My Path to the Milky Way

Where wonder turned into goals

In this article I’ll cover how my “bring the camera everywhere” attitude inspired a life-long goal to photograph the Milky Way.

The Introduction

I’ve come a long way since I started photographing the night sky. It started as a test of my equipment and knowledge at the time. In August 2010, I went out to watch the Perseid meteor shower with friends, I brought my camera, a tripod, and a remote trigger so it would capture photos the entire time.

I brought my camera — a Canon Rebel XTi equipped cheap 8mm fisheye — because I figured why not. I actually caught something!

Figure 1: A Shooting Star

The photo, albeit not very great, was mind blowing to me. I had captured a moment that not a lot of people take the time to witness. Ever since then I’ve pointed my camera to the skies when I get the chance.

In 2013, when watching the Persieds again, I brought an updated camera and a new lens: A Canon T1i and a Canon 50mm f/1.4. I still had my XTi and the 8mm, and brought that along too, which I pointed straight up and used the remote shutter as an intervalometer.

I used the 50mm to capture a gorgeous panorama of the city and stars.

Figure 2: Eight 50mm Photos stitched together

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I inadvertently captured the Milky Way in the upper center of the photo. Even back then, I didn’t know it was the Milky Way, I saw it was a little cloudy in that area so I crossed my fingers claimed it was the Milky Way. A few years later I eventually checked and naïve me was correct. But this photo is responsible for my ambition towards photographing the Milky Way. I told myself I wanted tocapture a better photo of it.

The Practice

I started getting serious about star photography in early 2015. I went and photographed the night sky above landmarks of my city, it was hard because these landmarks are well lit and in city limits but, I still managed to capture some stars in the photos. I took the rest of the year learning about the Milky Way and practicing by taking photos of the stars.

Figure 3: The Golden Gate & Orions Belt

I live on the edge of my city, so going to a dark sky is a short 20 minute drive. I would go out every weekend and just photograph the stars. I practiced the 500 Rule. I practiced editing. And so on. Every weekend I’d analyze my photos, and try and take it differently.

In this year I also learned when the Milky Way is visible; it’s roughly visible from May to September. So I dug deeper, I wanted to know when I could reasonably photograph the Milky Way.

The First Attempt

Turns out, mid to late Summer is ideal for me. Since in the first few months it’s visible in the early morning hours and as the Summer months pass, the Milky Way rises earlier and earlier, eventually being visible at 10pm. While I am a morning person, I’d rather stay up later than wake up earlier. However, I’m sure there will be a time in my life where I’ll wake up in the wee hours of the morning to photograph the Milky Way.

June 11th, 2016: My first proper attempt at the Milky Way.

Figure 4: 14mm f/2.8 30s at ISO1600; First Milky Way Attempt

This was it.

I didn’t know where I’d take a photo, I just drove and looked for a place to pull off. I arrived at this location around 11:40. This photo was taken at 12:11am.

More Attempts

2017

I recruited a couple friends that year and we ventured out to the coast twice a month and just shot the sky. It was great because they were able to help me. They did that by allowing me to teach them and make me answer why I did something. They tried their own ideas and through this back and forth we were able to accelerate our knowledge.

Figure 5: 14mm f/2.8, 30s @ ISO12,800

I also made the most ambitious attempt yet in 2017. I drove 2 hours South to photograph the Milky Way in a spot where there was almost no light pollution. It was a surreal experience to be so far away from light that the Milky Way was easily visible to the naked eye, more so than I was in previous locations.

Figure 6: 14mm f/2.8 20s at ISO12,800

It’s a cliche photo. Every who has photographed the Milky Way has a headlamp pointed towards the sky. On the way back home we stopped at a few more places and got more photos. We didn’t get home until about 3a; never again, next time I drive that far from home I’ll insist on getting a hotel.

2018

I rented a few lenses and blogged about my reasons for renting and then blogged about my verdit. The short is, I wanted to replace my 14mm lens with a higher quality lens. I rented a 14mm and a 20mm and really fell in love with the 20mm but ultimately did not buy a new lens; instead I decided to shoot at a tighter focal length, specifically with my 50mm f/1.4.

Of which I was really successful with. I can’t imagine myself going with a tighter lens but I’m now enjoying a challenge of incorporating the landscape into the shot rather than saying “here’s the the stars and the earth” it’s now more of a “Here’s an interesting feature contrasted against the stars.”

Figures 7 & 8: Early Summer vs Late Summer (50mm, f/1.4 @ 10s)

In Figure 7, I focused on a friend and used the shallow depth of field provided at f/1.4 to create a sense of wonder. Once I knew it was plausible I started putting plans in motion to photograph at a Lighthouse. It has this foot bridge that is visible from the beach and I knew I had to incorporate that into a shot, which is Figure 8.

Thankfully, it would be lined up for a Milky Way photo. I was counting down the days all Summer that the Milky Way would be in position early enough; I could have got the shot in early Summer but I would have to shoot it at 3am as opposed to 11pm.

The Future

I’m going to find new places and new challenges; I want to photograph the auroras; to travel and capturing our galaxies core. Ultimately, who knows what it’s store for me. I’m an asteroid in space, influenced by gravity.

Photography & Technology is my thing.