How to Photograph the Milky Way – Equipment and Technique

How to Photograph the Milky Way

  1. Find dark sky
  2. Look south, coming from the east
  3. Use a tripod
  4. Use a fast wide angle lens
  5. Set your lens to the widest aperture and manual focus
  6. Use Bulb mode on the camera
  7. Use Live View
  8. Start with ISO 2000, then more/less
  9. Use a wired/wireless shutter release
  10. Start with 10-sec exposure, then more/less (20 seconds yields unacceptable star trails)
  11. Pro tip: you can paint interesting foreground objects with a flashlight
  12. In post-production, combine 2-4 exposures in your favorite HDR program, making sure you align the images
  13. Process your HDR composite in your favorite photo editor
  14. Pro tip: denoise to reduce graininess, but take care to not “denoise” too many stars from the image

Above is a summary of the general instructions, which you can copy and paste into a note on your smart phone for future reference. And here are a few more ideas to make your Milky Way photo session a success.

First of all, you’ll need dark sky. A tiny bit of light pollution might be okay, but the darker the sky the better. So if you’re like most of us and live in a light-polluted world, this needs to be pre-planned. A simple drive out of the city might do it; a quiet country road might be ideal. Better yet, identify several potential sites so you’re ready when the weather is. Keep your eye on the weather. Obviously, you’ll need a clear sky. Sometimes, the “stars will all line up” — you’ll have time and energy to go out at night in the dark to take your picture of the Milky Way when the weather cooperates. Even bright moonlight interferes to some degree, a full moon to a significant degree, so ideally you’ll have a moonless night or a minimal moon. I might also mention wind. Again, a little wind is okay, but if it’s strong enough to shake your camera/tripod, your Milky Way photo shoot is already doomed.

So let’s talk about equipment. You’ll need a camera… LOL. Seriously, any DSLR that has a “Bulb” mode setting will be okay. That’s usually marked with a “B” on the mode dial. (Nope, you won’t get a good Milky Way shot in Automatic mode. But don’t worry — Bulb mode is easy.)

The lens for this project should be a wide angle, so you can picture a good swath of the sky. Anything between 10-20mm on the wide end will do fine. The best lenses will be “fast,” and that means they allow a wide aperture (a low f-stop). A good f/4 lens is fine, an f/2.8 is finer.

Your camera should also have a “live view” screen, because not only would looking through the viewfinder be impractical and frustrating, but you will also want a quick view of each image you take.

Finally, your camera must have the ability to plug in a wired or wireless remote shutter release. That’s so you don’t touch your camera when you take a picture. Why? Because we don’t want any shake. Let me repeat… NO SHAKE. None. Nada whatsoever. If we’re going to worry about wind causing the camera to shake, we’ll also worry about the shake caused by your finger on the physical shutter. So, get a  wired or wireless shutter release. Mandatory.

For the same reason, you won’t be holding your camera. It will be attached to a good tripod. What’s good? A sturdy one that won’t shake. Cheap ones do. The best ones even have a hook where you can attach a weight (like your backpack or camera bag) to really fix the tripod to the ground, but that is not usually necessary. Good tripods will have a system to easily attach and remove your camera.

And that’s it for essential equipment. It’s a lot, I know. But on the upside, all of this equipment will be useful for many other photography projects, not just photographing the Milky Way.

A fun, optional piece of “equipment” is an app of the night sky for your smart phone. Get one that moves — that is, one that shows whatever part of the sky at which you are pointing the camera. I’ve used several of these. Right now I’m using “Sky Guide” for iOS.

Oh, and one more thing, a little flashlight with red light. Red light won’t wreck your night vision. Once your eyes are adjusted to the dark, you’ll see more stars with your naked eye. Bright white light will wreck that. But you’ll need some light to make camera adjustments, so get a little red light. Cheap.

Okay, so now you’re ready. It’s nighttime, the sky is clear, there’s a skinny moon, there’s only a gentle breeze, and you have the time and energy to go out. You have your location pre-planned.

So you gather your equipment (and you don’t forget something like you did last time). Your camera battery is charged. The lens is clean. Etc, etc, etc.

Now you arrive to your location and settle into the dark. Your eyes gradually adjust as you set up your tripod, attach the camera, and aim it toward the southern sky. Yes, the southern sky. That’s where the Milky Way is for most of us in the US. If you’re not in the US, figure it out before you head out to your dark sky location. But if the sky is dark enough and your eyes have adjusted, you’ll probably see the Milky Way with your naked eyes anyway.

You’ve attached the shutter release, you’ve set the camera to Bulb mode, set the lens to manual focus, and now you’re ready for your first of many shots.

Set your aperture to the widest possible (the lowest f-stop number) and keep it there for the duration — that won’t change.

Start with an ISO setting of 2000 — and that WILL change. Now play with the shutter speed until you can see stars in the viewfinder. This is just so we can adjust the focus. Work the manual focus until the stars are sharp, tiny dots. Now leave the focus alone. That part also will not change.

Okay then, you’re ready… take your first shot. Press the shutter release and either time an exact ten seconds, or do what I do and count “one one thousand, two one thousand,” and like that. In other words, it’s not essential to be exact. When the time is up, let go of the shutter release to end the exposure. Now take a look at your image and see if it’s dark or light. If it’s dark, increase the next exposure to 12 or 15 seconds. You’ll want dark and light exposures anyway. If the first exposure was light, reduce the next one by a few seconds. Get it?

Now, once you’ve gotten some exposures that look darkish on the viewfinder, and others that look lighter, do the same thing all over again with a different ISO. Change it from 2000 either higher, like 2400, to make the images lighter, or lower, like 1600, to make the images darker. Take another series of shots with varying exposure times. Keep doing other series at different ISO settings until you are satisfied you have enough shots. Pro tip — your goal is to take a series of shots that give you dark/medium/light exposure results at the lowest ISO possible, with exposure times between 10-15 seconds. Keeping the ISO as low as possible will reduce the graininess of the final image.

As you can see, you will be making adjustments on the fly, and that’s a lot of the fun. When you’re done, you’ll have a good number of exposures all showing stars, but some will look dark, some medium, and some light. You want a range because you’ll work with them in post production.

A note about the movement of stars — within twenty seconds, your camera can capture star movement seen in your image as “trails.” Unless you’re doing a shoot specifically for star trails, you don’t want them in your photo. You definitely don’t want them in your Milky Way shoot. That’s why we limit each exposure to less than twenty seconds. And for each series of shots at a certain ISO, you’ll want to get your images as quickly as possible, so there won’t be too much shift in the position of the stars.

And now you’re done shooting. You should have something like 20-50 pictures, and maybe more. Pack up your stuff and go home.

Now, process your pictures in an HDR program, using two or three images of different exposures that you took fairly close together timewise. Be sure to tell the program to “align” the images. Now, use your program to find a pleasing composite and save.

Finally, now use that saved image on your favorite photo editing program. Important note — many of these programs will want to automatically “denoise” the image. Don’t do it unless you intend to. Sure, you might want to denoise some graininess from a high ISO image, but when you denoise an image with tiny stars, you will lose some of them. Just be careful with your presets. Check the denoise level and adjust to taste. You might want to create a preset of your own specifically for stars.

So there you have it. There are many steps to this project, but it’s all doable, and the process is a lot of fun. You’ll be amazed when you see your first photograph of the Milky Way!

Here is my first effort last year, taken under dark skies from south-facing Ocean Isle Beach in North Carolina. Unfortunately, there was a cluster of lights from a nearby community that affected the entire lower part of the photo, but that serves as an example of what light pollution does to astrophotography. Still, I hope this image gives you an idea of what you can do with simple equipment.

If you found this information useful and you use it to take a good picture of the Milky Way, please post the picture in the comments. I’d love to see it! 😀

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