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There are a lot of misconceptions about how to find the Milky Way and where exactly it is, so this post aims to clear that up.

It’s actually a lot simpler than you may think.

How to photograph the milky way This article is a small part of our comprehensive guide: How to Photograph The Milky Way

Where is The Milky Way’s Location?

Guess what? We’re in the Milky Way. The Milky Way is everywhere we look. Up, down, left, right, that’s the Milky Way.

You can see the Milky Way all year, no matter where you are in the world, just so long as the sky is clear and the light pollution is minimal.

However, the Milky Way appears to move in the sky, as the earth rotates, have a look at this image below, shot at about 1am:

Finding The Milky Way: 1:00 am

And compare it to this image, shot at about 4:30am:

Finding The Milky Way: 4:30 am

The location is almost the same, however, you’ll notice that the Milky Way appears to move. And depending on the time of year, this may or may not be visible, depending on where you are in the world.

We’ll go into more detail on why that is in just a moment, but first:

How Do We Know What the Milky Way Looks Like?

The answer for this is because we can look up at the sky and see it.

Sure, we only have one perspective of the Milky Way, but it’s the only one that matters to us really.

If you want to know what it looks like from the outside, “we use radio waves, infrared and ultraviolet wavelengths to try to peer through obscuring dust, to establish the most accurate map.” among other things, as taken from this answer on the Physics StackExchange.

Finding The Milky Way: Spiral galaxy image

How to See The Milky Way at Night

To see the Milky Way at night, you need all three of the following:

  1. A clear sky – that means no clouds in the sky
  2. Minimal light pollution – this washes out the details
  3. No moon – it’s brighter than you think

Only when all three of these conditions are met will you be able to see the Milky Way in all its glory.

I mentioned before that it also depends on where in the world you are, and what time of year, and while that’s true, no matter where you are, you’ll always be looking at the Milky Way.

From March to September in the Northern Hemisphere, and September to March in the Southern Hemisphere, is when you’ll get the most interesting view.

This photo below was taken in early April, and you can see how the Milky Way is rising horizontally across the sky.

Finding The Milky Way: Milky Way appearing horizontally

Compare that to this photo, taken in the summer, and you’ll see that it’s almost vertical as it appears to rotate.

Finding The Milky Way: Milky Way appearing vertically

A trained eye can actually tell you when the photo was taken, based on the position of the Milky Way in a photo as it starts horizontal in March in the Northern Hemisphere, and rotates 180 degrees through the months up until September.

How to Find The North Star at Night

It’s important to be able to find the North Star in the night sky because that’s the star around which all other stars rotate.

If you’ve ever taken an exposure for longer than 30 seconds, you may have seen the stars start to blur, that’s because they’re moving (or appear to be moving) around the North Star.

IMAGE

Finding the North Star isn’t that hard, and there’a couple ways of doing it.

You can ‘cheat’ and use an app, such as:

All you need to do is point your phone up at the night sky and it will align the star with your compass and tell you exactly what you’re looking at.

The other way, and my favourite method, is to use the group of stars known as Big Dipper.

Finding The Milky Way: Star diagram with Big Dipper, Little Dipper, and Polaris

The Big Dipper  looks like it does the image above, and it stands out because it looks like a saucepan and handle, and if you follow the far edge of the pan upwards, it points at Polaris, also known as the North Star.

I prefer this method because it helps you to understand the night sky a bit better and means you don’t have to rely on distracting technology.

Understanding Moon Phases for Maximum Shooting Time

I’ve mentioned above that to see the Milky Way, you need a clear sky, the absence of any moon, and very little light pollution.

We all know how to check the weather, and finding an area with very little light pollution isn’t an issue, but understanding the moon’s phases is a little bit more complicated.

For the best results, we want to take photos during a period of what’s called ‘Full Darkness’ – that’s when there’s no moon in the sky to wash out the stars.

Full darkness is at its longest during the new moon, and during winter months.

Compare the duration of full darkness (the dark navy blue section at the top) below during summer:

Finding The Milky Way: full darkness, summer new moon

Versus during winter:

Finding The Milky Way: full darkness, winter new moon

And again compare the duration during the new moon:

Finding The Milky Way: full darkness diagram screenshot - new moon

Versus the full moon:

Finding The Milky Way: full darkness diagram screenshot - full moon

So if you remember one thing about the moon and the Milky Way, remember this:

For maximum photography time, take your photos of the Milky Way during the new moon, in the winter.

Because as soon as astronomical dawn shows its face, those stars will disappear.

The apps I use to track this are called Deluxe Moon and Sol, and you can read more about them here: Apps for Night Time and Milky Way Photography

Your Free Video Course: The Milky Way Mini Series

This article will provide you with excellent base knowledge for understanding how to capture photos of the Milky Way, but we wanted to go one step further.

We’ve put together a free three-part video course on Milky Way photography, to help you understand how to capture those breathtaking images in no time at all.

Inside this course you’ll learn:

  • Your Camera Settings – Find out the settings we use for 98% of our Milky Way Photography and how to find your ideal settings too
  • Essential Gear – 5 inexpensive accessories that will make a world of difference to your Milky Way photography
  • How to Find The Milky Way – The knowledge pros use to get the best and most breathtaking views of the Milky Way galaxy

Free Course: Capture Stunning

Photos of The Milky Way

After spending months capturing photos of the Milky Way, we’re proud to share our free video series showing you how to capture photos so gorgeous, people may accuse you of stealing them from National Geographic!

A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:

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Josh

Hey I'm Josh, I'm Photographer in Chief here at ExpertPhotography, and I'm in charge of making sure that we provide you with the best content from the most knowledgeable photographers in the world. Enjoy the site :)