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How to Photograph the Full Band of the Milky Way


Pawnee Buttes

Our small blue planet is located on a spiral arm, far out from the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. When we look towards the galactic center, we can view one of the most spectacular sites imaginable. Thousands of stars are clustered together, to form a hazy band in the sky, known simply as the Milky Way.

If you enjoy photographing the Milky Way, the winter months can seem especially long. During this time, the Earth is pointing away from the center of the galaxy at night, and you can only see the fainter parts of the Milky Way. It can still be photographed, but the shots won’t likely be as dramatic as they are at other times of the year.

Fortunately, the bright galactic center becomes visible again in the spring. In March, it rises shortly before dawn in the Northern Hemisphere. So you will need to stay up all night or get up very early to photograph it. Every day, it rises a little earlier in the night, and by June it will be rising about the same time that the sun sets.

Determination Towers

The great thing about photographing the Milky Way in the spring and early summer months, is that you can capture the full band of the Milky Way arcing across the sky. By August, the Milky Way will appear too high in the sky, in the Northern Hemisphere, to capture the full arc.

If you’re shooting from the Southern Hemisphere, you will have a longer time frame to see the full band of the Milky Way. From about February to June, you can capture it in the southern part of the sky, just after the galactic center rises above the horizon. From about June to September, you can capture it just before it sets in the west.

Since the Milky Way spans such a large portion of the sky, you will need to stitch together multiple images to capture all of it in one photograph. I explain how to do this below.



The Rokinon 35mm f/1.4, all manual lens, works great for this kind of photography.

There is some specialized equipment you can use to capture stitched images of the Milky Way, such as a panoramic tripod head, a leveling base, and even a robotic camera mount. However, the majority of the time you won’t need any special equipment. Anyone with a good tripod and a DSLR can capture the full arc of the Milky Way.

You can use any lens from about 14mm to 50mm to capture your images. If you use a longer lens, like 50mm, you’ll need to take, and stitch, a lot more images together. This can be more time-consuming, but you will also capture much larger image files, with greater detail and less noise.

Ideally, you’ll want to use a lens with a very wide aperture, like f/1.4 or f/2.8. It is also helpful to have a tripod with a bubble level on top of its legs, and a tripod head that has a rotating base.


You can pre-visualize how the Milky Way will appear at any time and location using a program called Stellarium. This program can be downloaded for free, it can also be purchased as an iTunes or Android app, or you can use other apps like PhotoPills or Sky Safari.



You will usually want to shoot images of the Milky Way under no moon. If the moon is out, it will obscure the stars, and the Milky Way will not look as impressive. One exception to that, is if you want the moon to illuminate the foreground. You can shoot with a waxing crescent moon that is about 20% illuminated. You’ll need the moon to be directly behind you so it obscures the stars as little as possible. The moon will be in a good position for this shortly after it gets dark on July 8-9th, 2016.

You will want to get far away from any city lights when shooting images of the Milky Way. Light pollution can create an unnatural color cast in the image and it can obscure the Milky Way. And, of course, you should check the weather forecast to make sure there will be clear skies.


Once you know how the Milky Way will appear, and have determined the best time to shoot it, you need to decide where to take your photograph. Although the full band of the Milky Way can be spectacular on its own, your images will be more compelling if you include an interesting foreground. If you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, you should find a composition facing east, since that is where the shallow arc of the Milky Way will be visible shortly after it rises. If possible, I recommend arriving before it gets dark to set up your shot. It’s much easier to determine the best composition, and focus your camera, when it’s still light out.

Milky Way Arches National Park


You can use the rule of 500 to calculate the exposure time for your images. Simply take 500, divided by the focal length of your lens, to get the number of seconds to expose the shot. For example, if you’re using a 50mm lens, take 500, divided by 50 = 10 seconds per exposure (this will give you long enough exposures to get good quality images at night without small star trails starting to appear in your shots).

You’ll typically want to use the widest aperture on your lens when shooting stitched images. You’ll also want to use the highest native ISO, that doesn’t cause any highlights to be blown out. As long as you don’t have any close foreground objects in the shot, you can focus at infinity.

You can do this by autofocusing on the moon if it is out, or by focusing on a very distant object before it gets dark. Switch to manual focus afterwards to make sure the focus stays set at infinity. Alternatively, if you have Live View on your camera, you can use it to zoom-in on a star on your LCD screen, then adjust the focus manually until the star appears as a small, sharp point of light.  Don’t rely solely on the infinity marker on your lens, as it isn’t always accurate.

I’ve found that a white balance of about 3800K works well at night with no moon out. However, as long as you’re shooting in RAW (or if you do not have the K setting on your camera), you can set it to Daylight and adjust the white balance later.

Turn off Long Exposure Noise Reduction, as it can take too long, causing the stars to move too much between the exposures, and making it difficult to stitch the images together seamlessly.

Calhan Paint Mines


You will need to make sure that your camera is straight, using a bubble level or your camera’s built-in levelling feature. Ideally, you’ll also want to make sure your tripod head is mounted on a level surface by using a bubble level on top of your tripod legs, or a levelling head. This will ensure that your camera remains level as you turn it.

Before beginning the stitched image, I recommend taking a test shot. Point your camera towards the brightest part of the scene you will be photographing, and take an image using the camera settings you have chosen. Check the histogram to make sure you are not overexposing the image. If you are, lower the ISO until you are not clipping any of the highlights. You’ll also want to zoom in on your shot, and make sure everything is in sharp focus.

If everything looks okay, you can start taking your stitched image. I always recommend capturing a wider view of the scene than you want in your final image. You’ll have to crop the image afterwards, since the stitched images will never be perfectly rectangular. So it’s always better to capture too much of the scene, than too little.

Goblin Valley

Position your camera to take an image of the far, bottom left corner, of the scene you want to capture. After you take the first shot, you’ll need to quickly rotate your camera to the right before taking the second shot. Make sure and leave plenty of overlap (about one third of the scene) between the images to make it easier for the software to stitch the images.

Now, continue taking shots, and rotating the camera to the right, until you’ve captured the entire horizontal field of view that you want. To get the full band of the Milky Way, you’ll typically need to shoot a multi-row panorama. You can rotate the camera up and then shoot a second row of images. Keep doing this until you’ve captured the entire vertical field of view you want.


Lightroom Preview

You can stitch images within Lightroom CC. Simply select all of the images you want to stitch, right-click on them, and select Photomerge > Panorama. Lightroom will then attempt to stitch the images. Occasionally, Lightroom will be unable to stitch them together. If this happens, I recommend trying a free program for PCs called Image Composite Editor.

Once the images are stitched, you can process them like any other image.


Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Grant Collier has been working as a professional photographer for 20 years, and has been shooting photos at night for 12 years. He is the author of 11 books, and has just released a new book called Collier's Guide to Night Photography in the Great Outdoors. He has also produced a new series of instructional videos called: Collier's Guide to Post-Processing Night Photos.

  • Naseer Expert

    This is fantastic blog and I like this article,

  • WillyC

    Many thanks for the pointers! I have been wanting to get out and do this for some time, and now have a great starting point!

  • Thistle

    Thanks very much. I tried some night sky shots for the first time last summer and, to use a technical term, they sucked. Shooting with a Canon 7D, I expected more but, I guess it can only compensate so much for operator ignorance.

    You did not mention anything about mirror lockup. I have been wondering if that was my issue, although I was using a wireless remote. I just could not seem to attain/keep sharp focus.

  • Gerard N.

    The 7D is well capable of capturing stunning night shots. Depending on your length of exposure, I only use mirror lockup if the exposure is longer than 30 seconds. Again, like what the author said, focus and zoom in live view to check that stars are pinpoint and not like a white blob. Adjust as necessary and don’t rely on the infinity marker. I used a Canon T3i with a kit lens to shoot this image. It was about midnight and vehicles were passing by the busy I-15 freeway in Nevada. This was totally unplanned, exited the freeway and drove about quarter mile out, made the adjustments and took the shot.

  • Grant Collier

    Hi Thistle, The 7D has become somewhat outdated for night photography, and if you don’t have a lens with a wide aperture like f2.8, the images will have a lot of noise when viewed large. I’ve listed some equipment I recommend at: But like Gerard said, you can still get good images with this camera, and they should at least look good at web sizes. This is especially true if you do stitched images like the ones I describe in this article, as the very large images you get will increase the image quality (though it’s easier to practice with single exposures if you’re just starting out). Mirror lockup isn’t really necessary at night. The exposures at night are long enough that any very small vibration at the beginning of the exposure won’t affect the overall image quality. This would be more important for very short exposures. If you have a really flimsy tripod or have a center bar raised up high that could be problematic but I’m guessing that’s not the issue. And, like Gerard said, you need to be very careful with the focus. Zoom in and check the stars after you take a shot. If the stars are fuzzy white blobs, it means the camera is out of focus. If you see double-stars, it means the camera wasn’t steady the entire exposure. If the stars seem sharp but there’s a lot of noise around them, then double-check to make sure you’re using the camera settings I recommend in this article. If you are, it could just be the best you can do with that equipment.

  • Grant Collier

    Glad you enjoyed the article, Willy!

  • WillyC

    I was wondering if rotating the camera to portrait would negate the need to shoot 2 levels in portrait orientation?

  • Grant Collier

    If you use a wide angle lens, you may be able to get everything in one row in portrait orientation. I usually use 35mm or 50mm to get larger images, so I’d have to do multiple rows regardless. The reason I usually shoot horizontal is because the camera moves less as you turn it, meaning there will be less parallax (assuming you’re not using a panoramic tripod head) and it will be a little easier for the software to stitch the images. Also, the camera is usually a little more stable when horizontal, so it lessens the chance of it accidentally moving during one of the shots. But if you can do one row of verticals, this is probably preferable to two rows of horizontals.

  • Sarjono Indonesia

    Very informative and easy to follow. Thanks, Grant. One question: what do you mean by “highest native ISO”?

  • Grant Collier

    A native ISO is one represented only by a number, like 6400, as opposed to an “extended ISO,” which is represented represented by letters and numbers, like H1 or H2.

  • Thistle

    Thanks. With weather warming up, I am looking forward to trying these tips while motorcycle camping in the mountains of Colorado.

  • Marian Murdoch

    I’ve tried this multiple times but when I stitch it together in Photoshop, it ends up with a curved horizon, not a straight one. Any tips?

  • Grant Collier

    In my experience, Photoshop usually doesn’t do a great job stitching these images. You could try fixing the horizon by going to Filters > Lens Correction, then click “Custom” and adjust the Remove Distortion slider. Better yet, you might try stitching them in Lightroom if you have Lightroom CC. It seems to do a better job. Or, if you have a PC, the free program Image Composite Editor works well. In step 2, you can click and drag from the middle of the image to correct any distortion on the horizon.

  • Marian Murdoch

    Thanks, Grant! I do have Lightroom CC, but I’ve never used it. I’ve been using Photoshop for so long that I keep forgetting Lightroom is there, haha. I’ll definitely give it a try later with some saved images from the last Milky Way shoot.

  • Marian Murdoch

    Thanks, Grant! I do have Lightroom CC, but I’ve never used it. I’ve been using Photoshop for so long that I keep forgetting Lightroom is there, haha. I’ll definitely give it a try later with some saved images from the last Milky Way shoot.

  • Prasad Churi

    May be not that great in composition as your shots above but its my first shot a view from my rooftop at my native place in India. Let me know your if you have any comments.

  • Grant Collier

    This looks very nice, Prasad. There’s some pretty strong vignetting in the upper corners, which you might try to remove. It would also have been nice if you were able to exclude the roof from the right side of the shot, though I know that may have been difficult from where you were shooting.

  • I do a few milkyway panoramas – I like using PTGui Pro for stitching

  • David K. Johnson Photography

    Nice article! Can you recommend a relatively inexpensive Pano head?

  • Grant Collier

    Hi David, There’s a lot of less expensive options, but unfortunately I don’t have any specific recommendations. I bought a relatively inexpensive one many years ago, but I don’t think they make it anymore and I think they make better ones now, anyway. Also, I don’t use panoramic heads anymore, as the stitching software is so good that it seems to always be able to correct for any parallax, even when you have a really close foreground. It made carrying two tripod heads and switching back and forth seem impractical. But it can still be useful if you do a very large number of panos.

  • Grant Collier

    That’s a great shot, Michael! I assume you used a fisheye for some of the other Milky Way shots on your site? The distortion provides a cool effect on those. I briefly mention PTGui and Auto Pano Pro in my book and both seem to be very good programs. I recommended Lightroom CC and Image Composite Editor here, as most will already have the former and the latter is free.

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