How To Photograph The Milky Way Like A Boss

How To Photograph The Milky Way
Photo by Nathan Anderson

We’ve all seen amazing photographs of the Milky Way arching over the sky, illuminating some exotic tropical beach or an abandoned wooden house. There are many professional photographers who specialize in nightscape and star photography, bringing the sky to life in ways we often can’t see with the naked eye. Views of the nebula’s glowing clouds and bright stars can evoke feelings of connectedness with nature that we simply don’t get from city views.

It’s easy to be stunned by these images while telling ourselves we’d never be able to capture anything noteworthy because we don’t have thousands of dollars to spend on fancy equipment. Royce Bair takes some fantastic photos and often uses a technique called light painting to illuminate his foreground.

Mark Lilly creates beautiful panoramic images that are actually compositions of hundreds of smaller shots of the night sky, combined with foregrounds shot during daylight. Some of the equipment they use can take a chunk out of your wallet. If you’re not certain this style of photography is your calling, it can be easy to be dissuaded from even attempting it.

You don’t need to have the latest or most expensive gear to pick up on the faint glow of dust clouds in the night sky.  Star trackers and external light sources certainly expand your abilities in this realm, but they’re not requirements for getting a photo with definite WOW factor!

Here’s What You Do Need For Star Photography:

  • A camera with a manual setting which will allow you to set an ISO of 2500 or higher
  • A tripod, or some other means to keep your camera steady for long periods of time
  • A lens with a wide aperture, preferably a wide angle
  • A remote shutter release, if you have one
  • A dark sky with a clear view of the Milky Way

Choosing Your Shot

The first thing you want to do is pick your location. Get as far away from cities as possible to find areas with the least amount of light pollution. National Parks and remote wilderness areas are the best for this. The International Dark-Sky Association is a great source to help find something near you!

Pick a day with clear skies and no moonlight. Nights with a new moon are ideal, but you can also check the moonrise and moonset times to avoid shooting while the moon is up.

Wide open spaces offer the largest uninhibited view of the night sky, and still bodies of water can produce beautiful reflections. You can also use large objects in the foreground to produce interesting compositions–try framing a cluster of trees, or a cottage, under the arc of the Milky Way.

If you want to get fancy, pick a time of year based on the orientation of the Milky Way with respect to your location. The most eye-catching images are those taken when the Milky Way is horizontal and low to the ground, arching over your entire view. You can also get creative by shooting with other orientations. Try finding a deep canyon which will act like a window for a vertical Milky Way! Stellarium will help you to see what the night sky will look like for your location.

Under the Milky Way by Luis Calcada star photography
The Milky Way finds a great angle between the railings in this shot Photo by: Luis Calcada

Getting The Right Settings

I like to arrive during daylight to determine the exact placement for my tripod and focus the lens. You’ll want to have your focus set to infinity since the stars are the farthest thing you can see. This is much easier to do during sunlight by using auto-focus on a point near the horizon. You can do this manually in the dark as well, but note that lenses are never 100% perfect and the true focus point for infinity may be slightly off from the lens marking. Determine ahead of time where infinity actually is for your lens.

Remember to set your focus to Manual after you have found the sweet spot so your camera doesn’t change it at night!

In order to capture starlight, you want to allow as much light as possible to enter the camera. This generally means a high ISO with a wide aperture, and long exposure time. However, there’s a limit to how long you can keep the shutter open before the earth’s rotation becomes apparent in the photograph, and stars lose their pinpoint sharpness. Intentionally capturing shots like this can be beautiful, and the effect is known as star trails. But for the sake of this tutorial, we’re going to focus on getting that Milky Way crystal clear!

The Rule of 500

The Rule of 500 is a well established method of determining the greatest exposure time possible before star trails are formed. Take the number 500 and divide it by the focal length of your lens. The result is the maximum number of seconds you can capture starlight before movement becomes noticeable. This means the wider your lens is, the longer the exposure you can take while maintaining a crisp shot. You want to use the maximum exposure time possible for your lens, without going over.   You can use the table below as a reference guide for some common values.

(Note: the Rule of 500 is designed for full-frame sensors.  If you use an APS-C sensor, you must account for the cropping factor.)

Lens Length (mm) Full Frame Exposure (s) Crop Sensor Exposure(s)
10 50 35
14 36 24
16 31 21
20 25 17
24 21 14
28 18 12
35 14 9
50 10 7

Set your aperture to its widest setting, f2.8 is ideal, but it’s okay if your lens doesn’t go that wide. You can compensate by increasing the ISO.

The ISO range I recommend is between 2500-6400. The greater the ISO, the more light pollution will become noticeable, and the grainier your picture will be. This is why we use the greatest exposure time possible, and the widest aperture for your lens. I like to slightly underexpose, which means the image on my viewfinder shows the Milky Way, but is not as bright as I imagine the final product to be. Underexposing helps prevent extra noise, and post processing will bring out the stars.

Finally, many DSLRs will often come with a setting to reduce noise when using high ISO.  If your camera has this, use it.

And make sure you’re shooting in RAW!

Taking The Photo

Even though a tripod stabilizes your camera, the act of pressing your shutter can introduce shake into the system. If you have a remote shutter release, use it. Otherwise, set a shutter delay so you’re no longer touching your camera when it goes off. If your camera allows, you can use mirror lock-up to even further reduce any shaking.

Remember, no matter how excited you are to see the results, do not touch your camera until it has finished!

Post Processing

When you first look at your results on the computer, don’t despair when the Milky Way isn’t as bright or well-defined as what you see in professional images. There’s a lot of work that goes into post processing and pulling out the stars from the background. Royce Bair breaks down his post processing workflow here, using Photoshop.

I prefer to use Lightroom. In addition to the standard processing adjustments, when shooting the stars you will want to do the following:

  • Increase the exposure time to bring out the Milky Way and its clouds. If you have content in the foreground lit up, you may want to do this by adding a filter to your image so you can increase the exposure of the sky more than the objects here on earth.
  • Darken your blacks. As RAW images are generally flat and lacking contrast, blacks aren’t completely black. But even more so than with daylight photos, starry skies benefit from blacker blacks and a greater contrast between light and dark. This will also help to make your colors more vibrant.
  • You can be more liberal with the variation and saturation settings to bring out the colors of the Milky Way.

Here’s a before and after comparison of a photo I took. Drag the slider to the left and right to check out the full images. As you can see, post processing is very important part of the process!

Don’t Be Afraid To Play!

One of the rules of photography is to “Learn The Photography Composition Rules, Then Break Them”. This idea also applies to Milky Way photography! You don’t have to settle for wide landscape views with a silhouetted foreground and pinpoint stars. Try focusing on something close, with the Milky Way softened romantically in the background.  Or use a zoomed in lens to focus only on the bright galactic center, instead of capturing a sweeping arch. Go experiment and share your perspective of the night sky with us!

How to shoot star photography
Green sea turtles rest on the south shore of Kauai in front of the Milky Way. Photo by: Jessica Best

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About the author

Jessica Arwen Best

Jessica is a software engineer, photographer, climber, and traveler. She's currently living out of a truck while driving through the Americas, and finds inspiration in nature and wildlife. Some of her favorite things in life are ice cream, passionfruit, animals, and going to remote places.