Whether you are travelling on the hunt for that perfect selfie, or a pro-photographer looking for a rare priceless sunset, South Africa offers some of the most sought-after, photogenic destinations in the world.
From Beitbridge to Cape Town, we have a wealth of waterfalls, mountains, dunes and grassy savanahs that provide some of the most epic scenes you could imagine.
Counted among this is the Milky Way. Highly sought after by photographers from around the world, this celestial blanket is ideally visible in our Southern Hemisphere for a good part of the year.
It makes for a perfect backdrop in a forest of quiver trees hidden away in the open expanse of the Karoo. Or a night in Stanford with a dam so still it looks like you are staring into a mirror.
It’s quite easy to see how on nights like this, in the middle of nowhere, you realise how small you are.
When I first started getting into astrophotography, I spent a lot of wasted time wondering around in the darkness with just a headlamp for company.
Along the way I’ve come across some great advice that when I first started shooting stars, I wish I knew about.
But, thanks to modern technology, pulling off the perfect Milky Way photograph is a lot easier than you would think. So much so that grabbing shots like these can be 90% prepared from the comfort of your lounge.
Here is what I’ve learnt:
There’s a “Milky Way” season, and SA is ideally located for it
While parts of the Milky Way can be visible throughout the year, you want to photograph the centre of the galaxy. This is the brightest part of the Milky Way, which makes it the easiest to photograph, even will a cell phone.
In our Southern Hemisphere, “Milky Way Season” is anywhere between February and October. This is when the Galactic Centre can be seen at night.
Unlike our Northern Hemisphere counterparts, South Africa is in the fortunate position to capture the Milky Way under very good star gazing conditions when it is at its most spectacular.
The season hits its peak in winter - an ideal time for star gazing as the nights are cool and the colder temperatures will help you get crisp star light.
It’s also over winter solstice which bringing longer nights to shoot the Milky Way. In the Northern Hemisphere they have summer to content with, which means longer days and less time to shoot.
The Milky Way moves in the sky so you can have different compositions throughout the night
We’ve all seen time lapses of this right? This is thanks to the Milky Way moving in the sky following the Earth’s rotation as the stars move.
It means that that wonderful trail of like which is distinctive will turn allowing you to have different compositions throughout the night. Depending on its movement the stars can be in a horizonal position, which is great to capture panoramic images, or the stars can move to a vertical or diagonal position, ideal for Instagram pics.
To find the centre of the galaxy use an app
In our Southern Hemisphere you’ll be able to find the galactic centre looking generally toward south. This makes it tricky to plan for a shoot as the centre will move along the horizon throughout the season.
For example, a composition that works out in May won’t be the same as it is in July, as the centre would have shifted over to a different spot.
Figuring out where the centre of the galaxy is half the job.
Luckily these days apps make the process of predicting where it will be a whole lot easier.
Using the GPS co-ordinates on your phone, apps can do all the complicated math figuring out where the centre of the galaxy will be and when. It’s possible to simulate exactly where the galactic centre will be on any given day, years from now.
Knowing where the galactic centre is, goes a long way toward planning your photos and looking for a good composition. So I can plan for a shoot I want to do months from now before I even leave on holiday.
There are several star planning apps out there, but I highly recommend one called PhotoPills and costs around R150. It is widely used within the South African photographic community and can help with planning sunsets, sunrises and even super moons.
Shoot at new moon and get out the city
It always amazes me when going to a remote location like the Kruger National Park, and the stars are much brighter than in the city. Well this is one of the main reasons why photographers go to remote locations to shoot the stars - to avoid light pollution.
No matter if it’s a cellphone or your DSLR, in order to get Milky Way shots your camera needs to be on a very light-sensitive setting. The less ambient light the more likely it is the light from suns burning lightyears away will be able to reach you.
I‘m not saying it’s impossible to shoot the Milky Way in the city, it’s just more difficult balancing the light.
The important take-away is to remember the darker your surroundings are, the clearer the evening sky will be. Even when you think you are in a remote part of the world, a tell-tale sign that there is a city nearby will be an orange glow in your photo behind a mountain.
The same can be said for the moon, which can be very bright. The best times to get star shots are when its new moon, when the suns light isn’t reflecting off the moon. And if you are in really cool spot and there is a moon blowing out your phot, you can also use your app to figure out when the moon will set.
For inspiration on Instagram I follow the hashtag #everynewmoon. Photographers from all over the world use this hashtag when they get out and photograph the Milky Way. The images are mind blowing.
Location pin the sites you want go back to
Visiting a location during the day can be one of the biggest live savers when shooting stars.
With just a headlamp for light, a landscape can completely transform at night. Not knowing where you want to go or how to get there can get you lost in no time.
A cool trick I now use is to send myself location pins via whatsapp so I know how to find the spot in the dead of night.
It works both ways when trying to get back to your car (or tent) - I learnt this handy trick when I almost got lost on Theewaterskloof Dam, I ended up walking in the wrong direction trying to find where I parked it because
Look for a focal point. Rocks, trees, windmills and lighthouses
When scouting for locations I’m on the lookout for focal points that jump out of the landscape. It can be something simple like an interesting rock formation or quiver trees. Or it can be quite complex like cabins, rivers or wind mills.
It’s important to remember that the interesting rock you want to photograph is also facing the right direction and will be in the Milky Way. Don’t waste your time waiting all night for a shot when you know the Milky Way isn’t going to get in the frame.
I’ll often do a few test shots before I find the composition I am looking for.
Finally, shoot wide use tripod and enjoy the night
Shooting the Milky Way is a great way to start venturing into astrophotography. It’s big so you can’t really miss it and if you can get out of the city there is not much in the way needed to balance the photos.
If you are starting out, it’s important to not get too bogged down in the technicalities of manual operation – in other words playing with shutter speed, aperture and ISO. Experimenting is half the fun. I am constantly adapting the way I shoot at night as I go along.
A basic guide to follow is a 30 second shutter speed, an aperture of f2.8 and an ISO 3200 at a max.
An essential item, no matter what camera you are using at night, is a tripod. You need something stable because most of your images will take as long as 30 seconds to expose and you need an auto shutter function to prevent bumping.
What’s cool is that most of the new smartphones coming out now can perform better than the older cheaper level entry cameras out on the market. Nowadays they also come with manual operation which means you can start experimenting with as would like a camera.
Being able to operate on manual and override poor low-light automatic functions makes your so much job easier at getting those awesome Milky Way shots. You can really push the cell phone to its limit
For the camera fundi’s out there, you want to make sure you’ve got a nice fast wide-angle lens 18mm-55mm with an aperture of f2.8 in your backpack. While a good wide angle lens can be expensive, I’ve found its much better to save and invest the money in ‘good glass’ rather than be disappointed with a cheaper substandard lens.
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