Learning how to photograph the Milky Way is not as hard as you might think. In fact, anybody with a basic knowledge of photography – or desire to learn – can produce stunning night sky images capturing the stars and Milky Way.
Below, we take you through all the basics that you need to know to shoot the Milky Way. Including what camera and equipment you need, how to plan your photograph, how to compose your shot and what settings to use, and finally some basic editing and post-production of your image.
1. Choosing your camera and equipment for shooting the Milky Way
Firstly, the three basics that you need for Milky Way photography are:
- a camera
- a lens
- a tripod.
For your camera, you don’t have to have a top of the range model, pretty much any DSLR or mirrorless can deliver in Milky Way photography. In fact, you can have success in photographing the star with a point-and-shoot camera, or even a smartphone. The key thing is that it will need to have a manual mode where you can alter the ISO, shutter speed and aperture.
That being said, the better your camera is the easier it will be to get great results, and a mid-range DSLR will do better than nearly all point-and-shoot cameras or smartphones.
You can see our overview here of the best cameras for astrophotography (which includes a poll of what our website visitors think is the best camera for shooting the stars).
If you already have a fairly decent DSLR or similar though, then definitely give it a try with that first and see what you can get from it. Pushing the limits of your camera is often a great way to learn in photography and then fully understand what you really want if and when you decide that it’s time to upgrade your camera.
For taking pictures of the Milky Way you want two characteristics in the lens you use:
- It should be wide-angle, so as to capture as much of the sky as possible
- It should be a “fast” lens, that is with a large aperture that is indicated by low F number
See more information here on the best lenses for astrophotography, but if you have a standard DSLR with an 18-55mm kit lens, then feel free to give that a go before upgrading. At 18mm it is wide-angle (although this will differ depending on the sensor-type of your camera), but probably won’t have a very large aperture. You can read more on this in the article linked to above.
Again though, always good to push the limits of the equipment you have before making any decisions to upgrade.
The third item you need for capturing the stars is a good, sturdy tripod. You need your camera to stay completely still when shooting, often whilst you are outside and there may be wind to contend with.
You need something fairly heavy duty and with a ballhead, which makes it much easier to quickly adjust the angles you are shooting at. It’s worth going above the most budget options for this, but you don’t have to spend too much more to get something much better that will last you a long time.
This is something worth investing in for your photography, and you are likely to get use from beyond just astrophotography.
4. Remote release
The fourth piece of equipment that you may want to consider is a remote release. This allows you to take the shot without touching your camera and causing camera shake which will impact your image (even the tiniest movement will ruin the kind of long-exposure shots that we are going for with Milky Way photography).
The reason it is optional though is that you also just set your camera to shoot on a timer – i.e. press the button and wait 3 seconds. This works just as well but you need perhaps just a little more patience! Remote releases can be found for just a few dollars (for example, see here for DSLRs), so are not a major investment.
2. Location & timing – how to find the Milky Way
Once you have all your gear together, you’ll need to start planning your shot. Whilst the Earth is within the Milky Way galaxy, when we photograph the Milky Way we are shooting its core which can show up so dramatically on photos.
Of course, the Milky Way is generally not visible with the naked eye and so you’ll need to work out how to find it. This involves both direction and timing.
Luckily, there are some great free or cheap tools available on the web or via smartphone apps that can help.
Timing – when can I shoot the Milky Way?
Depending on where you are in the world, the Milky Way’s core will be visible at different times.
If you are in the Northern Hemisphere, then it is visible in the summer months – from April to July, with June generally being the peak time.
In the Southern hemisphere, then the Milky Way core will be available for you to shoot from a slightly extended period of February to October, with July being the peak time.
These “seasons” are because it is in the summer that the galaxy is in the sky at nighttime. Whereas In winter it will be ‘in the sky’ during the daytime and so virtually impossible to see.
The Milky Way will then be appearing in the southern sky but you also need to consider your location for other reasons.
Location – where can I find the Milky Way?
To maximize your chances of getting a great shot of the Milky Way, you will need dark skies.
In practice, this means that you will likely need to be away from any cities or big towns. See below for some good tools that can help you assess this and other factors.
A great tool for seeing the level of light pollution where you are (or finding areas where it is low) is called Light Pollution Map. You can find it here:
- Website – https://www.lightpollutionmap.info
- Google Play Store – https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.pa.lightpollutionmap
- iTunes – https://itunes.apple.com/jo/app/light-pollution-map-dark-sky/id1200379779?mt=8
Another key point relating to the dark skies needed to photograph the Milky Way is that you will want to make sure that the sun and the moon will not be brightening the skies when you shoot. Checking what time the sun goes down may be obvious, but checking that there is no moon is less so. A tool called the Photographer’s Ephemeris can help with this:
- Website – http://photoephemeris.com/
- Google Play Store – https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.crookneckconsulting.tpeandroid
- iTunes – https://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/the-photographers-ephemeris/id366195670?mt=8
There are also some great augmented reality tools that can help you work out where the Milky Way will be and what your shots might look like. Stellarium is one of the best for this:
- Website – http://www.stellarium.org/
- Google Play Store – https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.noctuasoftware.stellarium
- iTunes – https://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/stellarium-mobile-sky-map/id643165438?mt=8
3. Settings & composition – how to take the shot
So we’ve got our kit together and planned our timing and location. Now we turn our attention to getting the settings right to nail it on the day.
There four main things to consider:
- Shutter speed
A vital setting to get right for shooting the stars is shutter speed.
As we take pictures from a rotating Earth we can get star trails, but there is a rule to enable you to work out the maximum shutter speed you can use for your set up to avoid this. This is known as the rule of 500.
The rule of 500 says that if you calculate 500 divided by the focal length of the lens you get the maximum shutter speed that you can use.
So for example, with a 14mm lens your shutter speed can go up to 35 seconds (500/14 = 35.7).
With a 24mm lens it would be 20 seconds (500/24 = 20.8) and a 35mm lens it would be 14 seconds (500/35 = 14.3), and so on.
This is simple – use the smallest F number that your lens has. This is the largest aperture and will let in the most light.
Increasing the ISO on your camera will allow it to work better in low light settings. It would, therefore, seem obvious to have this at the maximum then, right?
Unfortunately, it is not quite as simple as this. The higher the ISO the higher the amount of ‘noise’ you will get in your pictures. If you are not familiar with this term it refers to a kind of graininess on the image that you will want to avoid.
This is something that varies a lot from camera to camera and so you will need to experiment with how low you can have your ISO to avoid noise, but still capture the night sky. This is one area where more high-quality cameras can perform better than cheaper ones.
Note, you can “de-noise” pictures is post-production, but best to avoid in the first place if possible.
You will need to ensure you are using the manual focus mode and then try to focus on one of the brighter stars that you can see.
If your camera allows it, you should then switch to live view and focus on a star using the focus magnifier function to get it as sharp as possible.
Make sure to shoot in RAW. This captures more information in the photograph and gives you more possibilities to make the image the best it can be in post-production.
Timer / Remote Release
You will then want to change the settings so that your camera takes the picture on a short-delay (i.e. 2-3 seconds after you press shoot) or via a remote release to avoid any camera shake.
If your camera has a mirror lock-up function this can also be enabled to reduce camera shake but do turn off any image stabilization function as this can degrade the quality of your images when you know the camera is going to be still (i.e. on a tripod).
Once all these settings are right you are ready to take your shot. Fix your camera to point in the direction that you have calculated the Milky Way will be, focus on a bright star and shoot.
Taking your shots back home for a little editing in Lightroom, Affinity Photo or your software of choice can make a huge difference.
The pictures on your camera might not be everything you dreamed of at first, but you have shot in RAW and so can make substantial improvements with a few tweaks.
Be careful not to go too far though and make them look over-the-top. A little extra contrast and a few tweaks can be all that’s needed.
Conclusion – How to photograph the Milky Way
To put all this together then:
- Get your gear together – your camera with manual settings, your fast, wide-angle lens, and your sturdy tripod
- Plan your shot – where and when you have worked out that you will be able to find the Milky Way in good conditions
- Compose your shot – calculate your shutter speed, get your settings right, focus on the stars and shoot (using a delay timer or remote release)
- Edit – tweak your raw images to bring out the best
Like all photography, shooting the stars will take time to master and so get practicing and keep at it even if it’s not working out perfectly the first time (or times). You’ll learn from trying and there are many factors at play, but persist and there is no reason you can deliver some mind-blowing Milky Way photography. Good luck!