Our galactic home: the best ways to photograph the Milky Way

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This was taken in May when the Milky Way was low on the horizon near Torrey, Utah.
Rick Spitzer / Courtesy photo

We live on a planet that we call the Earth which revolves around a star that we call the sun. The sun is one of the many stars in the Milky Way. All the stars that we can see in the night sky are in this galaxy. How many stars is that? We can’t see them all, but astronomers think the number is somewhere between 100 billion stars and 400 billion high end, but the real answer is we really don’t know.

On a moonless night at this time of year, the Milky Way looks like a milky or cloudy area in the southern sky. It literally circles the earth. This faint glow is caused by millions and millions and millions of stars.

The Milky Way over Beaver Creek in April.
Rick Spitzer / Courtesy photo

Imagine the Milky Way as a rotating flat plate. It is a spiral galaxy with a central bar-shaped structure made up of stars that pass through the center of the plate. This plate is about 100,000 light years in diameter. 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 orbiting each other. This star system is approximately 4.3 light years from Earth. Light travels at 186,282 miles per second. This light left this star system 4.3 years ago.

The galaxy shines above the “Jouflas tree” on US Highway 6 near Wolcott in mid-October. A set of car lights illuminated the rock and the tree. Two meteors bombarded the image in the top left.
Rick Spitzer / Courtesy photo

Where are we on this plate? We are about halfway between the center and the outer stars of the plate in one of the “arms” of the galaxy. The center of rotation of this plate has a massive object called a black hole. The weight of this black hole is about 4 million suns and is called Sagittarius A Star.



If you have a star map, this center is in the southern sky towards the constellations of Sagittarius, Ophiuchus and Scorpio. This area is where the Milky Way looks brightest, 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 quite easy. These photos are more common today than in the past because digital cameras make it easier to get a good picture. You can take photos of the Milky Way and include them in your landscape photos, especially at that time of year when the Milky Way is brightest above the southern horizon.

In September, the Milky Way rises almost vertically in the southern sky near Flagstaff, Arizona.
Rick Spitzer / Courtesy photo

The best time to photograph the Milky Way is this time of year during a new moon. Moonlight tends to brighten the sky and can spoil the photo.

You need a tripod or other rigid support. Most of my photos are taken with a wide angle lens at around 30 seconds, F / 3.5, ISO 3200. You can watch your preview and adjust your exposure to get the shot you envision. Longer exposure times will result in star trails and a hazy Milky Way.

Include something in the foreground for interest. If the foreground has cars lighting up the scene, that can often be a very good thing. You can also paint or illuminate the foreground with a flashlight.

There are a number of apps for smartphones and tablets that can show you where the Milky Way is located and will be able to show what it will look like.

Enjoy!


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