HOW TO PHOTOGRAPH THE MILKY WAY WITH AKASH ANANDH

When stargazing at night, ever wondered what the shimmering sea of stars which resembles a river is called? The Milky Way is the official term for the celestial phenomenon. Avid astrophotographer Akash recently took a trip to rural Malaysia to capture it! Read on to find out more about his journey, and how to get started on astrophotography yourself.

 

Astrophotographer Akash searches the skies, but also occasionally for the right location to best represent cosmic phenomena.

Hey there Akash! We heard that you recently went on a trip to capture the Milky Way. Tell us about it!

Yes! Singapore has too much light pollution to see the Milky Way clearly or to shoot good photos of it. A darker location where there’s minimal light pollution is more suited for astrophotography, so I headed to a coastal town in Malaysia!

Milky Way
Canon EOS 6D Mark II | f/1.4 | 15s | ISO 1600

We know that you’re an astronomy enthusiast, but where did the idea for this trip come about?

Even though I’ve been to dimly-lit sites a couple of times in the past six months, I specifically planned a trip in March as it’s the start of the Milky Way season. The best time to shoot the Milky Way is mid-March to mid-October.

I chose to go to Sedili, which is a coastal town in the east of Malaysia, away from the light pollution of cities and towns. And, of course, a beach always makes for a great foreground for a Milky Way or starry landscape picture.

Milky Way landscape
Canon EOS 6D Mark II | f/1.4 | 15s | ISO 3200

Milky Way “shadowfie”
Canon EOS 6D Mark II | f/1.4 | 10s | ISO 1600

How did you plan for the trip?

Firstly, I chose a New Moon night, so that there’s no moon outshining the Milky Way or the thousands of stars in general. When the Moon is shining brightly in the night sky, it blocks out much of the light from the stars and the Milky Way. So, shooting on a moonless night, or at least when the moon isn’t too big (first quarter moon or less) is crucial. I decided to go for two nights instead of one, as it gives me an extra night, in case the weather acts up.

Milky Way and beach
This is a blend of two exposures:
Sky: Canon EOS 6D Mark II | f/1.4 | 15s | ISO 1600
Foreground: Canon EOS 6D Mark II | f/1.4 | 5s | ISO 1600

Tell us a little bit about what the Milky Way is, and what does it mean when you’re taking a shot of it?

The Milky Way is our home galaxy. Our planet Earth is part of the Solar System which, in turn, is part of the Milky Galaxy. Since we are located on one of the outer arms of this spiral galaxy, depending on the season, we will be looking in towards the core of Milky Way (known as the Galactic Centre), or outwards at the outer arm.

Both make for interesting photos, but the summer view, which is towards the Galactic Centre, is the most popular one. At a dark site, the core of the galaxy is visible to the naked eye as a milky, cloud-like glow. The darker the place, the more you see of the Milky Way.

Antares, a red Supergiant star, in Scorpius constellation near the Milky Way Galactic Centre
Canon EOS 450D | f/1.4 | 8s | ISO 1600

Milky Way Landscape

This is a blend of two exposures:
Sky: Canon EOS 6D Mark II | f/1.4 | 15s | ISO 1600
Foreground: Canon EOS 6D Mark II | f/1.4 | 2s | ISO 1600

People often think you can only see the Milky Way in exotic locations and far-off countries. Could you name some of the top destinations and why those destinations are usually chosen?

Milky Way can be seen from any part of the world that doesn’t have much light pollutionIdeally, a suburban or rural place, away from the city lights, would be the best. This can be as close as Malaysia and Indonesia, or as far as New Zealand, Europe or America.

Three planets in a frame: Saturn, Mars, and Jupiter. Also seen are the Scorpius constellation and a meteor trail.
Canon EOS 6D Mark II | f/1.4 | 10s | ISO 3200

What are some of the challenges commonly faced in astrophotography?

Next to light pollution, weather is the biggest factor when it comes to stargazing or astrophotography. For this trip, there were lots of passing clouds during both nights of my stay. I had a window of exactly five minutes in two whole nights to shoot the Milky Way in its entirety, without a cloud in the frame. Patience is the key to getting that ideal shot.

Milky Way Winter Arm Landscape
Canon EOS 450D | f/1.4 | 15s | ISO 1600

What would you advise a beginner to look out for during their first shoot of the Milky Way?

A clear, moonless, cloudless sky at a dark site with as little light pollution as possible makes all the difference. The best period to shoot would be between late April and late July, as the Milky Way would be visible for a longer time. Since the Earth rotates west to east, the Milky Way rises in the east and sets in the west, just like the sun.

We can try and look from East to South East, using a compass to find the Milky Way. The Scorpius constellation is a good “skymark” (like landmark, but in the sky) to locate the Milky Way Galactic Centre, which is to the left of Scorpius. There are also many apps that make it very easy to locate Milky Way and other celestial objects.

Tell us a little about your set-up on site.

To shoot a good photo of the Milky Way, all you need is a full-frame DSLR (to capture all the details for astrophotography), such as the Canon EOS 6D Mark II, and a wide-angle lens, ideally with a large aperture, and a tripod.

Carina Nebula

Canon EOS 6D Mark II | f/5 | 30s | ISO 1600

How was your experience shooting with the Canon EOS 6D Mark II?

The Canon EOS 6D Mark II is fantastic. The built-in intervalometer function lets me shoot multiple frames at a fixed frequency automatically. This is great as I always shoot multiple frames for noise-reduction stacking and for creating timelapses.

The vari-angle touchscreen LCD panel makes it so convenient when shooting skyscapes. I don’t need to twist awkwardly to view the display –  I just turn it towards me. I also use the Live View option to get perfect focus at night. It is considered quite a challenge to get a good focus on stars in the night sky, but this allows me to get it perfect every single time. The full-frame sensor allows me to make the most of wide-angle lenses, and the high resolution gives me more image to play with.

Saturn & Mars near the Galactic Centre of Milky Way.

Canon EOS 6D Mark II | f/4 | 30s | ISO 1600

What were some of the lenses you brought with you, and which lens did you like best?

Apart from my wide-angle landscape lens, I carried a Canon EF50mm f/1.2L USM lens, a Canon EF200mm f/2L IS USM, and a Canon EF75-300mm f/4-5.6 III. Each lens has its advantage and works well for different shots.

When I shoot a wider part of the sky, including a landscape in the foreground, the wide-angle lens or the Canon EF50mm f/1.2L USM come into play. When I’m shooting the Milky Way’s Galactic Centre, or when I’m shooting a particular object like a constellation or a nebula, the Canon EF200mm f/2L IS USM and the Canon EF75-300mm f/4-5.6 III do a great job. The large-aperture fast lenses are great for night and astrophotography, as they collect the maximum amount of light in a given exposure time. This is crucial because exposures can’t get too long as the stars will begin to streak, due to Earth’s rotation. The fast lenses allow you to get better exposures within a few seconds.

Orion Molecular Cloud Complex
Canon EOS 6D Mark II | f/1.4 | 30s | ISO 1600

What was something that you didn’t have that would have really helped?

The Canon EF14mm f/2.8L II USM prime lens would have been a great addition for shooting Milky Way landscapes. For more dramatic results, I would also love to have tried out the Canon EF8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM lens.

As an avid cosmos photographer, what do you think someone starting out should invest in to take good pictures in this genre?

Most of the current DSLRs are great. The Canon EOS 6D Mark II and the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV are feature-rich and can be great for astrophotography and starry landscapes. The full-frames ones are especially great for wide-angle skyscapes and landscapes.

The Big Dipper – Ursa Major constellation
Canon EOS 450D | f/1.4 | 5s | ISO 1600

What do you think makes for a good Milky Way photo?

For a Milky Way landscape, an interesting foreground can make a big difference. It can either be a natural landscape, trees, a cliff or rock, a building, even a person. Choose the right direction and the best available foreground in that direction.

For those with a bit more interest in astronomy, other celestial objects can make a great Milky Way photo. For example, Mars, Saturn or Jupiter can be included in the frame, depending on where they are. Or you can include other Deep Sky Objects such as Nebulae or Star Clusters.

Milky Way at dawn
Canon EOS 6D Mark II | f/1.4 | 15s | ISO 1600

Are there any other astronomical event that you are planning to capture?

The best Meteor showers for the rest of this year will be The Perseids in August and The Geminids in December. I’m also looking forward to the Total Lunar Eclipse on July 28, but that’s still some time away.

We hope this inspired you to start on your own astrophotography journey too! For more gorgeous shots of our galaxy, head over to Akash’s Instagram profile!

First published: Canon EOS World

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