We live in the Orion Arm of a spiral galaxy called the Milky Way and sometimes, just sometimes, we can see deep into our galaxy’s center 100,000 light years distant.
More and more landscape photographers are discovering an irresistible urge to image our home galaxy as it arcs across a dark night sky, as highlighted by this week’s “25 most inspiring Milky Way pictures” post by travel photography blog Capture The Atlas.
An annual round-up, this year’s long-list includes awesome images from the American West, Antarctica and Australia to Iceland, Namibia and Tunisia. What they all have in common is exceptional compositional judgement—always the most important factor in any night sky photograph—as well as impeccable timing and a dash of adventurousness.
Below is a quick compilation of Capture The Atlas’s top 25 Milky Way images and, below, a discussion with editor, and landscape and nature photography, Dan Zafra.
When were the top 25 Milky Way images taken?
Most of the images in the article were taken during the 2019 and the current 2020 “Milky Way season”, which stretches from about March to November each year. “While fresh and new photographs is one of the most important factors to include the image in the collection, there are other factors to consider like the originality of the place and the technical difficulties for taking the picture,” said Zafra to Forbes. “As an example, in this year’s edition, the Milky Way image from Antarctica was taken in 2018, but it’s a unique image and the author Jorgelina Álvarez posted it this year for the first time.”
Here is that image—complete with “shooting stars:”
“The same happens with Miles Morgan’s photo of erupting volcanoes and the Milky Way, which are very rare shows with very inspiring stories behind them,” said Zafra.
Here’s Morgan’s photo:
When is ‘Milky Way season’ for photographers?
The “Milky Way season” is commonly known as the period when the Galactic Center is visible. “This season depends on the latitude and the Moon’s phase, but it usually ranges from late March to early October in most of our planet,” said Zafra. “The season also affects the position of the Milky way in the sky and the final composition.”
During the early season—from March through June—the Milky Way appears as an arch over the horizon, moving upwards as the weeks pass, and visible earlier in the night. “By mid-season, you can see it creating a diagonal shape across the sky, and at the end of the season from late August to October, the Milky Way can be photographed vertically,” said Zafra.
It’s all about timing, and summer is best, but it is still possible to image the Milky Way in winter. “Unlike many people think, you can photograph the Milky Way throughout the year—like you can see in the images of “Winter Milky Way” by Nicholas Roemmelt or “Base Camp” by Giulio Cobianchi,” said Zafra.
Above is Roemmelt’s incredible image on Instagram, and below is Cobianchi’s:
Does it matter what hemisphere you’re in?
Where you are in relation to the equator affects your view of the Milky Way, but also how the bright galactic center is placed on the sky. “In the northern hemisphere it’s usually on the right end of the Milky Way band, whereas on the equator and southern hemisphere it can vary mostly from the middle to the left of the Milky Way band,” said Zafra. “Also, depending on the hemisphere, you can capture the Milky Way with other astronomical objects, like the Magellanic Clouds in the southern hemisphere.”
The southern hemisphere also happens to be blessed with some extra-special landscapes, such as Dead Vlei in Namibia, as photographed by Stefan Liebermann:
The hemisphere you’re in also affects how you find the night sky’s circumpolar point—the point that the stars appear to revolve around as Earth rotates.
For astrophotographers, that’s crucial for how you set your equatorial mount if you’re using a star-tracker for photographing the Milky Way. “In the northern hemisphere, we use the “North Star” Polaris, whereas in the southern hemisphere you need to look for the “Southern Cross”,” said Zafra.
Advice for anyone who wants to photograph the Milky Way
A veteran of Milky Way photography himself, Zafra has plenty of advice for beginners wanting to capture the galaxy:
1. Plan the image
“It’s important to choose one of the best days of the season to photograph the Milky Way,” he said. “For this you can use a Milky Way Calendar according to your location, and look for a dark place away from light pollution.”
“I recommend focusing before dusk since focusing at night is more challenging,” said Zafra. “If there’s no other option, you can use the live view mode on your camera and zoom in on a bright star adjusting your focus ring manually until you can see the star sharp.”
“Make sure your camera is stable on a tripod and choose the right settings,” said Zafra. “These depend on many factors like your gear and light conditions, but compared to daylight photography, you should use a wider aperture, a higher ISO, and a shutter speed between 12 and 30 seconds.”
Are new cameras making Milky Way photography easier?
New digital cameras make Milky Way photography easier in many ways. “The latest models include manual focus assist modes like “focus peaking”,” said Zafra. “New camera sensors also offer a much better performance shooting at higher ISOs, and the general quality of the final images is usually better, with less digital noise.”
The trend for ‘Milky Way selfies’ on social media
If you’ve been mesmerized by Milky Way photography for years you will have noticed the same trend for narcissism that has appeared elsewhere in society. A modern stroke of genius or a naff trend that’s had its day? “Using human forms in a picture is a composition technique to give a sense of scale that has been used not only by photographers, but also by painters since the Renaissance,” said Zafra. “People can also relate more to an image when they see a human element in the frame.”
However, it’s not that simple. “This technique has been abused mainly because of the popular trend in social media, and photographers are placing human elements —or themselves as a selfie— in images where it’s not necessary.”
That said, as this round-up proves, there’s a galaxy of ways to photograph our home in the cosmos.
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.