December 2020 // The How-to Edition

How to Take a Milky Way Portrait | Rey Benasfre


Just like regular portrait work, lighting can be used as a tool to enhance your subjects. Same goes especially for long exposure Milky Way portraits. Naturally of course, the scene we are shooting is totally dark. We always want our subjects to stand out and be the main focus. Lighting your subject is always a great way to make them stand out against a dark background. One thing to note is that while your subject is trying to stay still, the camera is using the long exposure to pick up any ambient light that may be coming off your subject. Your subject in most cases will come out as a muddy blur hard to make out against the dark backdrop. When you introduce a flash you are adding a bright pop of light during that exposure that will freeze your subject and make them look sharper in the image. I highly recommend using off-camera flash to add dimension to your subject rather than lighting them straight on with a flash-on camera. I also recommend playing around with small speedlight modifiers such as grids and gels. The grids are useful for controlling light from easily spilling everywhere while gels are useful for changing the tone of the scene. I like to use CTO gels on my subject so that I can cool my white balance enough in camera to give me a starry sky with bluer tones. Just my preferred style. One last thing, while adding a light can look really good, consider adding a second light behind the subject as a kicker. This will highlight the edges of your subject and cause them to stand out against the dark background. Especially if they have dark skin or hair, you don’t want them getting lost in the dark. Here are a few settings I recommend for whatever lighting system you use. Start with the lowest power settings. I like to start off with 1/128 and never go stronger than 1/64 power. When shooting at super high ISO your camera will be very sensitive to light. With your camera’s exposure settings almost maxed out it would be very easy to blow your picture out with flash. Keep the power low. Secondly, you’ll want to set your camera’s flash settings to rear curtain sync. This will cause your flash to fire at the end of the exposure instead of the beginning. This is useful in letting you and the subject know when the exposure has ended instead of relying on the sound of the shutter closing. Especially in those cases where the subject is you during a self-portrait, you won’t find yourself standing still in front of the camera for over 40 seconds wondering if it’s okay to move now. It will also provide better results in reducing motion blur. When the flash fires in the default front curtain mode it will fire first, freezing the subject and then recording any motion following it. Your subject will have motion blur appearing to come out of them and will look like they have a ghost leaving their body—which can be kind of cool if that’s the story you’re going for. (That actually sounds like a cool idea so I’m gonna write it down for later.) But normally we don’t want all that motion blur coming out of our subjects and would prefer it to be behind them. With rear curtain sync the flash fires when the rear curtain begins to move across the sensor at the end of the exposure. That pop of flash coming after any motion will keep the sharp details from that light in front of any motion blur.

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