How to Photograph the Milky Way

How to Photograph the Milky Way

Wide field landscape astrophotography is an impressive form of photography, and it’s accessible to nearly everyone.

Astrophotography in its simplest form is increasing in accessibility, especially with today’s affordable, large sensor, high signal-to-noise ratio digital cameras. In my opinion, there are few photographs that have as much existential impact as a nighttime landscape against the Milky Way. Here, I will show you how to make an amazing photo of the Milky Way Galaxy with a minimum of effort and a minimum of equipment.

Equipment

There are a few things that you will need. Here is a concise checklist of the most helpful things:

  • Digital Camera with Manual Controls
  • Wide Angle Lens
  • Tripod
  • Flashlight or Headlamp
  • Intervalometer Remote Timer (Optional)
  • Smartphone Star Map App (Optional)
  • Dark Location at a Dark Time of Night

Digital Camera with Manual Controls

It is a common misconception that you need an expensive camera and lens combination to make a great Milky Way photograph. Pretty much any Digital SLR (DSLR) or camera with a Micro 4/3 sensor or larger is more than capable of photographing the Milky Way, especially when paired with the right lens. DSLRs are the most common high performance cameras available and they offer an excellent price-to-performance ratio. If you’re interested, I  personally use the following camera systems for the photos on Lonely Speck:

Even the Canon EOS M, which can be found for less than $300, is one of the cameras I use for making the photos you see here.

Fast Wide Angle Lens

A “fast” wide angle lens is the most important piece of equipment that will make your Milky Way photograph the easiest to make. The important traits are a low aperture f/number rating and short focal length. The lower the f/number rating, the faster and better the lens will be for really dark shooting conditions. Most digital camera kits come with the ubiquitous 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6. The minimum f/number of that lens (at 18mm) is f/3.5 which is a little bit “slow” for Milky Way photography. You can squeeze by with a slower kit lens like the common 18-55mm, but keep in mind that you will actually see a tangible difference with a faster lens that has a lower f/number rating.

Milky Way over Mt. Pinos, Rokinon 8mm f/2.8 Fisheye, Defished

Milky Way over Mt. Pinos, Rokinon 8mm f/2.8 Fisheye, Defished

I recommend a wide angle with a focal length of about 35mm or less on full-frame cameras, 24mm or less on APS-C cameras and 16mm or less on Micro 4/3 cameras. The Milky Way is pretty huge and so a lens with a wide field of view will make it easier to capture as much of it as possible. The wider field of view will also allow us to use longer shutter times to gather more light. The shorter the focal length, the wider field of view of the lens. If you’re interested in the technical reasons for what makes a good lens for astrophotography, check out my guide on how to pick a lens for Milky Way photography. My absolute favorite lenses to use for Milky Way photography are the following:

All of these lenses are relatively affordable and are excellent for nighttime landscape photography. They are available on a wide range of camera mounts including Canon, Nikon, Sony, Olympus, Fuji, and Samsung. You will be hard pressed to find better lenses for night photographs any price. For a more complete list of the best lenses for photographing the Milky Way on your camera system, check out my best lens lists:

Canon 6D

Canon EOS 6D with Rokinon 14mm/2.8 and 24mm/1.4 are my absolute favorite tools for astrophotography.

Tripod

There’s nothing special to remember for your tripod choice, just make sure it’s stable enough for your camera and is light and compact enough that you’ll actually want to carry it around with you. It’s not very fun lugging around a heavy tripod, even if it could support an aircraft carrier.  I personally use: the Sirui T-025X( Amazon )( B&H ).

Slik Tripod and Ultra Pod II

Make sure that your tripod is stable but light enough to enjoy carrying with you.

Headlamp 

Since you’ll be in the dark, a headlamp is pretty much a necessity. I prefer an LED headlamp with a red “night vision” mode. I personally use an older version of the Petzl Tikka XP. It can be switched to night vision mode without needing to cycle through the white lighting modes. This control scheme makes it possible to turn on and off the red mode without blinding yourself with the white mode first. Petzl headlamps are great. I’ve never had one fail on me, the batteries will last for over 7 days straight of continuous output and they do a great job of warning you when the batteries are low with a red blinking indicator. Even when they’re running out of juice, it will keep on lighting for an extended period of time at reduced output so that you aren’t left in the dark.

Petzl Headlamp

Petzl Tikka XP2 Headlamp is my personal choice.

Intervalometer Remote Timer (Optional)

An intervalometer will allow you to trigger your camera remotely without needing to touch the camera. This is particularly nice to prevent vibration in the camera that can add blurring or streaking in your images. An intervalometer will also allow you to make timelapse sequences and allows you to program exposures longer than 30 seconds when your camera is in Bulb (B) exposure mode. From experience, I particularly recommend the Neewer Intervalometers. They’re less than $20 and have never failed me. Plus, they use AAA batteries just like the my headlamp so I don’t need to carry two different types of batteries. Check if your camera has a built-in interval timer too. Some models like the Nikon D7100 have the functionality built in which makes it great for timelapses. If you’re using a Canon EOS camera, I recommend checking out the Magic Lantern firmware hack. It will enable all kinds of extra functionality like a built-in intervalometer and programmable Bulb timer.

Neewer Intervalometer

I recommend the super cheap Neewer intervalometers.

Smartphone Star Map App (Optional)

I personally use and recommend Stellarium for Android or iOS.  Stellarium shows a map of the stars with the plane of the Milky Way in view so you can more easily figure out where to point your camera. There are also a number of free applications like Google Sky Map for Android or Night Sky Lite for iOS that will help you find out where the Milky Way is in the sky at any given time of year. The free apps work great if you’re just starting out. Two other great photo planning applications are PhotoPills for iOS and The Photographer’s Ephemeris for Android and iOS which will allow you to plan for the phase of the moon, moonrise, moonset, sunrise and sunset.

The brightest part of the Milky Way is near the constellations Sagittarius and Scorpius but those constellations aren’t completely visible all year or in all parts of the world. To find the plane of the Milky Way at any time of year and in any part of the world, you’ll want to look for which of these constellations will be visible on the night you take photographs:

  • Sagittarius
  • Scorpius
  • Scutum
  • Aquila
  • Cygnus
  • Cassiopeia
  • Perseus
  • Auriga
  • Orion
  • Canis Major

Use the app to familiarize yourself with where those constellations are. That’s where you will be pointing your camera. If you don’t have a smartphone, I recommend checking out the free and open source software Stellarium for Mac, Linux or PC.

Dark Location at a Dark Time of Night

Of all the items on the list above, a dark location is probably the hardest thing to find. Two-thirds of the United States population are unable to see the Milky Way Galaxy due to light pollution. Unless you are lucky enough to live in a remote rural location with super dark night skies, you will probably need to make a trek out somewhere relatively remote in order to photograph the Milky Way. This is a great opportunity to explore new places.

Canon-EOS-6D-Review-5

Some of the darkest skies I’ve ever photographed were in Eureka Valley, Death Valley National Park, California. Rokinon 24mm f/1.4, Canon EOS 6D

If you live in North America, check out Dark Sky Finder, or the Clear Sky Charts on cleardarksky.com. Both have light pollution maps and Clear Dark Sky has weather and seeing forecasts for locations with the darkest skies. If you live elsewhere in the world, check out The World Atlas of Artificial Night Sky Brightness and the Blue Marble Navigator. I recommend finding publicly accessible lands like national parks and state parks as they’re often located away from cities and usually feature unique and beautiful landscapes. Once you pick your location, plan on venturing there some time between the last quarter and first quarter of the moon calendar, ideally during a new moon. This is not a hard rule, but the closer date to the new moon, the more time you will have during the night with dark, moonless skies.

Making the photo

Now that you have all your equipment, are in a beautiful outdoor location with dark skies and have located the Milky Way with your smartphone app, you are ready to make a photograph. There are a number of things that you’ll need to do to make a successful exposure of the Milky Way. Here’s a checklist of what we will cover.

  • Setup your Camera
  • Focusing in the Dark
  • Choosing your Exposure
  • Exposure Adjustment

Setup Your Camera

I am going to suggest some settings that will be a good ballpark start for your exposure. You may not even have to change them for your final exposure but that will depend on things like moonlight, light pollution, your camera, and your lens. We will start here and adjust accordingly. You should be familiar with each of these settings and how to change them. If any of these settings are unfamiliar to you, review your camera’s manual for how to change the setting.

  • Shoot in RAW recording mode
    • RAW image files contain more data than JPEG files and thus allow for greater flexibility in post-processing adjustments.
  • Zoom out to the widest field of view your lens supports (24mm or wider)
    • The wider field of view will reduce streaking of the stars due to Earth’s rotation and will allow us to capture as much of the Milky Way as possible.
  • Manual focus
    • Use manual focus (M or MF) mode on your lens and set it to the infinity mark if possible. We will focus more precisely later. 
  • Manual exposure
    • Set your exposure mode to Manual (M)
  • Enable long exposure noise reduction if available.
    • This will reduce grain on your photos by taking a second photograph without opening the shutter to record and subtract noise data from your image. Note that this will usually add additional wait time to each exposure before you will be able to use your camera again for the next exposure. If your camera takes particularly low noise images, such as a Canon 6D, you probably don’t need to enable this feature.
  • Enable the histogram in the image review.
    • This will allow us to see a graphic display of our exposure and adjust accordingly.
  • Use automatic white balance.
    • Many things like light pollution or moonlight can change the white balance of the image so just set it to auto. Since we’re shooting in RAW, we can make adjustments to the white balance later. If you’re shooting a timelapse, a custom setting of 3900K or a setting of tungsten can prevent unexpected changes during the timelapse sequence.

Exposure Settings

The exposure settings that I recommend in a dark sky area are dependent on the type of camera and lens that you are using. Use the calculator below to determine the exposure that I recommend you use initially. Once you take your first exposure, you can adjust as necessary based on your exposure histogram.

  • The shutter speed is calculated based on the focal length of your lens and the size of your camera’s sensor. Longer focal lengths and smaller sensors require shorter shutter speeds to prevent star trailing.
  • The f/number should generally be set to the lowest possible number, preferably f/2.8 or lower if your lens supports it. Lenses with f/numbers of f/4.0 or higher are not recommended.
  • The ISO is calculated based on your aperture and shutter speed but it’s a little dependent on the noise performance of your camera. Start with the calculator’s recommendation and adjust accordingly.

For a more complete explanation of how to figure out the exposure for shooting the Milky Way, visit my article on the Milky Way Exposure Calculator for a complete explanation of the calculations that are being used.

Focusing in the Dark

I like focusing before composition because it’s generally easier to focus your camera first, tape your focus ring, and then re-compose later. In general, you will want to make sure your lens is in manual focus mode (M or MF) and is focused at infinity. But rather than just setting the focusing ring to the infinity mark (on some lenses) and forgetting about it, we will want to make more precise focus adjustments to ensure the best possible photo quality. Here are a couple methods that I use to focus in the dark.

Register at Lonely Speck

Being able to focus on a distant artificial light (like your friend’s flashlight) is very helpful when it’s dark out.

  • Manual focus with Live View
    • This is by far the most accurate method if your camera supports it. Enable live view on your camera and use the focus checking or the digital zoom function on a bright star to make the star appear like a pinpoint. I recommend centering the star in the frame before focusing on it to have the most even focus field. Note that you may need to change the Live View settings on your camera to “exposure simulation” or “manual,”  in order to be able to see stars on the LCD. If you cannot see stars in the LCD, try focusing on a flashlight at a distance like in the method below.
  • Auto focus or manual focus on a flashlight that is placed far away (greater than 100 feet or so)
    • This can be an easy way to get your camera to focus at close to infinity in the dark but can be difficult if you don’t have a helping hand to hold the flashlight for you. It’s often best to place a flashlight next to an object in your frame that is at a distance of 100 feet or greater, the farther the better but after about 150 feet or so, it makes less and less difference. Plus, walking back and forth 300 feet just to focus your camera can be a drag. As soon as you get focus confirmation on the lit object, switch the lens back to manual focus (MF) mode to lock the focus at infinity, being careful not to twist the focus ring and mess up your focusing work. A flashlight can also be helpful if you wish to instead focus on a foreground object rather than infinity.

Regardless of the method of focus, make a test shot of the stars with the exposure settings above to check your focus. Zoom the LCD all the way into the image review to make sure that the stars look like pinpoints, if they are out of focus circular blobs, re-focus and check again. Always zoom the LCD into the preview review to check the focus, don’t take the initial thumbnail at face value. Once your shots are in focus, a piece of electrical tape or gaffer’s tape between the focus ring and the lens body can help prevent you from bumping the focus.

Understanding the Histogram and Adjusting Exposure

The settings that you calculated above when we setup your camera should be a good start. Once you are satisfied with your focus and your framing, the next thing is optimizing your exposure. This is where we will review the camera’s histogram information (The histogram is usually available by pressing “INFO” or “Display” or Up/Down arrows when reviewing photos. It really depends on your camera so check your instruction manual.)  Typically we will desire a histogram that shows peaks toward the center of the graph from left to right. See below for examples of histograms for various exposures of the Milky Way.

how to read your camera's histogram

Try to push your camera to the limits of its light gathering capability without compromising quality. Check and re-check your image review, zoom in on the LCD to check focus, review the histogram for exposure information and re-compose your frame throughout the night. Once you find an exposure you like, you can usually maintain the same exposure throughout the night.

Post Processing

If your image was exposed correctly, you should need only a little bit of post processing. RAW images are typically pretty flat and require some post processing to make the photograph as high quality as possible. I personally use Adobe Lightroom to process my photographs. The RAW editor that came with your camera is probably just fine. The thing to keep in mind here is that less is more. If you push the exposure of your photograph too much in post processing, you will often increase noise levels and reduce the quality of your photograph. For this reason, make your best effort to properly expose your photographs in the camera. There isn’t one right way to  process your photograph and my methods might not be best for your particular shot but in general, I focus on just three things:

  • White Balance
  • Exposure (Brightness)
  • Contrast (Curves)

Let’s take a look at an image as it came, straight from the camera.

RAW Exposure, Unedited

RAW Exposure, Unedited

White Balance Apparently, the color temperature of the Milky Way is about 4840K [pdf]. I find that 4840K is a little too yellow/orange in color, usually because there’s alway some influence from light pollution, no matter where you are in the world. A lot of astrophotographers swear by shooting in tungsten white balance (3200K) which will keep the stars looking blue. That said, I use about 3900K  most of the time for my white balance setting but this may just be a personal preference. I don’t typically pre-set white balance on my camera when taking the shot. 90% of the time, I usually just leave it in auto white balance (AWB) unless I’m shooting a timelapse sequence where I’ll set it to roughly to 3900K.

When shooting in RAW, we can adjust white balance in post processing so the camera settings doesn’t matter that much. Try 3900K and adjust from there. Other factors like the moon and the sun can affect your white balance. Even if both the moon and sun are set below the horizon, they will continue to turn the sky a blue tint even an hour or two after they set, forcing the white balance to a higher temperature Kelvin. Adjust until you have a nice neutral picture:

White Balance 3900K

White Balance 3900K

Exposure (Brightness) Hopefully the exposure will require the least adjustment. (If you made a good exposure in the camera.) Here I will add about +0.5 Exposure Value (EV), which makes the photograph 50% brighter. Try to avoid adjusting more than +/-1.0 EV unless noise levels allow for it. You will discover that adjustments larger than +/-1.0 EV will  increase noise levels too. The amount of post exposure adjustment necessary will depend on your exposure in the camera.

Brightness

Increased Brightness +0.5EV

Contrast (Curves) Contrast is the final essential post processing adjustment to use. I tend to increase contrast as much as possible without blowing out highlight or shadow details. Curves adjustment allows for a more precise contrast adjustment of specific lightness values and is my choice for making detailed adjustments. With curves to can make just the darks darker and just the brights brighter. Lightroom also allows you to adjust only designated portions of an image using the graduated filter or adjustment brush tools.

Contrast

Increased Contrast

That’s just about it! Even with a very limited set of tools, it’s possible to create some amazing photographs of our home galaxy. This lesson should have give you the most basic information needed to make some amazing Milky Way photographs. You have the tools, now all you need to do is let your creativity go crazy. 

Head on over to Astrophotography 101 for lessons on exposure, processing and other astrophotography tips and techniques.
First Time? Check out the How to Photograph the Milky Way lesson.

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Believe it or not, Lonely Speck is a full-time job. It’s been an amazing experience for us to see a community develop around learning astrophotography and we’re so happy to be a small part of it. I have learned that amazing things happen when you ask for help so remember that we are always here for you. If you have any questions about photography or just want to share a story, contact us! If you find the articles here helpful, consider helping us out with a donation.

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Thanks so much for being a part of our astrophotography adventure.

-Ian

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