Our galactic home: The best ways to shoot the Milky Way
For the Vail Daily
We live on a planet we call Earth that is circling a star we call the sun. The sun is one of many stars in the Milky Way Galaxy. All the stars we can see in the night sky are in that galaxy. How many stars is that? We cannot see them all, but astronomers believe the number is between 100 billion stars and 400 billion on the high end, but the real answer is that we really don’t know.
On a moonless night, this time of the year, the Milky Way looks like a milky or cloudy area in the southern sky. It literally circles the earth. That slight glow is caused by millions and millions and millions of stars.
Imagine the Milky Way Galaxy as a rotating, flat plate. It is a spiral galaxy with a central bar-shaped structure made of stars that run through the center of the plate. That plate is about 100,000 light-years across. We are actually looking through the flat plane of the plate to see the Milky Way.
The closest star to Earth in the Milky Way may actually be three stars in a system that orbit each other. That star system is around 4.3 light-years from Earth. Light travels at 186,282 miles per second. That light left that star system 4.3 years ago.
Where are we in that plate? We are about half way from the center and the outside stars of the plate in one of the “arms” of the galaxy. The rotational center of that plate has a massive object called a black hole. The weight of that black hole is equal to about 4 million suns and is called Sagittarius A Star.
If you have a star chart, that center is in the southern sky in the direction of the constellations Sagittarius, Ophiuchus, and Scorpius. That area is where the Milky Way appears brightest, a part of the constellation Sagittarius is called the “Teapot.” The center of the Milky Way is just west of the Teapot.
Today’s digital cameras make photographing the Milky way fairly easy. Those photos are more common now than in the past, because digital cameras make it easier to get a good image. You can take pictures of the Milky Way and include them in your scenery photos, especially this time of year when the Milky Way is at its brightest above the southern horizon.
The best time to shoot the Milky Way is this time of year during a new moon. Moonlight tends to lighten up the sky and can spoil the photo.
You need a tripod or other rigid mount. Most of my photos are shot with a wide angle lens at around 30 seconds, F/3.5, ISO 3200. You can look at your preview and adjust your exposure to to get the shot you envision. Longer exposure times will result in star trails and a blurry Milky Way.
Include something in the foreground for interest. If the foreground has cars that light up the scene, that can often be a really good thing. You can also paint or light up the foreground with a flashlight.
There are a number of apps for smart phones and tablets that can show you where the Milky Way is and will be able to show what it will look like.
Rick Spitzer is an acclaimed wildlife photographer who lives in Wildridge.