How to Photograph the Milky Way

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Wide field landscape astrophotography is an impressive form of photography, and it’s accessible to nearly everyone.

Astrophotography in its simplest form is increasing in accessibility, especially with today’s affordable, large sensor, high signal-to-noise ratio digital cameras. In my opinion, there are few photographs that have as much existential impact as a nighttime landscape against the Milky Way. Here, I will show you how to make an amazing photo of the Milky Way Galaxy with a minimum of effort and a minimum of equipment.

Equipment

There are a few things that you will need. Here is a concise checklist of some of the most helpful things. Also check out my article on putting together your Beginner Astrophotography Kit.

Aliexpress INT

Digital Camera with Manual Controls
Fast Lens (f/2.8 or lower, optional)
Tripod
Flashlight or Headlamp
Intervalometer Remote Timer (Optional)
Smartphone Star Map App (Optional)
Dark Location at a Dark Time of Night

Digital Camera with Manual Controls

It is a common misconception that you need an expensive camera and lens combination to make a great Milky Way photograph. Pretty much any Digital SLR (DSLR) or camera with a Micro 4/3 sensor or larger is more than capable of photographing the Milky Way, especially when paired with the right lens.

Sony a7S Review

You don’t need an expensive full frame camera like this Sony a7S to photograph the Milky Way. It helps, but it’s not necessary.

In fact, I’ve spent a lot of time testing the capability of certain point and shoot cameras and even certain smartphones that can photograph the Milky Way. One of my favorite backup cameras is actually the Sony RX100III, a relatively small, but high performance, point-and-shoot camera.

Sony-RX100-1

The tiny Sony RX100 series of cameras is actually pretty good at photographing the Milky Way

DSLRs and mirrorless cameras are generally the most common high performance cameras available and they offer an excellent price-to-performance ratio. If you’re interested, I personally use or recommend the following modern camera systems, but there are a plethora of other models that will work great. Here are a few of my favorite cameras:

Full-Frame Mirrorless: Sony a7S ( Amazon )( B&H )

The Sony a7S, more than any other camera currently available on the market, is my absolute favorite camera for night photography. It’s sensor, while only 12 megapixels, is particularly good in low-light and that makes shooting the Milky Way super easy. Check out my full review of the Sony a7S here.
Full-Frame DSLR: Canon EOS 6D ( Amazon )( B&H ) with Magic Lantern
PS-C Mirrorless: Sony a6000 ( Amazon ), Fujifilm X-T1 ( Amazon )( B&H ) (Updated: Apr 16, 2015)

…almost any budget friendly digital SLR is capable of photographing the Milky Way…

All told, don’t get too hung up on what camera to use. The above ones are some of my favorite but almost any budget friendly digital SLR is capable of shooting the Milky Way and it’s likely that the camera that you already own is worthy of trying.

Fast Lens (Optional)

Let me start by saying that the kit (likely an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 or similar) lens that came with your camera is a fine lens to start with. If you’re just getting into trying to shot the Milky Way, stick with what you’ve got. The image below was made with the regular Canon T2i (a much older model) and the Canon 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6. I set it to 18mm and f/3.5, shot a 30 second exposure at ISO 6400 and I think the results turned out great for such a cheap lens.
I am often asked the question: “I have such-and-such DSLR with the 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens. Can I photograph the Milky Way with it?” The answer is absolutely yes!

18mm/3.5 on a Canon EOS T2i. 30s, f/3.5, ISO 6400.

18mm/3.5 on a Canon EOS T2i. 30s, f/3.5, ISO 6400.

Learning to shoot within the limits of equipment you have is always the first suggestion I make to readers. After a few nights of shooting you’ll start to learn the limits and figuring out what direction to go next will be a lot easier when you’re finally ready to upgrade. Once you’re convinced that you want to improve your results with equipment, some of the information below will be helpful:

In an older revision of this article, I talked about the merits of needing and using a “fast wide angle lens” for astrophotography.  But with a bit more experience behind my belt and some more acquired knowledge, I’ve made an amendment to the suggestion and removed the “wide angle” requirement and instead suggest having pretty much any fast lens from 8mm to 50mm, especially an affordable, relatively fast, 35mm to 50mm prime lens with an f/number of f/2 or lower. The advantage of using a longer (less wide) fast lens are two fold: they tend to be cheaper and they can provide extra resolution and light gathering when compared to their wide angle brothers. In order to capture a wider field of view with these longer lenses, it’s possible to stitch together multiple frames for a high resolution panorama with quality levels exceeding those of an expensive medium format camera.  Here’s my original suggestion below:

A “fast” wide angle lens will give you the best results when photographing the Milky Way. The important traits are a low aperture f/number rating and short focal length. The lower the f/number rating, the faster and better the lens will be for really dark shooting conditions. Most digital camera kits come with the ubiquitous 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6. While the minimum f/number of that lens (at 18mm) is f/3.5  is a little bit “slow” for Milky Way photography, you can still squeeze by with a slower kit lens like the common 18-55mm. Keep in mind that you will actually see a tangible difference with a faster lens that has a lower f/number rating.

Milky Way over Mt. Pinos, Rokinon 8mm f/2.8 Fisheye, Defished

Milky Way over Mt. Pinos, Rokinon 8mm f/2.8 Fisheye, Defished

For the most significant improvement in the quality of your landscape astrophotography, I recommend a wide angle with a focal length of about 35mm or less on full-frame cameras, 24mm or less on APS-C cameras and 16mm or less on Micro 4/3 cameras. The Milky Way takes up a huge portion of the night sky and so a lens with a wide field of view will make it easier to capture as much of it as possible. The wider field of view will also allow us to use longer shutter times to gather more light without seeing the effects of the earth’s rotation as star trails. The shorter the focal length, the wider field of view of the lens. If you’re interested in the technical reasons for what makes a good lens for astrophotography, check out my guide on how to pick a lens for Milky Way photography. My absolute favorite lenses to use for Milky Way photography are the following:

Full-Frame: Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 (Amazon)(B&H) and Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 (Amazon)(B&H)
APS-C: Rokinon 10mm f/2.8 (Amazon)(B&H) and Rokinon 16mm f/2.0 (Amazon)(B&H)
APS-C Mirrorless: Rokinon 12mm/2.0 (Amazon)(B&H) and Rokinon 8mm/2.8 Fisheye (Amazon)(B&H)

All of these lenses are relatively affordable and are excellent for nighttime landscape photography. They are available on a wide range of camera mounts including Canon, Nikon, Sony, Olympus, Fuji, and Samsung. You will be hard pressed to find better lenses for night photographs any price. For a more complete list of the best lenses for photographing the Milky Way on your camera system, check out my best lens lists:

Canon 6D

Canon EOS 6D with Rokinon 14mm/2.8 and 24mm/1.4 are my absolute favorite tools for astrophotography.

Tripod

There’s nothing special to remember for your tripod choice, just make sure it’s stable enough for your camera and is light and compact enough that you’ll actually want to carry it around with you. It’s not very fun lugging around a heavy tripod, even if it could support an aircraft carrier.  I personally use: the Sirui T-025X( Amazon )( B&H ). One recommendation I always make for photographers looking to buy a tripod is to find one with a ballhead. It’s much easier to quickly re-compose a tripod with a ballhead than one with the more video-centric pan-tilt head. A super cheap yet high quality option for a tripod that I tend to suggest is the ultra cheap Dolica Aluminum or Dolica Carbon Fiber Tripods (Amazon).

Slik Tripod and Ultra Pod II

Make sure that your tripod is stable but light enough to enjoy carrying with you.

Headlamp 

Since you’ll be in the dark, a headlamp is pretty much a necessity. I think I once listed this a optional but it really isn’t. You’ll need to see in the dark so definitely make sure you have one. I prefer an LED headlamp with a red “night vision” mode. For a long time I used an older version of the Petzl Tikka XP. It can be switched to night vision mode without needing to cycle through the white lighting modes. This control scheme makes it possible to turn on and off the red mode without blinding yourself with the white mode first. Petzl headlamps are great. I’ve never had one fail on me, the batteries will last for over 7 days straight of continuous output and they do a great job of warning you when the batteries are low with a red blinking indicator. Even when they’re running out of juice, it will keep on lighting for an extended period of time at reduced output so that you aren’t left in the dark.

It’s the age of selfies, it feels like we have forgotten that our DSLRs are capable of doing that. DSLR self-timers are a lot more versatile than mobile phone front cameras. Let’s see how to make the most of them.

Timer adjustment

You can set the limit of the timer to 2 seconds, 5 seconds or 10 seconds. You can also combine this with the remote shutter release. You can take time to get in position and then point the remote at the camera, set the timer on, take time to pose again and then the camera clicks the picture for you. It’s like having a partner on the job.

"dslr

Number of shots

You can set the number of shots that you want the camera to take when the timer reaches zero. It’s like taking pictures in the burst mode.

So if you have a group of friends that you want to take a picture with as they jump in the air and you want to be a part of it too, you can very well do this.

  1. Set the camera on a tripod. Compose your scene and dial in your settings.
  2. Depending on how far you need to get to them, set your timer to 2, 5 or 10 seconds. If you feel you will need more than 10 seconds, then it’s best to use a remote shutter release.
  3. Get into position and wait for the timer to expire. Just at that instant make sure everyone in the group jumps.

That’s it. Pick the best one of the all the burst shots and you will have a nice group shot where everyone is in the air, including you. This way, you get not only to be a part of the memory but also be in the memory.

Wide angle lenses + monopods

You can take insane selfies covering a huge landscape in your background or covering a big crowd of people with this combination. Just make sure you have a specific wide angle lens. An 18-55mm at 18mm focal length is fine but wide angle lenses have focal lengths as small as 10mm.

"mono

This covers a huge area in front of the camera. Combined with monopod, you should be able to cover a lot more area. This is best for trekking or adventure sport enthusiasts who want to show off their skills by recording a video.

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Petzl Tikka XP2 Headlamp is my personal choice.

I’ve recently started recommending the newer Tikka R+ headlamp for its USB rechargeable Lithium Battery. It has all the functionality of my older XP headlamp (red night vision mode, variable brightness, waterproof, etc.) but can also be easily recharged via USB so I can keep it juiced up from a variety of power sources like my car, a lithium Battery pack, or even a solar charger.

Intervalometer Remote Timer (Optional)

An intervalometer will allow you to trigger your camera remotely without needing to touch the camera. This is particularly nice to prevent vibration in the camera that can add blurring or streaking in your images. An intervalometer will also allow you to make timelapse sequences and allows you to program exposures longer than 30 seconds when your camera is in Bulb (B) exposure mode. From experience, I particularly recommend the Neewer Intervalometers. They’re less than $20 and have never failed me. Plus, they use AAA batteries just like the my headlamp so I don’t need to carry two different types of batteries. Check if your camera has a built-in interval timer too. Some models like the Nikon D7100 have the functionality built in which makes it great for timelapses. If you’re using a Canon EOS camera, I recommend checking out the Magic Lantern firmware hack. It will enable all kinds of extra functionality like a built-in intervalometer and programmable Bulb timer.

Keep in mind that there are a lot of cameras that feature built in intervalometers (a list of cameras that d0). My Sony a7S and a7II have a built in timelapse apps that allows me to make timed exposures without the need to buy an accessory. Check your camera’s manual to see if your camera has a built in intervalometer.

Smartphone Star Map App (Optional)

One of the first challenges of photographing the Milky Way is knowing how to find the Milky Way in the night sky. I personally use and recommend Stellarium for Android or Sky Guide for iOS.  Stellarium and Sky Guide show a map of the stars with the plane of the Milky Way in view so you can more easily figure out where to point your camera.

stellarium-mobile-screenshots

Stellarium Mobile is my favorite star chart app for Android Phones.

There are also a number of free applications like Google Sky Map for Android or Night Sky Lite for iOS that will help you find out where the Milky Way is in the sky at any given time of year. The free apps work great if you’re just starting out. Two other great photo planning applications are PhotoPills for iOS and The Photographer’s Ephemeris for Android and iOS which will allow you to plan for the phase of the moon, moonrise, moonset, sunrise and sunset.

photopill-screenshots

PhotoPills for iOS has one of the most complete Milky Way planners.

The brightest part of the Milky Way is near the constellations Sagittarius and Scorpius but those constellations aren’t completely visible all year or in all parts of the world. To find the plane of the Milky Way at any time of year and in any part of the world, you’ll want to look for which of these constellations will be visible on the night you take photographs:

Sagittarius
Scorpius
The Summer Triangle
Cassiopeia
Orion
Crux

Use the app to familiarize yourself with where those constellations are. That’s where you will be pointing your camera. If you don’t have a smartphone, I recommend checking out the free and open source software Stellarium for Mac, Linux or PC.

Check out a more detailed list of tools and tips for finding the most important constellations in the night sky in my How to Find the Milky Way article.

Dark Location at a Dark Time of Night

Of all the items on the list above, a dark location is probably the hardest thing to find. Two-thirds of the United States population are unable to see the Milky Way Galaxy due to light pollution. Unless you are lucky enough to live in a remote rural location with super dark night skies, you will probably need to make a trek out somewhere relatively remote in order to photograph the Milky Way. This is a great opportunity to explore new places.

Canon-EOS-6D-Review-5

Some of the darkest skies I’ve ever photographed were in Eureka Valley, Death Valley National Park, California. Rokinon 24mm f/1.4, Canon EOS 6D

If you live in North America, check out Dark Sky Finder, or the Clear Sky Charts on cleardarksky.com. Both have light pollution maps and Clear Dark Sky has weather and seeing forecasts for locations with the darkest skies. If you live elsewhere in the world, check out Dark Site Finder, The World Atlas of Artificial Night Sky Brightness and the Blue Marble Navigator.

Find Open Public Spaces

I recommend finding publicly accessible lands like national parks and state parks as they’re often located away from cities and usually feature unique and beautiful landscapes. Check to make sure that your park is still open at night (most National Parks are Open 24/7).

Once you pick your location, plan on venturing there some time between the last quarter and first quarter of the moon calendar, ideally during a new moon. This is not a hard rule, but the closer date to the new moon, the more time you will have during the night with dark, moonless skies.

Making the photo

Now that you have all your equipment, are in a beautiful outdoor location with dark skies and have located the Milky Way with your smartphone app, you are ready to make a photograph. There are a number of things that you’ll need to do to make a successful exposure of the Milky Way. Here’s a checklist of what we will cover.

Setup your Camera
Focusing in the Dark
Choosing your Exposure
Exposure Adjustment

Setup Your Camera

I am going to suggest some settings that will be a good ballpark start for your exposure. You may not even have to change them for your final exposure but that will depend on things like moonlight, light pollution, your camera, and your lens. We will start here and adjust accordingly. You should be familiar with each of these settings and how to change them. If any of these settings are unfamiliar to you, review your camera’s manual for how to change the setting.

Shoot in RAW recording mode

RAW image files contain more data than JPEG files and thus allow for greater flexibility in post-processing adjustments.
Zoom out to the widest field of view your lens supports (24mm or wider)

The wider field of view will reduce streaking of the stars due to Earth’s rotation and will allow us to capture as much of the Milky Way as possible.

Manual focus

Use manual focus (M or MF) mode on your lens and set it to the infinity mark if possible. We will focus more precisely later.
Manual exposure
Set your exposure mode to Manual (M)

Enable long exposure noise reduction (optional).
This will reduce grain on your photos by taking a second photograph without opening the shutter to record and subtract noise data from your image. Note that this will usually add additional wait time to each exposure before you will be able to use your camera again for the next exposure. If your camera takes particularly low noise images, such as a Canon 6D, you probably don’t need to enable this feature.

Enable the histogram in the image review.

This will allow us to see a graphic display of our exposure and adjust accordingly.

Use automatic white balance.

Many things like light pollution or moonlight can change the white balance of the image so just set it to auto. Since we’re shooting in RAW, we can make adjustments to the white balance later. If you’re shooting a timelapse, a custom setting of 3900K or a setting of tungsten can prevent unexpected changes during the timelapse sequence.

Exposure Settings

The exposure settings that I recommend in a dark sky area are dependent on the type of camera and lens that you are using. Use the calculator below to determine the exposure that I recommend you use initially. Once you take your first exposure, you can adjust as necessary based on your exposure histogram.

Exposure:

The shutter speed is calculated based on the focal length of your lens and the size of your camera’s sensor. Longer focal lengths and smaller sensors require shorter shutter speeds to prevent star trailing.
The f/number should generally be set to the lowest possible number, preferably f/2.8 or lower if your lens supports it. Lenses with f/numbers of f/4.0 or higher are not recommended.< The ISO is calculated based on your aperture and shutter speed but it’s a little dependent on the noise performance of your camera. Start with the calculator’s recommendation and adjust accordingly.

For a more complete explanation of how to figure out the exposure for shooting the Milky Way, visit my article on the Milky Way Exposure Calculator for a complete explanation of the calculations that are being used.

Focusing in the Dark

I like focusing before composition because it’s generally easier to focus your camera first, tape your focus ring, and then re-compose later. In general, you will want to make sure your lens is in manual focus mode (M or MF) and is focused at infinity. But rather than just setting the focusing ring to the infinity mark (on some lenses) and forgetting about it, we will want to make more precise focus adjustments to ensure the best possible photo quality. Here are a couple methods that I use to focus in the dark.

Register at Lonely Speck

Being able to focus on a distant artificial light (like your friend’s flashlight) is very helpful when it’s dark out.

Manual focus with Live View
This is by far the most accurate method if your camera supports it. Enable live view on your camera and use the focus checking or the digital zoom function on a bright star to make the star appear like a pinpoint. I recommend centering the star in the frame before focusing on it to have the most even focus field. Note that you may need to change the Live View settings on your camera to “exposure simulation” or “manual,”  in order to be able to see stars on the LCD. If you cannot see stars in the LCD, try focusing on a flashlight at a distance like in the method below.

Auto focus or manual focus on a flashlight that is placed far away (greater than 100 feet or so)

This can be an easy way to get your camera to focus at close to infinity in the dark but can be difficult if you don’t have a helping hand to hold the flashlight for you. It’s often best to place a flashlight next to an object in your frame that is at a distance of 100 feet or greater, the farther the better but after about 150 feet or so, it makes less and less difference. Plus, walking back and forth 300 feet just to focus your camera can be a drag. As soon as you get focus confirmation on the lit object, switch the lens back to manual focus (MF) mode to lock the focus at infinity, being careful not to twist the focus ring and mess up your focusing work. A flashlight can also be helpful if you wish to instead focus on a foreground object rather than infinity.

Regardless of the method of focus, make a test shot of the stars with the exposure settings above to check your focus. Zoom the LCD all the way into the image review to make sure that the stars look like pinpoints, if they are out of focus circular blobs, re-focus and check again. Always zoom the LCD into the preview review to check the focus, don’t take the initial thumbnail at face value. Once your shots are in focus, a piece of electrical tape or gaffer’s tape between the focus ring and the lens body can help prevent you from bumping the focus.

Understanding the Histogram and Adjusting Exposure

The settings that you calculated above when we setup your camera should be a good start. Once you are satisfied with your focus and your framing, the next thing is optimizing your exposure. This is where we will review the camera’s histogram information (The histogram is usually available by pressing “INFO” or “Display” or Up/Down arrows when reviewing photos. It really depends on your camera so check your instruction manual.)  Typically we will desire a histogram that shows peaks toward the center of the graph from left to right. See below for examples of histograms for various exposures of the Milky Way.

how to read your camera's histogram

Try to push your camera to the limits of its light gathering capability without compromising quality. Check and re-check your image review, zoom in on the LCD to check focus, review the histogram for exposure information and re-compose your frame throughout the night. Once you find an exposure you like, you can usually maintain the same exposure throughout the night.

Post Processing

If your image was exposed correctly, you should need only a little bit of post processing. RAW images are typically pretty flat and require some post processing to make the photograph as high quality as possible. I personally use Adobe Lightroom to process my photographs. They usually require a bit of editing to make them look their best. Check out this before and after to see how much changes can go into a Milky Way edit:

[twentytwenty]

RAW Exposure, Unedited

RAW Exposure, Unedited

Now, that’s a good question isn’t it? We have the auto mode that can help us take any picture during any scene. We also have semi auto modes where we can control the aperture or the shutter speed one at a time and the camera will adjust the other on its own so we can still capture our images. So why worry about the manual mode? What is it that is driving more and more photographers to learn manual mode?

As you advance your skills, you will soon realise that photography is not just about taking a picture. It’s not just about getting your light meter reading at zero, it’s more than that. It’s about you deciding how much motion and depth of field you need and taking full creative control.

Manual mode: More than just exposure

To begin with we must understand what a DSLR are fully capable of. We know that 3 primary elements work together to capture an image. The aperture, shutter and ISO and they’re used in conjunction to gain the right exposure.

  • Increasing the aperture size, allows more light to fall into the camera and reducing it decreasing the light.
  • Slowing down the shutter speed, allows the light to fall in to the camera for a longer time and increasing it makes that duration shorter.
  • Increasing the ISO, increases the light sensitivity and thus increases the exposure, decreasing Depth of field

Depth of field is the ability of a lens to keep the objects in a frame in focus. In any ideal scenario, a lens will be able to keep only one point in focus. All the other points in the background and foreground will all go out of focus, however this limitation can be overcome by adjusting the aperture size of the lens. We already know the mechanics of the aperture with light. Here’s how it works for the depth of field.

A wide aperture will behave like a classic lens, only one particular point in focus and everything else in the background and foreground will go blur. If you want to bring the background and foreground points in focus, you will need to reduce the aperture size. Decreasing the aperture size will give you a deeper depth of field. That means, you will have all the points in background and foreground as well to be in focus.

The down side to this is allowing lesser light into the camera. That’s where you decide what will be the shutter speed to compensate for this loss.

Motion capture in manual mode

Another ability which the DSLR’s give you is motion capture. You can decide where you want to freeze that moment exactly at that point or let it create motion in your images.

There is a reason why that button which you press to take pictures is called as the shutter release button. When you press the shutter release button, the blades of the camera shutter open up to allow light to fall in. Have you paid attention to the sound that the camera makes when taking a picture? The first sound is when the shutter opens and the seconds sound is when it closes back.

The shutter speed is measured in seconds which is basically the gap between the shutter opening and closing. During this time as the light falls on the digital film, it burns the film creating and image. Now while the light is falling in the camera, if it were to be in motion while the shutter opens and closes, the path of that movement will get recorded on the film. If you were to keep the shutter speed so fast that the light has only a tiny fraction of a second to enter in the camera and create an image, you will see not see the motion at all.

So basically, by decreasing the shutter speed you will be able to capture motion such as traffic light trails. By increasing the shutter speed, you will quickly slice the stream of light coming burning the digital film only for that fraction of time. Since you are making the camera capture at a tiny fraction of a second, there will be no element of motion in images.

The downside with shutter speed is when you increase it, you care cutting down the incoming light which will reduce the exposure. And Slowing down the shutter speed will cause motion blur and camera shake. A tripod can be used to eliminate this but if you do not have one with you while taking the picture, you will not be able to take the picture hand held. Normally, it is difficult to shoot handheld at any shutter speed which is below 1/125secs.

Sample images

Take a look at this image.

"motion

The photographer has chosen to show focus on the subject and freeze motion to get the subject sharp however, the background has not been neglected and has also been bought in focus by reducing the aperture size to get a deeper depth of field.

And this night city shot.

"slow

The trails of light created by the moving vehicles is possible only because the photographer has chosen to turn down the shutter speed to about 5 seconds.

And in this one here

"shallow

The motion has been captured and the background has been purposefully blurred to get the focus on the subject.

In all of these images, both the shutter speed and aperture has been adjusted to the way the photographers want them to be. This is the kind of creative control that we are talking about. This is what is mastering manual mode all about.

ISO

The ISO is the third component that comes into picture but this is more of an electronic intervention than actually controlling light. We have already established how ISO controls light sensitivity. The default value of ISO is most cameras is 100. Some high end cameras start at ISO 50.

You can choose to increase the ISO in situations where you do not want to change the aperture size and the shutter speed and are getting a dark exposure. This will increase the sensitivity to light and thus increase exposure.

The downside to this is that increasing the ISO will add noise to your image. It will bring in tiny grains that will ruin the overall quality of the image. So use it sparingly.

And now you know

This is why manual mode photography is pretty much like the holy grail of this art. This is where most photographers want to be. You want to be there too? Give our free photography course a try. By the time you are done with it, you will know the ropes of shooting in manual mode.

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