Monday, 23 January 2017

Stargazing Scotland - Breaking Free from the Milky Way Cliche

The Milky Way galaxy is all around you. The sun, planets, moon, visible stars and the Earth are all part of a disc like structure of billions of stars spinning around a central point. Considering this, if you take a selfie on a smartphone then you’re a ‘Milky Way Photographer.’

But when I use the term ‘Milky Way Photography’ I’m referring to the use of a DSLR and tripod to capture 26 000 year old light from the brightest part of our galaxy; the spherical central bulge. In recent years photographing this has become so popular that it’s now a bit of a cliche. It’s often impossible to use the term ‘Astrophotography’ without conjuring those typical images of the galactic core.


There’s far more to Astrophotography than the pursuit of the Milky Way’s centre. Planets, the Moon, the Aurora, Meteor Showers and Constellations are just a few subjects appearing in different parts of the sky at different times of the year. Venus for example, is currently in the twilight evening sky.


Recently I have focused on refraining from relying on the Milky Way to create a successful composition, and I have found the process full of rewards. I feel like I have improved on my photographic abilities through experimentation with many elements of night photography, including experimenting with different light levels from the moon.

One of the hardest parts of Astrophotography is getting enough of an exposure to light your foreground. Often I must take several 15-30 minute exposures, edit them, layer them, edit them again and then blend them into my sky exposure to squeeze foreground detail out of an image like the one below.

Winter Mist

The moon can be used to address this issue. The only problem is the fact that it constantly changes in shape, brightness, size and position in the sky. This causes drastic changes in the colour and amount of light it sheds each night as it circles through its monthly cycle, not to mention the angle of light in relation to a planned composition. Another thing to consider is that too much light from the moon will wash away almost all other detail in the night sky; a problem if your focal point for an image is a subject in the cosmos.

Wigtown Reflections

Through experimentation I have found that a three day old moon (appearing as a waxing evening crescent) provides the perfect amount of light to maximise foreground detail, whilst still retaining detail in the sky. Using this method I was able to capture my favourite image from the Winter; ‘Orion.’ Making use of moonlight to enhance a composition instead of relying on the spectacular view of the galactic core can result in a more subtle composition.


The core of the Milky Way is not visible in the Winter in Scotland. Using this as an excuse to experiment with my photography has proved beneficial, and I will be entering the ‘Milky Way Season’ of 2017 with a fresh outlook on night photography.

The Galactic Core is breathtaking and I will continue to view and photograph it for both personal and business reasons, but from now on I will remember to think more creatively. The night sky is after all our window into infinity; it would be ironic to then photograph a single part of it over and over again.

Jesse Beaman
Stargazing Scotland

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