This is Part 1 of a multi-part series on finding and photographing the Milky Way.
What IS the Milky Way?
We are located in a corner of the heavens of a galaxy we call “The Milky Way.” The Milky Way stretches all the way across the sky and some part of the Milky Way is present every night – indeed EVERY star you see in the sky is located within our Milky Way. Most people, however, think of the Milky Way as only the cloud-like stretch of stars from the constellation Scorpius (aka Scorpio) to the constellation Cygnus – particularly the part nearest to Sagittarius. I’ll try not to be too poetic, but when you have clearly seen the Milky Way, it is hard to describe how awesome it is without breaking into song. In ideal conditions the diffuse light of the Milky Way can cast a shadow on the ground! Unfortunately there is little chance that you will ever see that shadow because most accessible places in the world are mildly to HORRIBLY light polluted.
Constellations that are found in the Milky Way include: Perseus (off the bottom), Cassiopeia (near the bottom in the picture above-left), Lacerta, Cygnus (near the center), Aquila, Sagittarius, Ophiuchus and Scorpius (very top). Those in the Southern Hemisphere will also find Norma, Circinus, Crux, and Carina. There is a faint portion of the Milky Way visible in Puppis, Canis Major and the bow of Orion.
Look carefully at the image above and you’ll see a bright “smudge” in the center of the bottom fourth of the image. That is one of our sister galaxies known as Andromeda. The galaxy gets its name from the constellation in which it is found. With an unaided eye it is readily possible to spot Andromeda in a dark sky. With binoculars Andromeda is observable even in a suburban area. In the southern hemisphere two additional sister galaxies called the Large and Small Magellanic clouds are easily seen.
On a dark clear night it is easy to observe the lack of stars in the broad band of wispiness that forms the Milky Way. But the dark void is not due to the absence of stars. The void is due to immense inky dust lanes that obscure the stars!
When to See the Milky Way
The sun is in the constellation Sagittarius in December so the months of November, December and January make for lousy views of the richest part of the Milky Way. The optimum viewing time is generally in the summer when the sun is on the opposite side of the sky. Unfortunately summer in the Northern Hemisphere is also when hot, stormy, cloudy weather is doing its worst and also when the nights are the shortest. Using a simple tool called a planisphere it is easy to predict when and where to look for the dense part of the Milky Way. But what must also be factored in is the location and phase of the moon. The time of year and the direction of the least light pollution will also frame the parameters for getting the best view of the Milky Way. Generally the dense part of the Milky Way is best viewed when it is as high as possible in the Southern sky. Facing south during April and May the pre-dawn hours are best. From June to early August the best time is near midnight, though the Milky Way will be visible almost all night. From Mid August through September the best time is soon after the sun has set and the sky has grown dark.
Where to See the Milky Way
Central Nevada, Eastern Utah. Montana. In short, remote areas far from city light pollution afford the best view. But if you know what to look for and when and where to look you can spot the Milky Way from many places throughout the world. Or you can wait for a massive regional blackout.
I have seen the Milky Way very clearly from the top of Mission Peak in Fremont, California – an area with over 8 million people in literally every direction. However that glimpse required that the entire Bay Area be blotted out by low, heavy fog. My perch was above the darkness blanket that the fog provided. The fog was as shown at right, but during the nighttime.
Yosemite National Park is still mostly dark despite cities like Fresno that are doing their best to ruin the darkness.
Anywhere along a remote area of the coast far from cities there is a chance to see the Milky Way. For example, I spotted a washed out Milky Way just 8 miles north of Santa Cruz. The long exposure and some photo editing improved the view. It won’t look that good to the naked eye.
But going somewhere in the country where it is truly dark, like the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, or White Mountain in Central, Eastern California the Milky Way reaches its most inspiring awesomeness.
How do I See the Milky Way
I know what you’re thinking: don’t I just “look” in the right direction? The answer is no! It takes your eyes 15 to 20 minutes to see their best in the dark. Any bright light source in the direction you look will diminish the view. Running out of a well-lit house, or jumping out of a car where you’ve spent the last 15 minute driving with the headlights on will make the Milky Way far less awesome. In most cases you’ll find that avoiding ALL light and shielding your eyes from anything you can’t avoid will help a lot. Do you see the Milky Way in this photo from the top of Clouds Rest in Yosemite? I promise you it is there. It juts out above the Yosemite Valley near the center of the image. That orange glow on the horizon is not from sunrise or sunset! The glow is light pollution. Here is a view from the wilderness in Yosemite.
How Do I Photograph The Milky Way?
Cameras are getting better all the time, and there are some nifty tricks you can use to make a compelling photograph of the Milky Way even if your camera is not the top heavyweight performer in the gear smack down. We’ll cover cameras and techniques in installment 2 of this series!