The Jokkmokk mountain world is very little affected by physical pollution or light pollution. Get in touch with Laponia Adventures or Jokkmokkguiderna if you’re curious to explore the area!
Composition and planning
The best time to capture the Milky Way is during dark evenings and nights with little or no moonlight. That does mean that it will be very dark and planning photography can be difficult. A tip is to scout out a place in daylight and try to imagine the motive. There is a useful app called PhotoPills that facilitates planning.
A good DSLR camera, tripod, wide-angle, correct shutter speed, ISO, planning and composition – taking a picture of the Milky Way is not that difficult. There are also some additional methods and techniques that can be used to greatly improve the result.
Stacking and total exposure time (integration time)
Since the night sky is dim, the camera needs a lot of light. We are limited by the abilities of the camera sensor, the light sensitivity of the lens and the rotation of the Earth making it impossible to use a too-long shutter speed. But there is a solution: take a number of exposures of the same scene, then add them together during post-processing. The method is called ‘stacking’. By taking for example 10 exposures that are 20 seconds long, we get a total exposure time (integration time) of 200 seconds. By using stacking as a method, we can amplify light-weak sky phenomena. Stacking also has another very important advantage: it is a very effective way of reducing noise in the final image. Stacking does require software. Adobe Photoshop has the function, but there are also dedicated programs for astrophotographers that can be used.
The attentive reader might wonder how to handle the rotation of the Earth when stacking pictures; the sky will move relative to the foreground during the exposures. There is just one solution here: the starry sky and the foreground must be masked. For Mac users, there is a program called Starry Landscape Stacker that handles stacking and masking relatively automatically.
Trackers and mounts
For the even more advanced astrophotographer, there are various kinds of motorised trackers that compensate for the Earth’s rotation. I often use an iOptron SkyTracker. I mount it on the tripod and then make a polar alignment. To put it simply: you set the right latitude and then aim it towards the Pole Star with the help of a small built-in telescope. The camera is then mounted on the tracker and the tracker compensates for the Earth’s rotation. The risk of stars coming out as lines is significantly reduced and the exposure time can be increased.
Astroscapes with motorised tracking are basically always composed. When tracking is turned on, the camera will be facing the same point in the sky. The stars will then be point-shaped and sharp, but the foreground will be blurred due to motion blur. This means you have to take at least one picture with the tracking off to get a sharp foreground.
Stacking and tracking combined
I usually combine the methods. I make an accurate pole setting and take at least 10 exposures of one minute each for the starry sky and then as many exposures with tracking turned off for the foreground. These files are stacked and individually processed so I have one file with a sharp and contrast-rich starry sky but blurred foreground, and one file with a sharp foreground but blurred stars which are then combined and de-masked.
Astrophotography images and astroscapes with the Milky Way require some post-processing to let dim subjects be shown in their full glory. Here you may need to adjust white balance, contrast, clarity, local contrast and noise. There is quite a bit of information on YouTube, on the channel milkywaymike for example.
Prepare for a chilly night out
Last but not least, it is important to emphasise how important it is to be prepared for a chilly evening or night. Bring warm clothes, a hat and mittens. September and October are months where it can get quite cold at night. A head torch is a must.