposal to deal with low light:

  • Maximum lens aperture
  • Shutter speed
  • ISO
Maximum Aperture

Usually, in landscape photography you aim to shoot at the lens’ sweet spot or to pick an even smaller aperture (higher f-stop) to get more depth of field (DOF) or to produce certain effects, such as a starburst, for example. Shooting at maximum aperture is a no-go, because lenses perform poorly wide open (soft, chromatic aberrations, shallow depth of field etc.). However, if the moon, the stars or the Milky Way is our main subject we don’t actually care about depth of field at all, here’s why: If we focus at the hyperfocal distance H, every subject at distance

s\geq H

will be within the depth of field. Let’s presume I was going to shoot the Milky Way with my AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm/2.8G ED at 14mm and maximum aperture, then my hyperfocal distance is

H\approx2.32m

(check, for example, Photopills DOF Calculator). So, unless I was planning on including a foreground object, I should be fine just focusing at infinity.

2 thoughts on Photographing the Milky Way

  1. Astro photography is something that I would like to try in the future. It’s probably something that goes hand in hand with wild camping (which isn’t something I would like to try in the future if I am honest). This is a fantastic article covering everything you need to know to get you started. Nice one mate.

    • Thanks Chris! I haven’t done any wild camping yet, but wouldn’t mind, actually (Iceland anyone?) Regarding night sky photography, there’s this moment of suspense before the image appears on the rear display, because you have to compose the shot in your mind – it’s pitch dark after all! You can’t even focus…

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