Many landscape and travel photographers, including myself, attempt to avoid photographing surroundings with a bright blue sky. We have little influence over what nature gives each day, as much as we prefer seeing puffy or turbulent clouds to liven up our images.
Sometimes we are fortunate enough to catch spectacular sunrises and sunsets with blood red skies, and other times we are forced to work with a clean, uninteresting sky. When I’m in a setting like this and know the weather will be clear the next morning, I’ll look for opportunities to picture the stars and the Milky Way at night. I’m sure you’ve been out late at night in a distant spot and seen an amazingly magnificent night sky filled with millions of stars beaming directly at you, as well as patches of stars in a “cloudy” structure that are part of the Milky Way. If you’re new to photographing the night sky and the Milky Way, this article will walk you through the basics.
We’ll simply cover the essentials in this post because astrophotography can be quite complicated, especially when it comes to photographing nebulae, constellations, and star systems from deep space. Some photographers spend tens of thousands of dollars on telescopes, specialized robotic heads with ultra-precision, and CCD cameras specifically designed for astrophotography to generate incredibly beautiful photos that are difficult or impossible to capture with an ordinary digital camera. I’ll skip over these technical details and instead focus on what you can do with a camera you currently own, whether it’s a DSLR, a mirrorless camera, or even a high-end point-and-shoot.
The following is a basic rundown on how to photograph the Milky Way:
- Recognize the capabilities of your camera equipment.
- Take into account light pollution and seek for a dark location.
- Make use of effective night focusing methods.
- Make use of the proper camera settings
- For a better composition, think about foreground items.
- Take a picture of the Milky Way
- After that, you can post-process the Milky Way.
What You’ll Require
Let me go over what you’ll need in terms of gear and software before we start talking about photographing the Milky Way:
An Advanced Camera
You will need a camera that allows you to regulate the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO manually. You also want the camera to be capable of manual focusing, as focusing at night will undoubtedly be difficult for any autofocus system. You should ideally choose a high-end DSLR or mirrorless camera that can tolerate noise well at high ISOs (more on this below). A specialist astro-camera, such as the Nikon D810A, is the best choice for astrophotography, but it is for individuals who want to go beyond the scope of this tutorial. Some point-and-shoot cameras with manual controls may be acceptable for the job, but the results will be clearly inferior, especially on small sensor point-and-shoots.
A Fast Lens
If you are using an interchangeable lens camera, I recommend using a decent, fast-aperture wide-angle lens (preferably in the f/1.4 – f/2.8 max aperture range). Fast prime lenses that perform well wide open are ideal for capturing the stars. Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8G and Nikon 20mm f/1.8G are two of my favorite lenses for night photography. Both are excellent performers at their maximum apertures (wide open), making them ideal for night photography. However, there are a plethora of other lenses available that perform admirably in low-light situations. I would recommend that you read our post on the best Nikon lenses for astrophotography, which lists both native and third-party alternatives that also perform well on other systems. If you have a slow lens or need to stop down to get the best sharpness, you will need to increase the ISO, which will result in grainy photographs. As a result, a fast lens is an excellent choice. If you shoot Canon, you’ll have similar lens options to Nikon, and the value will come from third-party lenses from Samyang / Rokinon. The Rokinon SP 14mm f/2.4 (Canon mount) is my top recommendation for astrophotography because it performs well when stopped down to f/2.8 and does not suffer from significant coma like many other lenses.
A Sturdy Tripod
Because you’ll be shooting long exposures (15 seconds or longer), a sturdy tripod is essential. You don’t want a fragile tripod that shakes violently during the exposure, especially if there’s a light breeze. For additional information, please see our in-depth guide to choosing a tripod.
Sky Map App
This one is optional, but I highly recommend it. An excellent sky map program, such as Star Walk, can show you exactly where the Milky Way is or will be, which can help you plan your photos significantly. PhotoPills is another amazing app that I use, and it includes an excellent Night AR option that can be really useful for planning.
To achieve the best quality results and bring out the details, you need surely process your images in professional software. For astrophotography, I would prefer Adobe Photoshop or Photoshop Elements. Lightroom can also be beneficial, but it lacks the flexibility to perform things like levels and complex cloning / spot removal capabilities (to remove planes and other objects from the shots, etc). Post-processing is an important element of astrophotography, so if you don’t already have it, I would strongly advise you to purchase some good software for the job. I’ll show you how to do some basic procedures in Photoshop / Elements to improve your Milky Way photos further down.
A good flashlight is useful not just for finding a nice position at night, but it may also be used for light painting if you have intriguing foreground features.
Other items you may require include a remote camera trigger (for 30+ second exposures), hand / leg warmers (if shooting in freezing weather), and more, although they are optional or dependent on the environment and what you are attempting to achieve.
Considerations for Location and Light Pollution
It will be incredibly tough to photograph the night sky and the Milky Way if you live in a huge city. Due to air and light pollution, big city lights can be a great problem, so it is recommended to get out of town/city and find a nice place that does not have such concerns. It is sometimes necessary to travel several hours away from your home. You may not be able to see the light pollution with your eyes, but the camera will!
Because the sky is clear and there are no lights around, remote national parks and wilderness locations are great for night photography. Use the Dark Sky Finder website to locate the finest areas with the least amount of light pollution.
Before we go into exposure settings, let’s go over some crucial measures to ensure that we end up with properly focused images. Focusing at night can be a difficult and frustrating experience since your camera’s autofocus technology requires very little contrast to establish accurate focus. The best thing to do is arrange your shot, set one focal length (if using a zoom lens), and once you’ve manually acquired perfect focus, don’t touch the focus or zoom rings again until you’re finished. Personally, I switch off autofocus right immediately and simply use Live View for manual focusing – the goal is to set focus to infinity. Some argue that using lens markers to fix focus to infinity is a good practice, however unless you have an antique manual focus lens with more or less perfect infinity markings, I wouldn’t rely on them. On a current high-resolution sensor, even a minor focus error may cause the stars to look as circular blobs rather than definite stars, therefore your focus technique is crucial.
what is the ideal method for achieving perfect focus?
Using the camera’s Live View, I frequently employ a variety of approaches. Set your lens to Manual Focus and activate Live View before zooming in to 100% and pointing your camera at the brightest source of light in the sky, which is usually the moon. Move the focus ring until you can clearly see the moon’s distinct shape, then switch off Live View — you’re done. If the moon is not visible, look for another source of light, such as an extremely bright star or a distant light. If you don’t have any of those, another approach is to turn on your flashlight and point it at infinity, then focus on the flashlight using Live View. Some cameras’ Live View settings are particularly good and will “enhance” the night sky and reveal the stars. If you can see the stars in Live View, you don’t need to use any of the strategies listed above – simply rotate the focus ring until the stars seem sharp. Finally, if nothing else works, try using the infinity mark on top of the lens and taking sample images to verify if focus is properly acquired. If you notice blurry stars when zoomed in to 100%, you know you need to twist the focus ring slightly to achieve better focus. It will take some practice to get it perfect, but it is far better to do it correctly than to wind up with fuzzy photos.
Now, if your photo includes a foreground object, you obviously want both the foreground and the stars to be in perfect focus. How can you do that while you’re shooting at a wide open aperture? The answer is in a method known as “focus stacking,” only you’ll probably take two shots, one focused on the sky and the other on your foreground. Then, in Photoshop, you apply a blending technique to combine the two shots into a single composite with excellent focus on both. Spencer has created a great guide on focus stacking, so check out the link if you want to learn more about the method!
While the night sky may appear spectacular, with millions of stars visible to your eyes, this does not mean that your camera will be able to capture it. At night, your eyes adjust to low light, which means you see everything at very high sensitivity levels, with the iris wide open and at its greatest size. So, if you want your camera to capture the night sky as you perceive it (and possibly even better), you’ll need to employ the same strategy – high ISO sensitivity settings and huge apertures. This is where your camera and lens choices will have a big impact on what you can achieve. You don’t have to utilize particularly high ISO levels on your camera if you have a fast prime lens that works well at its maximum aperture without creating too much coma, which means less grain to contend with when post-processing your Milky Way photographs. The first image in this article, for example, was produced using a Nikon D3s and a 24mm f/1.4G lens at f/1.4, ISO 1600, and a 20-second long exposure. To maintain the same exposure length while using a slower lens, say f/2.8 (two stops slower), I would need to increase my camera ISO from 1600 to 6400, which is a significant change.
So, where do you begin, and what is the most crucial camera setting? First and foremost, I would determine the length of exposure. And here’s where it gets tricky: if you get it wrong, you’ll either wind up with a black sky and a couple of stars, or the stars will look like lines instead of dots, resulting in what’s known as “star trails.” These can look wonderful in some photographs, but star trail photography necessitates entirely separate approaches centered on the north star and will definitely not work for Milky Way shots. Remember that our globe is continually rotating, and because we are shooting from a tripod that is locked in one position, we must be extremely careful about timing each exposure in order to keep stars as dots in our images.
The 500/600 Rule is a rule that states that the sum of 500 and 600 is
This one has a strange name because some call it the “500 Rule,” while others call it the “600 Rule.” To estimate the optical length of exposure, we simply divide one of the two figures by the focal length of the lens to obtain the ideal shutter speed. So, if you’re using the 500 rule and shooting with a 20mm lens on a full-frame camera, you take 500 and divide it by 20, which gives you 25 seconds – that’s the longest shutter speed you should use before those stars turn into trails. Using the less conservative “600 Rule,” you get a 30 second exposure. Personally, I’ve never been able to use the “600 Rule” because it always results in star trails, even when shooting with a low-resolution camera. For me, the “500 Rule” is the upper limit – in reality, I merely use it as a guideline and frequently wind up lowering my shutter speed even further to avoid star trails in my shots. Using the same formula, if you use a larger focal length lens, your exposure time will be reduced, so keep that in mind when photographing the Milky Way.
RAW or JPEG?
If you’re still shooting JPEG, slap yourself in the face – it’s time to switch to RAW and finally discover its merits, particularly when it comes to photographing the Milky Way. For astrophotography, you should shoot RAW because you will frequently find yourself tweaking things like white balance, which you may not be able to do in JPEG photographs. There are also other advantages to shooting RAW – see my RAW vs JPEG post for more information on why you should avoid JPEG for night photography.
Mode of the Camera
When shooting at night, you should always use full manual mode because there is just not enough light for your camera’s meter to compute the proper exposure. This implies that you must first disable Auto ISO, then set the aperture to the maximum aperture, such as f/1.4, then the length of the exposure / shutter speed based on the “500 Rule” (usually between 20 and 30 seconds), and finally ISO (which I would set to 1600 as the base and move it up or down as needed). If you can’t see the Milky Way in your first image, you’ll need to increase the ISO to a higher value, such as ISO 3200. Because you’re shooting RAW, white balance is irrelevant.
Composition and Foreground Elements
While getting a photo of the Milky Way like the one featured at the beginning of this article might be rewarding, shooting the Milky Way by itself can be tedious. The greatest thing to do for these types of photographs is to include interesting foreground components. Adding a magnificent mountain, a weird lake, a rock, or another unique object will undoubtedly make the photo more appealing to the viewer’s eye. These images can be difficult to prepare and may necessitate some preliminary research to pinpoint the location of the Milky Way, but if you get it all perfect, your efforts will undoubtedly be rewarded. If you’re lucky enough to have a lovely moonlight that lights your subjects, you might return back with some outstanding shots that deserve a spot on your wall. Here’s a photo of Maroon Bells shot at night that I took a few years ago:
While the Milky Way cannot be seen above the mountain peaks, it is nevertheless remarkable that the photograph was taken at night. The entire area was illuminated just by moonlight! If you look attentively, you’ll notice that the stars are slightly lagged – this is because I violated the “500 Rule” by shooting at 29mm for 30 seconds. I did this because I wanted to catch both the sky and the surroundings in a single photo, and I wanted to shoot at a lower ISO to achieve the best image quality. I also reduced the aperture of the 24-70mm f/2.8G lens I was using that day to f/3.2 to get better edges.
Keep in mind that having the moon out while photographing the night sky is not ideal since it may cast too much light into the sky, making it impossible to capture all of the nuances of the Milky Way. However, there are some instances where having the moon out can provide intriguing consequences, as shown in the image below:
In short, using an attractive foreground element to complement the Milky Way pays off, so look for something unique to work with. And don’t let the moon prevent you from capturing stunning shots of the Milky Way. If it’s out and not too bright, you may use it to illuminate foreground components or perhaps incorporate it into the final shot.
Blending of Images
Everything up to this point has assumed that you intend to take high-quality single-image images of the Milky Way. However, by combining many photographs, you can greatly expand your camera’s possibilities.
Time blends, star tracker blends, focus stacking, and picture averaging are the four major techniques for image blending at night.
Blends of Time
A time blend is created by shooting many images at various times of day (or night) and sewing them together in Photoshop. Time blending might help you widen your depth of field when photographing the Milky Way.
The procedure is fairly straightforward. Take one photo immediately after sunset with a modest aperture, such as f/11, to achieve a significant depth of field. Then, hold your tripod in the same position until the Milky Way appears. Take a second photo using your standard astrophotography settings, such as f/1.8 and focusing on the stars. Then, in Photoshop, simply blend the two images together.
It is critical, however, that you color correct both photos before opening them in Photoshop. This ensures that the combination appears as natural as possible. It’s also a good idea to snap both shots at the same ISO setting so that the noise is consistent across the frame.
Tracker of the Stars
Similar to the last procedure, but with improved image quality, photograph the Milky Way with a star tracker before mixing.
Because star trackers detect the movement of the night sky, you can use considerably longer shutter speeds to maximize image quality. Star trackers, on the other hand, will result in a hazy foreground (since they can’t monitor the foreground and the stars at the same time), therefore some blending in Photoshop is required.
Stacking of Focus
If you want to widen your depth of field at night, you might be tempted to utilize the same “focus stacking” technique that landscape photographers use during the day. Essentially, you use the same Milky Way photography settings as before, but gradually shift your focus from the foreground to the stars. Then, using software such as Helicon Focus or Photoshop, combine the images to create a sharp image from front to back.
Averaging of Images
Image averaging is a final, popular method of image mixing at night. This is when a huge number of images are taken and averaged together to remove noise. This is accomplished using sophisticated software that aligns the stars (without rotating the foreground) prior to blending the photos together.
This is an extremely useful way of image blending that is rapid and easy to use, with a low error rate. It enables you to boost image quality or extend depth of field, depending on what you want for a certain photograph.
Because your camera will capture a low-contrast sky that requires some effort, post-processing is an important aspect of astrophotography. This means you’ll have to experiment with different settings to bring out the details, as well as improve contrast and colors.