How to Use the Star Walk 2 App for Milky Way Photography

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Photographing the Milky Way is unlike any other kind of photography. The camera settings are completely different, as are the post-processing techniques, and there’s a lot more planning that goes into a successful outing than people (who haven’t done it before) realize.

How to Use the Star Walk 2 App for Milky Way Photography

The Milky Way over Half Dome in Yosemite NP, shot from Glacier Point.

The trick is how to find the Milky Way

You see, finding the location of the Milky Way in our sky is always changing. In the northern hemisphere the best time to photograph the Milky Way is in the late spring to early fall. It isn’t even visible during most of winter because it’s only above the horizon during the day when we can’t see the stars. And of course in the southern hemisphere, everything above is reversed.

How to Use the Star Walk 2 App for Milky Way Photography

The Milky Way over a group of oak trees in San Luis Obispo, California.

When the Milky Way is visible, it’s hard to know when it will be in peak position and in which direction (north, south, east, or west) it will be visible. Then there’s the question of whether or not it will be rising straight up from a certain direction or appear as an arc across the sky.

Plan your trip accordingly

All of the answers to these questions will, of course, determine what foreground subjects you can use at any given time of the year. For example, if you’re trying to shoot Half Dome in Yosemite National Park, you’ll need the Milky Way to be visible in the northeast sky. Plus, you need it there at a time of night when the moon is either beneath the horizon or during a moon phase where the light from the moon will be minimal. If it’s a full moon for example, the Milky Way and night sky will be considerably dimmer than say during a new or crescent moon.

How to Use the Star Walk 2 App for Milky Way Photography

The Milky Way over Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, Utah.

As you can see, there are a lot of variables. That’s where the app Star Walk 2 comes in.

I found this app years ago when it was in its first incarnation, and still use it today for most of my night sky photography planning. This app is beautifully designed and will let you know exactly when and where the Milky Way will be at any given time, along with every other star and constellation in the sky. It’s an incredible resource for photographers. I created a video showing how I use it.

Have a look below and let me know what you think.

Conclusion

I know there are other options and apps that do similar things available as well, so comment below and tell us what you use. I’m always open to trying new things and would love to hear them.

You can find the Star Walk 2 app in the Google Play Store for Android and on iTunes for Apple devices.

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James Brandon is a landscape photographer and educator residing in Dallas, Texas. Join 20,000+ photographers and get access to his free video tutorial library at his website. James also has an online store full of video courses, ebooks, presets and more. Use the coupon code "DPS25" for an exclusive discount!

  • Corey Thompson

    I’ve been using the PlanIt! for Photographers app to track where the Milky Way will be in the sky and at what time. It shows what direction it’s rising from and where it’s setting in for whatever location you search for.

    The Stellarium app let’s you aim your phone at the sky to see where the Milky Way is in real time, it then let’s you drag your finger to change the time and see where the Milky Way is moving in the sky.

  • Nice! I’ve looked into Stellarium, it is very similar. You can use StarWalk to point your phone at the sky too. The thing is, I don’t use it on location all that much. I’m usually in my office, planning a trip or in my hotel room before I go out.

  • Hi James, I am the author of planit app which Corey mentioned. I am not saying starwalk is not good but make sure you check out the planit. It is specified designed for landscape photographers v.s. starwalk and most other star map apps are for star observation by general users. You will find many features in the planit coming handy as landscape photographers – milky way calendar, milky way seeker, timelapse simulation etc.

  • Poeseline

    We have a lot of light pollution around here. Does this make these kind of images impossible or just a little harder?

  • Thanks for the tips. I was blessed with seeing this in Colorado Tuesday night. We drove to 11,000′ above sea level, 40 minutes outside of Denver and waited for the moon to set to get a dark enough sky. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/726c97679d8a9913d6ca7347b85b3d386a6ce208036e786e05c3ceca0dffbaa4.jpg

  • Wayne Hoover

    Great information James…thank you. I am going to be in Arches National Park in the middle of October and this will be a great help. Since this is at the top of my bucket list of images to capture, what settings are different than I would use for normal night photography? I am assuming that anything over 20 secs will have star trails developing.

  • Very nice Rick! Love the canopy of trees around the sky.

  • If you’re going for the Milky Way, 20-30 seconds is good. With 30, you will likely get a very slight trail but it isn’t really noticeable unless you’re pixel peeping. Beyond that, a wide open aperture of f/2.8-f/4 and ISO as high as you can set it with your camera while still maintaining a useable image; preferably ISO 3600 or higher.

  • Thank you James 🙂

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