Picture this: You’re lying on your back, gazing up at the night sky. Suddenly, you see it: a dazzling display of stars and galaxies that takes your breath away. That’s the Milky Way, and – with a few essential tips and tricks – you can create stunning images that’ll leave your friends and followers in awe.
In this article, I’ll show you how to plan and execute the ultimate Milky Way photoshoot. From determining the perfect location to using the best gear and techniques, I’ve got you covered. You’ll learn how to capture every little detail of that celestial chandelier twinkling overhead and create images that are simply out of this world.
So what are you waiting for? Let’s unlock the secrets of Milky Way photography and take your skills to infinity and beyond. Once you start snapping these jaw-dropping pics, you won’t be able to stop. Let’s go!
1. Plan your photography around the galactic core
If you’re looking to capture jaw-dropping images of the Milky Way, then you’ll need to plan your shoots around the galactic core. This is the brightest and most visually stunning part of our galaxy, and it’s only visible during certain months and locations. (I like to refer to the galactic core as “The Big C.”)
For photographers in the Northern Hemisphere, the galactic core is present from late April to late July and can be seen in the southeastern to southwestern sky. As the summer progresses, it moves westward, and by the end of summer, it rises in the southwestern sky. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to see it during the winter months.
Photographers in the Southern Hemisphere have it a bit easier, as the core is visible from February to October, with peak visibility in June and July.
Don’t forget to factor in the lunar phase when planning your shoots. To capture the clearest Milky Way images, you’ll want to avoid a bright moon. However, even a first-quarter moon can make for some stunning shots (as long as it’s not in the middle of the Milky Way, where it could be too bright).
To help you plan your shoots, there are plenty of phone and desktop apps available. My personal favorite is Stellarium, which is free and available on desktop. Simply enter your location and desired time, and it will show you when and where the galactic core will be present during the darker lunar phases. It’s a great way to ensure you’re in the right place at the right time for your Milky Way photography.
2. Find a dark location
To capture the Milky Way in all its glory, you’ll need to find a location with minimal light pollution. Some purists insist on traveling to remote, dark sky areas, but don’t fret if you can’t get away to one of those. You can still capture stunning shots even in areas with some light pollution.
In fact, a little bit of distant light can add a unique element to your photo, like in the image below that I captured in Death Valley. The glow on the horizon adds a beautiful contrast between the earth and the sky:
Remember, if you can see the Milky Way with your naked eye, you can shoot it! However, if you want to discover the best dark sky locations, International Dark Sky Places is a great resource.
3. Wait for clear weather
If you’re a landscape photographer, you probably love a dramatic sky with interesting clouds. But when it comes to capturing the beauty of the Milky Way, clear skies are what you’re looking for. That’s because even a thin layer of clouds can obscure the stars and ruin your shot.
However, that doesn’t mean you should always avoid shooting on a partly cloudy night. In fact, sometimes a few wispy clouds can add an extra layer of drama and framing to your Milky Way photo, creating a unique and captivating result.
So don’t let a little bit of cloud cover discourage you from heading out to capture the Milky Way. With the right technique and a bit of creativity, you can turn even a partly cloudy night into a beautiful and memorable photo opportunity.
4. Include foreground elements
The most breathtaking Milky Way images are the ones that show the galactic core in relation to earthly objects. Something as ordinary as a person sitting on a chair can look truly remarkable when framed by the wonders of the Milky Way.
So think hard about what you’d like to include in the foreground of your Milky Way shot. Even if you nail the perfect conditions and technique, your shot can still look dull if you don’t add something else in the frame to give the viewer some context. Choose an intriguing foreground feature and maybe experiment with some light painting to make your Milky Way shots truly spectacular.
This could be anything from a unique rock formation like a sea stack or arch to a rundown shed or an interesting tree. Consider locations that have a point of interest, and then figure out how that spot lines up with the Milky Way.
5. Use the right lens
While using the gear you already have can be convenient, nighttime photography can be challenging due to the lack of light. To capture stunning Milky Way shots, you’ll need a fast lens with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 or wider.
Super wide-angle lenses are ideal for capturing nightscapes as they typically produce very little blur. Even when set to a maximum aperture of f/1.4, an ultra-wide lens will often keep a great deal of your image in focus (assuming you focus carefully!). The last thing you want is a sharply focused Milky Way with a foreground that is rendered as soft, creamy bokeh. So leave the lovely 85mm f/1.4 at home.
Another advantage of super wide lenses is that you can fit a lot of the Milky Way into your frame, and there’s less magnification, which allows for longer shutter speeds before the stars in your shot begin to trail.
Don’t fret if you only have a standard, all-purpose, kit lens that isn’t very fast. You can still get some decent Milky Way shots by using long exposures and high ISO settings to maximize your camera’s sensitivity to light.
If you’re only just delving into the genre, you’ll be pleased to know that some of the most popular wide-angle lenses for night photography are quite affordable. Rokinon (also known as Samyang) offers two lenses that have gained a cult following among night shooters: the 14mm f/2.8 and 24mm f/1.4 lenses. The build quality might not be great, but as long as you handle them with care, they usually perform well.
These lenses are popular because they offer sharpness, speed, a wide field of view, and much less coma than other more expensive lenses. (Coma is elliptical aberration around stars.) Some more expensive lenses produce really bad coma on stars in the corner of the frame, which isn’t the end of the world, but it’s not ideal.
6. Choose the right camera
When it comes to Milky Way photography, having the right camera is key. You’ll need a camera that can handle high ISO settings during long exposures, while still producing good image quality. Even if your camera isn’t top-of-the-line, you might be pleasantly surprised by the image quality of your high ISO images, thanks to recent advances in camera sensor technology.
Some of the best cameras for astrophotography in the past few years have been full-frame models like the Canon EOS R5, the Nikon Z7 II, and the Sony a7 IV. But don’t worry if you’re shooting with a Four Thirds or APS-C sensor – you can still get great results with the right techniques.
Remember, you don’t need the most expensive gear to get started. Use what you’ve got and upgrade when you can’t resist the temptation to splurge.
One essential feature you’ll want in your camera is a good Live View screen or electronic viewfinder (EVF) to help you focus and compose your shots.
7. Use a tripod
When it comes to Milky Way photography, you’re going to be working in the dark. And that means one thing: You need a nice landscape tripod.
Without a sturdy tripod, your images are going to turn out blurry and unusable. And since Milky Way photography involves long exposures usually lasting between 10 to 30 seconds, you absolutely need to keep your camera still.
So don’t skimp on a cheap and flimsy tripod. Go for something stable that can withstand some wind (though make sure it’s not so heavy that you can’t lug it around with you). Finding a balance between weight and stability is key.
Investing in a good tripod will ensure that your Milky Way photos turn out sharp and clear. Trust me, you don’t want to go through all the effort of planning the perfect shoot only to be disappointed with blurry results. A solid tripod is a must-have for any serious Milky Way photographer.
8. Shoot RAW files in Manual mode
Always shoot your Milky Way photos in RAW. This will preserve as much information as possible, giving you more options during post-processing.
And make sure you set your camera to Manual mode. That way, you’ll have complete control over your shot, including the ISO, shutter speed, aperture, and white balance. It might take some practice to get the hang of it, but trust me – it’s worth it!
Shooting in Manual mode may seem daunting at first, but it’s the only way to really get the perfect shot. So take some time to practice in advance and get comfortable adjusting all of your settings as needed.
9. Use Live View or the EVF
To set the focus for your Milky Way photography, switch off the autofocus and crank up the ISO to around 5000 for maximum light sensitivity.
Also, set your aperture to its widest and fastest setting, typically f/2.8.
10. Set your focus on a star
Point your camera’s Live View or electronic viewfinder (EVF) at the brightest star you can see. When a small dot of light appears in the center of your view, zoom in (magnify the view, not the lens) until you see the tiny dot as large as possible. Slowly turn the focus ring on your lens until the star becomes a sharp, tiny pinpoint of light. Be patient and take your time to get it just right.
Don’t blindly set your focus to infinity; this will only result in blurred images. Instead, try using a feature like Focus Peaking or Focus Assist, if your camera has it, to help determine perfect focus on a star. Alternatively, you can calculate the hyperfocal distance, but I prefer this method for its simplicity and effectiveness.
Remember, getting your focus right is crucial for capturing sharp and stunning Milky Way photos, so take your time and make sure it’s spot on.
11. Compose your shot
Now that you’ve focused your lens on the brightest star, it’s time to compose your shot. Use your headlamp to illuminate the scene so that you can see what you’re looking at in your Live View. If your camera has a digital level to ensure perfect horizon lines, use it. Otherwise, consider investing in a bubble level for your hotshoe attachment.
Set your shutter speed to around 10 seconds (at ISO 5000, if possible), and take a test shot. You only need to take some rough images to get your composition right, so there’s no point in shooting a full 30-second exposure and waiting around.
Once you’ve finished capturing test shots and made your final tripod adjustments for the perfect composition, it’s time to dial in your camera settings.
13. Pick the right white balance
When shooting the Milky Way, I like to set my white balance to Incandescent (or Tungsten, depending on the camera). It gives me a cool blue hue and lots of contrast in my camera’s EVF, which helps me see the Milky Way clearly. Later, when I process my images, I often reset the White Balance to Auto (AWB) mode for a more natural color temperature.
While I prefer the Incandescent/Tungsten preset for neutral results, I advise you to experiment with different WB settings to get the color temperature you like best. You can always adjust it later in Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw.
14. Set your ISO
You used ISO 5000 for the test shots to help you compose your shot quickly. But for your actual Milky Way shot, you want to use the lowest ISO setting you can get away with. Dial it down to ISO 2000 and see if that gives you good results. You can always increase it to ISO 3200 after a few more test shots. I personally rarely go above ISO 3200, as my RAW files tend to degrade significantly at that point.
15. Pay attention to your shutter speed
From this point on, you’ll be juggling your shutter speed and ISO setting to get the most light sensitivity while still having a fast enough shutter speed to avoid star trails. Star trails are great if you’re going for that effect, but even a small trail can result in a Milky Way shot that lacks clarity. That might be okay for web images, but for prints, you’ll want more sharpness.
Therefore, try to limit your shutter speed to a maximum of 15 seconds so that you can keep the stars in your image sharp and trail-free.
After setting a shutter speed of 15 seconds, take a look at your camera’s light meter reading. If it’s telling you that the image is overexposed, you might be able to dial your ISO down a bit or shorten your shutter speed to 10 seconds.
Sometimes, I like to overexpose images and ignore my light meter reading entirely. When shooting the Milky Way, I’m guided more by what I see in my test shots than by what my light meter tells me to do.
After your shot is complete, zoom in and check the details to make sure everything is as sharp and clear as possible.
16. Try a 30-second exposure
I know I just told you to keep your shutter speed under 15 seconds, but here’s a little secret I like to use: I take an extra shot with a 30-second exposure to capture an even brighter Milky Way. I do this if I’m planning to publish a low-resolution web image because the slight star trails caused by the longer exposure won’t be very noticeable. The stars will still look sharp enough but will be far brighter compared to a 15-second exposure.
For prints, though, I usually stick to the 15-second exposure version for the extra sharpness. The goal is to create jaw-dropping Milky Way images, and sometimes a little experimentation can take your shots to the next level. Just remember to play around with your shutter speed and always keep the end goal of your image in mind (i.e., whether it’s for the web or for print).
Milky Way photography tips: final words
There you have it, my friends – everything you need to know about Milky Way photography! I hope you’re feeling inspired and ready to hit the road and start snapping away. Remember, practice makes perfect, so don’t be discouraged if your first attempts aren’t quite as mind-blowing as you’d hoped.
The key is to keep experimenting, keep learning, and keep pushing yourself to try new things. Milky Way photography is a journey, not a destination, and the more you explore, the more you’ll discover about the cosmos.
So grab your camera, pack your bags, and get ready for an adventure like no other. The Milky Way is waiting for you, and it’s time to make some magic happen!
Now over to you:
Do you have any Milky Way shots you’re proud of? Share your images in the comments below!