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How to Find the Milky Way at Night

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There are a lot of misconceptions about how to find the Milky Way in the night sky. This post aims to clear that up. It’s actually a lot simpler than you may think!

Where Is The Milky Way in the Night Sky?

The Milky Way is, in fact, the galaxy that contains the Solar System. The Milky Way is everywhere we look. Up, down, left, right, that’s the Milky Way.

From Earth, it can be seen as ‘a hazy band of light seen in the night sky formed from stars that cannot be individually distinguished by the naked eye.’

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 1 am:
The Milky Way above the silhouette of a rock formationAnd compare it to this image, shot at about 4:30 am:
The Milky Way above a rock formationThe location is almost the same, but you’ll notice that the Milky Way appears to move. Depending on the time of year, this may or may not be visible, depending on where you are.

How Do You Locate the Milky Way?

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

  1. A clear sky – with no clouds
  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.

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.
the Milky Way rising horizontally across the sky in the Northern HemisphereCompare that to this photo, taken in the summer, and you’ll see that it’s almost vertical as it appears to rotate.
The night sky with the Milky Way appearing verticallyA trained eye can actually tell you when the photo was taken, based on the position of the Milky Way. It starts horizontal in March in the Northern Hemisphere and rotates 180 degrees through the months up until September.

How Do We Know What the Milky Way Looks Like?

The answer to 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.

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”(Physics StackExchange).
Image of the milky way from space

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.

Photo of the starry night sky

Finding the North Star isn’t that hard, and there’a couple of 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. It will align the star with your compass and tell you precisely what you’re looking at.

The other way, and my favourite method, is to use the group of stars known as the Big Dipper. The Big Dipper looks like it does in the image below. It stands out because it looks like a saucepan and handle. 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.

Milky Way diagram pointing out the Big Dipper, Little Dipper, and Polaris

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 minimal 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 photograph the Milky Way during the period of ‘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:
Screenshot of Finding The Milky Way: full darkness, summer new moonVersus during winter:
And again compare the duration during the new moon:
Screenshot of Finding The Milky Way: full darkness diagram screenshot - new moonVersus the full moon:
Screenshot of Finding The Milky Way: full darkness diagram screenshot - full moon

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

This article will provide you with excellent base knowledge for how to capture great Milky Way Photography. To go one step further, take a look at our Milky Way Mastery course!

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