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Milky Way Photography: Capturing the Center of the Galaxy

Milky Way Photography: Capturing the Center of the Galaxy

Now that it’s summer in North America, it’s the perfect time to catch a glimpse of the center of the galaxy. I remember the first time I was away from the city lights and looked up. It’s incredible to see how many stars are truly out there. 

Seeing them will leave a lasting impression, but the best way to remember that scene forever is to capture a photograph. There are a few things to keep in mind and things you’ll need to do so, but thankfully NJSpots is here to break down what you need to get it done. 

The Gear

To capture a high-resolution photograph of the galactic center, you’ll need a DSLR or mirrorless camera and you’ll want to strap a wide angle lens on the body. It goes without saying, but if you’re looking to take a scenic photo, you’re going to want to have a sturdy tripod. Check out our list of gear recommendations to get the job done right!

If you really want to invest in astro-photography, you may want to look into a Star-Tracker which will slowly pan your tripod head to move the camera with the Earth’s rotation. They can be pricey, so you may want to test the waters before you drop some serious cash. 

Timing

The galactic center is actually visible in North America from March through September, but if you’re trying to avoid being up during all crazy hours of the night, wait for the prime summer months. You’ll also want to plan your photo excursion around the lunar calendar. Any phase that’s more than a crescent will make it really difficult to see a starry night. 

Lucky for us, there’s a new moon happening at the end of this July — the perfect time to get out there and try your hand at astro-photography!

Camera Settings

The settings of your camera may change and vary depending on your scene and location, but these settings are a good starting point. 

Although it may not look it, the stars are moving. If you’re trying to void showing motion you’ll need to use a faster shutter speed than you’d expect. There’s a formula to calculate your maximum exposure time to avoid showing motion:

500/(Your Focal Length x Crop Factor of Camera) = Maximum Exposure Time.

If you’re unsure of your crop factor, here it is:

  • Full frame sensors have a crop factor of 1x
  • Crop sensors have crop factors of 1.5x or 1.6x (Depending on make and model)

To focus, you’ll want to turn your camera to manual focus and set it to infinity. When focusing on a totally dark scene, it will be nearly impossible to use autofocus. Use your LCD preview screen to help find a spot to lock onto. 

You’re going to want to let in as much light as possible, so you will mostly be shooting at your maximum aperture. If you’re not dealing with much in the way of light pollution, you will want to use the maximum ISO your camera is capable of before noise starts to degrade image quality.

Location & Framing

When photographing the sky, night or day, you’ll most likely want to put something in the foreground. Find something you can put in your foreground but also something that doesn’t take too much attention away from the sky. 

Getting away from the New York City lights can be tricky. Luckily, there are a few websites that can help, but check our our NJspots map for Milky Way hotspots — some of these will yield an explosion of stars for your eyes and camera! Try shooting at the beach or up in the mountains for the best results.

Remember, there’s a new moon coming out at the end of this month. Now take all this, get on out there and show us your best shot!

For more tips and tricks:

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