I am Stan Moniz, a surf and night sky photographer dedicated to capturing both the chaotic and beautiful energy of the ocean and the peace and tranquility of the night sky. As a child growing up in Hawaii I could not help but fall in love with both the sea and the heavens above.
Throughout the years I have made many mistakes that helped me perfect the art of capturing the Milky Way. I now work with people on a one-to-one basis and conduct workshops, sharing my knowledge with fellow photographers that have that desire to sharpen their skills in capturing the beauty of the night. In this article I would like to share with you some pieces of advice that will potentially help you enter the wonderful world of astrophotography.
How to find the Milky Way
With more than 90% of the population on earth not being able to see the Milky Way with their naked eyes, people ask constantly why they can't see it by peeping out of their windows or from their backyards. Light pollution is the night sky’s worst enemy. The further you travel from a major city the greater your chances of seeing the Milky Way which is between 100,000 and 120,000 light years in diameter and contains over 200 million stars.
Another thing to note is that the core of the Milky Way is visible from the months of March to November and is better seen in the summer months when it's up and about quickly after sun down. As we orbit around the sun from November till late February the Milky Way is behind the sun, being up only during the daylight hours. Here is a helpful site that I find extremely useful when searching out a dark sky location: www.darksky.org.
So, rounding it all up, the first piece of advice is how to find the Milky Way in a dark sky. Download one of these apps onto your mobile phone: one of them is Stellarium, the other Star Walk. I use them both on a daily basis, not only to predict the time the Milky Way will rise and set but also to see into the future, making it possible to plan any up and coming celestial events, etc.
Get a reliable tripod
I have recently acquired a brand new tripod that is extremely light and made specifically with the astrophotographer in mind. This is a new tripod by Slik: the Slik Lite AL-420S. This is the smallest one of the bunch. Slik does have a few in different sizes ranging from small to large in aluminium and carbon fibre. I do travel a lot and love to adventure light and compact. This sturdy tripod folds nicely and fits into my backpack. So, what makes this tripod ideal? Well, it has a detachable light source that you can turn on and off. These days I place my backpack right under the tripod and use the attached light source to turn on the lights when I need to search around in my bag for something.
Sometimes I plan to capture a scene with two exposures which I then blend in Photoshop: one exposure taken with the moon rising or setting and casting natural light on the landscape, and one of the night sky at complete darkness. These days I shoot more often on a night that has some moon to achieve this effect.
The 500 rule
Make sure you are shooting in manual mode and in RAW. Shooting in RAW makes it easier to change settings such as colour balance (if needed) in processing. Most cameras handle high ISO pretty well. I use the Sony A7r II for my astrophotography and sometimes I push it all the way up to 12,800 ISO and I get little or no noise.
Getting the exposure time right means that you avoid unwanted star trail. Getting pinpoint and sharp stars is the ultimate goal in astrophotography. By using a formula called ‘The 500 rule’ you can achieve this very easily. To get to the point. Take 500 and divide it by the focal length of your lens. This will give you an exposure time with no star trailing. Here is an example: 500 divided by 24 = 20.8333 seconds – round this down and you need an exposure time of 20 seconds. This calculation suits full frame cameras only. If you use a crop sensor camera such as a Sony A6300, (crop factor of 1.5) then you need to multiply your crop factor by your focal length first and then run the formula. Here is an example: 24 x 1.5 = 36. Now you take 500 and divide it by 36 = 13.8888 seconds and of course you can round it down to the nearest number of 13 seconds. If you want to read more about ‘The 500 Rule’, please visit www.stanmoniz.com/home to get a more detailed explanation.
Setting the aperture
Set the lens aperture at its widest number, f/2.8, for example. Setting the aperture wide open will allow a great amount of light to hit the sensor. I find that stopping down one stop increases the clarity of the stars, especially in the corners of the image. Of course, some lenses are sharper than others wide open. Experimenting and pushing the limits of the lens will certainly allow you to figure out what works best.
I never leave this on Auto but always set it to incandescent or a cooler temperature. In my opinion, this looks the most natural right off the camera. I can then play around with the white balance in Adobe Lightroom to achieve a feel that suits the mood of the image. This is where shooting in RAW comes in handy.
The Hoya Intensifier
This has been my little secret weapon in capturing the Milky Way, or any nightscape image for that matter, for a while now. I first found out about this simple Hoya filter online while I was learning how to photograph interstellar space. Some people mentioned this filter and how useful it was to cut through light pollution, while really making those nebulae and deep space images pop! I bought a few and now I don’t leave home without them.
They were made to boost red and orange colours, especially for photographing autumn colours. The intensifier is also known as a Didymium filter. These filters cut out the yellow-orange portion of the spectrum. Much of our light pollution is from sodium vapour lamps which emit the same spectrum of light that the intensifier cuts out. Using these filters creates an almost light pollution-free image, making post processing much easier. It is a filter that every astrophotographer should possess.
Staring at the stars and Milky Way is a captivating experience. Capturing beautiful imagery to share with the world will only help spread the word of how important it is to protect the little amount of dark sky we have left, and to maintain it for future generations. I hope these pieces of general advice can help you expand your horizons and supply you with the knowledge to produce quality imagery that you can share with your family and friends.