I don’t recall ever meeting anyone who claimed to not be fascinated to some degree by the night sky. There’s just something hypnotic about gazing upon objects that are billions of years old and light years away, yet so many people feel a rather close affinity with these distant bodies. Learning how to photograph the Milky Way is an expression of that fascination that we will explore here.
While the physical gulf between us and the stars is, in any currently feasible mode of manned travel, insurmountable, we’re generally content to simply stand out in the darkness and scan the skies unassisted by anything fancier than a basic telescope. Other than that, we have historically relied on all the breathtaking photos of space provided to us by the experts.
If you want to take your milky way photography to the next level then you will probably want to go beyond our short blog post and into the minutiae of shooting and post-production. Take a look at our Milky Way Magic Toolkit.
But we no longer have to leave all the fun to full-time astronomers; given the wide accessibility to and technological sophistication of digital cameras, anyone can photograph the universe. And one of the easiest astrophotography subjects to capture is also one of the most impressive: the Milky Way Galaxy.
Let's look at exactly how to photograph the Milky Way for stunning results.
Click here to download your free Milky Way Photography Cheat Sheet so you can get great shots like these.
So, you want to photograph the Milky Way?
Obviously, we can’t photograph the whole galaxy since we live inside of it; that famous white streak that dominates so much of the night sky is actually the light of billions of stars whose light, from our point of view on earth, seems to blend together, sporadically obscured by dust and gas clouds. In reality, all we are seeing is a small, edge-on view of the galaxy’s plane. Small, but impressive.
Astrophotography is a complex genre and it is something that can go into the complexities of using telescopes, trackers and specialised cameras like the CCD camera and other expensive gear. In this article, we will look at the basics of how to capture a photo of the Milky way using a digital camera and lens that you already have in hand. This could be a DSLR, mirrorless or another camera that allows for manual exposure. Image quality really matters in astrophotography!
Here’s how to photograph the Milky Way for yourself in 12 steps!
- Find a dark sky
- Know when and where to look
- Use a digital full frame camera with high iso capabilities
- Use a fast wide-angle lens and choose the right focal length
- Use a tripod
- Use live view to focus manually
- Start with iso 3200
- Set a long shutter speed
- Set a wide-open aperture to get as much light as possible
- Compose your shot
- Get a satisfactory exposure for the best image quality
- Post-process the shot
Let's look at each of these steps in more detail…
1. Find A Dark Sky
Just waiting until nighttime won’t do. A dark sky free of light pollution is the first and most important requirement to even seeing the Milky Way, let alone photograph it. If you live in a big city, it can be difficult to see the Milky Way because of light pollution and poor air quality. Be prepared to travel a considerable distance (several miles / hours depending on how large the city is), otherwise, you run the risk of city lights making their mark in your shots.
Remote locations like national park areas, forest areas and other camping sites can be great for dark skies. You can make use of the Dark Site Finder website or Light Pollution Map or apps like Dark Sky Map to find dark areas near where you are.
The moon can have a similar impact on your Milky Way photos; shooting during a full moon will wash out your images. Try to shoot during a new moon or on days when the moon rises really late.
2. Know When And Where To Look
The part of the Milky Way that is most easily visible to the naked eye isn’t visible all year round, especially for those in the Northern Hemisphere, where February through October is the optimal time, but the best months will be between May and August when the Milky way is high up in the sky. You will find your celestial subject in the southern half of the sky, rising from the east. Here is a link to download the Milky Way Calendar if you are interested.
Residents in the Southern Hemisphere may have a slight advantage in this regard, as the galactic center (central parts of the Milky Way) can be seen overhead.
In other seasons, the core of the Milky way will not be visible, but you can still photograph the fainter parts of the Milky Way if you have clear sky and atmospheric conditions.
If you are unsure of where and how to locate the Milky Way in the night sky, we have discussed a few apps later in the article that will help with locating any object in the night sky including the rising and setting time and also for planning a shot of the night sky against a foreground using augmented reality features.
3. Use A Digital Camera With Good High ISO Capabilities
Camera settings matter a lot! You’ll be shooting at night with very little available light; you want your camera’s sensor to be able to handle the shooting conditions without introducing an excessive amount of noise. Full-frame cameras are preferable but certainly not a necessity. Recent cameras perform very well in low light and there are a lot of affordable ones to choose from if you are a beginner.
4. Use A Fast Lens
You should work with a lens with a maximum aperture of at least f/2.8; the faster the better. It’s not that you’re totally out of luck if your fastest lens is f/3.5 or so, but you’ll have more of a challenge on your hands since the lens won’t be able to gather as much light and you will need to increase the iso.
The same principle applies to focal length; go as wide as you can preferably in the 14 – 24mm range. You may be seeing only a fraction of the Milky Way, but it’s still monstrous in size. The wider your lens, the more of it you can capture. Zoom lenses like the 15-35mm f/2.8 or fast lenses like the 14mm f/2,8, 20mm f/1.4 or 24mm f/1.4 are good choices.
Always experiment with focal length – there is no one right solution! Also, it's good if you can use a full-frame camera for this type of photography.
5. Use A Tripod
This really isn’t optional. Bells and whistles are nice, but sturdiness is your number one concern. You will be shooting long exposures of about 15 seconds and longer, so a sturdy tripod that can hold the camera-lens system without any shake, even in slightly windy conditions, is a must for great images of the Milky Way. A remote shutter release or a cable release will help with further minimizing camera shake.
6. Use Live View And Focus Manually
When doing night photography, to avoid the headache of trying to focus in the dark, use your camera’s live view feature to zoom in and manually focus on a bright star. Alternatively, you could use the distance markings on your lens (if it has them) to set hyperfocal distance.
7. Start With ISO 3200
Referring back to the first point, a high ISO is essential to collecting enough light to render a bright image of the Milky Way. Under typical conditions, ISO 3200 is a good starting place. Based on how well this plays with other camera settings, you can go higher or lower from there. Sometimes depending on the camera lens combination and atmospheric conditions, you may have to go up to iso 6400 and on a camera with better performance, even a lower iso 1600 may give an overexposed shot.
8. Set A Long Shutter Speed
Shutter speed is one of the crucial camera settings in astrophotography. You need a longer exposure time for Milky Way images and this is how you will capture more light and create a sufficiently bright exposure. There is just one problem, though. The planet doesn’t care if you’re new at astrophotography; it’s going to keep on rotating, which means if you leave the shutter open for too long, you’ll end up with star trails. There’s nothing wrong with star trails when that’s what you’re aiming for, but they aren’t really desirable for photographing the Milky Way.
To get pinpoint stars, use the “500 rule”, which calls for you to divide 500 by the focal length of the lens you’re using. So, if you have a 24mm lens on a full-frame camera, you will set your shutter speed to 20 sec. (500/24 = 20.83). If you’re working with a crop sensor camera be sure to account for the crop factor (typically 1.5 for Nikon and Sony, 1.6 for Canon).
As an example, using the same 24mm lens on a Nikon crop, you’d end up with an effective focal length of 36mm (24×1.5 = 36). Applying the 500 rule will yield a shutter speed of 13 sec. (500/36 = 13.89). There are those who debate about whether to use the 500 rule or the similar 600 rule; without delving further into the mathematics of it all, it really is more a matter of visual perception.
In short, stick with the 500 rule, especially if you intend to make poster size prints. If, after you’ve gotten more comfortable and done some experimenting, you find the “600 rule” works better for you (should be fine for web images) then definitely go with that.
Recent cameras with their highly developed sensors may sometimes require a more advanced calculation for exposure time called the NPF rule. You can read more about this rule in detail here and Photopills app allows you to make this calculation easier.
9. Set A Wide Open Aperture
No camera settings are complete without the right choice of aperture! Remember, it’s all about collecting as much light as possible; depth of field isn’t the primary concern here. In case of any significant softness, you’ll want to stop your lens down. This is why it’s so important to use a fast lens in the first place; if you know your lens is unacceptably soft at f/1.4, stopping down to f/2 will sharpen things up without having a severe impact on the lens’ light gathering ability.
10. Compose Your Shot
Once you are confident about all the camera settings it's time to press the shutter button. There’s no right way or wrong way to compose your shot, but you can create a sense of depth by framing this as a standard landscape shot with the Milky Way serving as the background. Just because it’s dark out doesn’t mean you should forget about the foreground, though; you can add interest to your scene by including hills or mountains, trees, rock formations, or even a person. Experiment all you want.
11. Get A Satisfactory Exposure
It’s very likely that your first shot won’t be an exposure you’re satisfied with (if you’re not happy with the focus or composition, adjust those camera settings before moving on to worrying about exposure). If the exposure isn’t “right,” you’ll have to identify the problem and work from there. When you notice there’s too much noise, simply decrease the ISO.
Finally, when you spot the shot is overexposed, check your surroundings for light pollution; decrease shutter speed; stop down the lens; or decrease ISO. If it’s underexposed, make sure you’re using the widest aperture on your lens; increase shutter speed (but beware of star trails forming); increase ISO.
12. Post-Process the Image
There will be a lot of variation at this final stage and, again, there is no one right way to handle the post-processing of your shots. Here are some steps that you can follow:
- The two most important things you can do to make post-processing a little easier is to shoot raw and get the best exposure you can in-camera.
- You may need to apply some sharpness and noise reduction. According to some sources, the color temperature of the Milky Way is around 4840°K; if you find it too much on the yellow/orange side, adjust the white balance until you have a neutral scene.
- You will definitely need to increase contrast; it’s okay to be a bit heavy-handed here, so long as you’re not losing shadow detail.
- If the photo editing software you are using allows curve adjustments, make use of it, as you can be more precise with your work. The curves tool also allows you to bring out more details and colours in the image.
- Assuming you got a good in-camera exposure you shouldn’t have to play with the exposure slider too much.
- Work with the colours in the frame. You can even make use of the HSL panel to work on specific colours.
- Use the adjustment brush tool to work in specific areas that need local adjustments. For example, bringing out details in foreground areas.
- Sometimes you may have to remove plane or satellite trails in the image or even other unwanted objects. Make use of clone or spot removal tools in your post-processing software for these tasks.
Image Blending When Post Processing
In order to get perfectly exposed foregrounds or sharp foregrounds and backgrounds, a few types of blending methods can be followed when post-processing. Of course, you will need to take the shots separately when photographing the Milky Way.
- Blending Images Exposed For Foreground and Sky: One way to get well-exposed foregrounds in a Milky Way shot is to take 2 shots and blend them when post-processing. One shot exposed for the sky and another for the foreground. Then blend them so you get the details in the foreground correctly exposed. Some photographers even blend images taken at different times of the day (foreground during twilight and then the sky exposure at night) in the same location.
- Focus Stacking: If you are looking for sharp details of all elements in the frame right from the foreground to the background, depending on how close the foreground elements are, you will need to go down the route of focus stacking. Take multiple images by shifting the point of focus slightly starting from the foreground and then moving your way back till you get the focus sharp on the stars/Milky Way. Stack these images when post-processing. Here is an article that explains focus stacking in detail.
Some Quick References For Milky Way Photography
How To Find The Milky Way
Before you learn how to photograph the Milky Way, you need to be able to find it. To locate the Milky Way, you need to be in a location free from light pollution due to the city lights, you need to have a clear sky. May to August is the best time to photograph the Milky Way. A very easy way to locate the Milky Way is to use an app that can accurately show you the location of the Milky Way at any time or tell you at what time the Milky Way rises and sets.
- The Sky Guide app for iOS gives an accurate location of the Milky Way and alerts you of astronomical events.
- Sky View Lite is a free app to locate the Milky Way and is free for Android and iOS.
- For Android users looking for a good app, Star Walk 2 is the one to go for and it is free. The Star Walk 2 lets you see the position of the milky way for future dates and times which is a good feature of the app.
Here are some more tips to photograph the Milky Way!
Night Sky Photography Settings:
When photographing the night sky, there are a few rules to follow based on the camera that you use, to avoid star trails.
The most common one is the 500 Rule where you divide 500 by the focal length of the lens you are using and if you are using an APS-C sensor, take into account the crop factor.
The various rules used for calculating shutter speed for star trails are below:
Other settings that you need to take care of are:
- Have the camera in full manual mode on a sturdy tripod. Turn off image stabilization.
- Have a wide-angle lens between 14mm to 24mm to get a good view of the Milky Way in the frame along with the foreground. Of course, you can try to use a different focal length if you want to achieve a different effect.
- Always shoot in raw format.
- Set the aperture to the widest – at least f2.8, but if you have only the basic lens, use it at 18mm / f3.5.
- Start with the lowest ISO possible, about 1600. Depending on the result, you can decrease further or increase the ISO up to 3200, above which the image quality can start to deteriorate. Some older cameras or atmospheric conditions may require iso 6400.
- Put your lens on manual focus and focus on the brightest star in the sky. Zoom in on live-view and turn the focus ring till the star shows up as a bright point on the screen.
- Calculate shutter speed based on one of the rules above – 500 rule, 600 rule or the NPF rule.
- Use the mirror lockup feature if using a DSLR to avoid blur due to camera movement.
- Turn off long exposure noise reduction because an amount of time equal to the exposure time will be taken by the camera for this process which means the photographer will have to wait between each shot which will not be practical. You can reduce noise when post processing.
A Good Starting Point For Your Night Sky Settings:
This is a bit of a rule of thumb that photographer Jenn Cooper from the Canon Collective mentioned in one of her live courses. It is not meant to be set in stone. It is a good starting point for your camera settings, from which you can then make adjustments relevant to the specific situation.
|Shutter Speed||25 sec|
|Aperture||f/2.8 (or as wide as possible)|
If you use that setup, the first thing you will want to change (assuming it doesn't quite work for you) is the ISO.
How To Photograph The Milky Way:
In order to photograph the Milky Way, you need to be in an area where there is the least light pollution. Websites like Light Pollution Map and the Dark Sky Finder can be used to find dark locations nearer you.
To take a picture of the Milky Way:
- Look for clear skies and keep an eye on the moon. A new moon or a night when the moon is not up in the sky is the best.
- Have the camera on a sturdy tripod and turn off image stabilization.
- Use manual mode to have more creative control over settings.
- You need a fast and wide-angle lens with focal lengths between 14mm to 24mm and aperture at least f/2.8, to capture a wide scene of the foreground and the sky and photograph the Milky Way at lower ISO values.
- Manually focus the lens (as you do not want to lose focus each time you take a shot) on a bright star till it is point sharp. If you want to include a foreground, you can focus one third into the scene.
- Use a cable release one and mirror lockup feature for DSLRs, as this can help avoid blurry images due to camera shake.
- Use apps like the Sky Guide app or Star Walk 2 to locate the Milky Way if you are having difficulty locating it in the night sky.
- Calculate the maximum shutter speed based on the 500 rule or NPF rule in order to avoid trails as trails are not desirable when photographing the Milky Way. If you will be shooting for web images, you can use the 600 rule.
- Set the white balance tungsten or daylight to get the right sky colours, or even set to auto. You can change this while post-processing as you will be shooting the Milky Way raw.
- If your foreground does not have enough light to be illuminated properly for right exposure, you can use a flashlight to light paint foreground objects. These processes take some practice and patience to get perfect results and right white balance.
Here are some apps to calculate shutter speed for Milky Way photography:
- 500 Rule Calculator for iOS
- 600 Rule Calculator for iOS but this calculation could create some trails. So it is better to use this setting when shooting for web images.
- Pin Point Stars for Android helps to calculate the best exposure times for star and milky way photography
Find more star photography dos and don'ts here!
If you want to take your milky way photography to the next level then you will probably want to go beyond our short blog post and into a detailed guide like Milky Way Mastery by Josh Dunlop. Take a look at it here.
As you can see, you don’t need a whole lot of specialized equipment in order to be successful in astrophotography. In addition to having a passion for the subject, you’ll certainly have to invest a lot of planning, practice, and patience. The payoff, however, will be worth all the time and effort you expend.
Click here to download your free Milky Way Photography Cheat Sheet so you can get great shots like these.
Milky Way Photography Gallery
There's no doubt that Milky Way photography is among the most striking among the various subject genres and hopefully you have a much better handle on shooting it now. But what makes a good Milky Way photo shoot?
Well, a lot of that is up to personal taste. For many, it's a case of “you know it when you see it.” So with that in mind we decided to put together a small gallery of Milky Way photography that we think really has that wow factor.