Milky Way Photography 101
This free “Milky Way Photography Guide” shows you all you need to know to take your own Milky Way photos. It covers photo gear, settings, locations, and timing.
Any modern DSLR or mirrorless camera capable of ISO 3200 or more will be able to take Milky Way photos. Full frame cameras will produce less noisy results than crop-cameras.
A wide-angle lens with a minimum aperture of at least f/2.8 is required. These fast lenses will allow you to capture more light and detail. The shorter the focal length the longer your exposure time will be before the stars get blurry (streak).
A great entry-level lens is a Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 that can be bought for around $300. Some of the lenses I use include the Rokinon 14mm SP f/2.4, Sigma 20mm f/1.4, and a Sigma 35mm f/1.4.
We are dealing with exposures of up to 30 seconds (more if you want to blend in a longer foreground exposure) so a stable tripod is necessary to prevent blurry photos.
Bristlecone Pine Milky Way by Lars Leber
Single 20-second long exposure. Canon R5 with Sigma Art 20mm @ f/2 | ISO 6400
Shoot in RAW. Always shoot in RAW format! You spent a lot of money on good camera gear so you might as well use the RAW format to produce high quality photographs. Since the files are not compressed, it is also easier to correct issues that would be unrecoverable if taken in the JPEG format.
White balance can always be adjusted to your liking in the RAW converter. If you want to set the camera to a custom white balance I would suggest a temperature of 3900 Kelvin for Milky Way photography.
You will use your camera in manual mode. This allows you to set the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO settings individually.
For night photography, you want a very large aperture to capture enough light. This means a low f-stop. For example, when using a 14mm f/2.8 lens you want to set it to f/2.8 for the lens to be wide open and let a lot of light in. My Sigma 20mm lens is very fast at f/1.4 but I usually shoot it at f/2 as there is a little bit too much coma (stars appear distorted especially along the edges of the photo) wide open. Every lens has different characteristics and you will be able to fine tune your settings with experience.
We want pinpoint stars in our Milky Way photos. You can only have the shutter open for a specific period of time before the stars start to trail (streak) due to Earth spinning though. The shutter times will vary by camera (full frame, crop) and by the focal length of the lens. The longer the focal length, the shorter your exposure time needs to be. To keep things easier we will use the “500 Rule” for this. There is a much more accurate “NPF Rule” in PhotoPills that takes into account the specific camera sensor used but you can look into this after taking your first successful Milky Way photos.
Divide 500 by the focal length of the lens and the result is how many seconds you can keep the shutter open before the stars trail.
Here are some examples for full frame cameras.
14mm lens: 500/14 = 35 Seconds
24mm lens: 500/24 = 20 Seconds
35mm lens: 500/35 = 14 Seconds
For crop cameras you also need to take into account the crop factor. The exposures times will be shorter. In these examples the crop factor is 1.5.
14mm lens: 500/(14×1.5) = 23 Seconds
24mm lens: 500/(24×1.5) = 13 Seconds
35mm lens: 500/(35×1.5) = 9 Seconds
This is the setting you will adjust the most since aperture and shutter speed will stay the same unless you use another lens. You can start at ISO 3200 and then change it to a higher ISO setting if the photo looks too dark on your LCD. In areas with more light pollution it helps to drop the ISO a little to bring out more detail in the sky. Photos taken with full frame cameras will look less grainy than photos taken with crop cameras at high ISO due to the larger sensor size. With my camera I use ISO 3200 to ISO 6400 depending on the location.
Example Settings (full frame)
14mm lens: f/2.8; ISO 4000; 30 Seconds
20mm lens: f/2.0; ISO 4000; 25 Seconds
24mm lens: f/2.0; ISO 5000; 20 Seconds
35mm lens: f/2.0; ISO 6400; 13 Seconds
Autofocus will not work at night so you will focus manually. The infinity mark on the lens is not always accurate. The best practice is to use live view:
- Switch the lens/camera to manual focus.
- Find a bright star or maybe a building with a light in the distance.
- Zoom in 10X in live view and adjust the focus manually so that the light will be as small as possible.
- Once this is the case, you have achieved the perfect focus for the rest of the evening.
- If you use a zoom lens and change the focal length you will have to re-do the above steps each time you zoom in or out.
You can also focus during the day. Autofocus on a far away object and then either tape the lens or mark where the setting is. I do not like using tape as things can still move around when you transport your gear. Focusing with live view is the most accurate and takes less than a minute with a little practice.
If your lens/camera has image stabilization make sure that it is set to OFF. This sounds counter-productive but the small gears will cause vibrations during the long exposures when it is set to on. Speaking of vibrations, in order to reduce camera vibration from pressing the shutter button you can use a remote or, what I usually do, set the camera on a 2-second timer.
Red Mountain Milky Way by Lars Leber
Single 3.2-second long exposure. Canon R5 with Canon RF 85mm @ f/1.2 | ISO 6400
You won’t be able to see the Milky Way in Denver or Colorado Springs due to the city lights. Light pollution is increasing almost everywhere but you can find many areas in Colorado where you can observe the Milky Way with your own eyes and the cameras will pick up even more detail.
Here is a map that shows you in great detail where the light pollution is strong and where you can find darker areas to watch the night sky.
Also keep in mind where the Milky Way will be. If it is April and the core of the Milky Way is south-east then it is a good idea to drive out east from Denver and Colorado Springs. There will hardly be any light pollution in the south-east direction when you get away from the cities.
I must say that I personally like areas with a little bit of light pollution. One advantage of an area that is fairly dark but not completely dark is that any clouds will have a colorful glow to them instead of just being dark spots in the sky.
Pikes Peak Milky Way by Lars Leber
Single 20-second long exposure. Canon R with Sigma Art 20mm @ f/2 | ISO 3200
Make sure the Milky Way core is visible
The Milky Way (Core) season is from March until October. It looks different every month.
It rises east at the beginning of the season, south in the summer, and west in the fall.
It arches low over the horizon at the beginning of the season and goes straight up at the end of the season.
It rises right before sunrise at the beginning of the season while it sets right after sunset at the end of the season.
Make sure that there is no moonlight
The sky is darkest close to a new moon. You will not be able to see the Milky Way near a full moon. There are about two weeks each month that Milky Way photography is possible.
Make sure there are not too many clouds
Cloud cover will hide the Milky Way from you. Always keep an eye on the weather forecast.
There are a few smartphone apps that make the planning a lot easier.
Both ‘The Photographer’s Ephemeris’ as well as PhotoPills display where and when the core of the Milky Way is visible and they also show you the moon phases. I use both but my go to is TPE. Sadly TPE does not provide a night view in their Android version. PhotoPills has a lot more features such as specific shutter speeds recommended for your camera model and exposure calculator. Information used for Milky Way photography are displayed in both iOS and Android versions. Both apps are excellent tools for more than just night photography.
The Photographer’s Ephemeris (paid app): https://www.photoephemeris.com/
PhotoPills (paid app): https://www.photopills.com/
My favorite weather app for night photography by far is Clear Outside
Clear Outside (free for iOS and Android): https://clearoutside.com/page/app/
To find locations without light pollution I use Dark Sky Finder on iOS. Dark Sky Map might be a good Android alternative.
Dark Sky Finder (paid app): https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/dark-sky-finder/id546529400?mt=8
Bring extra batteries. Long exposures and colder temperatures at night will drain batteries faster.
In very humid and/or cold conditions a lens warmer might be useful to stop any condensation/freezing of the lens. Just connect it to a USB power bank and it will keep the lens fog free for hours.
Lighting makes for a more interesting foreground. Get some low level LED lights, a few battery powered tea lights etc and get creative.
Sangre De Cristo Milky Way by Lars Leber
Tracked Milky Way
Taking multiple photos in a row with the exact same settings. Stacking them with software will reduce noise/grain dramatically.
Taking a very long exposure of the foreground at lower ISO to get a clean foreground photo. The foreground will then be blended with the sky exposure.
Taking a 2-minute (or longer) exposure of the sky without any star movement with the help of a star tracker.