How I Plan a Milky Way Shoot

There’s a lot of work that goes into getting a successful Milky Way image, not the least of which is planning. There’s a number of factors to take into account when planning your shoot. As such, it can be a daunting task for those that are just starting out, so I figured I’d write a guide on how I go about planning these late-night shoots.

Let’s not waste any more time and dive right in!

The Milky Way over Half Moon Rock, Red River Gorge, Kentucky
The Milky Way over Half Moon Rock, Red River Gorge, Kentucky

The Weather

It’s probably not exactly Earth-shattering news that you need clear skies to successfully photograph the night sky. As such, having a few good weather sources is essential. I have four sources that I generally use for this purpose.

Dark Sky

Dark Sky iPhone app screenshot.
Dark Sky iPhone app precipitation map.

Dark Sky is an iPhone application that that allows you to quickly and easily see what the upcoming forecast is with just a quick glance. The accuracy of the forecasts has honestly declined slightly over the years (in my opinion) but I still find that I like using it for a fast, initial look at the weather in a given area. It’s also worth noting that the precipitation map within the app is pretty nice.

Weatherbug

Weatherbug iPhone screenshot.

Weatherbug is my favorite of the full feature weather apps. It’s got pretty much everything you’d expect from a weather app, so I don’t feel that I need to dive into too much detail here. I will mention that I often find the forecast to be relatively reliable from Weatherbug.

Windy

Windy app screenshot.

Windy is a great little app that produces absolutely gorgeous weather maps. The primary thing I use the app for, however, is the cloud map. It makes it really easy to visually see what the cloud cover is at any given time and the projected path in which they will move across the sky. This is essential information for a photographer wishing to capture the Milky Way.

Clear Sky Charts

Clear Sky Chart for Tunnel Ridge Road in the Red River Gorge, Kentucky.

If you’re not familiar with Clear Sky Charts then you need to get familiar with them! These little charts convey a ton of information about the weather conditions that affect observing the cosmos. Once you understand how to read these charts you can quickly get an idea of the expected cloud cover, transparency of the atmosphere, and even how dark you can expect the skies to be. I cannot overstate how great these charts are!

Dark Skies

Light Pollution map of the United States.

Weather is just one part of the equation when photographing the Milky Way. In addition to clear skies, you want the darkest skies possible. The darker the sky, the more detail you’ll be able to see in the Milky Way. The easiest way to get this information is by using a light pollution map. Light pollution is represented on these maps using the Bortle Scale, which you can get a great explanation of from this webpage.

Location, Location, Location

Just like any other form of landscape photography, your location is critical. Unless you’re just going for a picture of the sky you’re going to need somewhere that offers a good foreground. This is where putting in leg work to scout locations can really be a life-saver, but Google Earth can also be excellent for scouting potential areas that you’re not as familiar with. While it doesn’t beat on-the-ground scouting it can still be a great place to start.

Google Earth Screenshot
An example of some of the scouting that can be done with Google Earth.

Once you’ve worked out a location, you’ll want to know where in the sky the Milky Way is going to appear and at what time it’ll be in that position. For this task, you really can’t beat the PhotoPills app. PhotoPills offers a ton of modules, which they call pills, but the planner pill is the one we’re interested in here.

PhotoPills iPhone screenshot.

The planning module allows you to put in a location (by clicking on the Load icon in the toolbar) and will convey a fair bit of information. I won’t cover everything that this view shows in this post, but if you’re interested in such a post let me know and I’ll happily write one up!

The part we’re interested in here is the Milky Way, which is conveyed by those dots across the sky. The bigger dots represent the galactic core, which is the part of the Milky Way that you’re most likely looking to shoot. So, as you can see, you can load in your location and scroll through dates and times to see exactly where in the sky the Milky Way will appear. This is great for planning a shot where you want the Milky Way in a very specific spot in your frame!

The Moon