A common question I hear is, “When do I go out to shoot the Milky Way?”. Technically, there are a full twelve months of Milky Way. However, the galactic core, the photogenic portion we are usually after, is only visible above the horizon between February and October at 51 Degrees N. For the Milky Way to stand out the sky, you want to shoot around the new moon. Some moonlight can be suitable for lighting up the foreground in your photos, and the Milky Way can still stand out in the sky with the moon around 25%. The other thing to pay attention to is moon set and rise times. There is usually about a two-week window around the new moon where the moon is out of the way enough. One of the other primary considerations is the orientation of the galaxy. In the spring, the Milky Way core rises in the southeast and is constantly moving south. During summer, you will be looking almost right around due south. In the fall, you will want to look for it south to southwest.

Here are 12 months of Milky Way photos, including the approximate time (Mountain Time) that I took the shots and which direction the camera was pointing. When you plan your shoots, you can get more accurate information for specific dates and locations using apps like PhotopillsSky SafariStellarium, etc. These apps will illustrate the galaxy’s position for particular dates and times

January Milky Way

Time: 11:30 PM
Direction: S/SW

January Milky Way and Orion over Crowfoot Mountain and snow covered Bow Lake
Winter Milky Way at Bow Lake with Mitch Popilchak photographing the stars.

During winter nights, stars seem brighter and crisper. The brightness is because we look away from the core of our galaxy during winter, and there is less starlight “blending” into the night sky. Looking out into the Orion Arm, there are very bright stars closer to us, and we are looking beyond our galaxy. The night I took this photo at Bow Lake just felt immensely dark. But the stars were captivating. At no point during darkness would we have seen the Milky Way core.

February Milky Way

Time: 5:30AM
Direction: SE

February Milky Way rising over wintery Bow Lake, Banff Alberta in February
The Milky Way core rises above the horizon just before dawn. It was balmy -35C before windchill that night.

Only a month needed to pass to see the galactic core above the horizon at Bow Lake. There is a just a small window before dawn to shoot the core. As the sun starts to rise the galaxy fades away in twilight.

March Milky Way

Time: 5:00AM
Direction: SE

Cloaked silhouette standing on sandstone ridge with March Milky Way at Dinosaur Provincial Park
A concept I had in mind to shoot right after Black Sabbath’s last show in Calgary. The clouds and light pollution added to the mood of the photo.

Up until 2018, the earliest I had shot the Milky Way core was March. The core is still very low to the horizon and still visible just before dawn, but the window of opportunity for viewing gets longer in March.

April Milky Way

Time: 3:30AM
Direction: SE/S

April Milky Way over abandoned house in Alberta
The Milky Way appears more defined and stands out better in the sky the higher it is during hours of darkness.

As spring progresses, the time interval to shoot the core is much longer than in February. You can probably shoot up to two hours depending on how you feel about twilight shots and having some of the core obscured by the horizon. With summer coming, sunrises occur earlier, so even though you can start to see the core earlier in the night, you don’t get *that* much more extra viewing time.

May Milky Way

Time: 2:00AM
Direction: SE/S

May Milky Way arc over snow capped peaks with aurora band in the North, Kananaskis Alberta
Full Milky Way arc in the sky. On the left is an aurora arc and on the right the green is air glow. The pink on the mountain tops is from the 50% moon setting.


I think May is my favourite month to shoot the Milky Way. The arc looks so good and I always try to get as many panoramas as possible this month. In this shot, the northern lights are on the left side in the north and the Milky Way leaps from the lights all the way over to SE/S. Of course you can shoot the entire arc from February on (a note on what happens in the fall in a few paragraphs). You will likely need to take multiple shots and then stitch them together in a panorama to fit the entire arc in a photo.

For those that use Photopills and are at a similar latitude to me, you may notice that in the Sun module, the Galactic Core visibility disappears at the end of May. I believe the developers set this because there is no true night time for a period of weeks. However, as you’ll see in June, you can still see the core.

June Milky Way

Time: 1:00AM
Direction: S

Baby wheat plants growing in rows under the June Milky Way, Alberta Agriculture
The Milky Way becomes more vertical in the summer.


As we get into summer, the Milky Way appears more vertical during hours of darkness. Although in June, at 51 degrees N, it’s not true night time. The sky remains lighter and the Milky Way does not stand out as much. It’s still beautiful to photograph and the details are definitely visible.

July Milky Way

Time: 1:00AM
Direction: S

July Milky Way over snow capped Mount Lefroy
The summer Milky Way in a very blue and “light” sky.

This image was taken at the beginning of July and looks like I was shooting at astronomical twilight. Well, as I’ve mentioned, we have this pesky problem at 51 degrees N that for a few weeks the skies never get truly dark. This does not mean you can’t shoot the Milky Way. The photos will just look a little different; the sky retains a lighter hue, the Milky Way is slightly less pronounced and the darkest time of night doesn’t last that long.

August Milky Way

Time: 11:00PM
Direction: S/SW

August Milky Way arc over mountains and glaciers in Rogers Pass, British Columbia
The Milky Way arcing high above the Earth. Single row panorama.


The Milky Way arc is still around! The arc just gets higher and higher in the sky as the months progress. The height is also why the Milky Way appears almost completely vertical in single shots that focus in on the core. Looking back at this photo I wish I had shot it as a two row panorama to catch a bit more foreground and so the top of the image had more space and less distortion (from the wide angle lens and then stitching) on the Milky Way.

September Milky Way

Time: 10:00PM
Direction: SW

September Milky Way over the Valley of Ten peaks and a bright meteor
The Milky Way is already starting to set when it is dark in the fall.

In the fall months you’ll want to be out shooting as soon as it dark. The Milky Way is already beginning its “downward” trajectory to set below the horizon. The arc is very high and goes almost directly overhead for most of the night. I’ve seen quite a few people shoot vertical panoramas of the Milky Way in September. They will orient their camera in landscape to shoot the core and foreground, then rotate their camera such that it is capturing a series of shots that move overhead to look directly straight up and then back down to look north.


October Milky Way

Time: 9:00PM
Direction: SW

Silhouette of tree with October Milky Way setting in Southern Alberta
The Milky Way is just barely over the horizon in October.
October is like February where you have a very short window to shoot the core above the horizon, except you are shooting right after dark instead of just before dawn. I think of this as the “distorted” Milky Way time. As the core sets and the arm moves more SW, the bottom portion looks like it bulges more and has a pulled down effect to it.

November Milky Way


Blóthar spraying the crowd with blood, Gwar, Calgary
Blóthar of Gwar on stage at MacEwan Hall in Calgary.

It would appear that I have never photographed the night sky in November. Not even aurora. It seems to have been a consistently good month for concerts and events though. I guess a silly goal for 2018 can be to take a photo at night and outside in November. Here is the closest thing I have to a space object photographed at a concert in November 2014. The band is Gwar, a group of aliens, so I guess it fits in here?

Update: I have photographed the night sky since I originally put this blog together. The photo selection for November makes me laugh so its staying. The Milky Way core is hidden for the winter season at this point.


December Milky Way

Time: 7:00PM
Direction: SW

December Milky Way next to snow covered Mount Chephren in Winter
Winter Milky Way shining brightly through a hazy sky.

December is another month where you will not see the core above the horizon during hours of darkness. The rest of the arm can make for some great compositions though. When I took this shot the skies overhead were completely clear but on the southern and western horizon there were some cloud and a lot of haze. The haze gives the brightest stars in the sky a glowing effect. The completely vertical arm lined up perfectly with Mount Chephren.

If you are interested in learning more about shooting the Milky Way, or night photography in general, I have workshops that are geared towards those subjects.