So How Exactly Did You Do That?

September 23, 2013  •  1 Comment

Star photos in general and more recently, Milky Way photos have always interested me.  I had tried to do some many years ago without much luck, and only recently got back into it.  First the story of how I got back into it and then the story of how I think I got it just right.

How I Got Back Into It

I traveled to South America in May and visited Peru with The Giving Lens and then traveled to Buenos Aires on my own.  There are lots of blog posts right there in that one sentence, so I will start with this Milky Way shot.

This shot was mostly luck with some help.  Luck in the sense that we were in the right place at the right time without planning it at all.  Our group had just finished two physically grueling days wandering around Machu Picchu taking literally thousands of photographs while hauling gear up and down the mountain and the stairs.  I make it sound terrible and hard, but really it was amazing and hard.  You should do it if you get the chance.

Anyway, we had packed up all of our stuff, hauled it to the train station in Aquas Caliente, and rode Peru Rail about a quarter of the way back to our destination of Cuzco.  There were some issues with the trains and landslides at the time that prevented us from riding the train all the way back to Cuzco.  Stroke of Luck Number One.  Our private bus and driver picked us up in Ollantaitanbo and we headed back towards Cuzco after making one very important stop for cervezas.  We stopped at a small shop and I am pretty sure we bought all the beer he had.  I told you, Machu Picchu had wiped us out pretty good.  We were enjoying the cervezas and someone mentioned that we hadn't tried any star photos yet, so we got our driver to pull over in the middle of the trip and we all piled out with our gear.  Michael Bonocore, one of our fearless leaders from The Giving Lens, gave us some basic settings to use and we all got set up.  The funny thing when shooting long exposures with a bunch of people is that you really need to do it all together, as in shoot at the same time, so there is no stray light from a headlamp into someone else's shot.  As we were getting ready, our participant Diego volunteered to "paint light" on a nearby shelter and the bus.  We all took a bunch of shots and this is the one I got.  I was pretty happy with it, all things considered, and decided to do more when I got home to Seattle.

How I Think I Got It Just Right

This is the shot where I think I got it just right.  Could it be better?  Probably, but I am super happy with how this turned out and it will always be the bar by which I compare other Milky Way photos going forward.

Milky Way over Mt. Rainier, WAMilky Way over Mt. Rainier, WAThis is one of the newer photos in my portfolio and definitely one of the more challenging shooting and editing projects I have completed. This is the Milky Way captured from Sunrise Visitors Center at Mt. Rainier.

Shooting the Milky Way requires a decent amount of planning to get the dark night and the Milky Way right where you want it. Fortunately those perfect conditions occurred in early July, 2013. This shot was taken at approximately 2am in 36 degree temperatures with a pretty stiff (and bone chilling) wind.

Editing this shot required some advanced Photoshop layer masking techniques to really make the stars pop. You can even see the lights on the mountain from climbers that we could see with the naked eye. I love the way this shot came out and look forward to doing more like it.


After I returned and settled back into life in Washington, I got in touch with a few people who I know from work who are very into photography.  The first person, Kathy Vick, is my new friend who introduced me to The Giving Lens after her trip to Jordan with them the previous November.  We made some tentative plans to head to Mt Rainier to get the shot.  The first step to getting a shot like this is planning.


First rule of nighttime photography is a dark night.  There are lots of resources on the Intertubes where you can find out when and where the moon rises and sets and how bright it will be when it is out.  Ideally you shoot when it isn't out at all, but that isn't always possible, so you do the best you can.  This will guide you on when you should shoot, both in terms of dates and times of the night when it will be the darkest.  Next, you look for a dark place without a lot of light pollution from nearby cities or towns.  Again, there are web sites available that will tell you the relative amount of light pollution for a given location.  Once you know where it will be pretty dark, you need a location where there might be something interesting in the foreground while the Milky Way hovers over it in the sky.  A general rule of thumb for us in North America is that the Milky Way rises in the east and starts to move west through the southern sky over the course of a night, so finding a location that looks southwest is perfect.  For us in the Seattle area, that place is the Sunrise Visitor's Center on Mt. Rainier.  So taking all of this into consideration, Kathy and I made plans to go there on July 5 for a late night shoot.  The last part of planning is deciding what to wear and what to bring.  I decided to bring everything since there was room, but if you go camping or hiking to a location, that becomes a different story altogether.  I scouted the weather and saw it would be around 40 degrees Fahrenheit overnight so brought warm clothes.  Jeans, two shirt layers, a hoodie sweatshirt, a winter hat, coat, and gloves.  As it turned out, it dropped to about 36 degrees with very heavy winds, so long underwear would have been a good idea.  It was July 5 - who knew?


When it gets dark you know you are going to use a long exposure, so a good tripod is essential.  I took the new Manfrotto carbon tripod I had purchased for South America but I probably should have taken my beastly metal Bogen video tripod.  That thing is heavy so stability would have been great and now that I know you can literally shoot from the parking lot, hauling a heavy tripod wouldn't be a problem.  I shoot on a Canon 7d and the next consideration is what lens to use.  Ideally you want something wide and fast - low number in the focal length and low number in the F stop.  I have my trusty Canon EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM lens that I knew would do a decent job since I had already used it in South America.  I also knew that the Canon EF 14mm f/2.8 II USM would be the perfect lens, but that baby sells for $2350 new.  Not going to happen.  Instead I bought the Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 lens to try out on this trip.  You can find that lens for under $400, which is a lot better than $2350.  There is a catch though, it is manual focus and not autofocus.  This means turning the focus ring until you get it just right using the Live View and zoom features.  Or you can try to use the hyperfocal distance focus if you can find it.  Between the two methods, I got the focus dialed in a didn't touch it after that.

As for actual settings on the camera, I think the most important setting to get right is the shutter speed.  You want it long enough to let a lot of light in, but not so long that the rotation of earth becomes apparent when the stars start to leave trails.  That is actually a pretty cool effect, but not for this shot.  There are tables on the web that show the maximum shutter speed for different focal lengths for different sensor crop styles.  For my lenses it was between 20-30 seconds, so I shot at 20, 25, and 30 seconds just to be safe.  Another rule of thumb to approximate the shutter speed is to divide 500 by the focal length used.  If you shot at 20mm then 500/20 = 25 seconds.  It is a rule of thumb only because my Canon 7d is a 1.6 crop which messes with the math a little bit.  Find the table and it will show you precisely what the values are.

That leaves the aperture and ISO.  Aperture is easy - shoot wide open.  If you have f/2.8, use it.  If not, use the widest aperture you have.  For ISO, don't be afraid to crank it up.  We know that high ISO introduces noise into photographs, but it is much easier to get rid of noise with software than it ever has been before.  I think I may have shot it at around 5000 and I would not hesitate to go higher if I needed to.

The last consideration is triggering the exposure.  A remote is always best since it reduces the possibility of shaking the camera with your hand when pressing the button.  If you don't have one, or forgot it, a nice little trick is to use the self-timer.  Use that, push the button, the camera will stop shaking and then trigger the exposure.  Also, look into using your mirror lockup feature.  This manually moves the mirror out of the way so the trigger doesn't move the mirror before and after the exposure, creating "mirror slap" which can also move the camera and blur your image. 

So, to summarize this section, use a heavy tripod with a wide angle lens, set the aperture wide open, calculate the proper shutter speed, crank the ISO up as needed, and trigger the exposure carefully to avoid camera shake and blur.

Editing is a long topic in itself, so I will cover that in another blog post.

Give this a try and let me know how it goes.  If you are interested in hands-on lessons with this sort of thing, I can help you out.  Just let me know and I guarantee you will learn something





Steve Hayes(non-registered)
Good stuff Wally. Amazing photos. You have a gift. Ever thought about being a photographer for Nat Geo??
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