There are almost as many ways to photograph most landscapes as there are combinations of your camera’s settings. Not so when photographing the Milky Way. To get a tack sharp photo of the Milky Way, there’s a fairly narrow spectrum of settings that will accomplish this. It can virtually be packaged into a step by step recipe, which is what I’ve given you below. It’s not the only way to get a clear image of the Milky Way, but for simplicity I’ve avoided unnecessary exceptions, alternatives and minutia.
These instructions may look lengthy, but I assure you it’s simpler than it seems. Most of the steps are just a quick push of a button or dial of a knob. A step by step on regular landscape photography would be far lengthier because of greater variability. In fact, while star photography may seem more challenging physically because you can’t see in the dark, the technical process is extremely easy because it’s more or less the same procedure each time.
Before you get started, you should know how to operate all of your camera’s manual settings, otherwise these steps won’t make much sense.
1. Plan your Shot before you go, very important with the Milky Way!
In the Northern Hemisphere:
- Find a West facing Landscape The rising Milky Way is due east, stretching from south to north. The main cluster begins to the south. Therefore it’s best to have an interesting foreground landscape that faces west.
- Be there when the Milky Way is Rising The Milky Way is more parallel to the horizon just after it rises, forming an arc over the landscape. Later in the night it points straight up. In early Spring the Milky Way rises just before sunrise. In summer it will already be risen once the sky becomes dark.
- The rising Milky Way is visible between early Spring and Early Summer In Fall and Winter the Milky Way is at its best position during the day. You can still shoot it at night, but it will be vertical.
- Shoot with no Moon or a dim Moon You need to shoot on a moonless night or after the moon has already set, otherwise the moonlight bleaches out the Milky Way. There are only a few nights per month when the Milky Way rises with no Moon. Shoot with a dim/crescent moon if you want distant objects like mountains illuminated.
- Head to a Dark Zone The Milky Way shows up brighter in low light pollution areas, allowing lower ISO and shorter shutter speeds to be used.
- Use a Night Photography App to figure all this out I recommend Stellarium Mobile or The Photographers’ Ephemeris.
2. Use a Wide Angle Lens with a very large Max Aperture (fast lens)
This means a fast lens with max aperture of f/2.8 or larger. You can still shoot the Milky Way if you have a slow lens (max aperture of f/5.6 for example), but you’ll be forced to use higher ISO’s (leading to higher noise) and longer Shutter Speeds (causing less sharp stars). If you’re just experimenting or having fun, who cares?! Ultra wide angle lenses between 14mm and 24mm work best because they minimize star trailing and have great depth of field at wide apertures. You can still use higher focal length lenses, but they will magnify the stars, so you’ll need to use a faster Shutter Speed to minimize star trailing. My favorite all around Milky Way lens is my Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8, but I use my Rokinon 35mm f/1.4 to capture close-ups of the Milky Way core.
Now it’s time to pull out your camera beneath the blazing Milky Way and follow these steps…
3. Mount Camera to Sturdy Tripod
Make sure the tripod is sturdy enough that it can’t wiggle during a long 30 second exposures, otherwise you’ll end up with blurry stars.
4. Set Image Quality to “RAW”
If you don’t already shoot RAW and know how to edit images in Lightroom, Photoshop or Camera RAW, Milky Way photography is the reason to start. RAW lets you pull amazing levels of brightness and detail out of seemingly black areas of the photo with very little editing, where JPEG compresses the image and loses this data.
5. Set Camera Mode to “M” Manual
None of the auto modes will work at night.
6. Manually set White Balance to around 3500k
On most cameras this is not a preset; you need to get into the WB manual setting and adjust Kelvin temperature. 3500k is a good starting point, but you can tweak it after this first test shot to produce a different hue in the sky.
7. Set Aperture to your lens’ largest f-stop
Using the widest aperture allows you to use the lowest ISO and shortest Shutter Speed possible.
8. Set camera to its highest native ISO (at first)
This means ISO 6400 or 12800 on most cameras.
9. Set Shutter Speed to 30 seconds (at first)
If shooting with a slow lens you may have to shoot for 1 minute.
10. Switch to Manual Focus
Auto focus cannot see the stars.
11. Frame Shot through the Viewfinder
It will seem too dark to see anything, but this is just a rough frame and not your final composition. Do your best to include the Milky Way and a good foreground.
12. Turn on Live View and focus on a Star
- Find a visible star in Live View near the middle of the screen, not the edges
- Move your focus point over that star and zoom in the maximum amount
- Focus on the star with the manual focus ring on your lens until it’s sharp
- If done correctly, the lens should now be focused just an increment below ∞ infinity and not turned all the way to ∞ infinity
- Turn off live view
13. Take the Shot
You’ve just taken the test shot, now it’s time to set up the Final Shot
14. Review Image and Reframe Shot
The test image you just took should be over-exposed to show you enough detail to reframe the shot more precisely.
15. Reduce ISO to 3200
You want to use the lowest ISO possible while keeping Shutter Speed below 30 secs. The brightness of the Milky Way in the test shot should tell you how low you can actually go. 3200 works best in most situations. If the sky is particularly dark and you have a very wide aperture lens, use ISO 1600 if possible. If you’re using a slow lens you will need to use ISO 6400 or 12800. High ISO produces noise, which looks like the photo is made of grains of sand.
16. Set Shutter Speed to 25 seconds
You actually want the shortest possible Shutter Speed to reduce star trailing, but 25 sec is a good general gideline. Use 20 or 15 seconds if conditions permit. You can always increase ISO to 6400 to allow for a shorter Shutter Speed if you don’t mind the extra noise. If you like rules, the “500 rule” gives you the slowest Shutter Speed you can can use before the stars begin to noticeably trail. The “500 Rule” is:
500/lens focal length = maximum shutter speed
If using a slow lens, you might have to shoot for 1 or 2 minutes, which will give you some star trailing.
17. Take the shot
What kind of Camera should you get for Milky Way Photography?
As I mentioned above, the lens matters far more than the camera in Milky Way photography! As for the camera body, the factors that really matter are that it’s a DSLR (or a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera) and a fairly recent model. The latest inexpensive, entry-level models from any of the camera companies are capable of doing most types of photography well, for under $500. In night photography what you need most is full manual control over your settings, and at least ISO 6400 with acceptable noise levels. All of the contemporary entry-levels have you covered. When you spend more money on a high-end camera, what you get (that pertains to night photography) is a full-frame sensor with higher ISO capability. Basically that means that it will produce larger images with lower noise. That matters if you regularly produce very large prints. If you shoot for hobby or primarily post photos online, you don’t need to spend the money on a high-end camera for Milky Way Photography-save your money for fast lenses.