Chart For Viewing And Photographing The Milky Way

Among the questions I get most often is, “How can I find the Milky Way?” The smart aleck in me wants to just say, “Open your eyes,” but I understand the why this is a valid question. The sad truth is that most people have never seen the Milky Way with their own eyes. Light pollution has nearly destroyed our views of the Cosmos.

But not all is lost. Even in a relatively urban region, you can see the Milky Way with the unaided eye if you view it in the right locations. I live 10 minutes from a town of 5,000 and 30 minutes from the city of Asheville, but I can clearly see the Milky Way from my yard. The key is that there is not any major light pollution immediately surrounding my home and I live in a valley, where surrounding mountains block most of the view toward the cities.

Milky Way in Night Sky

View of the Milky Way from my front yard. Nikon D700, 30 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 1600.

Even from a high elevation, with an unblocked view toward the city, you can still see the Milky Way clearly if you look high above the horizon. Light pollution will block everything up to a certain altitude, but above that, you can still view the sky well.

I think that many people who say they’ve never seen the Milky Way probably have seen it, but they didn’t realize that that is what they were seeing. If you view it from a dark site during summer, when the brightest portion is visible, it will jump out at you and shout, “Here I am, take my picture,” but at other times of the year and from light-polluted areas, the view is much more subtle.

Everyone wants to know what app they can download to view the Milky Way, but I’m afraid I’m not going to be any help with that. First, I don’t know what apps are available. Second, I don’t care. If you’ve kept up with me even a little bit, you know that I choose apps based solely on how useful they will be for my photography. I am happy to be corrected, but I don’t think there is anything out there that will serve my purpose better than having a good general knowledge of the night sky and the movement of its stars throughout the year.

The problem with most apps is that they give you a picture of the night sky for only one moment in time. If you’re traveling for a week to an unknown location and need to know what’s going while you’re there, they can be a great help. But if you want to make broader plans, to gain a good sense of what happens over a period of time, nothing beats an old-fashioned printed chart. That’s why I prefer to print out monthly charts for the sun and moon, so I have a month’s worth of date at my fingertips.

For the Milky Way, It’s hard to beat a planisphere, which will show you instantly where the Milky Way will be at any time of the year. The one I use is an oversized version called “David H. Levy’s Guide to the Stars.” If you’re older than 35, you’ll master the use of a planisphere in 3 minutes. If you’re younger than 20, you’ll probably try to use your smart phone to help you with the instructions. Either way, I can assure you that you won’t find a faster and easier-to-use device for seeing instantly where the Milky Way will appear in the sky for any location at any time of year.

As helpful as a planisphere is, I’ve created an even more helpful chart for viewing and photographing the Milky Way that I want to share with you. It’s a one-page chart that tells you exactly where the Milky Way will appear at two-week intervals throughout the year. I present it to you with one big caveat: I am not an expert on the night sky and I offer it with no guarantees of accuracy. If you find any errors, I would appreciate you letting me know.

Oh, one more thing, just to satisfy my anal tendencies for completeness. We LIVE in the Milky Way, so in truth we see it every time we look up at night, no matter where or when we look. When I, or any other photographer, speak of viewing and photographing the Milky Way, we are technically speaking of that part of our galaxy that follows what is called the “Galactic Plane.” It is the brightest and more distinct section of the galaxy.

The galactic plane is also that part of galaxy that Earth passed through on the winter solstice of December 21, 2012, when many people predicted that the world would end based upon some strange interpretation of the Mayan Calendar. Personally, I had a little too much red wine to drink that evening and would appreciate hearing from someone if all is well. I’d hate to continue making blog posts if the world has already ended.

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