I remember the first time I saw a photograph of the Milky Way. I was amazed! Then I found out that it was taken with a camera not very different from my own. From that moment I was determined to learn how to photograph the Milky Way for myself! The first opportunity that I had to go to a dark location with an experienced Milky Way photographer presented itself a few months later. Not long after that, I was out on my own to try again.
I have friends that are very accomplished astrophotographers. While I wouldn’t pretend to imply that I have earned the mastery that they have, I’ve learned the basics and can tell you that if you own a DSLR or mirrorless camera, you probably already have the tools to take your own Milky Way shot successfully.
This guide is for those who are just learning how to photograph the Milky Way. It is basic. For those of you who are looking for something more advanced, like composites, or stacking, or tracking, you won’t find it here. We’re just going to cover the basic steps of taking a single image photograph of the Milky Way.
Determine Where to Photograph the Milky Way
Unless you are a very fortunate person, you probably can’t step out into your backyard and successfully photograph the Milky Way. Most of us live in areas that are far too bright for that. If you live in the eastern half of the United States, as I do, you’re probably going to wind up traveling at least some distance from home to find skies that are dark enough to allow for basic astrophotography. Using a map, such as the one at Dark Sky Finder, can be an important first step in finding areas that are dark enough to allow you to photograph the Milky Way.
But finding a dark place isn’t enough. You’ll still want to find a location that will allow for an interesting composition. Just raising your camera to the heavens will yield a visually uninteresting image. Photographing the Milky Way is not unlike landscape photography. And like a good landscape photo, an interesting Milky Way image will have interesting foreground elements. So you not only have to find a place where you can see the Milky Way, but you need to find a spot with something on the ground that will lead us to it, in one way or another.
Determine When to Photograph the Milky Way
The core of the Milky Way – that part of it that is the most visually interesting – is only visible at certain times. It rises and sets, just like the sun and the moon. And just like the sun, its position relative to Earth changes throughout the year. In the northern hemisphere, it is most visible during our summer months, so you will want to begin planning your Milky Way photography accordingly.
Additionally, you will want to consider the position of the moon. While it may not seem like it, the moon (or more accurately, the reflection of the sun off of the moon’s surface) is extremely bright. It’s so bright, in fact, that it can essentially illuminate the night sky to the point that you will not be able to see or photograph the Milky Way. The best time to photograph the Milky Way each month is during the New Moon. On that night, and a few nights before and after, the moon does not appear in the night sky.
Fortunately, we don’t have to be trained astronomers to figure out the best times to photograph the Milky Way. As they say, there’s an app for that! There are a few, actually. I find PhotoPills, PlanIt! Pro and the Photographer’s Ephemeris to be particularly helpful. Candidly, I use PhotoPills 98% of the time. The augmented reality feature allows you to view the scene through your phone’s camera and see the Milky Way superimposed over your potential composition at any given moment.
However, I do like the calendar feature in PlanIt! that shows Milky Way visibility in a given month at a glance.
If you don’t want to invest in an app, you can find the same information online at several places.
Know the Gear that you will need
Whether you are a professional or a hobbyist, you know that photography can be an expensive proposition. And it always seems like there is some new gadget or lens that you simply “must have”. In some genres, that’s true, but there’s a pretty good chance that you can photograph the Milky Way with the gear that you already have, assuming that you own a DSLR or mirrorless camera. I know that some phones are now boasting night-photography capability. And with a tripod and some technical understanding, you could probably come away with a decent image, but there would be definite limitations.
You will be much better off with an actual camera; preferably one that allows you to change lenses. In the grand scheme of things, a full-frame camera is better than one with a cropped sensor. (And if you have access to a medium format body that would be better yet!) Before you run off to Google to investigate those terms, let me just say that whatever DSLR or Mirrorless you have will be fine. We’re just learning, right? So let’s make these first steps easy on ourselves. No need to buy a new camera.
You will want the widest lens you can get your hands on. While it’s possible to photograph the Milky Way with a 50mm lens, those who do so normally take multiple images and then stitch them together to create a panorama. Again, our goal is to do this in a single image. So we need something wider to capture the entire night sky. Or at least that part of it that frames the Milky Way.
You’ll also need a fast lens. It’s dark outside, so we need a lens that opens wide to let in every bit of light that it possibly can. That means that, ideally, you will have a lens that opens all the way to f/2.8 or even f/1.8 or f/1.4.
So wide and fast. I use a Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8. I bought it specifically to do landscape and night photography. It’s built well, creates beautiful images, and costs significantly less than the Nikon equivalent. I’m very happy with it. But that may not be the best solution for you.
Night photography is all about compromises. That becomes especially clear when we start to shoot, but some of those compromises may begin well before we get to the field, like when we are considering our lens options. We know that we want wide and fast, but we may have to choose one over the other or make some other sort of concession in order to get the job done reasonably well.
The first option, if you don’t already have a lens for photographing the Milky Way, is to go fast, but not so wide. A 35mm f/2.8 is usually not a very expensive lens, especially if you find a used one, and it’s certainly something that you could use during the day! It’s a great lens for events, street photography, and environmental portraits.
The second option is to get a low-cost wide-angle lens. When I shot on a cropped-sensor camera, I had a used Tokina 11-16 that I loved! Another (relatively) inexpensive option is the Rokinon 14mm f/2.8. There is no image stabilization on this model, but since you’ll be using a tripod, that’s not an issue. At the time that I’m writing this, I see that Adorama has a used one in very good condition for $159! Admittedly, that one will be gone soon, but it’s a reminder that used equipment is available for reasonable prices. And you don’t need the newest or the most advanced lens to photograph the Milky Way.
The final option would be to rent or borrow a lens. I have used Lensrentals.com on several occasions and have always been very pleased with their service. Of course, if you’re going out to shoot with someone else, and you use the same kind of equipment, you might be able to talk them into letting them use their lens for at least a shot or two.
Other Photography Gear
You’re going to need a tripod. Period. Get your hands on the best one that you can. And if you can’t get a good one, at least bring something adequate enough to hold your camera absolutely still in the night air for 20 seconds.
Finally, you will want to have a cable release for your camera or – at the very least – a time delay feature for your shutter. You will want the camera to be very still for the entire length of the exposure. A cable release lets you fire the camera without touching it. On the other hand, setting the camera’s timer for 5 or 10 seconds will give you the same benefit.
So you’ve got your camera gear laid out. Perfect! Now let’s consider a few other things that you will need.
- A headlamp or flashlight. Remember, you’re going to be out in the dark. While I recommend against turning on a light once your camera is set up, you will need to be able to get to and from your shooting location safely. I recommend a headlamp for convenience. Make sure to get one with a red led (or cover) in order to preserve your night vision (and not blind your companions).
- Lighting for the foreground. Remember that foreground element I mentioned? You will probably need some way to light it in order for it to be seen in your final image. It doesn’t take much to accomplish what you need. A flashlight can easily “paint” a building or a tree while your shutter is open. I have actually used my phone screen to illuminate bushes near my camera position. In some cases, the ambient light may be enough to do the job for you, but I would be prepared to light the foreground in some way.
- Clothing. It can be chilly at night. A hat, jacket, or fleece may come in handy.
- Insect repellant. It’s hard to focus on your work while you’re fighting off gnats, mosquitos, and other buzzing pests.
- Noise. Depending on where you’re going, you may need to be aware of other night creatures, too. For the most part, the animal kingdom will leave you alone as long as you don’t bother them. Make enough noise so that they know you are in the area. I know some who play music or podcasts on their phone simply to announce their presence on those dark mountain trails.
- Safety first. Chances are good that your chosen spot for photographing the Milky Way is fairly remote, or down a trail, or along the beach. Things can happen. So bring your fully-charged cell phone with you. Since you may not have the best signal, you would be wise to have a map of the area or even a compass in some cases. I never go anywhere without a small first aid kit.
How to Photograph the Milky Way
Finally! We can talk about what happens when you get to the field. Again, we’re painting with broad strokes here, just to get you moving in the right direction. There are videos you can watch and even courses that you can purchase to help you with your Milky Way photography. Frankly, nothing beats just getting out there and trying. You will learn more by yourself in one evening than you will over the course of weeks or months watching videos. You can do this. It really isn’t that complicated.
What settings should I use?
Normally, when new photographers ask me that question, I do everything I can to avoid answering them. The answer, almost always, is “that depends”. But when we photograph the Milky Way, the answer is a lot more direct.
Remember, it’s dark! So our biggest struggle will be to get enough light into the camera in order to properly expose the sensor. So let’s think about all the things we can do to increase the light in the image.
Aperture – As wide as you can make it. Or, if you prefer, the smallest f-stop number on your lens. This is why you wanted that f/2.8 or f/1.8 lens! Take advantage of it.
ISO – Higher than you want! Normally, we want to shoot at the lowest ISO possible in order to avoid noise in our images. So we set our ISO at 100 when we can, and maybe as much as 1250 when we must. That won’t work under a dark sky. You will need an ISO of AT LEAST 3200 in order to get an acceptable image. More likely, you will be at ISO 5000 or 6400. Yes, the image will be noisy, but this is one of those compromises that we have to make. We give up some quality to get a sufficient level of exposure.
Shutter speed – This one is a little trickier. And another compromise. You will want to have the longest shutter speed possible while still maintaining an acceptable level of sharpness in the stars. To put it another way, keep the shutter speed as long as you can, without seeing blurry stars. This is almost difficult to believe until you experience it. But a shutter speed of 30 seconds will result in an image that actually shows the earth’s rotation! The stars will appear to be elongated or egg-shaped.
Here again, we come to a compromise. If your goal is to have an image that you can look at on your phone, that “blur” will be less obvious. You will see it more on your computer screen. And if you print the image any larger than your screen it will be even more obvious! In order to get a better understanding of what is happening here, and to see two formulas that will help you find the optimal shutter speed, I direct you to this excellent article from Photography Life. Or you can simply use the Spot Stars feature in PhotoPills to quickly calculate the best shutter speed for your camera and focal length.
White Balance – If you usually shoot RAW images, this isn’t a large consideration, particularly for a single image photograph of the Milky Way. And I certainly recommend shooting RAW. Your images will need some work when you get home and you want to give yourself all the latitude you can. Generally speaking, the optimum white balance will be somewhere between 3000 and 4000 degrees Kelvin. Or, if you prefer, just set your white balance to Tungsten. You will undoubtedly be adjusting later anyway.
Before you go take a few minutes to make sure that you can operate your camera in the dark Can you find the playback button, change the shutter speed or ISO, and change the battery without using a headlamp? Practice in a dark room until you develop some muscle memory. Those are skills that you will learn to appreciate even when you’re shooting during the day. And while you’re working in the dark, turn down the brightness on the monitor. It will confuse you once you get into the field since it will look brighter than it actually is.
Remember you can’t autofocus in the dark
Most new Milky Way photographers struggle with focus more than anything else. After all, you’re attempting to focus on something that you can’t see with your naked eye! The process is pretty straightforward, once you begin to understand it.
- With your camera solidly placed on your tripod, find the brightest star in the sky and point your camera at it.
- Turn off image stabilization and set your focus mode to manual.
- Put your camera into the Live View mode. Increase the magnification slowly, looking for that brightest star. It will become more visible as you increase the magnification. Be patient!
- With the magnification increased to maximum, manually turn the focus ring on your lens until the star is as sharp as possible.
- Your focus is now set for the rest of the night. Don’t touch the focus ring again, or you will need to repeat this process!
Assuming that your foreground object isn’t immediately in front of your camera, it will be acceptably in focus in the final image. (We’ll leave the complicated discussion of hyperfocal distance for another day!)
Use your Histogram
I’ve already mentioned the importance of dimming your playback screen when you go out. Things will look very bright, and very saturated, on the back of your camera. Learn to rely on your histogram to give you a reliable report of what you’re actually shooting. Don’t trust your eyes and the back of your camera! A good Milky Way exposure will be far to the left on your histogram, but will not be all the way to the left. Leave room for shadow detail.
Be patient with your composition
When you photograph the Milky Way, it’s easy to get caught up in the stars. But don’t forget what creates a good composition. Are your foreground elements placed correctly in the frame? Is your horizon level. (That’s especially important for those of us who do most of our Milky Way photography at the beach!) Yes, it’s hard to see those things in the dark! So it will probably take a few shots to nail down the specific composition that you want. Don’t rush. You’ll be happy that you got it right later!
Be prepared to do some post-processing
When you get home and put your images on the screen, be prepared to be let down. They will not look like they did on the back of your camera. They will look flat. The stars will look dim. And they will be noisy. Brace yourself for it, and know that that’s how they’re supposed to look at this point. It doesn’t take that much work to bring out their astronomical glory.
Milky Way post-processing is a subject all by itself, and there are many ways of doing it. You can literally spend hours on a single image if you care to do so. But our goal is to keep things simple, right? Let me suggest this excellent 13-minute video that will walk you through 5 basic steps in Lightroom to Edit your Milky Way images.
Don’t overdo it! When I look back at my earliest attempts at Milky Way photography, I see that I was far too heavy-handed with my processing. A little goes a long way! You might want to finish your processing, walk away for the day, then review your work tomorrow. Sometimes fresh eyes are all that you need to give you a clearer view.
Photographing the Milky Way creates some challenges that you probably haven’t faced before, and won’t truly appreciate until you find yourself out in the field. Handling your camera in the dark, focusing on something that you almost can’t see, and “blindly” pointing your camera to your chosen composition can be daunting at first. But the results are definitely worth it.
Go out, find your spot, and have fun. Then let me know how it goes. And tell me what else I should have told you before you went in the comments below.