Learning the tricks and techniques for photographing the Milky Way is not as difficult as it sounds. When you start taking pictures of the night sky, chances are you will see those incredible images of the Milky Way glowing brightly, in front of an incredible mountain range or a landmark and think “I’ll never be able to take something like that.” .. but it’s easier than you think. With a little planning and practice, anyone with a camera can capture the Milky Way, but keep in mind that running around in the dark chasing a new Milky Way shot can get quite addictive.
There are many techniques to advance your Milky Way capture, but this guide will help you get started. There are not too many differences between shooting the Milky Way and the regular star, although it is necessary to consider the times and the direction in which you shoot.
Basic equipment for photographing the Milky Way
These days it’s even possible to capture the night sky with a phone camera, but for this guide we’ll focus (excuse the pun) on using a standard interchangeable lens camera. When we are teaching new night sky shooters, they are always asked to bring 5 things:
(Image credit: Getty Images)
Planning your shoot
Okay, now that you have your kit together, you also need to do some basic planning. You will need: a clear sky, a location in the dark sky, and visibility of the Milky Way.
The Milky Way season is generally considered from February to October. There are many nuances and factors that affect visibility based on your location and time of year, but we recommend using an app like Photopills, Star Walk 2, SkySafari 6 Pro, or Stellarium to pick the right time based on your location. In general, the core of the Milky Way will be to the south, so keep that in mind when planning your shot.
Next you need a dark site (for example, as little light pollution as possible), and there are several websites that can help with this, such as Dark Site Finder and Light Pollution Map.
Finally, you just need a clear sky, so keep an eye out for all those weather forecasts!
(Image credit: Tom Omerod)
Get your settings correct
Before heading out onto the field to take your first shot, it’s good to do some basic preparations at home.
First, set your camera to Manual mode, make sure you’re shooting RAW, and turn the screen brightness down to a minimum.
Next, I always advise people to practice the basic process in the dark in their garden / close to home before going out. We have a beginner’s guide to astrophotography if you need the basics.
Mount your camera on the tripod and practice focusing on the stars in the dark. Most cameras cannot automatically focus on stars, so you will have to learn to focus manually, which is probably the hardest thing to master and can be a huge barrier for some people. The basic idea is to choose a bright star (or very distant light), use whatever type of focus zoom you can (most cameras have it), and adjust the focus until the star / light appears as small as possible. Alternatively, if you know the exact infinity focus point on your lens, you can use it. Remember that when you are using a zoom lens, if you change the focal length, you will have to refocus.
(Image credit: Tom Ormerod)
Basic settings for photographing the Milky Way
This is difficult to advise as it will depend on your exact setting, but more importantly, you should always use the widest / fastest aperture (lowest number). Assuming you are using a wide lens, around f / 2, and you are in an area with a bit of light pollution, we recommend starting with f / 2, ISO 3200, and 15 seconds.
The ISO can be adjusted up or down, but Milky Way photographers typically use ISO 1600-6400, remembering that the higher the ISO, the more noise you will get. We have a guide to reducing noise in astrophotography, if you need it.
Shutter speed is important; If you leave the shutter open for too long, the stars will start to crawl (especially around the edges of the frame). You can use the NPF rule to calculate your ideal shutter speed for your setup, and there is a handy calculator built into the Photopills app. Alternatively, a bit of trial and error can be applied – keep adjusting the shutter speed and checking the resulting image. Get closer and as soon as the stars turn into ovals, you’ve gone too far.
(Image credit: Tom Omerod)
Tips for your first session
Once you’ve got all your gear ready, know when and where you’re going, and the conditions are right, it’s time to put it all together.
If you can, go to the venue during daylight hours to explore your venue and set it up safely. Set up your tripod, making sure the legs are firmly locked into position, mount your camera, engage the shutter, and again check that everything is secure.
When the stars are visible, take your focusing steps and then compose your final shot. Composing your shot in the dark can also be very challenging, by temporarily setting the ISO very high (ISO 12,000) it can take a quick test shot (2-3 seconds) to check your focus and composition.
Finally, dial in your main settings and shoot. Check the image for sharp stars, make sure they are not blurry (refocus) or ovals (increase shutter speed). Also, don’t forget the basics like straight horizons and using the histogram.
(Image credit: Stuart Cornell)
Edit your Milky Way photos
Once you have a few shots in the bag, it’s time to go home and do some editing, as with most elements of the night sky shot there are many techniques you can use in this step, but here are the concepts. basics that we always start with. Remember that editing is a personal preference, so don’t be afraid to experiment.
The first thing to do after importing files is to adjust the white balance. Somewhere between 4000k-5000K generally works well (with some cameras you can manually adjust the K of the white balance while shooting, if you prefer). You will almost certainly need to increase the exposure, and we generally find that the shots need a 1-2 stop increase.
Usually we lower the reflections and increase the contrast and shadows a bit. If you’re comfortable wearing radial gradients, they can be great for adding some extra touches to the Milky Way. Try adjusting the clarity, haze, and whites to make the Milky Way pop a bit more. Remember that the Milky Way is meant to be white, so if you’re trying to retain the right colors, don’t go crazy with color adjustments.
Also, if you are an Adobe Lightroom user, try using RAW profiles (“modern” profiles are good for Milky Ways) to get started.
(Image credit: Tom Omerod)