Why Can’t I See the Milky Way?

Short answer: You’re in an area that has too much light pollution.

However, short answers don’t make for great photography articles, so I’m going to give you the long answer.

As the earth’s population continues to congregate in areas that are becoming closer to one another, the issue of light pollution has become disastrous for night sky viewing. In areas where you used to be able to see thousands of stars and the Milky Way with your naked eye, the visibility has been reduced to a few hundred stars and no Milky Way viewing. From my experience as a photographer, the areas I’m talking about are most of the eastern United States.

When you venture to the western states of America, night sky visibility gets much better.

Let’s look at an example from my early shooting days… I had read many articles on how to shoot the night sky and when. Excited, I quickly looked up a map on Dark Site Finder to navigate to the closest dark sky near my home in Nashville, Tennessee. While I was amazed at how many more stars I could see, there was still no Milky Way visible. “Why can’t I see the Milky Way?” I thought.

The problem wasn’t necessarily that the sky wasn’t dark enough (because it was pretty dark). The issue was the direction that I was shooting. To see the Milky Way, I had to be looking south. Looking south from where I was, I was shooting directly toward the next largest town. The ambient light pollution from that town was interfering with my view of the Milky Way.

Let’s look at another example, this time with a photo example from my good friend and photographer, John Sharp.

When we were talking candidly about the difficulty of shooting for the Milky Way in the southern United States (John lives in a neighboring state to me), John said,

“Boy your not kidding [about it being hard to find the Milky Way]. I need to go out west next summer and get some really good shots.”

That’s the truth. John recently spent some time camping in Grayton Beach State Park which is on the panhandle of Florida. He knew if was a great opportunity to shoot the Milky Way. He was right. Here’s one of John’s photos.

11742686_10205100625931808_5371188321291139218_nAwesome capture of the Milky Way! However, if you’ve ever been near the Grayton area of Florida, you know that there can be light pollution from close areas of Destin and Panama City. So, what’s the difference in John’s successful shot versus shooting in other light polluted areas?

The difference is the direction of shooting. Remember, I was shooting south, directly toward another town. John was also shooting south, directly into the heart of the Gulf of Mexico. Over the gulf, there is no light. Dark skies for days (or I guess I should say nights…) So, in review, shooting direction and what is in that direction, directly correlates to how well you’ll be able to see the Milky Way. Shooting towards light pollution is bad. Shooting towards extremely dark areas is good.

If you’re going out to shoot the Milky Way, be mindful of the surrounding areas and the direction that the Milky Way will be visible. Looking into light pollution, even if you’re in a dark area, can ruin a Milky Way photo.

Here’s what John had to say about setting up his shot…

“I took this photo last night and it is the first time I have taken a shot of the Milk Way. Where I live there is way too much light pollution and I can barely see stars on a clear night. I found the Milky Way using the Photo Pills app. Once my eyes had adjust to the night I was able to see it with my eyes and follow it in the sky. Listening to how the experts set up their cameras on Photography Roundtable interviews for shooting the Milky Way allowed me to get this shot. I knew before coming to this location we would be in a new moon and clear sky’s so I new the condition were perfect for a Milky Way sighting. I used a Canon 5d iii with a 16-35mm 2.8 lens. ISO 3200, SS 25 Secs, F2.8. I used an Induro Tripod with a really right stuff ball head with a rrs L bracket.”

Check out all of John’s work on his Facebook page!