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.

Help us help you!

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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The biggest contribution comes from the use of our affiliate links. When you buy through the Amazon or B&H Photo links on Lonely Speck, it costs you nothing extra, but we will receive a small commission (usually 2-4%) to help run the site.

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

-Ian

Back to Astrophotography 101

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95 Responses

  1. Christian October 30, 2014 / 8:30 am

    Ian – Thank you for putting together some great information. As someone who is just starting off with astrophotgraphy (or photography in general), your site is a goldmine of information. Based on your recommendation via this article, I went ahead and purchased the Rokinan 14mm f/2.8 to go with my Canon T3i. Residing on Long Island, NY, with all the light pollution here there isn’t much of viewing of the Milky Way galaxy. Regardless, I decided to try the settings recommended by this page, via the calculator, for just a regular clear sky night shoot (Shutter speed 24, f/2.8, iso 6400). Although the picture shows many stars visible beyond the naked eye, the picture came out very bright or very light brownish or I guess over exposed. Is this what I am shooting for so I can then adjust via a photoshop type program, or was my iso simply too high? I should also note that I took a few pictures with iso 400 and automatic iso. The results were far less visible stars but with a picture that was more normal. Your advice to this newbie would be greatly appreciated.

    Cheers

    Christian

  2. Max October 28, 2014 / 7:46 pm

    Hi,

    I have a 6 x 50mm Night vision monocular and would like to know if I can modify the lense to get a wide angle as the viewing range is frustratingly small…If I were to buy a wide angle lense and attach to the end of the device do you think this would work? It has manual focus adjustment so surely could adjust for that once fitted)???

    Please help anyone! :)

    Thank you

    • Ian Norman October 29, 2014 / 4:25 pm

      Max, this sounds like something that’s a bit out of my typical knowledge base. A monocular works a lot different than a camera lens because it’s made to project an image for your eyeball rather than onto a sensor. I’m not too familiar with what options are available to you. You’re essentially looking for a focal reducer if I’m not mistaken but I think the easier solution for you would be to just find a monocular/binocular setup with a lower magnification. Yours is a 6x magnification which is likely the equivalent of something like a 300mm on a camera. Maybe find something like a 4x or even 2x for a wider field of view. It might be possible to find an off the shelf focal reducer made for a telescope but I imagine attachment to a handheld monocular might be problematic. Like I said, I have no experience using such devices so I’m not completely sure of my answer.

  3. Ranjan Mitra October 15, 2014 / 12:07 pm

    Ian,
    Thanks for the this wonderful site. Learnt a lot. Just ordered Samyang 14mm f/2.8 I live in a heavily light polluted area in India. Tried milky way with Canon 600D and Canon 50mm f/1.8 no luck at all. Will the Samyang give better results ?

    • Ian Norman October 16, 2014 / 5:13 pm

      The Samyang should help you frame up a shot much easier. That said, there’s really not much of a substitute for light pollution so do your best to go somewhere dark.

  4. Jayvee October 12, 2014 / 11:14 am

    I have a f 3.5-5.6, 18-55 Canon EF lens and a Canon EOS 1200D with 6400 max ISO
    Is that possible that i can capture milky way?

  5. Joe October 5, 2014 / 10:03 am

    Thanks for the helpful tutorial, I just have one comment. Your images tend to have a blue tint to the sky that is not real. There is no Rayleigh scattering in the dead of night. The warm colors you see in the sky is not all light pollution, much of it is airglow – a natural phenomenon. I think airglow adds to the character of the sky. You’re best off using the temperature of the Milky Way as you started.

    • Ian Norman October 5, 2014 / 10:10 pm

      Thank you Joe. I tend to find that the dominant color in the night sky can change a lot throughout the course of a night. In most of my experience, airglow is typically green in color and sometimes even magenta. I agree that airglow adds a wonderful characteristic to the sky. That said, I also think that there’s nothing wrong with pushing the colors to the photographer’s preference.

  6. Clive September 19, 2014 / 12:31 am

    Hi Ian,

    Thanks for your help and advice, I was lucky enough to get some pretty decent conditions on my holiday (given the warm seaside location) and was pretty happy with my results. I thought you might like to see a few of the results. Too see any further improvements will either mean a better camera or a darker location I think :)

    Link

    Thanks
    Clive

    • Robert September 19, 2014 / 4:33 am

      Damn man. Nice results!

  7. Outdoorer September 18, 2014 / 7:17 am

    First of all, great informations Brian! Very
    Someone experience with the zeiss touit 12mm/f2.8 and milky way photos? Want to buy a ultrawide lense for my alpha6000.

    • Ian Norman September 18, 2014 / 11:35 am

      The Zeiss Touit 12mm/2.8 is a good lens for astrophotography but I found the Rokinon/Samyang 12mm/2.0 to be a better lens for astrophotography. It’s sharper and has the faster f/2 aperture.

      It however is not autofocus and the Zeiss is.

      Ian

  8. Paul August 27, 2014 / 9:27 pm

    I went out and experimented with infrared milky way photography tonight on a converted Olympus EP1. Went pretty decent, but I ran into the issue with the lens fogging/dewing up.. got any advice on how to prevent that?

    • Robert August 28, 2014 / 4:52 am

      Rubber band some hand warmers around your lense.

  9. Kevin Turner August 19, 2014 / 5:34 pm

    This was a very insightful article. I used your recommendations on the Nikon lens list and got myself the Rokinon 16mm F/2.0. This lens is a marvel to behold for low light. I’m able to take beautiful shots on clear nights. Unfortunately for light pollution I can’t get the milky way as pristine as I wanted. But I compensate with some alluring foreground. This adds to the picture creating a balanced look that makes you realize how truly beautiful nature and space are when they coincide with one another.

  10. Rey Lopez August 14, 2014 / 12:24 am

    Thanks Inorman! I’ll be Back for sure, for more Advice! You are Awesome man and keep up the good work!

  11. Rey Lopez August 12, 2014 / 3:34 am

    Inorman thank you so much! I saw A video that you puton youtube about image stacking.. Were those 16 shots of the milky way shot in different exposures then aligned together? And I am just starting Astrophotography, live near Joshua Tree, saw your pictures of the Milky Way, left in AWW! Too Awesome! I have a Canon T4i EOS with the kit lens, used your Exposure Calculator and got
    Shutter speed – 28s
    F/3.5
    ISO – 12800
    Is that Ok, won’t it be too grainy? What if I used image stacking like you did would it remove it?
    Sorry if these are dumb obvious questions, I just really need to get a full grasp on this. Really want a good picture.

    • Ian Norman August 12, 2014 / 11:29 pm

      Rey, Thanks! The the video, all of the 16 exposures are same settings. Those exposure settings should work fine with your T4i, yes they will likely be a little bit grainy. Image stacking will definitely help reduce grain if you find your results too noisy. My suggestion is to get out there and make some photos! Experience will help you make the best shots!

  12. Clive Daniels July 27, 2014 / 5:13 am

    Thanks for this useful info!

    I’d like to try for some Milky Way shots and I’ll be using the Rokinon 14mm 2.8 and either my Canon 7D or 5Dmk1.

    Putting field of view aside, which of these bodies will produce the best quality images? Even though it’s a little old now the 5D, being full frame, should have a reasonably low level of noise but is limited to ISO1600 (3200 expanded). The 7D, improved noise levels as newer but APS-C increasing noise again, ISO6400 (12800 expanded).

    And lastly, in the Night Sky 2 app, is there someway to turn on on overlay of the Milky Way or can I only use it to point at one of the central constellations?

    Thanks in advance

    • Ian Norman July 27, 2014 / 1:26 pm

      Clive,

      I would recommend trying both the 5D and 7D but I expect the 5D to produce slightly better results because you should be able to shoot at 30-35 seconds without significant star trailing while the 7D might be limited to about 20-25 seconds. I don’t have first hand astrophotography experience with the 5D classic but my EOS M has the same sensor as the 7D and it seems to perform fine. I’m sure both will work.

      As far as overlaying the Milky Way on Night Sky 2, I’m not sure it can be done, just look for Sagittarius, Scorpius and Cygnus.

      For a better Milky Way app you might want to check out Sky Guide which I didn’t know about before the writing of this article.

  13. Anne Rodkin July 13, 2014 / 12:12 pm

    Ian, this is awesome. Thank you. Was wondering which (if any) of the Neewer Intervalometer Remote Timers might work with the Canon EOS M. I’m really new to this camera, and it’s all really confusing when it comes to what will or won’t work. Thanks, and thanks for such a great article. I’ve been telling everyone about it.

    :) Anne

    • Ian Norman July 13, 2014 / 2:02 pm

      The EOS M doesn’t have a remote port for an intervalometer so the only option is to use Magic Lantern.

  14. Joe July 7, 2014 / 11:41 am

    Much thanks for the tips. One minor correction: when using Kelvin for temperature there is no “degrees” Kelvin – just Kelvin. So you should drop the degree symbol. Cheers, Joe

    • Ian Norman July 8, 2014 / 12:57 am

      Doh, I already knew that. Thanks for the correction!

  15. Craig Isakson June 20, 2014 / 8:50 am

    This is great info and allowed me to be successful on my first attempt at capturing the milky way. The calculator was almost right on. Thanks for posting!!

    • Ian Norman July 8, 2014 / 12:57 am

      Awesome! Glad to hear you got some good first results!

  16. Jay June 16, 2014 / 11:18 am

    Hello, great article. I want to explore the options of long exposures and combining that with taking a picture with people in the foreground and be able to expose correctly for everything. My thinking is that I would expose for the ambient to capture the night sky and then perhaps use flash to illuminate the persons in the foreground? Is that along the right lines of thinking?

  17. Martin June 13, 2014 / 11:35 pm

    Hi Norman,
    Im planning to shoot a wedding photography here with a couple and with the milkyway together. May i know how can i get a sharp images for the couple and with the milkyway too with one single shot? What is the setting u can share with this?

    • Martin June 13, 2014 / 11:40 pm

      Im using the samyang 14mm 2.8 lens. Do u think if im using a led light to get a sharp focus on them and then turn off the light using off camera flash for them is it a good ideal? Hope to hear some advise for you asap thank you.

    • Ian Norman June 14, 2014 / 1:32 am

      Martin,

      If you’re using the Samyang 14mm/2.8, the depth of field should be large enough to get both the couple and the Milky Way in sharp focus. I recommend prioritizing focus on the couple for all the shots. Using a flashlight to focus on them will help for sure. I think you’ve got the right ideas. I would recommend practicing before the official shoot and be sure to do your planning so that you know how and where to set up the shot.

  18. Steve June 10, 2014 / 6:23 am

    Hi Ian. I have a Canon lens 18-135mm f3.5-5.6 and a Sigma lens 30mm f1.4 on my Canon 700D. Which lens should be more preferable for shooting the milky way? May I get your advice, please?

    • Ian Norman June 10, 2014 / 10:40 am

      Try both! The 18-135 set to 18mm and f/3.5 should give you favorable results and the 30mm/1.4 should be very good but is a little narrow so you won’t be able to capture as much of the Milky Way. Try both for different results.

  19. David June 3, 2014 / 9:50 am

    Hi Ian, great article here!! My question is, IF money was no object would the Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 really be the best overall quality for Milky Way photography?

    • Ian Norman June 3, 2014 / 3:33 pm

      David,

      No, even if money were no object, the Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 will give you better performance than the Zeiss. The extra two stops of light make a huge difference. My most recent workshop participant had a Zeiss 21mm/2.8 and the Rokinon 24mm/1.4 and we came to the same conclusion: the Rokinon delivered better performance.

    • David June 4, 2014 / 7:50 am

      Wow, that is very interesting, Ian. I appreciate your response, and considering your work in this field, I will no doubt take your advise. I may go for the 14mm Rokinon, as I usually prefer a wider field of view.

  20. Jacob May 23, 2014 / 7:51 am

    Great article! I’m up in Minnesota and tonight we have the meteor shower. I’ve tried to get some good shots before with my Nikon 12-24mm f/4G but I always fail with it on my Nikon D7100. Tonight I might try out the 35mm F1.8. Would the 35mm be efficient enough? I’d love to try it out and not have to resort to my 18-200mm lens for once.

    Again, great article!

    Jake

    • Ian Norman May 23, 2014 / 9:37 am

      Honestly, I would be more inclined to use the 12-24/4 on the D7100 for the meteor shower. It’s got a wider field of view so it will be able to catch more meteors. The 35/1.8 is pretty narrow so it will be difficult to catch many, if any. It’s hard to predict where in the sky the meteors will actually show up so the widest lens that you have will make it much easier to capture any. Cody Limber and Thomas O’Brien wrote some pretty good tutorials for capturing a meteor shower so I recommend checking out what they have to say too.

    • Jacob May 23, 2014 / 10:17 am

      Thanks for the reply :). I was just worried that my wide angle isn’t fast enough is all :)

  21. Frank Ficalora May 23, 2014 / 5:07 am

    I have a f 4, 24-105 Canon EF lens and a Canon 5D Mark II with 6400 max ISO
    How can I reduce star trails when shooting the Milky Way?

    • Ian Norman May 23, 2014 / 6:46 am

      With that combination, you’re speed limited by your lens so you’re basically constrained to shooting at ISO 6400 and then pushing the exposure as necessary in post processing. My recommendation if you don’t want to buy any new equipment would be to stack a series of exposures to reduce noise [YouTube]. Start at 24mm with an exposure of about 21 seconds, f/4.0, ISO 6400 and take about 4 to 16 exposures consecutively. Then you can use the method in the YouTube link above to combine the exposure to reduce noise.

  22. Martin Jensen May 17, 2014 / 11:27 am

    Ian, thank you so much for this excellent guide!

    I am going to Hawaii this Juli with my new Canon 6D with a 24-105mm and a 40mm prime lens. We are going to the Mauna Kea Summit and i would love to shoot a star time laps from the mountain (maybe with the observatories in the foreground) My lenses are not any good for star photography so i have booked a rental Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens from a shop in Kona. I was not able to find a place where i could rent the Rokinon lens you recommend.

    I used your calculator and got these recommended settings:

    Shutter Speed: 31 seconds
    f/number: f/2.8
    ISO: 6400

    How long time between shots will you recommend for a time lapse? I’m new to star photography and this will be my first attempt to do a time lapse of the stars/milky way. Do you have any tips or tricks for me?

    Thanks!
    Martin from Denmark

    • Ian Norman May 19, 2014 / 7:56 am

      Martin, the 16-35mm/2.8 should be a great lens to start with. The recommended settings should give you good results. For timelapses, I would give about 3-5 seconds between photos to let the 6D save the file to the SD card. So this means that if you’re using a 30-31 second exposure, you should use an interval of about 34-36 seconds. Mauna Kea should be an excellent location, I’m hoping to shoot there myself someday. My top tips would be: Check focus twice and understand the benefits of shooting to the right. (Light pollution will be low on Mauna Kea but the benefit of shooting to the right is still there.)

  23. Ian Norman April 30, 2014 / 1:36 pm

    Robert, hand warmers should do the trick.

  24. Robert April 29, 2014 / 7:21 pm

    Think hand warmers and a trusty rubber band will do for dewy conditions here in indiana?

  25. Sach April 24, 2014 / 9:52 pm

    A suggestion: you should make this article into a PDF, will be very helpful for people who want to carry it around to places where there’s no internet.

  26. Sach April 24, 2014 / 9:37 pm

    This was most helpful. Thank you!

    • Ian Norman April 23, 2014 / 2:18 pm

      You can enable and disable the Cardinal Points in Stellarium by pressing “Q”. That will show you which direction are North, East, South, and West.

  27. Khurram Malik April 22, 2014 / 3:13 pm

    I’m beginner i have Canon 70D with canon 50mm 1.4 lens. this is good for Milky Way shoot or not?
    if i can catch milky way with 70d 50mm 1.4 then tell me the setings. Thanks

    • Ian Norman April 23, 2014 / 3:03 am

      The 50mm on your 70D will work, but it has a very narrow field of view. This means that you will be restricted to using relatively short shutter speeds around 7 seconds long. Shutter speeds longer than that will show very obvious signs of star trails. If you are in an area with very little light pollution, try starting with 7 seconds, f/1.4 and ISO 3200 or 6400 to start and adjust accordingly.

  28. Csaba April 22, 2014 / 9:16 am

    Great post, thank you.
    By the way, an Olympus E-PL3 is suitable for basic astrophotography?

    • Ian Norman April 22, 2014 / 1:55 pm

      The E-PL3 should be suitable as a start for sure. I recommend pairing it with a fast, wide angle lens if you can. For micro 4/3 I recommend a 12mm/2.0 if possible. Both Rokinon and Olympus offer versions of this lens. The Oly 17mm/1.8 would also be a good lens to try but its field of view is not as wide as the 12mm. If Olympus ever releases the 7-14mm they announced, that would offer a really nice wide angle view.

  29. Mike April 21, 2014 / 2:14 am

    This is a superb guide and tutorial for someone who’s just started with astrophotography in general. All the lonelyspeck.com articles are extremely useful and informative, for me at least!

    I’ve started to shoot the night sky (without the Milky Way for the time being, to gain some practice first) recently. My set up is Nikon D5200 (APS-C sensor) with Sigma ART 18-35mm F1.8 DC HSM lens, which has a quite impressive score (over 2000!) in the table chart mentioned earlier. Using the calculator with the following recommended settings:

    ISO: 6400
    Focal length: 18mm (widest point)
    f/number: 1.8

    I’ve experimented with the built-in shutter speeds of 10-13-15-20 seconds (can’t choose anything in between due to DSLR’s original settings, but have $25 intervalometer coming soon to achieve sec-by-sec precision), but at the expected 20sec exposure time I get clearly visible star trails in the full picture, it’s less to be seen at 15sec mark, but after a slight zoom in (25% and higher), stars are egg-shaped (full picture again). It’s quite acceptable at 13sec mark in the wide centre, only the 100% zoom reveals the mini trails, especially in the corners. At 10 sec mark I get the best results with perfectly round shaped starts, however the very corners still show mini trails after 100% zoom in (could be cropped any time, not a big deal). The histogram chart looks rather left-to-centre oriented, which isn’t too bad.

    Haven’t “sacrificed” the f/number to 2.0 or above yet, which would very likely deal better with vignetting in the very corners (and thus the mini trails issues) and probably increase the sharpness (with going higher with exposure time apparently, which I don’t want for now to save the battery power), Photoshop CC in combination with certain Topaz plug-ins helps a lot with eliminating noise, adding sharpness and pull the decent colour out. Unfortunately another problem occurred where I couldn’t apply the median feature following the Noise reduction tutorial (great educational stuff as well!), for both Foreground and Sky smart objects. I get a smudgy result of the sky with only a certain line sharpened, it’s pretty much unusable for me. That’s why I do the changes in Camera Raw mode with Topaz (DeNoise and Clarity).

    Keep up the great work, Ian!

    • Ian Norman April 21, 2014 / 4:01 am

      Mike,

      Nice to hear about your findings! I’m glad that the articles here have helped you. I’m really interested in the 18-35mm from Sigma myself, it looks like such a great focal range and fast to boot. I’ve heard of mixed results with the median stacking method if alignment isn’t too good and I’ve thought of making an updated video to show how to make more detailed tweaks to the alignment of the images. Thanks again for sharing your experience!

      Ian

    • Wajid Rasul July 3, 2014 / 11:20 am

      Dear Mike, Can you tell me the settings you used in Nikon D5200?

  30. Franz Scaramelli April 18, 2014 / 5:06 am

    Excellent article. Thanks so much for the information…..

  31. Ben April 10, 2014 / 10:43 am

    Thanks for the tutorial! You mention that you use magic lantern with your 6D. Do you have any advice on which build to run and if there are any caveats or bugs to be aware of?

    • Ian Norman April 10, 2014 / 2:43 pm

      Ben, thanks for the kind words!

      I use the TragicLantern Builds available here:
      https://bitbucket.org/OtherOnePercent/tragic-lantern-6d/downloads
      I usually update to the latest build about once a month.
      I’ve had my 6D crash exactly zero times but I use ML only for the intervalometer, AETTR, and bulb timer.
      On my EOS M, I’ve experimented with some of the other features and have experienced a locked up camera once or twice. Just remove the battery in that case.
      My recommendation is to go for it! It has really expanded the 6D’s versatility, especially for astrophotography and timelapse.

  32. Alex April 9, 2014 / 2:04 am

    Great tips. I will visiting my home province in Philippines next week, that will be a perfect place to try photographing the milky way. I have only two choices to either use my Fuji x100 or my Nikkor kit lens. Do you think the X100 with an f2.0 lens is enough? I am aware that I might be having a problem with the not-so-wide lens of the x100, I may not be able to include more foregrounds with that. I will try to post results in my blog too. Thanks

    • Ian Norman April 9, 2014 / 4:54 am

      Alex, the x100 should be just fine. It is a little bit narrow so you will probably be limited to an exposure of about 14 seconds, f/2.0 and ISO 6400. using a 35mm equivalent lens like the x100s’ 23mm/2.0 is usually a good opportunity to stitch multiple images together in a panorama if you don’t think it’s wide enough. I’ll certainly want to see the results!

  33. Mike March 24, 2014 / 1:15 pm

    An excellent guide. Everyone says you must have a fast lens. Am I right in thinking that this is because the assumption is that you need maximum light before getting star trails, i.e. using exposures up to a maximum of about 30 seconds? Am I right in thinking that If you are using a tracker (barn door or motorized) you can use much longer exposures, in which case doesn’t a slower lens become perfectly useable?

    • Ian Norman April 8, 2014 / 9:59 am

      Yes, a barn door tracker or motorized equatorial mount would be helpful in allowing longer exposures. However, one must remember that if they’re tracking the stars, the Earth will appear to move in the frame so it will concurrently blur the foreground of a landscape image. For simplicity, I think a fast lens is better than a barn door tracker.

  34. Nicole October 29, 2013 / 3:25 pm

    Aw bummer. I was looking forward to trying this out in a couple days when the clouds move out and the sky clears up. I guess I will have to start putting some money aside for a DSLR. Thank you for your timely response and the coupon code!!

  35. Nicole October 29, 2013 / 2:27 pm

    Thank you so much for this detailed list of instructions. I plan on taking your class on skill share.com. Before I do though I was wondering if taking these astrophotos with my canon powershot s100 would work?

    • inorman October 29, 2013 / 2:46 pm

      Nicole, the S100 will probably make it a little bit difficult to make astrophotographs due to its relatively small lens. It’s also ISO limited on its long exposure mode so you will need to install a firmware hack like CHDK (Canon Hack Development Kit) (http://chdk.wikia.com/wiki/S100) in order to enable high ISO, long exposure shooting. I have only seen this done by this guy. which actually seemed to create OK results. If hacking your camera doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, I would recommend saving up for a more capable camera. There are some affordable, new options out there. I recently got a Canon EOS-M on sale for about $350 with a 22mm f/2 lens which has turned out to be great for astrophotography.

      If you do decide to take the class, use the coupon code LOCAL20 for 20% off the class with this link: http://skl.sh/16YCQim

  36. Azhar Ali Chaudhary October 1, 2013 / 8:13 pm

    Sir can i use my 16-35 f/2.8LII LENS for milky way galaxy &star trails thanks

  37. erno james September 7, 2013 / 1:23 am

    Very helpful tips. I am heading up to Lake Tahoe this weekend to see what magic I can work with your advice. The app tip and white balance settings are exactly what I was “googling” for. Mucho obliged, Erno

  38. John B September 5, 2013 / 11:09 am

    Can I use a Sigma 50mm f/1.4 lens in a pinch until I can get a 14 or 16mm lens?

    • inorman September 5, 2013 / 12:18 pm

      The Sigma 50mm f/1.4 should work fine for your early shots John. Because of the narrower angle of view, you may need to limit yourself to shorter shutter durations. You will start to see a little bit of star trailing with shutter durations longer than about 8 seconds. If you keep the lens wide open at f/1.4, and use ISO 6400, you should be able to use these shorter shutter durations while still collecting enough light. Finally, you may also need to be more careful with your framing because the angle of view is so narrow; definitely use Stellarium or a night sky smartphone app to familiarize yourself with where you should be pointing your lens. Go out and try it out!

    • John B September 6, 2013 / 5:37 am

      Thank you for your reply. I’ll give it a try and see what the results are. I’ll eventually be purchasing a 14mm f/2.8 Rokinon lens as described in the article above and hopefully get longer exposure times.

  39. Paul T September 1, 2013 / 10:33 am

    Thanks so much for this clean “checklist”. I’ve had several nights in the dark up in Kennedy Meadows in the Southern Sierras, and came home with some nice shots, including some Perseid meteors. Your set up help made it possible!!!

  40. Jenell Larson August 16, 2013 / 3:49 pm

    Thank you for being so generous with all this information.

    • inorman September 5, 2013 / 1:39 pm

      Of course! I want to make sure anyone can learn to make astrophotos!

  41. Darrin August 12, 2013 / 2:59 pm

    Thanks for the info. I was in Yosemite this past weekend. My photos are still sitting on the camera, but I want to make sure I am doing the right things from a processing standpoint. Very helpful.

  42. Brian July 27, 2013 / 8:28 pm

    Great information- Thank you! Can you give any tips in regards to how one goes about shooting the milky way with something in the foreground? (ex. tree, house, etc). I guess two photos need to be taken, one focusing in on the foreground item and the other focused on infinity (or close to it). Is this correct? How does one mesh the two together?

    Thanks!!
    Brian

    • inorman September 5, 2013 / 10:19 pm

      Brian, I’m currently working on a post for just that. You can focus pull a shot and blend, but usually it’s easier to pick one or the other. That, or make sure your foreground object is far away enough. With a wide enough lens, your foreground objects don’t need to be too far away to also be at “infinity” focus.

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