If you’ve never shot the milky way, but you’ve always wanted to learn how to do milky way photography then your in luck.
In this article, we break down the process into a simple and easy to follow, step by step guide.
So even if you thought the idea of photographing the milky way was confusing and complicated, then keep reading because by the end of this guide you’ll have everything you need to get out there and capture the milky way with precision.
The Planning Phase
Unlike other forms of night sky photography, capturing an image of the milky way is 80% planning and only 20% shooting.
The frontend of the work is working out when and where to set up and shoot to make sure you capture the milky way at just the right time, or even if its visible at certain times of the year.
In this part of the tutorial, I’m going to go over the planning phase.
Planning how to find the darkest sky, when the moon is going to set and where the milky way is going to be and what time the core of the Milky Way is going to be out (that’s the part that you want, the galactic core is the meat of it).
What Is The Milky Way And The Galactic Core?
Let’s start with what the milky way is. It is a thick band of stars that stretch across the sky from the northern sky to the southern sky. It is home to between 200 and 400 billion stars, all of various brightness and age.
But what about the milky way galactic core?
The galactic core is what we describe the southern part of the Milky Way, it’s sometimes also called the galactic center. It is the brightest and most colorful part of the milky way and is the most photographed part of the Milky Way by far.
It’s what most people strive to get, and when people are referring to Milky Way photos, they are often talking about this galactic center.
The Milky Way Season?
Depending on where you live around the world, the milky way is visible only at certain times of the year, which is why it is critical that we have done our homework and planned the whole outing before we step out of the house to start photographing.
Before we can start planning the Milky Way, we need to know where to find the Milky Way.
Below we will go into detail on when is the best time of the year to see the milky way and how to find it during a photo shoot.
The Northern Hemisphere
In the northern hemisphere, the milky way is fully visible between March and November. That’s because of the combination of the rotating axis of the earth and what time of year it is.
The milky way and some constellations are still there during those other months, but they rotate in view during the day hours. Of course, we can’t see it during those times, so it’s not until March that the milky way starts to come up above the horizon at night.
- March-May – It is still pretty close to the horizon, so only visible for a few hours in the southeastern sky before sunrise.
- June-August – The best times for photography, the whole milky way is usually visible for most of the night.
- September-November – By this time of the year, the milky way is best seen in the late evening of the night, usually facing more towards the southwestern sky.
The Southern Hemisphere
If you’re located in the Southern hemisphere, you’re at a slight advantage as you can see the milky way core from February to October.
The best time throughout the year though would be between the colder months of June and July. That would be prime viewing because the milky way core is directly overhead.
How To Find The Milky Way?
Finding the milky way takes a bit of planning thanks to the seasonal viewing cycle as we discussed above.
So if you’ve read the milky way season section of this guide, you now know when are the recommended months of the year to see the milky way, the next part is knowing where in the sky do you point your camera to capture the milky way.
In this section, I’ll be using a free program called Stellarium. I use Stellarium to pre-plan all my shots whenever I need to photograph detailed images of the milky way in the sky.
Previsualize The Shot & Location
Stellarium by default will pick up your location via your IP address, which is perfect if you’re doing any form of backyard astrophotography. But what if you want to step it up a gear and plan for a stunning contrasting shot of the milky way with an unusual foreground object then you need to take a few extra steps (don’t worry, it’s quite easy, and we’ve got you covered!)
Astrophotography is more than just taking images of the stars, there’s an art to it, the landscape is just as important as the sky. The challenge is trying to find unusual objects to use in the foreground part of the image like lakes, mountains, lighthouses and even just oddly shaped rock formations.
For the following steps, you will need to download Stellarium (available for Windows, Mac, and Linux), download google earth, and also have google maps open in your browser.
Get Location Coordinates
What we’re doing now is to enter the location of where we want to be photographing the milky way with our foreground object (Delicate Arch), and get the exact coordinates of the location so we can enter those into Stellarium.
So open up google maps, and enter the location in the search bar. Also I find it easier to click the satellite button (bottom left-hand corner) to get a better bearing of where we are on the map and to activate 3D mode when we zoom in closer.
Once you’ve found the location you want to shoot from, zoom into google maps and then press “CTRL+Mouse” to activate 3D mode in google maps. I find this extremely useful as you can position yourself “virtually” in the location and plan your angle to shoot from.
Once you’ve decided the angle and position you’re shooting from, click on the virtual position where you want to be standing to take the shot to get the coordinates box to pop up for that specific location (we’ll be using these coordinates in Stellarium later).
Click your coordinates that show up for google maps to lock in on that location.
Now what we want is to copy the Longitude and Latitude coordinates
Insert Location Into Stellarium
Next, we’ll be inserting those longitude and Latitude coordinates into Stellarium.
Open up Stellarium and go to your “location window” (Hover over the bottom left of screen or press F6).
Stellarium by default will have your current Latitude and longitude coordinates displayed. What we are going to do is enter the new location coordinates of Delicate Arch into Stellarium so we can see when and what times the milky way will be visible at that precise location.
Go back and forth between google maps and Stellarium and copy and paste both the Latitude and Longitude from google maps into Stellarium.
Tip: Once you paste your coordinates into Stellarium, you need to add spaces into your coordinates or click on the opposite box (Latitude or Longitude). Stellarium will auto format the spaces from your google map coordinates.
Also, keep in mind that Google maps add the N, S, E, or W at the end of their coordinates, in Stellarium, these need to be at the beginning of the coordinates.
Save Location Coordinates In Stellarium
We want to save these coordinates in Stellarium, so we don’t have to repeat the work we’ve done if we’re going to go back and reshoot at Delicate Arch at a later date.
After you’ve entered your coordinates, enter the following data, and then hit “Add to list” to save the location in Stellarium.
- Name/City: This is for your reference only (name it what you want)
- Country: Country of the photo shoot location
- Planet: Earth (unless you know a way to shoot on another planet 😉 )
- Time Zone: Set the time zone to match the time zone of the location.
Once you’ve added the info, remember to hit “add to list.”
The Location (Delicate Arch, Utah) is now saved on the list, once you close Stellarium and reopen the program, your saved location(s) can be brought up any time you want from now on.
Quick Stellarium Settings
Stellarium will show us all the celestial objects that are in the sky, in this guide we are looking for the milky way.
So to make things a little easier, let’s go into the settings of Stellarium and make the milky way brighter. Doing this makes it easier to see the milky way in Stellarium and the position where we want it to be.
Open the “Sky and viewing options window” (Hover over the bottom left of screen or press F4).
Next, adjust the “Milky Way brightness/saturation” tab to 5. This will brighten up the milky way for us to see easier.
Notice how much brighter them milky way has become compared to the previous image?
Find What Direction You Will Be Facing (Heading & Celestial Location)
So far we’ve found and set up our location in Stellarium, now we need to work out which direction we will be facing, North, South, East, or West?
Download Google Earth onto your computer (need the desktop version as the web browser version is missing some features), copy the Longitude and Latitude coordinates from google maps and paste them into google earth to take you to your destination (Delicate Arch, Utah).
Now that we have our position loaded in google earth, we now want to find out what the “heading in degrees” is. This is the line of sight direction that we will be facing so we can also use that in Stellarium.
So if we want to take a photo of us standing in front of the Delicate Arch with the milky way rising behind it in the background, we need the heading in degrees value from google earth.
To get it, it’s straightforward, click the Ruler tab in the top menu of google earth.
The Ruler has three different measurements, the only one we need to take notice of is Heading.
Click once at the location where you want to be standing, this drops a pin and creates a yellow line on the map.
This yellow line becomes our “line of sight” of where we’re standing to where we will be looking for the milky way in the sky.
So where ever you want your photo of the milky way to be, drag the yellow line there. That will be your direction of the line of sight.
In our example image, we want the milky way to be behind the Delicate Arch, so we drag the yellow line through the Arch and click it.
As you can now see, the Ruler now gives us a Heading of 149 degrees.
Determine What Time To Photograph The Milky Way
Go back into Stellarium, and turn on “Compass Marks.” (Hover over the bottom of the screen to view the pop-up menu). This brings up the visual guide so we can adjust our angle to match the heading degrees we worked out on google earth.
Drag the screen around to match the viewing angle of 149 degrees.
So what we have done is in Stellarium, we have “virtually” put yourself at the location of Delicate Arch and positioned yourself at the correct viewing angle as if we were set up and facing the actual rock formation of Delicate Arch.
Once you have set your compass viewing angle in Stellarium, we need to adjust the time (and date) to find at precisely when the milky way will be visible from that location.
We need to open the “Date and Time” window (Hover over the bottom left of the screen or press F5).
So now, set the date to when you want to go out and photograph the milky way. In this example, we will set it to the following night.
So with our date set for the following night, now we need to incrementally adjust the time until the milky way rotates into our view. That will show us at precisely what time we need to be at Delicate Arch to capture the milky way in our shot.
As you can see in the image above, we adjusted the time until the milky way came into our line of sight, (which on this date was at 10:25 pm).
And that’s it… you have now know how to find the milky way. If you followed this guide, all the guesswork has been taken out, and you will know with certainty where and when you need to be at a location to find and capture the milky way.
Keep reading, because further below, we’ll be discussing how to determine the right weather conditions for shooting the milky way.
Smartphone Apps for Night Time Photography
While we’ve talked a lot about the desktop app Stellarium, what about when you’re out on the go with no desktop in sight? Not to worry, because some great and useful apps are available these days for finding the milky way and astrophotography in general.
Here is a list of apps that are useful for shooting the milky way. Some are free apps, while some others are paid.
- Star Walk App – Star and Constellation guide
- PhotoPills – All in one tool set, popular with landscape photographers. Can be overwhelming for first time users due to the amount of data available.
- Stellarium (IOS) & (Android) – Same as the desktop version except the app versions are paid.
- Deluxe Moon – Moon phase calculator
- Sky Guide – Similar to Stellarium, so you can find the milky way in the sky.
Knowing The Location & Conditions Are Suitable For Photography
Now that you’ve gone through the section on how to find the milky way, the next part is knowing if you’ll be able to see the milky way.
That’s important because there are a few things that will affect your success once you trek out in the middle of the night and start looking for it.
The first one is the weather, so of course, if you have a cloudy night, there’s no way you’re going see the milky way. Even a partially cloudy night will wreak havoc with your images.
Tip: When it comes to astrophotography, the weather is a crucial ingredient in how well you night sky capture will be.
If you know the moon phase will be suitable and it is within the milky way season then to check the cloud forecast, there is a fantastic website called Clear Dark Sky. It’s an astronomer’s forecast that includes data for up to the next 48 hours.
The site currently has thousands of locations throughout North America, if you’re situated somewhere else across the world then try and find a weather service that is specific for your region.
An astronomer’s weather example of Salt Lake City from Clear Dark Sky
The above image from Clear Dark Sky may initially look confusing, but there are only two columns that we are interested in.
- Cloud Cover – This tells you how clear the sky will be over the next 48 hours. White squares indicate cloud coverage, and blue tells you the sky is clear.
- Darkness – This one shows you how “dark” the sky is over the next 48 hours. The darkest portion of the night is the dark blue sections, light blue means there is light pollution from the moon and white is daylight.
Some other weather services I have come across are SkippySky (but not as user-friendly) for Australia. For Europe, there is a website called yr.no and looks pretty impressive. Search for your town, select “Hour by Hour” and then “Detailed” to see an hourly breakdown of cloud cover.
Check The Lunar Phase
The phase of the moon is next on the list. To capture those stunning milky way images we see, you’ll need a night that either has no light or very minimal light emitting from the moon.
If the phase of the moon is too bright, all that ambient light is going to wash out the milky way night photo you’re trying to capture and produce much less than expected results.
For the best milky way images, you need to go out on a night where there is either no moon (that’s called the new moon) or when the moon is setting early. A new moon happens roughly once a month.
When it comes to planning ahead, there are several sites to find the moon phase for the month, but one we like is this Moon Phase Calculator.
Light Pollution – Finding A Dark Sky
Unless you’re lucky enough to live in a remote area, you won’t have the luxury of starting with a dark sky and will have to put up with varying degrees of light pollution.
Light pollution has a negative effect when taking night photography and is caused by buildings, street lights, houses, cars, and many other objects that emit lights is cities and suburbs. Usually, anywhere that is a populated area, is usually affected by some varying degree of light pollution.
Finding a dark enough area away from light pollution is not quite as easy as it seems. Luckily there are some tools we can use to find nearby locations that are darkest, and suitable for milky way photography.
DarkSiteFinder is a great tool to find close by areas that have minimal light pollution. It’s basically like a heat map of the world where all of the high light pollution areas are. It also shows where there is no light pollution or minimal light pollution, so you want to prioritize the dark areas for the best shots.
Something that gets overlooked a lot is humidity, depending on what part of the world you live and what time of the year it is, it can get pretty humid in the summer, and that can have a hazy effect on the lens. Always bring some spare microfibre cloths to wipe over your lens if needed.
On the other end of the scale, it can get extremely cold on a night time photo shoot. Temperatures can drop quite quickly after the sun sets.
Always pack a few extra pieces of warm clothing, as once your setup you’ll be waiting around for a while. Gloves are another vital bit of clothing, especially the ones that you can use on your smartphone without taking them off.
The Capturing Phase
After we’ve planned our shoot, next up is the actual capturing of the milky way. Once we know where to find the milky way and all the weather conditions are right, we get out there and take our shot.
In the capturing phase section, we will discuss the equipment needed, how to set them up for milky way imaging, and how to focus on an object in the night sky.
What Equipment Do You Need To Photograph The Milky Way?
The beauty of milky way photography is the equipment required to shoot is minimal. Sure there are a few optional accessories you can pick up that will undoubtedly make your life a little easier when capturing your image but by no means necessary.
Below we discuss the three main items you need (camera, lens, and tripod) and some of the optional equipment you can pick up also.
Picking a camera for milky way photography doesn’t have to be too difficult. With camera advancement over the last few years, the image quality of even slightly older cameras is quite remarkable.
If you already have a Digital SLR (DSLR) camera at home, then it’s certainly worth trying out what you’ve already got. Once you’re ready to upgrade, or you just want to grab the best camera to shoot night sky images, then you have a few choices at your disposal.
- DSLR camera – Full frame preferred, but if budget is a constraint, then a cropped sensor camera will suffice.
- Mirrorless Camera – Some great mirrorless options available these days. Sony is one of the leaders in the mirrorless arena, and they support a vast range of interchangeable lenses. Capable of doing an outstanding job in low light photography thanks to their ability to shoot extremely low noise images in night photography.
Whichever camera you have or decide to buy, you need one that has a “Manual” mode. While most have this nowadays, its definitely something to be aware of, as you will need to be able to manually adjust the settings of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.
Another factor to consider with a camera for milky way photography is image noise. Milky way images require long exposure times, while this allows more light and detail to enter the image, it also increases the amount of noise in the image.
ISO is another image noise problem, again due to the low light (or no light in some cases).
We need to raise the ISO settings on the camera to increase the brightness in the image, this is one of the most significant issues in adding noise to an image, so look for a camera that can handle higher ISO settings (3200 and higher) but still can produce clean noise-free images.
Lens – Fast Wide Angle Lens
A good camera lens can make an average DSLR camera take stunning images in the night. Conversely, a bad lens can make a great camera take uninspiring images.
A lens that is recommended throughout the astrophotography scene is the Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 lens, it’s capable of taking outstanding night sky images.
This is a “budget” lens when compared to the pricing of an equivalent Canon lens, but the pricing difference is not because it’s inferior, it’s because it’s a “manual” lens, there is no autofocus or auto zoom, so a much lower price. For night photography this is perfect as we make all our adjustments manually anyway.
You see, there are two main points to look at when considering a lens for milky way photography, they are lens speed and a wide angle lens which I discuss below.
Fast Lens Speed
Look for a lens that has a larger maximum aperture. This can confuse people just starting out in photography because the aperture is measured on a lens with f-numbers (f/1.4 up to f/16), and a small f-number means a larger aperture hole.
We need a lower lens aperture (f-number) because we’re capturing images during the night, so a large aperture hole is vital to allow as much light through the lens onto the sensor as possible.
This is called a fast lens because it can allow the same exposure in less time because the aperture hole is larger. So a lens with f/2.8 is considered faster than a lens with f/8.
Think of the milky way as a large landscape image, so we ideally want to capture as wide an area as our lens will allow to capture.
Apart from being able to capture more of the milky way in a single image, a wide angled lens means less “zoom” on the image, so allows for longer exposure times before the milky way and stars begin to blur due to the rotation of the earth.
To capture the whole milky way it’s recommended to go with a focal length of 35mm or less (ideally a focal length of 14mm), if you’re using a DSLR camera with a cropped sensor, then stick to a length of 24mm or less.
Note: Most cameras come with the standard 18-55mm f3.5-5.6 lens kit. While not the first choice lens for milky way imaging, don’t feel you need to go and spend up big on a new lens straight away.
With this 18-55mm lens kit that comes with most entry-level cameras, you can most certainly get some beautiful pics of the milky way. Just set your lens to the lowest settings, 18mm, f/3.5, ISO at 6400, and a 30-second exposure should result in some excellent images for such a low-cost lens.
A tripod is another necessary piece of equipment for any form of astrophotography. Just remember that because we’re taking long exposure images (from 15 seconds to 2 minutes+), that a strong and sturdy tripod is definitely a must have.
The last thing you want is any “shakes” in your images if you’re using a lightweight and flimsy tripod, especially if there is any reasonable amount of wind when you’re on location.
Just something to consider, look for a tripod that has a ball head rather than a pan-tilt head. I find them a little quicker and easier to adjust the view when setting up a composition.
Star Tracker (Optional)
Because of the Earth’s rotation, we’re limited to around a 30 second exposure time when shooting the Milky Way before we start to get blurring in our images.
To offset this, a tool like a star tracker will, when setup correctly, rotates at the same speed of the Earth’s rotation. Thus allowing you to capture much, much longer exposures of the Milky Way. Usually up to 2-3 minute exposures at a time.
The benefit of a dslr start tracker is it allows much more light and details to be captured in your images.
While I have marked this as “optional,” you really should have some form of light with you, even if it’s just the flashlight from your phone. You’ll be working in the pitch dark for most of the time, whether it’s getting set up in the dark or making small adjustments on your camera, you need some form of light to be able to see what you’re doing.
You may be thinking that I already mentioned a flashlight above, and yes I did, but a headlamp is useful for other reasons.
A headlamp is excellent when you’re making adjustments on your camera in the dark and having both hands free to make those adjustments in the dark is money well spent in my opinion.
Look for a LED headlamp that has a red “night vision” mode. It helps keep your eyes adjusted to the dark.
If you’ve ever been in a well-lit room and suddenly turned the lights off, you’ll know the feeling of your eyes taking a few minutes to adjust to the dark. This doesn’t happen with a red light, your eyes stay adjusted to the dark even while using the red light.
An intervalometer is a small handheld device that is plugged into your camera with a long cable. It allows you to remotely trigger the shutter button without having to touch the camera physically.
This avoids accidentally “shaking” the camera if you have to press the shutter button manually. The last thing you want is any form of streaking or blurring in your images due to camera movement when taking a picture.
You can get away with the timer feature that is available on most DSLR cameras, for example, set the timer for 2 seconds and when you press the shutter button the camera counts down 2 seconds before it takes a picture, to avoid the camera shaking.
As for adjusting the camera exposure, anything up to 30 seconds an image is fine as you can set this in your camera.
But any more than 30 seconds and you need to set your camera to “Bulb” mode, meaning you can take an exposure for much longer, but you need to hold your finger on the shutter button.
This is where an intervalometer becomes invaluable, it allows you to take exposure images of much longer than 30 seconds when your camera is in ‘Bulb” mode without having to touch the camera.
For the price of around $20, they won’t break the bank, and while they are optional, they are a useful piece of equipment to have.
Digital Or Bubble Level (Optional)
Even with the live view on, it’s quite hard to see if your camera has the foreground landscape level during the night. That’s why I usually keep at least a bubble level in my goodies pack to help with getting the image level and straight.
Select A Composition
If this is your first time capturing an image of the milky way, then just a straight up image of the milky way is a great achievement and a milestone. But soon after, picture after picture of the milky way can get a little tiresome.
This is where composition comes in, start to get creative with your local surroundings and think of large objects you can incorporate into your milky way images.
I have seen some truly unique compositions over the years, from images incorporating old derelict buildings to the milky way seemingly coming out of a volcano.
Even though it’s a little more work, a time lapse video capturing the milky way movement through the sky is another option.
Always experiment with different shooting techniques, whether it’s shorter or longer exposures or a different angle of your foreground object. If done right, people can get the sense of scale that the milky way has with the contrast of the foreground.
Apart from all I’ve mentioned just above, another thing to consider doing is trekking out to your “location” during the day. It makes things so much easier to pick an object to include in your composition and also to set up your equipment.
Picking A Location To Setup
Finding a dark spot to set up for a milky way image is a lot harder than it should be. This is due to most of us being surround by light pollution from nearby buildings and street lights.
If you can, I recommend looking into the nearest state or national parks for a photo setup. Doing so gives you two main benefits, one they have some fantastic landmarks for your composition, and two, they are usually far away from the bright lights of the city.
Just check that any potential parks or wilderness areas are open for night time access.
Foreground objects add a nice contrast to your milky way images. When done effectively, they add a real sense of the scale of how enormous the milky way is.
They also add a bit of character and uniqueness to your images, anything can be used as a foreground object, you can be as creative as you like here.
But if you’re short of ideas then the tried and true objects like buildings, old barns, trees, mountains, rock formations, sand hills, even lakes are just a few you can use.
Foreground lightpainting is the technique of lighting up a specific foreground object with a constant light source (torch, smartphone light, or a Speedlight flash).
This is a technique that can have a quite spectacular effect on your final image when done effectively.
If you want to give this a try during one of you milky way shots, pick a foreground object and while the camera shutter is open, light up the foreground object with your torch.
Make sure to move the light continuously for the whole exposure time. If you don’t move the light around enough, you can end up with “hot spots” in part of your images.
Camera Setting To Shoot The Milky Way
Here we will discuss some camera settings that need to be adjusted when doing milky way photography. Whenever doing any form of night photography, I would recommend looking at each one I’ve mentioned below.
While each shoot can be slightly different due to varying conditions, such as light pollution, moonlight, even what camera and lens you have, you should get used to having a default setting for each and then adjust slightly for each photo shoot.
Our Quick Start Settings For Milky Way Photography
Further on in this section, we discuss in detail each of the settings we need to adjust for milky way images. But if you in a rush, here is an excellent base setting to get you out there capturing the sky asap.
- Focal Length: 14mm
- Aperture: f/2.8 (or your lowest f-number)
- Shutter Speed: 20 – 30 seconds
- ISO: 3200 – 4000
- Focus: Manually set to infinity
- White Balance: Tungsten
- In-Camera Long Exposure Noise Reduction: Off
Camera Mode – Manual
Set your camera to manual (M) mode. You will need complete manual control during your photo shoots.
Auto mode features will struggle due to the lack of light. Manual mode will allow you to have full control over your aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.
Also called “exposure time,” this is the time we allow the camera shutter to stay open. We keep the shutter open longer to allow more light to enter the sensor, resulting in a brighter, more detailed image.
But there is one drawback… the earth is continually rotating, so the night sky objects will continuously move out of our frame over time. Not enough to be noticeable with the naked eye but noticeable in an image where what was meant to be sharp now looks slightly smudged or stretched.
Luckily, there is a quick and easy way to work out what your shutter speed should be, and that is called the 500 rule…
The 500 Rule
The 500 rule is a simple formula for working out the longest shutter speed (exposure time) you can set before the rotation of the earth begins to blur your image.
The method is worked out by using the number 500 and divide it by the focal length of your lens.
Here is a quick example to better illustrate how it works, we’ll use a focal length of 24mm to work out shutter speed number.
Full frame Camera: 500 / 24 (our lens focal length) = 20.83 (round off to 20 seconds)
So 21 seconds is the maximum shutter speed we should set on our camera to avoid any possibility of image blur due to the earth movement.
Let’s try that again, except this time we’ll use a 14mm lens
Full frame Camera: 500 / 14 (our lens focal length) = 35.7 (round off to 35 seconds)
35 seconds is the shutter speed setting to use for a focal length of 14mm.
One thing that you should also be aware of, you will need to know if your camera is a full frame sensor or a cropped sensor. Because a cropped sensor is smaller, you need to multiply your focal length by 1.5, so a focal length of 14mm equals 23 seconds for exposure time
Cropped Sensor: 500 / (14 x 1.5 = 21) = 23 seconds
For nighttime photography, especially because we’re trying to shoot in the darkest locations, we need as much light as possible to enter the lens.
So for milky way photography, set your aperture as wide as possible (the lower the f-number, the wider the aperture).
This allows the most amount of light and detail into your lens, allowing you to set your shutter speed and ISO shorter and lower.
I recommend always to set your ISO last (after Aperture and shutter speed). This is because ISO is the one setting that when set too high, can considerably degrade your image.
ISO is a way to brighten your image digitally, although the higher we raise the ISO (brighten image), the more noise we introduce into the picture.
Depending on your camera, you should be able to set your ISO between 3200 and 6400. Any higher than that and the noise will deteriorate your image.
JPEG or RAW?
JPEG is a compressed lossy format, meaning that you do lose a small amount of detail in your image. One of the first things I learned when I was starting out in night photography was to shoot in RAW format.
RAW format can and do contain a lot more data inside the image, this is very important for any form of night photography, especially milky way images, as it allows us much more flexibility and options for image enhancements later on in post-production.
Built-In Camera Long Exposure Noise Reduction
The way this works is once you have taken an image, your camera will close your shutter and take a second “dark” image for the same length of time. The noise reduction feature then compares the two images and subtracts any noise that it detects in your image.
While this is a handy feature, it’s not practical for us during a milky way shoot, because of the additional added time for each image to complete it’s noise reduction check before you can take another.
Also adds to your battery drain, so while you can still choose to leave this on, I prefer to do my noise reduction in the post-processing stage.
Your cameras live view screen comes in handy when trying to manually focus your night sky objects. You will also use the live view display to compose your shots.
Enable The Histogram
A quick and easy way to visually see our exposure during a photo shoot.
This youtube video is the simplest and clearest explanation of what a camera histogram is. If you’re interested, I suggest you have a quick look.
If you’re saving your images in RAW format, you can change a lot of the white balance later in an image editing program like photoshop.
A lot of night photographers do prefer to set their white balance to “Tungsten” as it adds a much cooler blue vibe to the image when compared to using white balance “Auto” which give much warmer colors.
There’s no right or wrong here, whether you choose to stick with auto, or tungsten/incandescent is all personal preference.
How To Focus At The Sky?
Getting your camera to focus at night seems to be quite a challenge for some, but that doesn’t need to be the case. There are two quick and simple ways that I use to focus at night, and I’ll share them with you here, plus a few other essential adjustments.
Set Your Lens To Manual (M or MF) Mode
Ditch the autofocus, seriously.
At night, the environment is just too dark for the autofocus to be of any use to you. Save yourself the hassle and switch whatever lens you have to (M or MF) and move on, or prepare for your camera to try and autofocus mid photo shoot.
Lens Infinity Focus
Once in manual mode, set your lens focus ring to infinity, which is the furthest focus length. If you’re not sure what the infinity symbol looks like, it resembles a figure eight symbol.
Focus During The Day
A tip I was shown quite a while ago and has come in useful is to pre-focus your camera during the day.
Setup your location and composition, and then put your camera focus close to infinity. Point your camera on the furthest object you can see and slightly adjust the focus ring until it becomes sharp.
Once the object is sharp, put some gaffa tape or electrical tape between the lens body and focus ring to hold your focus adjustment firmly in place (just make sure autofocus is off).
Just be careful not to bump or move the focus ring before you start shooting.
Focus On A Star
Find the brightest star in the sky and aim your camera towards it. Adjust your focus ring until the star becomes a very sharp and crisp dot. It will take a bit of back and forth to get the focus sharp, but your images will be worth the extra effort.
Use Live View To Zoom In
When you’re trying to set your focus, turn on your live view if your camera has one. You can turn it off later, but while you are focusing, it makes your job so much easier.
Once you have zoomed in on a star and you are happy with your focus. Take a test image and then zoom in on your live view display. From here, you can see the star image close up and see if you are happy with your focus or you still need to adjust.
This is another technique for when you have landscape objects in the foreground of your image.
Usually, we put our primary attention on the milky way or other night sky objects, but what about the foreground objects?
Focus stacking is when you take a second image and focus on the foreground object. Later we blend these two images into one single photo inside of photoshop.
Because we’re focusing on the foreground and not concerned with star trailing due to the rotation of the earth, we can set our exposure for much longer without the worry of any blurring or trailing effect.
This allows you to capture an intense amount of detail in your foreground object, making it really “pop” in the final merged image.
I have seen photographers take foreground exposures of up to 5 minutes an image. If you want to try out focus stacking then some starter settings are:
- Shutter Speed: 5 minutes
- Aperture: f/2.8
- ISO: 2000-2500
- Long Exposure Noise: Turned ON
- White Balance: Tungsten or Fluorescent
Compose A Test Shot
By this stage, you should have picked a location, set up your equipment, and adjusted all your settings. The last thing you need to do is to compose a test shot to make sure you are happy with the composition. This also acts as a visual test that our focus is set nice and sharp.
Set your exposure (shutter speed) to 10 seconds, and turn up the ISO to between 4000-5000 for a quick image. It won’t look good, but that’s not what we are trying to achieve here. Just a quick and dirty check to make sure all our image and focus settings are right.
3. The Post Processing Phase
Once you have finished photographing the milky way, it’s time to head back to the computer for the final post-processing touches.
If you open up the images you have captured as-is, you may be a little unimpressed with what you see. Don’t get too disheartened though, because of the long exposures and wide open aperture settings we used, there is a tremendous amount of detail that we captured in each of those images.
We just need a little image editing to bring out all those colors and details. This is precisely why it’s always best to shoot milky way images in RAW mode, it preserves all that detail for later on.
Editing Your Milky Way Images
There are quite a few ways to edit your milky way images, the most popular software that gets used is either photoshop or Lightroom, both do a fantastic job at cleaning up your night images.
Another program that is worth mentioning (and it’s free) is Deep Sky Stacker. If you have taken multiple captures of the same image (which you should), what Deep Sky Stacker does is layer all your images over one another to remove all the random noise and artifacts from the images.
Once done, it flattens all the images and creates one super clean image ready to take to Photoshop or Lightroom.
Quick Lightroom Milky Way Editing
This youtube video explains how to use Lightroom to bring out all the deep colors in your image and create a final image you’ll be proud of, all in under 7 minutes.
Well worth a watch to learn how to put the finishing touches to your milky way images.
And we’re done! As you have found out, even with a simple equipment setup, you can capture some spectacular photos of the milky way.
While the equipment you use does play a part in the finished product, what is more important and has a much greater effect is the planning and know-how, and that’s just what you got by going through this complete guide to photographing the milky way.
So now it’s up to you, grab that camera and get out there and explore the galaxy, there’s plenty to see. If you do capture some interesting images, we’d love to see them!