How to Light a Tent for Milky Way Photography

As camera technology and low light sensitivity (high ISO quality) improves, there’s no doubt that more and more photographers and venturing out in the middle of the night to shoot the night sky. Night photography has proven to boost interest in photographs, with some shots going viral in just a short time.

Night photography has taken a huge jump forward in recent years because of improved light collecting capabilities from cameras. You can capture a lot more light and color with cameras than what you are able to see with your naked eye. Some photographers have even based their entire portfolio on shooting night photography.

Before you go out to shoot the milky way, you need to know a few specifics first. Your camera setting is one thing you need to study and try before you head out. Read this post for Milky Way camera settings. The second thing you need to know is when is the best time of the year to photograph the Milky Way. You can’t just step out and start shooting. There are very specific times when the Milky Way is most visible in the night sky.

Northern Hemisphere Milky Way

If you are unfamiliar with the shape of the earth, it is a sphere. Well, if you want to be technically correct, it’s a geoid (I was a geography major). Since the earth is spherical is shape and on an axis while rotating around the sun, you won’t always be able to see the Milky Way in each hemisphere all year round.

Due to the curvature and constant movement of the earth, you will not be able to see the Milky Way if you live in the northern hemisphere during the months of November to February. Now, you might be able to see some remnants of the Milky Way band, but the galactic center will be out of view (more on that later).

If you’re in the northern hemisphere, the best time of the year to photograph the Milky Way is March to October.

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The Milky Way can be viewed with the galactic center in the Northern Hemisphere from March – October

Southern Hemisphere Milky Way

The same is true for visibility of the Milky Way in the southern hemisphere of earth dwellers. Although, the southern hemisphere is treated to one extra month of Milky Way viewing.

If you live in the southern hemisphere, you’re best Milky Way visibility (that is with the galactic center visible) is from February to October. You will not be able to see the galactic center of the Milky Way from November to January.

The Milky Way can be viewed with the galactic center in the Southern Hemisphere from February - October
The Milky Way can be viewed with the galactic center in the Southern Hemisphere from February – October

***Remember that in the winter, you can still see the Milky Way, just not the galactic center***

What is the Galactic Center?

Even though I took astronomy in college, I couldn’t tell you what constellations are near the center of the Milky Way. However, I can tell you a few things to help you know what the galactic center of the Milky Way is.

If you are looking into the Milky Way, you are actually looking into one of the bands of the Milky Way, the galaxy in which we live. Now, shooting a band of the Milky Way is all good and grand, but including the galactic center is way better.

The galactic center of the Milky Way is the center, the brightest part of the Milky Way. It’s the area of the Milky Way that is full of color, galactic dust, and contrast that can turn a quality night photograph into a photo that will go viral. Shooting into the galactic center of the Milky Way will make that night feature much more pronounced, and will add a lot of detail to the night sky.

Moon Phases are Also Important

If you’ve never noticed, the moon is really bright. In fact, next time you are gazing up at the sky and the moon is visible, notice that there aren’t really any stars visible near the moon’s location.

You see, visible light, like the reflection of the sun off of the moon creates a lack of visibility in stars. Having something like the moon in the sky can greatly diminish any chances of actually seeing the Milky Way at all. That’s why you need to shoot the Milky Way at a time when the moon is not visible.

Shooting the night sky with no moon leaves you with two options:

  1. Shoot the night sky during a new moon phase when the moon is completely covered.
  2. Shoot the night sky before the moon rises or after the moon sets.

Planning your Milky Way shoots around these specifics times will ensure you will have the best chance to shoot amazing photos of the Milky Way in all of its glory! Get out there and shoot the night sky!

For a great app to use to plan for perfect Milky Way photos, listen to this podcast I did with the creators of PhotoPills!

How to Shoot the Milky Way

When you’re shooting the Milky Way, it’s important to use your camera smartly. Using the appropriate settings is key, or you probably won’t get the best results, or even be able to see the Milky Way in your photos.

To easily remember what settings to use, remember the triangle method (example to the right). Use a shutter speed of 30 seconds, an aperture of f/2.8, and an ISO of 3200.

You want to use a shutter speed of 30 seconds not only to let in a lot of light, but also to eliminate any star trails. 30 seconds is going to let in a ton of light, and even reveal stars that you can’t even see with your naked eye. However, if you shoot any longer than 30 seconds, it’s very likely you will see star trails in your photo (star trails are the visible movement or paths the stars take in the night sky).

An aperture of f/2.8 is used to let in even more light! If your lens doesn’t go to f/2.8, just use the lowest aperture possible. The challenge of using an aperture so wide is that if you are including foreground elements into your photos, you might have some depth of field issues. To resolve focus issues, you can use focus stacking in your Milky Way photos to make everything tack sharp.

Using an ISO of 3200 will make the camera’s sensor more sensitive to light than it would normally be. If you haven’t caught on yet, the goal of these specific camera settings is to let in as much light as possible while keeping the stars still!

Recommended Gear

Since you are taking long exposure photos at 30 seconds a piece, it’s highly imperative that you have a good, sturdy tripod. This tripod is perfect because it will keep your camera perfectly still while you shoot (plus they’ve agreed to give Photography Roundtable readers 15% off at checkout if you use the code “photographyroundtable”). You’ll also need a sturdy ball head. I use this one.

You also want to look into getting a cable release. A cable release is just a device you plug into your camera that becomes your shutter button. The purpose of a cable release is to eliminate camera shake. Once again, you’re taking long exposures, and any movement will show up in the photo. If you press the shutter on the camera, it’s highly likely your camera will move slightly. That’s why I use a cable release!

Lastly, it’s dark. You won’t be able to see your camera buttons and settings, and holding a flashlight would be really annoying. That’s why I recommend getting a headlamp.

There you have it! Now you have your PhD in astronomy, you know your settings backwards and forwards, and you’re all geared up! I know this information is going to help you take unbelievable shots of the Milky Way, or even improve your shots if you’ve been struggling!

For more posts about photography techniques that will improve your photography, look down! There are plenty more posts I think you will find helpful directly below this!

Lighting a Tent in the Foreground for Milky Way Photography

Adding foregrounds to your Milky Way shots is a great way to improve the impact of your night photo. However, it can be a little tricky if you’ve never tried it before.

First, be sure your entire shot is in focus. Since you need a very wide aperture for a Milky Way shot, there’s a good chance your foreground might be out of focus. This chance increases as you get closer and closer to the tent. Since that’s the case, you might have to focus stack your photo in post processing to get everything within focus.

You also need a light source. In the past, I’ve used a headlamp to light a tent in the foreground, but you can also use a soft burst of light from a speed flash. You can easily get behind your tent and test the pilot light on your flash to trigger a burst, or set your flash to a trigger. Be careful not to get the light too bright or you could end up blowing out the highlights in the tent. Using a good diffuser to reduce the light even more is a good idea!

Here’s a good video showing a workflow of the entire shot!