How to Photograph the Milky Way

How to Photograph the Milky Way

Astrophotography is a popular type of night photography that focuses entirely on the stars and other astronomical subjects.

It's fascinating to get a sense of our place in the galaxy, but learning how to photograph the Milky Way it can be a tough skill to learn, right?

In this post we break down all you need to know on Milky Way photography, and before you know it you'll be familiar with photographing the Milky Way and the rest of the night sky.

Planning Your Shots

Planning is the most important phase of any astrophotography project, because so many different elements need to come together in just the right way to create a truly stunning photograph.

It might seem boring to you at first, but good planning is the key to capturing the Milky Way!

Finding the Milky Way

If you've lived your whole life in the city or another area with heavy light pollution, you may not know where to find the Milky Way in the night sky.

If you live in the Northern Hemisphere, you can find the Milky Way by facing south between February and September.

The best time to photograph is during the month of June around the summer solstice, when the Milky Way will reach the furthest above the horizon.

If you want more specific info for your exact location, there are some great smartphone apps that will help you plan out where and when you'll be able to get the best photos of the Milky Way - see the 'Must-have Astrophotography Accessories' section for our recommendation on the best app.

The Milky Way will seem to 'rise' in the West, and should be most visible during the darkest part of the night at around 1 or 2 AM.

You'll need to choose a night during the so-called 'new' phase of the moon when the moon isn't visible in the night sky, and you can also check your astronomy app for the right dates.

The moon may not seem very bright in the city, but it's usually bright enough to ruin any astrophotography projects unless it's very close to a new moon.

Milky Way Photography

Composing Your Shots

As beautiful as it is to see the Milky Way in photographs, shooting it alone isn't enough to create a stunning photo.

You'll need to scout out some interesting foreground elements to help create visual interest in the rest of the frame, and it's a lot easier to do that during the daylight hours.

Check your astronomy app, find some great foreground content and get ready for some astrophotography!

Since you're not going to be able to use your autofocus at night on this type of shoot, you have a couple of different opportunities to get your lens into crisp focus during your setup.

You can use your autofocus focus on the horizon line before the sun goes down and then switch to manual focus mode, or you can start in manual and simply find a point of focus you're happy with.

If you're lucky enough to have a lens with focal ranges marked on it, simply turn the focus ring to the infinity symbol and you'll be ready to go - just make sure you double-check it before the sun goes down!

Your Camera Settings

When you're shooting astrophotography of any kind, it's important to make sure that your camera settings are optimised for the job - which means you should be shooting entirely in manual mode.

But beyond setting your shutter speed, aperture and ISO, there are a few other settings you'll want to double-check before anything else.

Make sure that you're shooting in RAW mode so that you get the best image quality possible, and so you'll have the most flexibility later on in the editing process.

Next, be sure to disable your in-camera noise reduction, as it runs very slowly when shooting with a high ISO setting, and it doesn't do nearly as a good a job as the latest algorithms included in Photoshop or Lightroom.

Last but not least, you may want to turn on your 'mirror lock-up' setting to minimize any vibration when the shutter fires and the mirror that reflects light into the viewfinder moves up to expose the sensor.

Shutter Speed

Shutter speed is the setting that will have the biggest effect on your astrophotography for the simple reason that the earth is continually rotating.

If you set your shutter speed for an extremely long time, you'll be able to see this rotation in the stars as they begin to create 'trails' across the image, which will ruin the crispness of your Milky Way shot.

Of course, if you set the shutter speed too short, you'll wind up with an underexposed photo - so the solution is to use the 500 rule.

Aperture

The best astrophotography lenses tend to also be the fastest lenses, with wide maximum apertures of f/2 or even f/1.4, letting in the most amount of light.

At the same time, almost all lenses lose a bit of sharpness when used at their widest aperture, so using a fast lens will allow you to stop the aperture down slightly from its maximum and still get the benefits of all that extra available light.

This will keep your shots nice and crisp while avoiding the other annoying issues that come from using a lens at its limits.

ISO

Modern DSLR cameras have an incredibly wide ISO range, sometimes reaching up as high as ISO 3,280,000, like in the Nikon D5. While this kind of setting would allow you to handhold in extremely low light conditions, the resulting images are so incredibly noisy that it would not be suited to astrophotography.

Instead you're much better off using a more conservative ISO somewhere in the range of 800-6400, where cameras are much better at controlling noise effects.

The final setting you use will depend a lot on the capabilities of your specific camera and the amount of noise that you're willing to accept in your final images.

Just like lenses and apertures, cameras that have a higher maximum ISO usually create much better images at the 800-6400 range than those that can only manage a maximum of 6400.

You can obviously do some noise reduction later on during post-processing, but the general rule of thumb is that you should use the highest ISO that looks acceptable to you, as this will give you the most flexibility when it comes to setting your shutter speed.

Pro Tip: The 500 Rule

The 500 rule is a useful rule of thumb for determining the longest shutter speed you can get away with before star trails begin to appear.

It's a simple rule: on a camera with a full frame sensor, 500 divided by your focal length in millimeters equals your maximum shutter speed. 

If you're using a camera with a crop factor, such as an APS-C sensor, adjust your focal length by applying the appropriate crop factor to your focal length before doing the division.

For example, say you're shooting with a 14mm lens on a Nikon camera with a crop factor of 1.5. Multiply 14 by 1.5, which gives us a full-frame equivalent focal length of 21, and then divide 500 by 21.

This gives us a maximum shutter speed of 23.8 seconds, which means your practical upper limit is going to be rounded down to the 20 second step offered by your camera.​

Note: some photographers call this same idea the 400 rule or the 600 rule, but the general idea is the same - all that changes is how conservative your shutter speed is. Check this post by Greg Boratyn if you want to go deeper in the math behind the 500 Rule.

Experiment with all 3 until you find an option you're happy with, because it all depends on what you plan to do with the final images.

If you never print your images, you can use the 600 rule for additional flexibility - or if you always print in large format, use the 400 rule for increased sharpness.​

Choosing an Astrophotography Camera

As you probably know by now, not all cameras perform the same way during different types of photography.

Some are better suited to astrophotography and night photography in general, and some a better off being only used in well-lit environments. These are a few of our favorite full-frame cameras that are great for astrophotography.

Nikon 810A

If you're absolutely dedicated to astrophotography, this is the camera for you - it's actually designed for it!

It sits in the middle of the price range at around $3800, but it offers the highest megapixel count by far, clocking in at 36.3mpx.

A high megapixel count isn't everything, but it does give you some added flexibility when it comes time to edit your images.

Nikon D810a

The most important adjustment for astrophotography in this modified version of the Nikon 810 is a brand new type of infrared light filter.

It's specially designed to capture the specific wavelength of light that is emitted by hydrogen gas clouds, which should really boost the visual appeal of any starscape shots.

In case you're not an astronomy expert yet, hydrogen gas clouds are a major component of what you see when you photograph the Milky Way.

Without getting too technical, the 810A should capture about 4 times more red light at the 656 nanometer wavelength than other cameras with standard IR filters.

Unfortunately, this added sensitivity makes it less of an appealing choice as a general camera, so if you're looking for a camera you can use in a variety of shooting situations, you'll have to go elsewhere.

Of course it's possible to edit any daylight photos to correct the color shift, but it's an added step that will take up your processing time and not worth the hassle.

Check out our review​ here

Nikon D5

This camera is Nikon's newest flagship full-frame DSLR, and it's an amazing camera for astrophotography - or any type of photography, really.

The biggest downside is the price, and it is by far the most expensive one we looked at here, averaging upwards of $6500 new for the body alone.

If you can afford it and you want an amazing camera for a wide range of shooting choices, this is a great option.

Nikon D5

One of the camera's most appealing features for astrophotography is an incredibly huge expanded ISO range, reaching up to an amazing 3,280,000 - no, that's not a typo.

This means that when you're shooting in more typical ISO ranges, there should be almost no visible noise.

Additionally, Nikon's Sony-made sensors usually do a better job of correcting for color noise, which can quickly ruin the pure blacks of a night sky photograph.

Canon EOS 6D

On paper, the EOS 6D looks much the same as the Nikon D5 in terms of megapixels and sensor size, but it doesn't have the expanded ISO range offered by the D5 which means its noise control isn't as effective at the more conservative ISO settings usually used for astrophotography.

It also has fewer autofocus points and slower burst mode, but you wouldn't be using them during astrophotography anyways.

The best part about it is that it's also much cheaper at only $1500.

Canon EOS 6D

This camera is the best choice for those of you on a tight budget who also want to have a solid camera for lots of different types of photography.

The Best Lenses for Astrophotography

We recently posted about some of the best lenses for general night photography, but when it comes to photographing the stars, there are some special considerations.

Here are two of our favorite Samyang lenses for astrophotography.

We should also note that Samyang lenses are sold under a number of different brand names such as Rokinon, Vivitar, Opteka and more.

Samyang 14mm F2.8 IF ED UMC

This is probably my favourite astrophotography lens just because of the incredible amount of sky that you can fit into a single frame.

Barrel distortion isn't a big issue in astrophotography, so the more of the sky you can see, the better!

Additionally, as of the time of this posting, this lens is the fastest ultra wide that you can get for a full-frame sensor.

Samyang 14mm F2.8 IF ED UMC

This lens has decent sharpness throughout its aperture range, and although there is some softening in the corners at f/2.8, you can almost completely eliminate it by stopping down to f/4 or f/5.

You will have to adjust the aperture manually, as like most Samyang lenses, everything about this lens is manual-only. Fortunately the focus ring is smooth and precise, so it's not an issue.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about this lens is that you can get all of this for just a little over $300, which makes it a no-brainer investment for a solidly-performing ultra wide astrophotography lens.

Samyang SY24M 24mm Wide Angle Lens

If you're not looking for an ultra wide lens, then this is a great choice for astrophotography.

You still get an fairly wide view of the night sky at 24mm on a full-frame sensor, and the optics of this lens are slightly better than those of the 14mm.

The most appealing part is that incredibly wide f/1.4 maximum aperture, which allows you to stop down to f/2 to keep the corners sharp and still let in huge amounts of light.

Samyang 14mm F2.8 IF ED UMC

The other thing that makes this lens perfect for astrophotography is its impressive coma control.

Comatic aberration, not to be confused with chromatic aberration, is a side effect of magnifying lenses that can seem to create tails on pinpoint light sources such as stars - even if you've followed the 500 rule we mentioned earlier!

Most lenses can't manage decent coma control at their widest apertures, but this lens does an excellent job, and some say it's even better than the more expensive Nikon and Canon 24mm lenses!

Like the 14mm, this lens is entirely manual operation, but that doesn't cause any issues for night photography. It is slightly more expensive than the 14mm version at $450, but it's still a great deal for the bargain-hunting astrophotographer.

Must-have Astrophotography Accessories

The Tripod

A good tripod is the most important piece of equipment for photographing the Milky Way, and you won't be able to take good pictures without it.

All of your exposures will be at least 10 seconds long, and sometimes much longer, so handholding simply isn't an option.

Stability is the most important characteristic of a good tripod. Choose one with telescoping legs that lock in place very tightly without a hint of a wobble, or you'll find yourself frustrated quite quickly.

The same goes for the head of the tripod, which is where most tripod issues begin, so be sure to test it thoroughly before making a purchase.

The Bubble Level

Another useful feature found in more expensive tripods is the 'spirit level' or 'bubble level', which enables you to tell whether or not your camera is properly horizontal.

When you're shooting at night it can be difficult to confirm this using the viewfinder, so being able to use a level to make sure is a big help.

The Remote Shutter Release

To ensure that you get the sharpest pictures possible, you need to completely remove all sources of camera shake that might ruin your photos.

It may seem like a simple thing, but even the act of touching the camera to press the shutter button can actually cause some vibration that can blur your long exposures. In order to avoid this, you should be using a remote shutter release to fire your shutter without having to touch the camera.

Most remote shutters are relatively inexpensive, but if you have an Android smartphone that supports USB On-The-Go, you can use the DSLR Remote app connected to your camera via a USB cable as a remote shutter.

The app is free, and it should support any type of DSLR made in the last decade or so.

The Torch

It might seem odd to pack a torch or flashlight with you for your Milky Way photography, but it can be a very useful tool for adjusting the exposure of the foreground elements in your images.

Because you're already shooting with a very long exposure, you can use a technique known as 'light painting' to brighten up any elements that aren't sufficiently exposed.

Pro Tip: Light Painting

Light painting is a very simple process - you just shine the beam of your torch slowly over the elements of your scene that you want to be brighter.

The longer you illuminate the object, the brighter it will be in your final image. You can play around with illuminating different aspects of the scene to different amounts.

Just remember that you won't need to paint too much in order to increase the exposure as you're already using a very long shutter speed.

When it comes to choosing a torch, it's important is to select one with sufficient brightness to reach your foreground elements and also with a neutral color temperature.

Moonlight is roughly 4100K, which will probably look the most natural in your scene as long as there are no artificial light sources nearby.

The Astronomy App

The last must-have accessory for your astrophotography explorations is a good astronomy application for your smartphone.

Rather than simply guessing what the best locations and timings will be for shooting the Milky Way, you can simply check the app for an exact location as well as information about all the other aspects that will affect your shot such as moon phase, and rising/setting times.

There are a number of different apps that all do this job, but one of my favorites for Android phones is the simply-named 'Sky Map'.  It is available for iPhone and Android.

Originally developed by Google but now released free to the public, it uses your smartphone's GPS and accelerometer to allow you to hold your phone up and learn about whatever it's pointing at in the night sky.

This includes major constellations, planets, and of course the Milky Way, which can allow you to fine-tune your compositions before you ever actually take your first picture.

Check also out this post on how to find the Milky Way using ​PhotoPills

Conclusion

Astrophotography is an exciting and challenging area of photography, and a lot of people aren't sure how to get started in the field, but this guide should make things much easier.

If you've ever tried photographing the Milky Way before but got frustrated with your results, following our simple outline will help you turn beautiful night skies into stunning photographs.

The only thing left to do is get out there and start shooting, so have fun - and be sure to share the results with us!

How to Photograph the Milky Way

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About the Author Luca

Hi, I am Luca, founder and editor in chief at photographyambition.com. I am crazy about photography and I always have a camera with me. When I am not busy with my day job, enjoying my family or taking photos, I am on Photography Ambition to share what I have learnt so far.

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