Check out 10 jaw-dropping new images of our home galaxy shortlisted for the annual award

Have you ever seen the Milky Way? It is estimated that approximately 80% of Americans can no longer see the arc of the spiral arms of our home galaxy due to worsening light pollution, but this rarity sparks interest in seeking it out and capturing it on camera.

Travel photography blog Capture the Atlas just published his 5th edition of its annual Milky Way Photographer of the Yeara collection of the 25 best photos of the Milky Way.

Here are 10 of the best images from the contest, which includes images created in 12 countries, plus commentary from Dan Zafra, editor of Capture the Atlas, which organizes the contest.

Why is photographing the Milky Way so popular?

“Part of the excitement of photographing our galaxy is capturing a subject with lots of detail, color and texture that isn’t fully visible to the human eye,” Zafra said. “Our vision is very poor at night, we can see bright and dark nebulae but our vision hasn’t evolved to see colors or all the detail our cameras can capture.”

“Seeing our Milky Way photographed from the back of the camera screen is a very moving experience for most photographers, and the ability to see our MW in different positions and angles depending on latitude and weather hemisphere makes it even more exciting.”

How to Take a Quick Photo of the Milky Way

All of these images are painstakingly created using star trackers and multiple exposures, but there are easier ways to do this, although you will need a manual camera on a tripod. “For anyone photographing the Milky Way for the first time, other than the basics of shooting during or around the new moon and staying away from sources of light pollution, I would recommend the following settings,” said said Zafra. So this is it :

  • Using the Maximum Aperture of Your Lens
  • Setting the maximum ISO allowed by the camera while controlling noise
  • Setting a shutter speed between 10 and 25 seconds depending on the camera and focal length.

“Also, using a wide-angle lens with a fast aperture makes a big difference regardless of camera model,” Zafra said.

Are star-trackers used in all these images?

“17 of the 25 images featured in this year’s edition were taken using a Star tracker, whereas until a few years ago we never saw more than two or three tracked images in the list,” Zafra said. A star tracker tracks the Earth’s rotation, so instead of blurring as they move across the night sky, the stars stay perfectly sharp. It allows photographers to take ultra-long exposures. “This says a lot about the current trend of wide-field astrophotography, where photographers are using star trackers and the Astro mode cameras mentioned above to capture more detail, color and overall quality of their images,” Zafra said.

The trend of astro-mod cameras

Astro-modified cameras have become very popular over the past couple of years. An Astro mode camera is a camera that has had its low pass filter removed from the sensor and replaced with a different filter that blocks UV and IR light but allows better light transmission, especially in wavelengths from specific colors depending on the filter. “The most popular for astrophotography is the h-alpha (hydrogen-alpha) filter which captures red nebulosity in certain regions of the night sky,” Zafra said. You can see it in several if the Milky Way images shown here.

Why use an astro-mod camera

The common belief is that these edits are done just to capture the colors in the nebulae,” Zafra said. “However, the biggest advantage of Astro-mod cameras is the ability to capture more light, which results in sharper images with less digital noise.”

Do they make the Milky Way look unrealistic? “In my opinion, these filters don’t make it unrealistic, they just help capture something that our eyes can’t see but is out there in the night sky,” Zafra said.

Other trends in Milky Way photography

The main trends are the use of star trackers and Astro mode cameras. “However, the technology is constantly changing and we are seeing a big trend towards automating astrophotography,” said Zafra, who is currently testing a device called Benro Polaris that can automate different processes including polar alignment, panoramas and exposure time monitoring. “I think the future leans towards automating all the technical steps and leaving more room for the creative part of the astrophotographer,” Zafra said.

The rise of astrotourism

“Other trends are more related to Milky Way destinations or astro-tourism,” Zafra said. “Top destinations where astrophotographers go to photograph the night sky include La Palma and Tenerife in Europe’s Canary Islands, US national parks in western North America, and the Atacama region of South America.”

These are also the top three locations on the planet for the biggest and best telescopes in the world. It is not a coincidence.

Where else to do astrophotography

There are endless places to do astrophotography where few people have ever photographed the Milky Way. “Examples in North America include public lands outside national and state parks, which are less travelled,” Zafra said. “A good example here are the BLM lands on the east side of the Sierra in California or national landmarks like the Grand Staircase Escalante in Utah.”

Zafra also mentions other otherworldly places for adventurous astrophotographers like the Peruvian Andes. “You can see our Milky Way at higher altitudes without people and without any light pollution,” he said. “Other regions of Africa, Australia and New Zealand also offer exceptional opportunities for original images of the Milky Way. I highly recommend checking out light pollution maps and search online to find some of these areas.

The best place to take photos of the Milky Way

One of Zafra’s favorite spots for Milky Way photography is Death Valley National Park. “This is a vast national park, with miles of beautiful scenery and prominent features that provide the opportunity to find original compositions while still being relatively accessible,” he said. “It’s also one of the best places to photograph panoramas of the Milky Way, as there’s nothing blocking your view on the horizon.”

The timing of the Capture The Atlas competition is no accident as late May is at the height of the Milky Way’s season, when it’s easiest to see it rising from both hemispheres (although it can be seen from February to October in the northern hemisphere and from January to November in the southern hemisphere).

I wish you clear skies and big eyes.

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