Photographing the Milky Way

One of the most awesome sights one can observe is the arc of the Milky Way on a night when the sky is clear, when there is no moon visible, and when one is well away from the light pollution of cities and towns. Once you are in such a location in such conditions you will notice a faint band of light going across the sky. In late summer in the Northern Hemisphere it stretches from the southern horizon to the North East. (Be aware that it will not look as dramatic and as bright as photographs of it would suggest. Photographs are taken using a typical exposure time of between 25 and 30 seconds and are thus able to capture far more stars than are visible to the naked eye. Photographers also invariably boost the contrast and colour for pictorial effect.)

Milky Way 1

The Milky Way is the name of the galaxy in which we reside. It is just one of an estimated 100 billion galaxies in the Universe. It contains something between 100 and 400 billion stars and is about 100,000 light years in diameter. Our solar system is located within a minor spiral arm of the galaxy, the Orion Arm, and is about 27,000 light years from the centre. When you look towards the southern part of the Milky Way you are looking towards the centre of the galaxy whereas towards the North East you are looking in the direction of the outer edge. Here endeth a very elementary astronomy lesson.  I would strongly recommend that you refer to the numerous astronomy websites for more detailed information.

From a photographic point of view the technique involved in photographing it is straightforward and is well within the capabilities of all DSLRs and more advanced compacts. A tripod is essential of course as the shutter speed needs to be between 25 and 30 seconds. Anything longer than 30 seconds will cause the stars to streak due to the rotation of the Earth. A high ISO is required – typically 3200 or 6400 ISO although you may be able to get away with 1600 if your camera doesn’t extend beyond that. The higher the ISO the greater the amount of digital noise but this can vary from camera to camera. A full-frame sensor camera will generally have much less noise than an APSC or smaller sensor one. Noise can be reduced at the post-processing stage – Adobe’s Camera Raw has a very good noise reduction feature and plug-ins like Nik Software’s Dfine2 and Topaz Labs’ DeNoise5 also do a very good job.

You will need a wide lens to capture as much of the spectacle that you can (although homing in on a section of it with a longer lens can be very effective too.) And use it wide open, at its maximum aperture. In the photographs below I used a Canon 15mm f/2.8 and a Canon 17-40mm f/4 at 2.8 and 4 respectively on a full-frame Canon 6D.

You will not be able to use automatic focus and this can prove to be a problem if you arrive at your location in darkness. What I do is focus on an object on the horizon while the light is still relatively bright and then set the lens to manual: I know then that the focus is on infinity. The disadvantage is hanging around until it gets really dark. Manually focusing on a bright object using Live View may be an option but in my experience it has proved to be unsatisfactory. Don’t rely on just setting your lens to infinity without focusing on something – it will invariably not be accurate and the stars will appear as blobs rather than points of light.

Remember that it should be a moonless night. You might be able to get away with a moon if it is in either a Waxing or Waning Crescent phase but anything bigger will result in too much light in the sky. I use the Sundroid app on my phone to determine the phases of the moon and when it’s due to rise and set. The Photographer’s Ephemeris is another such one that I use.

Use a cable release to fire the shutter and, ideally, use mirror lock-up to minimise vibration. If you haven’t a cable release set the delayed action shutter release to 2 seconds or thereabouts so that when you press the button the shutter isn’t activated straight away and so any camera shake is avoided.

Exposures will have to be bracketed to get the best results from your equipment but the essentials are: ISO 3200-6400, 25- 30 secs, wide open aperture.

And don’t forget a good torch to find your way back from whichever dark-sky spot you’ve chosen.

MilkyWayAug15 1

 This photograph, taken not far from my house, and looking south, shows the unfortunate effect of light pollution (in this instance from the towns of Carrigtwohill and Midleton in East Cork). To the naked eye the light wasn’t particularly obtrusive but the exposure of 30 seconds has amplified it significantly. The streaks of light in the sky are meteors – the photo was taken on 13th August during the peak Perseid Meteor Shower period.

MilkyWayAug15 3

 Another photo from the same location this time looking north-east . The streaks are a combination of aircraft and meteors. Again the light pollution is evident even though it was barely discernible to the eye. In both of these photographs I was using the Canon 15mm fish-eye and I chose not to correct the perspective, hence the curved horizons.

Why did I choose that location when I knew the downsides? It was a last minute thing – a break in the cloud and proximity to home. At least I got to see some meteors.

The following night, the 14th August, resulted in much better settled conditions – a nice clear sky from early evening. I therefore made my way to Ballytrasna Cove near Ballycotton.

Ballycotton Ballytrasna

Ballytrasna Cove is a secluded cove on the Ballycotton Cliff Walk.  It is good for Milky Way photography in that (in summer at least) you are shooting due south and it is hidden – well, mostly –  from the lights of Ballycotton Village and Lighthouse to the east and Whitegate and Cork City to the west. It is not as pure a dark-sky area as parts of West Kerry perhaps but it is the best place I know in East Cork.  


At 10:22 the International Space Station came into view and it is represented here as a streak of light due to the 20 second exposure (it wasn’t yet totally dark, hence the shorter exposure time).  


A few meteor streaks are visible.


The streak of light on the lower right is the Aer Lingus flight from London on its descent to Cork  Airport. Underneath it to the right is the light from the Old Head of Kinsale lighthouse and the broader glow on the right is from Cork City. A meteor streak is visible in the centre of the frame. The bright glow on the left horizon is, I think, from the Kinsale Oil Platform.

So, the technique in photographing the Milky Way is fairly straightforward and in the post-processing of these images I have confined myself to basic exposure, contrast, colour temperature, and sharpening adjustments. Nothing esoteric or convoluted. Such photography therefore is within the capabilities of anyone with the appropriate equipment. The only problem, given our climate, is getting the right weather conditions.

The Bridges of the River Blackwater

Over the last few months I have been photographing the bridges over the River Blackwater in Munster. There are, by my reckoning, based on a close examination of Google Earth and the Ordnance Survey maps, twenty seven of them and they are presented below. If I have inadvertently omitted any I would be very much obliged to know.

My modus operandi in locating some of the more obscure bridges was to identify them first in Google Earth and/or the Ordnance Survey site.  Then, using the Loc8 site I got the Loc8 8-digit alpha-numeric code for each one. By inputting these codes into my Garmin SatNav I was able to navigate directly to each place.

The names I’ve given to them are taken from the Ordnance Survey maps modern and historic. I’m not sure whether or not some of the names on the historic maps (e.g. Charles’s Bridge, Duarrigle; Colthurst Bridge, Rathcoole), which I’ve used in the absence of any name on the current OS map, are still used by local people as they may have fallen into disuse since Independence.  Not that it matters really: this is not in any way an official compilation; it is purely for my own amusement.

The photographs are in geographical sequence, starting at the first bridge near the source of the river in County Kerry and ending at Youghal. Click on any image to see it in larger size.

1. DOCTOR’S HILL.  The first bridge over the Blackwater, a few kilometres from its source in County Kerry.BlackwaterFirst


Blackwater Ballydesmond3

Blackwater Ballydesmond2

Ballydesmond Bridge proved to be the most frustrating one to photograph – thick foliage prevented any access to the riverbed and I had to be content with these mere snapshots. 

3. LISHEEN BRIDGE, FARRANKEAL. The nearest side is in County Kerry, the other in Cork.Blackwater Creggeen Rockmount CK Border

4. MOUNTINFANT BRIDGE, LACKA CROSS.  Out of sight over the bridge to the right is the large Munster Joinery factory.Blaxkwater LackaX KCborderMunsterJoinery

5. NOHAVAL BRIDGEBlackwater Clounts KCborder



Blackwater Ahane BW

8. CHARLES’S BRIDGE, DUARRIGLEBlackwater Nr Coalpits

9.  KEALEBlackwater Keale

10. COLTHURST BRIDGE, RATHCOOLE Blackwater Rathcoole3

Blackwater RathcooleIR

As I was making my way back across the field to my car after photographing this bridge I noticed a 4-wheel-drive vehicle with two men inside parked by the gate.  The driver asked me what I had been doing. It transpired they were charged with keeping an eye on the place for a group of Cork City fishermen who had exclusive rights to this part of the river and they thought I had been poaching! Hard to blame them really as I was wearing wellingtons and a fisherman’s type vest and my tripod could have been mistaken at a distance for a rod.   



Blackwater Banteer

12. ROSKEENBlackwater Roskeen3

Blackwater Roskeen4

13. LOMBARDSTOWNBlackwater Lombardstown

Blackwater Lombardstown2

14.LONGFIELD’S BRIDGEBlackwater Longfields Bridge Nr Mallow

Blackwater Longfield BW

15. MALLOW RAILWAY BRIDGE Blackwater Mallow Rail

16.MALLOW N20 Blackwater Mallow N22

17. MALLOW TOWN BRIDGEBlackwater Mallow Old

18. KILLAVULLENKillavullen2

Blackwater Killavullen

19. BALLYHOOLEYBlackwater Ballyhooley

20. KENT BRIDGE, FERMOY   (The long shutter speed of 30 seconds has rendered the moving traffic on this busy route as a blur.)IMG_5599

21. FERMOY M8 IMG_5596

22. CARRICKABRICK VIADUCT.  In the 1966 film “The Blue Max”, a lot of which was shot in the locality, a stuntman flew planes underneath this viaduct several times.IMG_5580

Blackwater Carrickabrick




Blackwater LismoreIR


Blackwater IR-Cappoquin-Bridge


Blackwater IR-Cappoquin-2


Blackwater Youghal-Bridge

Blackwater CCGYoughalBridge

Youghal Bridge 4

Blackwater Youghal 2

A more conventional view of Youghal Bridge. This is the last bridge on the river and its size is a marked contrast to the humble structure at Doctor’s Hill near the source.

Fanad Lighthouse

Fanad Lighthouse on the north coast of County Donegal is one of the most photographed lighthouses in Ireland and it is easy to see why – it is in a beautiful location and is easily accessible. I’ve been anxious to add it to my (neglected of late) project of Irish lighthouses photographed while they are actually emitting light, something they will probably not be doing for much longer as lighthouses are essentially anachronisms in this age of GPS.  (See )

I eventually got around to heading to North Donegal a couple of days ago. It’s a long journey from the deep south. I had to drop my son off in Galway on the way and the traffic congestion there caused by the annual race meeting added to the total journey time of 8 hours (including a stop for lunch). I stayed in the little town of Downings, 20 minutes from Fanad, at Downings Bay Hotel where an excellent double room cost me €65 including breakfast. (My thanks to Cork photographer John Hall for the accommodation recommendation.) I had assumed there would be plenty of B&Bs in the general vicinity but that is not so. Either of the two hotels in Downings would appear to be the best option for anyone thinking of going there and staying overnight.

Fanad Map

I checked in to the hotel and then headed straight for Fanad. As I mentioned, the lighthouse is very accessible – just step over a small wire fence and the magnificent vista is right in front of you. Access to the building complex itself was not available but this is due to change shortly as the Commissioners of Irish Lights in conjunction with Donegal County Council and the Irish Tourist Board will be opening it to the public. Some of the buildings are being converted to holiday accommodation – surely a prime place to stay for photographers eager to explore this picturesque area for a few days.


A satellite view of the lighthouse and surrounding area 

It was obviously due to the preparations for the imminent opening of the complex that there was a White Van Man present. He was busy hosing down the area around the buildings and I dearly wished that he would finish up as his prominent vehicle was not what I wanted in any of my photographs. He didn’t oblige until 9:30pm, just before the lighthouse started flashing but at least he was gone by then.


The white van marring what would otherwise have been a nice photo.

I spent some time experimenting with various perspectives from the promontory on the left while waiting for sunset at 9:39pm which would prompt the operation of the light.





At around 9:30pm some other photographers arrived – clearly on a similar mission to myself – and within a few minutes the lighthouse began to flash. For the next 45 minutes I made several exposures, the time for each increasing as the daylight progressively faded. Finally, having more than enough “in the bag” I collapsed my tripod and packed up my gear. As I walked the short distance back to the car it began to rain. I was very lucky. I could have gone all that way and been rained out.


It is a place I would love to go back to and I would especially like to photograph it when the sea is stormy. A word of caution though: a County Antrim photographer was swept into the sea and drowned in 2014 while taking photos here in just such conditions. We can often take silly chances for the sake of “that special shot”. That particular tragedy and similar ones around the coast in more recent times should teach us to be extremely careful where the sea is concerned.