On Photographing the Milky Way

Here’s a little inspiration and my answer to why we stay out late in the cold and the dark.

On Photographing the Milky Way on Vimeo.

I was recently reminded of my first really successful attempt to photograph the Milky Way. I remember making that photo very clearly. Or rather, I remember not wanting to make it at all.

It was 2 AM and freezing cold both inside and outside our tent in Joshua Tree National Park, California. My cellphone made a whole bunch of racket as the alarm went off to remind me that it was time to try and shoot photos. I instantly snoozed the thing. Next to me, in what seemed like only five seconds later, my girlfriend was already putting on her shoes and jacket, getting ready to go out into the brisk air. She shook me and reminded me about this being my only chance this month or something and I wanted to hear none of it and instead remain in the comfort of my nearly warm sleeping bag.

Desert Camping on the Panamint Dunes

I almost didn’t get up. I remember feeling grumpy at nothing in particular for being forced awake from the comfort of my slumber. But (no doubt with the encouragement of my girlfriend) we both entered the cold blackness of the early morning to try our hands at something called astrophotography. It was a new moon so there would be no natural light to guide us other than the faint twinkle of the stars. It was also the first time either of us had been to Joshua Tree National Park.

By most measures of reason, entering an unfamiliar place when it’s pitch black and freezing cold is usually discouraged. I remember feeling the cold aluminum of the tripod suck out what heat remained in my hands as I fumbled to deploy each of the legs. The cold contracted the metallic joints binding their movement, making it that much harder to to get the thing set up. I remember cursing the engineers of the tripod for not making their thermal expansion and contraction calcs, a practice I was all too familiar with from my job as a structural engineer for a small aerospace company. Then I cursed myself for not bringing any gloves.

With the tripod finally deployed, we mounted the camera and turned it on. I programmed some settings that I had memorized: smallest f/number, longest shutter speed, ISO 1600, infinity focus.

I hadn’t been too successful in the past with my attempts at shooting the stars, I was usually using a lens that was too slow or failed to set my ISO high enough because I was afraid of too much noise but mostly because I was too lazy be out in the dark. This time, I had the right recipe.

I didn’t know where to look for the Milky Way. We could see some haziness in the stars that we thought must be the galaxy and so we pointed the camera up and pressed the shutter. And there it was.

My first successful shot of the Milky Way. Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 28mm f/1.8 USM, 30s, f/1.8, ISO 1600

The center of our galaxy of 300 billion stars, tilted sideways. Or maybe it’s the Earth that’s tilted sideways.

Looking back up at it from the LCD is where it’s finally put into perspective. The Milky Way is huge. Just the galactic center is absolutely tremendous, and the whole galaxy extends all the way across the sky from horizon to horizon.

It’s that moment that I love the most about photographing the Milky Way. Just seeing it with your naked eyes is usually not quite enough. Even after you’ve spent several hours in the dark and your eyes have fully adjusted to the night, you still can’t quite make out the shape of the galaxy. But when you get to see it in its bright and beautiful glory on the camera screen and then look back at that hazy cloud of stars you were just staring at, you can decipher its shape. That’s the moment you realize you’re standing on a small planet, tumbling head over heels through space.

Little did I know then that less than a year later I would leave my job to start Lonely Speck and concentrate on photography full time. And only a year after that Diana would leave her job too so that we could both be fully committed to exploring our precious planet together and sharing those experiences with others.

Sony a7S, Rokinon 24mm f/1.4, 20s, f/1.4, ISO 12800

Astrophotography has helped me develop a new understanding and appreciation for the Earth. Carl Sagan sums it up more eloquently than anyone else I know of in his Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space.

In it he says, “Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience… To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

Fujifilm X-T1, XF 23mm f/1.4 R, 15s, f/2.0, ISO 6400

About the Video

View it on: Vimeo or YouTube

Video and Photography by Ian Norman and Diana Southern

Music Coach and His Team on Cinematic Volume 5 Drama Soundtracks by Grégoire Lourme

Shot on location in Reno, Nevada with the Sony a7S  mounted with the Voigtlander 40mm f/1.4 Nokton via the Voigtlander VM-E Adapter

Shot in Sony SLog2 and Graded in Final Cut Pro X with LUT Utility
Graded with the Film-Like1 LUT from Alister Chapman
Night video shots were made at f/1.4 and ISO 51,200 at 24 frames per second.

Motion Control with the Dynamic Perception Stage One Slider and Stage R

Timelapse footage and stills made with the following equipment:


Sony a7S
Canon EOS 6D
Fujifilm X-T1


Rokinon 24mm f/1.4
Rokinon 14mm f/2.8
Rokinon 8mm f/2.8 II
Fujinon XF 23mm f/1.4 R


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Learn Astrophotography

Astrophotography 101 is completely free for everyone. All of the lessons are available on the Lonely Speck Astrophotography 101 page for you to access at any time. Enter your email and whenever we post a new lesson you’ll receive it in your inbox. We won’t spam you and your email will stay secure. Furthermore, updates will be sent out only periodically, usually less than once per week.


Help us help you!

Believe it or not, Lonely Speck is my 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.


45 Replies to “On Photographing the Milky Way”

  1. Hi Ian. I love your site, it is so informative. I do have a question that I have not yet seen posted. Focus! How did you get perfect focus in the foreground to infinity for the timelapse. I have been trying and sadly failing. I know about hyperfocal distance, however, it is difficult at night when everything is pitch black.

    1. Wendy, I think you have touched upon a much needed post here. The short answer is: live view and manual focus on the brightest star you can find. The longer answer is: you might not be able to see even the brightest stars in Live View so you’ll need to make your own: a flashlight placed or held by a friend at least 30m or 100ft away should help you focus at infinity.

    2. I wonder … As another means to an end, you could use one of those laser pointers that we NEVER use outdoors around aircraft, but might aim at a tree or rock in the far distance to get a read on the focus.

    3. The laser trick is a decent one but I have found sometimes that the laser can still be a bit difficult compared to just taking a walk out at a distance with a flashlight. The last, most expensive, trick I can recommend at this time is to buy a Sony a7S 🙂

  2. Dear Ian, I just found your site, and I think is one of the best things I’v seen since a while in this specific part of photography. Thank you so much to share your knowledge with us, and to share your amazing artworks. I will be one of your numerous fans! Very good Job!!

  3. Could you explain a little more about the last comment please… How do you get the timelapse so smooth moving so far down the road? What length did you move? And how long between each ahot? Many tnanks

    1. Michael, the method is called hyperlapse. It’s basically like a manual motion timelapse with just a tripod and a camera. The timing for the shots is performed manually. That particular sequence used 10 second exposures. After an exposure the camera was moved forward by approximately one to two feet and then the camera was reframed and next exposure was made. Total interval time was probably around 20 seconds. The exported edited frames were then imported into Adobe After Effects as a JPEG sequence and stabilized with the Warp Stabilizer function.

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