Milky Way / Galactic Center Shoot / by Alain Zarinelli

Part 1 - Planning/Fundamentals

A lot of folks have asked how I planned the Galactic Center shot in Utah. I thought I summarize my "workflow" here, and then show in a video the whole process from start to finish...

First off, make sure you choose a place and night where the night sky is as dark as possible. You can use a resource like http://darksitefinder.com/maps/world.html, or an app like "Dark Sky Finder" (iOS only at this time, but I am certain there are similar apps for Android) to minimize light pollution, if possible. In addition, it would be best to choose a night with a new moon. Apps to help find moon phase abound, but my favorite is Photo Pills. Besides phase, set and rise times for moon (and sun,) it will also show Galactic Center visibility and azimuth, as well as calculate shadow length, depth of field, hyperfocal distance, star trails, etc. It’s great for planning, and can be used to pre-visualize once on site.

Another option for this is “The Photographer’s Ephemeris” (‘TPE’), which provides many of the same planning tools as Photo Pills. TPE has the advantage of a free web-based planning version, and is available on iOS and Android.

Once the planning has been completed, and the night to shoot draws near, make sure to have a checklist of things to take along, and a high-level timeline for your shoot. Get there early! If you overnight, get your cod, sleeping bag, tent, etc. set up; make sure your flash light has a fresh set of batteries - I prefer using a red tinted light so as to not ruin my night vision. Knowing the timeline, when is sunset; end of (astronomical) blue hour; rise, azimuth and elevation of the Galactic Center are essential to a successful Milky Way shoot. There simply is no “winging” this!

Use a sturdy tripod, if possible. I put a glow stick underneath so I will know in complete darkness where the tripod is located. Pre-focus to infinity (∞) and use some gaffer’s tape to lock the focus ring in place. Focusing on the night sky in complete darkness is difficult, and many lenses have a “range” for ∞, and you will notice when the night sky isn’t in proper focus. If you missed focusing and locking it, you can use the 100% enlargement function of your live view and focus on the brightest star (or planet) in the sky, before shooting. An alternative is to purchase a focusing aid, like Sharpstar2 from Lonely Speck; their Web site explains how it’s used.

Once the tripod is set up, and your lens is pre-focused and locked, sit back and have a cup of coffee (or whatever other beverage you prefer,) and wait for the sun to set.

One thing I like to do when I shoot the night sky is to pick an interesting foreground element, like a tree, a church, etc. I will photograph this object during late sunset, and then throughout each of the blue hours (civil, nautical, astronomical - PetaPixel has a great article explaining these.) Since my camera is fixed on the tripod, I can (if I so choose) combine a late blue hour shot with my eventual Galactic Center shot to add a bit more interest and make it ‘stand out’ more.

Why am I shooting the foreground object in different light? Because once it’s completely dark, which is what you want it to be to capture the Milky Way, the only way to illuminate the object would be using light painting. While certainly an option, I prefer to shoot during blue hour, and then compositing. Firstly, when shooting the Milky Way (we’ll go more into the actual shooting in the next part), your ISO will typically be set to ISO1600 or ISO3200, and your aperture around f/2.8 or f/1.4. This will result in the object not being as sharp (and potentially a bit noisy) as it could be. Shooting during a late blue hour, you can leave your aperture at f/8.0 or f/11.0 with your lowest possible ISO setting (typically ISO100, or possibly ISO64.) This makes for a much sharper and noise-free foreground image. I also feel that a light-pained foreground looks fake - but that's a personal thing :)...

In the next part, we’ll go over the actual shooting of both the blue hour shot(s), as well as the Milky Way one…