A common question I hear is, “When do I go out to shoot the Milky Way?”. The answer to this question depends on the month and the moon. You can see the Milky Way all year, but the galactic core, the photogenic portion we are usually after, is only visible above the horizon between February and October at 51 Degrees N. In order for the Milky Way to stand out the sky you want to shoot around new moon. Some moonlight can be good 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 new moon where the moon is out of the way enough. One of the other basic considerations is the orientation of the galaxy. In the spring the Milky Way core rises in the south east and is always moving south. In the summer you will be looking almost right around south. In the fall you will look for it south to south west.
Here are 12 months of Milky Way photos, the approximate time (MST) the shots were taken and which direction the camera was pointing. When you are planning your own shoots you can get more accurate information for specific dates and locations by using apps like Photopills, Sky Safari, Stellarium, etc. These apps will illustrate the galaxy’s position for specific dates and times.
Time: 11:30 PM
During winter nights star seem brighter and crisper. This is because during winter we looking away from the core of our galaxy and there is less starlight “blending” into the night sky. Looking out into the Orion Arm, there are very bright stars closer to use 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.
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.
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.
As spring progresses the time interval to shoot the core is much longer than in February. You can probably shoot up to two hours (maybe even more) 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.
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.
As we get into summer, the Milky Way appears more vertical during hours of darkness. The night this image was shot there was also quite a bit of moonlight. The moon had set below the horizon at this point, but because it was at 50% the sky retained a more blue hue from the remaining “light pollution”.
This image was taken at the beginning of July and looks like I was shooting at astronomical twilight. Well, 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 blue hue, the Milky Way is slightly less pronounced and the darkest time of night doesn’t last that long.
The Milky Way arc is still around! The arc just gets higher and higher in the sky as the months progress. This 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.
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 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.
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?
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.
I have a workshop at The Camera Store on May 5th. Check it out if you want to learn more about shooting and processing night images.