Well, it's that time of year again for Milky Way Season. The part of the year when the galactic core is above the horizon. In our part of the country that really kicks in from about mid May to mid September.
Night sky photography can be challenging any time of the year, but especially this time of year for the northern latitudes, mainly because it is dark for a much shorter part of the night.
In the winter we can have darkness from 5 PM to 7AM, but this time of the year, it's really only dark from about 11 PM to 5 AM and even then, at both ends you will still get a bit of light pollution. Compound that with full moons taking up about a week per month of bright light, and the normal spring and summer cloudy, stormy days and you might get 7 to 10 good nights of photographing the night sky in a season.
That said, it pays to make it a priority when you can. If you see that it will be a clear night without the lunar interference, try to get out and take some photos of the milky way.
Here's what you will need to a make it happen.
A good camera with decent ISO performance is a must. You will be shooting from ISO 1600 to 6000 depending on your lens and the area where you shoot. The lower this number the better, but there are other factors that will determine what ISO at which you'll be shooting. Also, you need to be able to set a long exposure or have a bulb mode with cable release or remote.
Lens: Wider is better for a number of reasons, but also a low aperture number is key and having a sharp lens, with low levels of chromatic aberration also helps. These types of lenses can be expensive if you buy brand name, but if you are buying just for this type of photography, they don't have to be. Manual focus capability is actually beneficial so if you find a cheaper lens without auto focus, and it has good ratings for sharpness and a F 2.8 or lower aperture, go for it. Also, you won't need vibration compensation as you will be shooting on a tripod all the time. I shoot on a 12mm Rokinon F2 lens which is manual focus and was $269.00.
Tripod: You will need a good stable tripod. Lighter is not necessarily better unless you plan to carry it a lot. Also, bring something to weigh it down so it won't move in the wind.
So with the gear nailed down here's some of the explanation of the shoot.
First is finding the milky way. Even in a dark skies location this can be a challenge unless you have seen it before and know what to look for. I suggest an app like Sky Safari, or The Photographers Ephemeris. I like Sky Safari 4 as it shows me real time, on my phone where to look for the milky way and many other night sky objects just by holding it up in the direction I want to look.
As with all photography, you want to have an interesting foreground and middle ground, to accentuate your amazing background of the milky way. Composition matters and can make or break a great milky way shot. If you have power lines in your shot it will screw it up the same at night as it does during the day.
Next, set up to get the composition you want and check your settings before getting out of the car. I go for about ISO 3200 on my Sony A6300 and 25 seconds at F2. Make sure you're focus is set at infinity for your lens, or figure a hyper-focal length where everything from a certain distance will be in focus. There are apps for this as well.
Your lens will determine the shutter speed before smearing of the stars, as you want to use the rule of 500. That is the Full Frame 35mm equivalent focal length of your lens, divided into 500 gives you the max time you can expose without star trails. If you are using a 12mm at 1.5 crop, that's equal to 18mm at Full Frame, then round up to 20mm for a buffer and divide into 500. With the new math that's 25 seconds. If you are using a 24mm on a Full Frame Camera, that's easy. Round to 25 and divide giving you 20 seconds. If you are on a Canon, cropped sensor, you have a 1.6 crop factor which may require a calculator, but works the same way.
Now you're ready to get some great shots and maybe bring a flash you can pop during the exposure or a flashlight to do some light painting. You also can use the milky way as a great background for compositing with other shots like the elk photo when combined in your favorite layering software.
So now you're all set. Camera set up... On the tripod... in a great location... with no moon or lights from a town and you hear a coyote howl 50 feet away... LOL. I know from experience how fast I can pack up my gear and change locations. :). Bring a friend and enjoy the night sky. It's a blast. Oh, and if you hear a bump in the night... It might just be me moving my tripod.