When I started this blog, I was single and living at home with my parents in Hobart. Fast forward to 2020 and I now call Melbourne home where I’m fortunate to have my beautiful wife, Rani and our twin boys. Oh and of course, our dog Basil! For this reason, life has got in the way of providing updates on the blog but I’m hoping to slowly drip feed a few more posts over 2020.
Over the last year or two, I’ve developed a love affair with going off the beaten track in the Otway Ranges, Victoria. The Otways is home to some of Victoria’s most popular waterfalls with Hopetoun Falls being one that most instantly recognise. But it’s also home to 250~ waterfalls that are named but aren’t as accessible as the main more popular tourist waterfalls. Access to the waterfalls can vary from being marked with markers (generally attached to trees and shrubs) which you use to navigate your way to the waterfall while others don’t even have that and you’re relying on maps and bush bashing to find the waterfall.
As some of the waterfalls off the beaten track in the Otways aren’t for the faint hearted and easy to get lost, I’m going to hold back on sharing locations.
Most images captured with a Nikon D850, Nikon 17-35, tripod with a NiSi circular polariser to help keep the glare back.
In January 2019 I assessed the market to find what is the best drone for photographers. It was very clear that the DJI Mavic 2 Pro is the leader for photographers looking for a drone for still photography with its exceptional image quality, affordable price and IQ.
Best Overall Drone: DJI Mavic Pro 2, everything great about the Phantom 4 Pro without the bulk.
Runner up, Best Overall: DJI Phantom 4 Pro, while starting to show its age and a replacement being imminent, still a more than capable drone.
Best Value Option Drone: DJI Spark, this super small drone is a great entry point for people getting into drones.
Best Budget Option Drone: Holy Stone HS110D, a super cheap way to play around with drones without breaking the bank.
Before we look at what makes the DJI Mavic 2 Pro and alternative options, it’s important to look at why drone photography is an awesome new area of photography to explore and also what things to look out for when you’re buying a drone.
What’s my experience in drones?
I’ve been fortunate to own a few drones over the years from:
DJI Phantom 2 with GoPro attached – This was like driving a car without power steering in the dark with no headlights. Super fun but the image quality was terrible and the drone felt like a toy. This was largely due to the drone not having the ability to hover in the one place or avoid obstacles like today’s drones. Basically this meant that in any wind conditions you’d be fighting to keep the drone in the one position without crashing into any trees.
DJI Phantom 4 Pro Plus – This was a huge step up compared to the P2 with the camera being a huge step up (think an entry level DSLR) and the drone now including being smart enough that anyone could fly one (scary!) with the obstacle avoidance, automatic take off and landing and camera to help with seeing where you’re flying. I loved the camera image quality of the P4P but the bulky nature of the drone made it unpractical at times when travelling interstate or on road trips.
DJI Mavic 2 – Finally! A drone that comes with great image quality, IQ and doesn’t break the bank.
All of this experience has given me a good understanding of what makes a good drone for photography.
Why you should buy a drone for photography
Mix up your photography with new angles not possible with your normal camera
Challenge yourself artistically in a relatively new genre of photography
Unleash your inner kid! Whilst the drones mentioned in this article definitely aren’t for kids, they still are a heck of a lot of fun to fly and made me feel like a kid again!
What you should consider when looking at drones
The sky is the limit (like what I did there?) when it comes to buying drones for still photography but assuming you’re like me and have a mortgage and family to support, unfortunately that $10,000 drone is out of reach.
Fortunately though, we’re incredibly lucky with the available range of drones under $2,000 with many options for people looking to get started all the way through to people looking to buy a drone for high-end commercial work.
Camera sensor and lens
Things to consider when it comes to the camera on your drone:
What is the low light performance like on the drone? As you will be photographing around sunrise/sunset, it’s key to have something that is able to capture nice noise free images in low light
How wide is the lens? Most drones come standard with a wide angle lens and like your wide angle lens at home, some can have greater distortion than others.
DJI bought a majority stake in Hasselblad in 2017. Since then we have begun to see equipment with the Hasseblad logo stamped over it. Whether Hasselblad have had much/any involvement
The higher the mega pixel the better when it comes to drone photography. From my personal experience, I crop my images a lot more on the drone as I’m working with a fixed length lens with no zoom and it can also be difficult
When looking for a drone for the purpose of aerial photography, it’s important to take into account the ability to capture images in RAW rather than JPG or other compressed outputs. Like photographing in RAW on your still camera, this gives you the ability to greater recover highlights or shadows as opposed to photographing in JPG or other compressed outputs.
Any decent drone will include a gimbal which basically acts as a stabilisation device for the camera. Without a gimbal, the camera can appear wobbly as you move the drone and try to record at the same time. The gimbal is more critical if you’re planning on shooting video on your drone as you will be more inclined to record while moving the drone. But it is also useful to have for flying the drone so you have a steady video stream coming through to help with navigating.
Early edition DJI drones like the DJI Phantom 2 were renowned for having reliability issues where they would die mid flight or fly away. DJI have innovated heavily in this area and the drones have incredible reliability with these issues only occurring for a very small minority of drones.
When researching other drones for this article, I did notice that reliability issues are still common in lesser known and mature brands. Generally these issues only affect a small minority but it’s worth noting when considering the price difference between DJI and a cheaper brand.
When considering battery life, it’s important to take into consideration:
Powering on and taking the drone off
Flying the drone to altitude height
Manoeuvring the drone into position
Taking your photos or videos
Returning and landing the drone
All of the above use your precious battery life which leads me to say – the more battery life the better!
Having gone from a 20 minute to 30 minute battery life, I now feel less rushed and don’t feel like I’m constantly clock watching to see how much air time my drone has.
Having owned both the DJI Mavic 2 and DJI Phantom 4 Pro, I can tell you that size definitely matters when it comes to owning a drone.
I’ve gone from owning the DJI Phantom 4 Pro which weighed in at 1334 grams to the Mavic 2 weighing 907 grams and folds down to a substantially smaller size. The Phantom 4 Pro was cumbersome to carry around and also attracted a lot of attention. With the Mavic 2 Pro, I’m able to simply put this in my camera bag and barely notice it’s there.
Consider asking yourself the following questions when considering what size drone would best suit your needs:
Will I be travelling interstate/overseas and be happy to carry the drone to the airport/check it in?
What advantage does the bigger drone provide over smaller drones available?
Will I also be carrying my regular camera setup with me?
Ease of flying
When using a drone for aerial photography, you need something which provides stability and allows you to easily fly in open areas where conditions might be windy (I.e. above open coastline) but also features obstacle avoidance to fly in small confined areas (i.e. between trees when photographing a waterfall).
There’s a few things I’d recommend you check when looking for a drone:
Ability to hover in one position without needing manual intervention
Stability in the wind
Return to home functionality
How far are you looking to fly the drone? Realistically you shouldn’t fly your drone a big distance away from you due to most country aerial/drone laws requiring drone operators to always maintain line of sight with the drone at all times.
Although sometimes having a drone with a good range even when you are maintains line of sight can be useful especially when flying in windy conditions where the drone may struggle to fly up wind back to you. This gives the option of being able to either a) Slowly return up wind to you and not stress that the drone may fall out of range or b) find a safe spot to land if your battery is low.
Drone Buying Guide
Best Overall Drone – DJI Mavic 2 Pro
Announced in August 2018, the DJI Mavic 2 Pro is DJI’s current flagship drone. DJI have taken a lot of what was great about the DJI Phantom 4 Pro and put it in a more compact drone being the DJI Mavic 2 Pro.
I personally own the DJI Mavic 2 Pro and love it. Some of the key features which make this a great drone include:
Flight time of 31 minutes (if flown at a constant 7 miles per hour (25 kph)
Weighs 907 grams and 354 mm (diagonal)
Omni-directional obstacle avoidance system to help with avoiding those pesky trees
Range of 8km
20 megapixel 1″ sensor (vs the old 1/2.3″ sensor on the original Mavic)
10-bit colour mode
Outputs files in RAW (DNG)
Captures video in 4k up to 30 fps
Impressive ISO performance of 100-12800
28mm fixed lens
Hyperlapse mode to capture hyperlapse videos
Hyperlight mode to assist with taking photos in the dark
Active Track 2.0
All of the above makes the DJI Mavic 2 Pro an awesome drone for aerial photography and my recommended pick if you are looking for a drone for aerial photography.
Previous drones felt like you were capturing images with your iPhone but the Mavic 2 Pro feels like an entry level DSLR (at least). DJI have really hit the mark with the DJI Mavic 2 Pro and you cannot go wrong.
Difference between the DJI Mavic 2 Pro and the DJI Mavic 2 Zoom
The DJI Mavic 2 Pro is a superior drone for still photography when compared to the other recently released DJI’s other new drone, the DJI Mavic 2 Zoom. The Zoom is targeted towards the video market with features such as dolly zoom and the ability to optical zoom whilst the Pro is more geared towards photographers with a greater image sensor (1″ vs 1/2.3″ sensor) , better low light capabilities (100-12800 vs 100-3200) and far superior colour range (1 billion vs 16 million).
Lens: Pro model has a fixed 28mm lens whilst the Zoom has a 2x optical zoom lens
Image Resolution: The Pro has a 20 megapixel camera whilst the Zoom has a 12 megapixel sensor
Image Sensor: The Pro comes with a 1″ sensor (similar to the Phantom 4) while the Zoom only comes with a 1/2.3″ sensor.
ISO Range: The Pro has an ISO range of 100-12800 and the Zoom has a range of 100-3200
Colour range: The Pro wins this hands down with a colour range of 1 billion colours vs 16 million colours
Dolly zoom: As expected by the name, the Zoom includes a dolly zoom (great for video) whilst the Pro does not
Price: The Pro model was launched at $1499 whilst the Zoom model was $1249. A $250 difference
My recommendation is to purchase the DJI Mavic 2 Pro if you are looking for a drone for aerial still photography. This recommendation is based off the better sensor in the DJI Mavic 2 Pro which in turn provides:
Greater dynamic range
Better low light performance
Greater ability to crop your images due to the higher mega pixel
Runner Up, Best Overall Drone – DJI Phantom 4 Pro
Having once owned the DJI Phantom 4 Pro, I can’t speak more highly enough of this drone. However with the recent release of the DJI Mavic 2 Pro, it makes recommending the Phantom 4 Pro difficult.
Some of the key features of the DJI Phantom 4 Pro include:
Weighs 1388 grams and is 350mm (diagonal) when taken out of the box
Difference between the DJI Mavic 2 Pro and the DJI Phantom 4 Pro
The key differences between the DJI Phantom 4 Pro and the DJI Mavic 2 Pro include:
Flight time: Mavic 2 Pro has 2 minutes of additional flight time (32 mins vs 30 mins)
Weight: Mavic 2 Pro is 481 grams lighter and far smaller in physical size
Camera: Phantom 4 Pro includes a mechanical shutter where the Mavic Pro 2 only includes an electronic shutter. This is more relevant for filming to avoid the rolling shutter effect
Colour mode: Mavic 2 Pro comes with 10-bit colour whilst the Phantom has 8-bit colours.
Focal Length: The focal length of the Phantom 4 Pro is 24mm vs the Mavic 2 Pro’s 28mm
Cost: At time of writing, the Mavic 2 Pro costed $1,449 and the Phantom 4 Pro was $1,499 making the Mavic 2 Pro cheaper
Set up time – I’d argue the Mavic 2 Pro is easier to set up and travel with
Range: Mavic 2 Pro has a range of 8km vs the Phantom’s range of 7km
Wind resistance: Due to the size and weight of the Phantom 4 Pro, this makes it a bit more stable in the wind and lesser prone to get thrown around
Active Track: The Mavic 2 Pro comes with Active Track 20 vs. the Phantom’s Active Track 1.0. The difference you ask? Mostly reliability and the new spotlight tracking feature where the drone will keep the subject at the centre of frame and continue to fly around it
Hyperlapse and Hyperlight: Only the Mavic 2 Pro comes with these modes.
It’s pretty clear based on the above that the DJI Mavic 2 Pro is the superior drone when compared to other high end drones in the market. Although the DJI Phantom 4 Pro is beginning to show its age now and a refresh isn’t far away.
I’d only recommend the DJI Phantom 4 Pro if one came up second hand for cheap. Even then I’d be nervous about buying in case it has been crashed in the past. For this reason, go with the DJI Mavic 2 Pro.
Best Value Option Drone – DJI Spark
Released in May 2017, the DJI Spark makes a great drone for people entering the drone market and not ready to make the leap to spending a large amount of money on a drone just yet.
The DJI Spark is known for its small size so some of the short comings below (i.e. distance or camera capability) are due to limitations in the size of the drone. Some features of the DJI Spark include:
Weighs a tiny 300 grams and 170mm diagonal
16 minute flight time
12 mega pixel camera with a 1/2.3″ sensor
ISO range of 100-1600
Only exports in JPG and not RAW (DNG)
Films 1080p HD video
Small size makes it vulnerable in windy conditions compared to other drones
The sensor on the DJI Spark is on the lower side at 1/2.3″ when you consider an iPhone 7 sensor is 1/1.3″. Combine this with the low ISO range and ability to only photo in JPG, this limits the image quality which you will get from the DJI Spark.
The DJI Spark makes a great drone for people who are unsure about buying a drone and not convinced it’s for them. Personally, I’d save the money and buy the DJI Mavic 2 Pro.
The Holy Stone HS1110D is one of the lesser known brands trying to make a name for itself in the DJI dominated drone market. I’d place the Holy Stone HS110D and other drones like this in toy/hobbyist category. Largely due to their size (145 grams), flight time (10 minutes) and distance (60 m) making it not overly practical if you’re keen on getting high end shots.
A quick look at the specs of the Holy Stone HS110D:
Weighs 145 grams and 320 mm diagonal
10 minute flight time
5 mega pixel camera
Films 720p video
Doesn’t require FAA registration due to weight
One thing that DJI does well with its drones is reliability. A quick skim of the reviews of the Holy Stone HS110D and it was quite clear that this drone was susceptible to reliability issues when in the sky.
Like most things in life, you get what you pay for and I’d recommend skipping this one unless you want to pick up a cheap drone for your kids.
1080P FOV 120° HD FPV Camera: You can capture memorable moments with distortion-free and view images on your phone from the wide-angel lens. The app enables you to expand your creativity further and share it on social media with ease.
Altitude Hold: When you focus on shooting images, you may set your hands off the joystick and the drone still suspend in mid-air with locked altitude. A perfect drone for beginners, kids, starters, or newbies to have a easy and stable flight experience.
Headless Mode: The pilot will feel easier to control, especially when the drone is out of sight, under headless mode while the orientation of the drone is in relation to the pilot. The drone are also equipped with 3D flips to make your day.
My Unsplash gallery (link) has some pretty impressive stats:
Digging a bit deeper, I ran some reverse image Google searches to get an idea on how the images are being used. It was quite interesting:
Image sharing websites (free desktop/iPhone wallpaper sharing) – used 32 times
Social media (Pinterest, Twitter, Facebook, etc) – used 39 times
Business (commercially) – used 37 times
Resale (re-sale of my images as canvas or framed prints) – 3 times
Credit back to me – 0 times
Some interesting usage and themes in how the images were being used commercially:
Church/religious websites love my images with around 10 unique churches using my images
Major government department in New South Wales Australia is using one of the images
When images are credited back, it is often back to Unsplash without even a link
Plumbing or water companies love a top down beach aerial photo. Who would have thought!
What was I hoping to achieve by giving my images away for free?
I went in with an open mind and didn’t have high hopes when signing up for a website giving images away for free but I saw a few opportunities:
Building natural links to my website from people using and crediting my images – This hasn’t happened at all.
People sharing my photos on Instagram and crediting me back – This has happened 2-3 times by accounts with less than 50 followers so wasn’t what I’d hoped.
People wanting to license my work for money – Again… This hasn’t happened at all.
Was it worth it?
Well… No. Unfortunately things didn’t pan out like I’d hoped and I’ve got nothing to show for my 12.5 million (and rapidly growing) views but a decent amount of interaction and views on my images.
Am I disappointed?
I’m slightly disappointed but you have to be in it to win it right? I’ve enjoyed being involved in something new and different but wouldn’t change anything. You don’t know if you don’t try.
With that said though, I’ve read of some great things coming from people posting on Unsplash where it has led to commercial work.
Would I recommend you submit your work to Unsplash?
Yes and no.
It really depends on how emotionally attached you are to your work and whether you believe your work has financial value in the future. Personally speaking, I submitted my ‘b-grade’ work to Unsplash which I was less emotionally attached to but at the same time, it was pretty depressing seeing a major Australian newspaper and government agency both using my images.
If you are thinking of submitting your work to Unsplash, I’d suggest you consider:
What am I looking to gain from submitting my work? Exposure? Potential future financial opportunities? The sense of giving back to the community?
How emotionally attached am I to the work?
Would this work be better served being kept for other licensing opportunities (i.e. paid stock websites or your portfolio)
Is this work unique/exclusive and has genuine value? I’ve got some unique work which is doing great on paid stock websites and would have been a waste to be made available for free
Licensing your work (whether it be free or paid) can quickly erode future value of the work. I’ve licensed my work in the past on exclusive agreements where the party were also interested to understand how the image had been used by others. If the work was used in the past, it quickly cuts down how much they are willing to pay based on the image not being exclusive and potentially being recognised by consumers as used in other campaigns by another company.
Where to from here?
I’ve decided to stop submitting my work to Unsplash for the time being but will look to keep my existing work on there to see what comes about. I figure there’s no point taking the images off at this point in time as they are now widely accessible on image sharing websites, etc.
If you’re looking to find me on Unsplash, I submit my work under @alexwise.
I’m fortunate through work that I’ve been able to travel a lot over the last 12 months. Unfortunately though, travelling for work often doesn’t mean much time to actually stop and get out with the camera!
With a recent work trip to Sydney I added a few days into the trip and had the pleasure of exploring parts of Sydney with Jack Chauvel.
Cathedral Rock and Bombo Quarry
Arriving in Sydney mid afternoon, Jack and I headed straight towards Kiama to photograph Cathedral Rock on sunset and then make the most of the the clear skies by catching the Milky Way rising at both Cathedral Rock and Bombo Quarry.
Unfortunately we arrived just as the sun was beginning to set below the horizon so we didn’t have as much time we would have liked to capture the sunset but the clear skies made the perfect conditions for Milky Way photography.
We spent a bit of time at Cathedral Rock stumbling around in rock pools (getting wet) capturing the milky way. Before heading home, we decided to make a stop by the ever popular, Bombo Quarry.
Popular photography locations actually don’t do much for me. I enjoy the challenge of trying to find a unique angle but at the same time, I feel desensitised by the area after seeing so many photographs of it. Bombo Quarry is one of those locations for me.
Arriving at Bombo Quarry in darkness and only being able to see by lighting with head torch was a blessing in disguise. It took away the feeling of already knowing the location after seeing countless (and awesome) photographs by others. After stumbling around in the dark I eventually found a few compositions that tickled my fancy.
I’d never shot a location when there were two separate photography workshops happening at the location. As you can imagine, it was head torches galore which meant many frames ruined by other people’s head torches but I was lucky to get a few in the end that I was happy with!
Sea Cliff Bridge
Sea Cliff Bridge is one of those locations which are iconic for a reason. After seeing the clip featured in this old Shell ad, I’d always wanted to get here to photograph the bridge.
After being out late the night before (arriving home at 1am or so), it was a struggle to get up at 4am the next morning but I’m so glad we did as we had some great light on the morning with awesome red colour featuring throughout the sky.
It was surprisingly how little traffic came through during blue hour. I was hoping to get some nice long exposures of the cars passing along the bridge but it just wasn’t meant to be. After the sunrise, I had a play with the drone for a bit and we drove back to Sydney.
Coming from Hobart and Melbourne where there aren’t any ocean pools for swimmers (mostly due to the cooler climate), I’ve always wanted to capture one of the many beautiful Sydney ocean pools whether it be from above or at sea level.
Unfortunately with the clear skies it wasn’t ideal conditions for shooting at sea level but made the perfect conditions from shooting above.
Mrs Macquaries Chair
After a few days shooting late into the night and getting up at the crack of dawn my time in Sydney had come to an end. What better way then to finish up with a few afternoon shots by Mrs Macquaries Chair before flying out?
Thanks again to Jack and Rose for their spare bed and showing me some of Sydney’s best pho and dumplings 😉 Be sure to check out Jack’s wedding photography – it’s some of the best!
After recently moving away from the Canon 5D Mark II to a Sony A7RII, I was itching to get out and make the most of my new purchase by giving the low light performance a play with some astro photography.
Milky way photography is something that has evaded me over the years due to the Canon struggling in low light conditions (to put it politely). With the purchase of the A7RII, it was now finally time that I could get out there and shoot in low light conditions without having an image of nasty noise!
But there was one slight problem… I knew nothing about the milky way and spent too much time admiring other people’s photos to take a step back and learn about how to photograph it myself!
Things to consider when planning a milky way shoot
For the purpose of this post, I’m not going to go into great depths on how to use PhotoPills to plan a Milky Way shoot as I think other people have covered this in much better detail than I can. This tutorial by the PhotoPills team is a great starter.
There’s also some other great tools out there for planning a milky way shoot such as Stellarium and Sun Surveyor. Like anything, it comes down to personal preference and finding something that works best for you. For me, photo pills is easy to use which is good for a simpleton like me 😉
Sky tracking mounts are becoming a popular way to reduce the noise in milky way shots. A popular mount is the SkyWatcher mount which rotates to offset the movement of the night sky which in turn allows you to capture longer exposures at a smaller aperture. By doing so this allows you to photograph at a lower ISO which in turn means less noise.
This post will look to cover some of the questions I had as I was learning more about Astro photography. Sometimes it was simple things like
What is the milky way season?
How do I find a dark sky?
When is the best time to photograph the milky way?
Can you photograph the milky way while the moon is up?
How do I check the cloud forecast to ensure clear skies?
What’s the best camera settings for photographing the milky way?
Let’s get started.
When is the best time to photograph the milky way?
Northern or Southern Hemisphere?
Depending on where you are in the world, the milky way is only visible at certain parts of the year. Sure, you might be able to see some parts of the milky way but galactic centre and other parts may be out of view.
The reason that the milky way is only visible at certain parts of the year is largely due to the curvature and movement of the earth. This means for those in the northern hemisphere, your best viewing times of the milky way is between the months of November to February. For those in the southern hemisphere, is between February to October.
This is what people are referring to when they refer to the milky way season starting or finishing.
Is the milky way visible straight after sunset?
Can I just take photos once blue hour ends? Well sort of but not quite.
Like the moon and sun, the milky way begins rising in the late evening and then starts setting in the early morning. The best time to photograph the milky way and all its galactic core glory is once it has fully risen. Depending on the time of the year, this can sometimes be at crazy hours of 3 am in the morning or more comfortable times at 10:30 pm in the evening.
The reason why we wait for the milky raise to fully rise is due to the milky way being huge (100,000 light years in fact! Thanks Google…). If you try photograph the Milky Way while it is still rising, you may find some of the milky way will be cut off and sitting below the horizon. With this in mind, you can still get out there and photograph the Milky Way as its rising but you may find some of it is hidden behind the horizon until it finishes rising.
Why should I care about what phase the moon is in?
Have you ever looked up at the night sky and thought how bright the stars looked compared to other times? This often comes down to two factors… Light pollution and the moon phase.
The first factor that can influence the visibility of the night sky is based on how far you are away from light pollution when looking at the sky. Generally you will find the best skies are found in locations far away from nearby cities. This is due to the amount of light pollution which a city generates which in turn reduces your where you are far away from the light pollution generated.
The second factor which influences how dark the sky will be also comes down to which particular phase the moon is in.
Generally the most optimal time to photograph the milky way is when the moon is in the ‘new moon’ phase. During this time, the moon emits little to no light and increases your chances of seeing the milky way in all its glory. But to go one step further, I’d also recommend planning your shoot when the moon has either risen or set to increase your visibility of the milkyway. Using an app like PhotoPills will give you all this information. Alternatively, websites such as Moon Giant provide a calendar view of the calendar for a particular day of the month.
Finding a location with dark skies
Depending on where you live, one of the challenges you will have when it comes to photographing the Milky Way is finding a location that isn’t filled with light pollution from a nearby city or town.
Luckily there are tools out there to help with understanding what the level of light pollution is at a specific location. One of my favourites is Dark Site Finder which provides an overlay over Google Maps rating the light pollution in the area from Dark to Bright.
Please note that the data used for Dark Site Finder is 10~ years old so the accuracy for some locations will vary.
But what about photographing a Milky Way under a light polluted sky? One of my favourites is this stunning photo captured of the Sydney Opera House during White Night in 2017 shows that it is more than possible to get a photograph of the Milky Way under a light polluted sky.
How do I check the cloud forecast for the night?
Living in inner-city Melbourne where the urban sprawl of the the city feels like it never ends, I need to venture far if I want to find nice dark skies mentioned in the previous section. As I’m sometimes driving 1-2 hours to get to a location with dark skies, I want to ensure that the location is clear and I’m not wasting my time.
Luckily there’s some great tools out there to assist with knowing what the cloud coverage is like at a specific location. Here in Australia, one of my favourite tools is Cloud Free Night. Using the below screenshot as an example, Cloud Free Night gives me a 3 day cloud forecast for the low, mid and high cloud coverage with also the forecast fog cover. When you only have a limited amount of time to photograph the milky way, cloud forecast tools are a great way to validate that your potentially long road trip and stumbling around in the dark isn’t going to be a waste of time.
For those not in Australia there’s also Clear Dark Sky which provides similar cloud forecasts.
Why do I have to wait until the time PhotoPills recommends?
PhotoPills (and other tools) recommend a window of time to photographing the galactic core of the Milky Way. As the moon is a light source (and quite a strong one depending on where it’s at in its cycle), this brightens the sky to the point where it makes capturing the galactic core of the milky way difficult. The window of time recommended by PhotoPills is essentially when the moon has finished setting and the sky will be at its darkest. This window of time becomes the optimal time to photographing the galactic core.
Using the screenshot to the right as an example, I’m able to drop a pin to place where I will be taking a photo from which then allows me to see where the milky way will be rising from (the grey line) and where it will setting (the black line). Photo Pills is also recommending the best time of this month to photograph the milky way which is indicated by the full bars at the top of the screenshot.
Being able to see where the milky way will rise and set is super handy especially when you have a composition in mind (like a tree in this case) but are unsure where the milky way will be sitting in the sky. By using an app like Photo Pills, I’m able to cycle through the various times of the year until I find a time when the milky way is sitting in a position that works well for my composition.
Can you photograph the milky way when the moon is still setting?
In fact, I actually prefer photographing while the moon is still up as you have the moon acting as a light source helping illuminate your foreground.
If you are planning to shoot while the moon is still setting, I’d recommend getting out while the moon is around 0-50% of its cycle. Any more and it becomes too bright. The milky way purists will call out that you’re not getting the milky way in all its glory but the trade off is worth it if you ask me.
What are the best camera settings for photographing the milky way?
Use a camera with good low light performance – Photographing in dark conditions means you will need to take your photos with a high ISO (generally 3200-4000 but this can vary). With older cameras especially, the noise at this ISO range can be on the higher side compared to new cameras which have much lower noise when photographing at a high ISO.
Use a sturdy tripod – Shooting in low light conditions where your exposure will be around the 20 second mark, it helps to have a sturdy tripod to support your camera.
Use a fast lens – Ideally shoot with a lens around f1.4 to f4 depending on your budget. Anything higher (f4+) may make it difficult to capture the dynamic range of the milky way.
Use a mid-range ISO (3200) – Anything lower and you may have trouble capturing the milky way and anything higher may introduce too much noise depending on your camera body.
Compose with the live view – One of the challenges of photographing the milky way is trying to focus your camera. My favourite trick is to put the camera into live view and focus on to the brightest star. If that fails another option is to focus your lens to infinity.
Find a shutter speed that captures enough light without introducing blur – One trick that’s handy for shooting the milky way is knowing the 500 rule which helps with calculating the longest exposure (in seconds) before the stars begin to turn into star trails. Using this technique, you divide 500 by the focal length of your lens. As an example if you’re shooting with a 20mm lens (500/20), this would result in a shutter speed of 25 seconds.
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