There are a bunch of things that go into shooting the Milky Way from the location, to the weather, the time of year, the equipment, and just plain luck. What equipment do you need to shoot the Milky Way? Honestly, just about any modern DSLR will work really darn well. Being able to capture images at 3200 ISO is a minimum for me and is easily achieved with today's DSLRs The second piece of equipment you want to have is a lens that has an aperture of f/2.8 or faster and 35mm (or on a crop camera 24mm) or wider. Some photographers swear by wide zoom lenses but I really enjoy primes for most of my work. I'll add why in a moment. Lastly, having a great tripod is the last piece of the puzzle you will need. You want a sturdy tripod that you can depend on. Some people may look at the price of some mid level tripods with an uneasy eye, but it's worth the investment.
The equipment I use isn't the most top of the line. It's very reasonably priced and is actually better than more expensive cameras and glass. Crazy, right!? I'm personally a Canon guy. My current setup is a Canon 6D. I own a 5D Mark III but the high ISO capabilities are not as good as the 6D. I've taken this camera everywhere and have been absolutely terrible to it, and it just keeps plugging away. It's a great piece of kit and performs flawlessly for night time shooting. If you are looking at purchasing a capable camera that won't break the bank, you can't go wrong with a Canon 6D.
Glass... oh, the glorious red rings of Canon lenses. I stick with Canon because of their glass. It's the most important part of a camera system for me. I think it's top notch while providing very consistent and sharp results. My kit is filled with Canon red rings from 8mm all the way to 400mm, but I don't use Canon glass for astrophotography if I can help it. Wanna know why? Because it isn't the best option. Period. I use Canon’s top end glass and love the performance of the lenses for most of my imaging needs, but for astrophotography it just is a poor performer. The reason why: coma. Coma is when pin points of light ( like from stars ) flare or look elongated usually looking like bird wings in the corner of the image. This issue is prominent in some of the most expensive glass, ironically, and even though I love my Canon primes including the 24L II, it just isn’t the best for this type of photography.
Rokinon to the rescue!!! In the USA, Rokinon is the leading company offering Samyang Optics under the Rokinon brand and they are achieving great success creating incredibly sharp optics with very well built lenses at amazing prices. Specifically, I use the Rokinon 14mm f/2.8, Rokinon 24mm f/1.4, and Rokinon 35mm f/1.4 for Milky Way and night photography. These lenses have very little coma wide open and are usually a third of the price or even less of their respective Canon L lens counterparts. They also have a faster aperture than the wide angle zooms and cost less. That’s a ton of value for not a ton of money. Did I mention that these Rokinon lenses are fantastically sharp! I exclusively use Rokinon for my astrophotography and couldn’t be happier. Give them a look, you won’t be disappointed.
Lastly, what tripod do I use? Well, there is a small British company that is making a name for itself by going above and beyond in their customer support and creating top of the line equipment without the crazy expensive pricing of some other brands, and they have a cool name. 3 Legged Thing! I use the Dave ( all 3 Legged Thing tripods are named after famous musicians ) and it’s been beat up but still works like the day I got it. Oh, and it’s actually pretty light for being aluminum. They make carbon fiber tripods which are incredibly strong but I opted for aluminum because the weight savings wasn’t much different and I tend to drop/ step on/ trip over everything I own. If aluminum should dent, it still works. Carbon fiber while strong is more rigid and will just break rather than dent. For my adventuring with only one tripod, that matters way more than weight.
What about timers and star trackers and the newest cameras and more expensive lenses and crazy tripods with really expensive … blah blah blahhh? Honestly, they are probably great. They might give you better ISO performance or a sharper image or a more stable mounting for long exposures… but I know my gear works. It's a bit cheaper than the most expensive stuff, and if the worse happens, it’s even more replaceable. The best equipment doesn’t yield the best results, it’s the person behind the lens making the decisions that will create the best outcome and image. Don’t get caught up on buying gear ( which can be fun ) and forgetting that knowledge, education, and PRACTICE goes further than anything you can buy. Speaking of education and practice, check out my upcoming 2016 workshops HERE.
This is the start of an astrophotography series that I’m creating about what, how, when, where, and why I shoot what I do. If you have any questions, post a comment and I’ll try to answer it. I’ll be doing an astrophotography specific blog post every other week so sign up below to get the latest information and education. Thanks for reading!