Our Earth is part of a huge sized galaxy, known as the Milky Way. Milky Way basically consists of our whole solar system and is made up of 100-400 billion stars. Until last year, I had no idea if we can see Milky Way with naked eyes. After a lot of failed late night drives and sleeping at the beach, I was finally able to get a grip on what I actually need to see Milky Way. In September 2016, I got my first Milky Way shot. It was an extremely emotional and priceless moment when I first saw the magnificent milky way with my own eyes. All the failed attempts or discomfort of not going to bed early seemed nothing in that moment. I would consider sharing this priceless memory with fellow photography folks as the inspiration behind this post.
Moving on to the technical part, there is a minimal amount of gear required to take Milky Way shots using your dslr. Focusing at infinity and calculating the shutter speed to avoid star trails is purely technical, capturing Milky Way takes a little more preparation. Extra things you will need to check are:
-A dark spot to view or photograph the Milky Way.
-Location of Milky Way in the sky.
The most common and well-known website for the first part is Dark Site Finder. The image below is a screenshot of light pollution map for San Francisco and nearby areas from Dark Site Finder website. You would want to be in a Green/Blue/Grey zone if you want to view the Milky Way from naked eyes. Being in these areas will also make your photographs have a lot more details and less light pollution in it.
Light pollution map of San Francisco. Courtesy- Dark Site Finder
Next target is locating the Milky Way in the sky. The galactic centre (most bright part of the Milky Way) is not visible throughout the year and thus you might not be able to get a good view of Milky Way if you go at the wrong time.
Northern Hemisphere (North America, Europe, Asia, etc. )
Months it is visible: March to October
Best months for viewing: May to September
Best time: 3 AM - 5 AM May. 11 PM - 4 AM in June. Sunset to 2 AM in July. Sunset to 1 AM August. Sunset to 12 AM September. These times are just my personal observations, not a scientific astronomical fact.
So now we know what month and time we can possibly see milky way at its best. If you are in a dark enough zone and go during these months, the Milky Way should be easy to spot once you scan the sky with your eyes. Give your eyes a good 15-20 minutes to adjust to darkness first. :)
Let's talk about direction. Don't look South, South-East, North, North-East or even West. Yes, I have read way too many blogs that give confusing information about looking in a particular direction but forget to mention the month and time. The only and only thing you should be concerned about is the constellation Sagittarius. The galactic centre of the Milky Way appears to be in the same direction of this constellation. To find this constellation, there are so many Android and iPhone apps. Two of them that come to my mind are Night Sky and Stellarium. Pointing your smartphone to the sky while the app is running would give details of all the planets, constellations and stars. Any other stargazing app would also work, all we want is the location of Sagittarius.
Milky Way shot taken by me in September
Once you spot the Milky Way with your eyes, don't forget to pause and admire the astonishing view before taking photos. It is such a good feeling to be able to see something expanding across the whole sky. Hope this post would help you in your Milky Way adventures.
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