How to Photograph the Milky Way in 12 Steps (With 6 Epic Examples)

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I don’t recall ever meeting anyone who claimed to not be fascinated to some degree by the night sky. There’s just something hypnotic about gazing upon objects that are billions of years old and light years away, yet so many people feel a rather close affinity with these distant bodies. While the physical gulf between us and the stars is, in any currently feasible mode of manned travel, insurmountable, we’re generally content to simply stand out in the darkness and scan the skies unassisted by anything fancier than a basic telescope. Other than that, we have historically relied on all the breathtaking photos of space provided to us by the experts.

But we no longer have to leave all the fun to full-time astronomers; given the wide accessibility to and technological sophistication of digital cameras, anyone can photograph the universe. And one of the easiest astrophotography subjects to capture is also one of the most impressive: the Milky Way Galaxy. Let's look at exactly how to photograph the milky way for stunning results.

Obviously we can’t photograph the whole galaxy since we live inside of it; that famous white streak that dominates so much of the night sky is actually the light of billions of stars whose light, from our point of view on earth, seems to blend together, sporadically obscured by dust and gas clouds. In reality, all we are seeing is a small, edge-on view of the galaxy’s plane. Small, but impressive.

Photo by Josh Hawley, on Flickr

Here’s how you can capture a bit of the Milky Way for yourself.

1. Find a Dark Sky

Just waiting until nighttime won’t do. A dark sky free of light pollution  is the first and most important requirement to even seeing the Milky Way, let alone photographing it. Be prepared to travel a considerable distance, otherwise you run the risk of city lights making their mark in your shots. The moon can have a similar impact on your Milky Way photos; shooting during a full moon will wash out your images. Try to shoot during a new moon.

2. Know When and Where to Look

The part of the Milky Way that is most easily visible to the naked eye isn’t visible all year round, especially for those in the Northern Hemisphere where February through September are the optimal times. You will find your celestial subject in the southern half of the sky, rising from the west. Residents in the Southern Hemisphere may have a slight advantage in this regard, as the central parts of the Milky Way can be seen overhead.

 

Photo by John Lemieux, on Flickr

3. Use a Digital Camera with Good High ISO Capabilities

You’ll be shooting at night with very little available light; you want your camera’s sensor to be able to handle the shooting conditions without introducing an excessive amount of noise. A full-frame camera is preferable but certainly not a necessity.

4. Use a Fast Wide Angle Lens

You should work with a lens with a maximum aperture of at least f/2.8; the faster the better. It’s not that you’re totally out of luck if your fastest lens is f/3.5 or so, but you’ll have more of a challenge on your hands since the lens won’t be able to gather as much light. The same principle applies to focal length; go as wide as you can. You may be seeing only a fraction of the Milky Way, but it’s still monstrous in size. The wider your lens, the more of it you can capture.

5. Use a Tripod

This really isn’t optional. Bells and whistles are nice, but sturdiness is your number one concern.

6. Use Live View

To avoid the headache of trying to focus in the dark, use your camera’s live view feature to manually focus on a bright star. Alternatively, you could use the distance markings on your lens (if it has them) to set hyperfocal distance.

7. Start with ISO 3200

Referring back to the first point, a high ISO is essential to collecting enough light to render a bright image of the Milky Way. Under typical conditions, ISO 3200 is a good starting place. Based on how well this plays with other camera settings, you can go higher or lower from there.

Photo by European Southern Observatory, on Flickr

8. Set a Long Shutter Speed

This is how you will capture more light and create a sufficiently bright exposure. There just one problem, though. The planet doesn’t care if you’re new at astrophotography; it’s going to keep on rotating, which means if you leave the shutter open for too long, you’ll end up with star trails. There’s nothing wrong with star trails when that’s what you’re aiming for, but they aren’t really desirable for photographing the Milky Way. To get pinpoint stars, use the “500 rule,” which calls for you to divide 500 by the focal length of the lens you’re using. So, if you have a 24mm lens on a full-frame camera, you will set your shutter speed to 20 sec. (500/24 = 20.83). If you’re working with a crop sensor camera be sure to account for the crop factor (typically 1.5 for Nikon and Sony, 1.6 for Canon). As an example, using the same 24mm lens on a Nikon crop, you’d end up with an effective focal length of 36mm (24×1.5 = 36). Applying the 500 rule will yield a shutter speed of 13 sec. (500/36 = 13.89). There are those who debate about whether to use the 500 rule or the similar 600 rule; without delving further into the mathematics of it all, it really is more a matter of visual perception. In short, stick with the 500 rule, especially if you intend to make poster size prints. If, after you’ve gotten more comfortable and done some experimenting, you find the “600 rule” works better for you (should be find for web images) then definitely go with that.

9. Set a Wide Open Aperture

Remember, it’s all about collecting as much light as possible; depth of field isn’t the primary concern here. In case of any significant softness you’ll want to stop your lens down. This is why it’s so important to use a fast lens in the first place; if you know your lens is unacceptably soft at f/1.4, stopping down to f/2 will sharpen things up without having a severe impact on the lens’ light gathering ability.

10. Compose your shot. There’s no right way or wrong way to compose your shot, but you can create a sense of depth by framing this as a standard landscape shot with the Milky Way serving as the background. Just because it’s dark out doesn’t mean you should forget about the foreground, though; you can add interest to your scene by including hills or mountains, trees, rock formations, or even a person. Experiment all you want.

Photo by .Bala, on Flickr

11. Get a Satisfactory Exposure

It’s very likely that your first shot won’t be an exposure you’re satisfied with (if you’re not happy with the focus or composition, adjust those things before moving on to worrying about exposure). If the exposure isn’t “right,” you’ll have to identify the problem and work from there. If there’s too much noise, simply decrease the ISO. If the shot is overexposed, check your surroundings for light pollution; decrease shutter speed; stop down the lens; or decrease ISO. If it’s underexposed, make sure you’re using the widest aperture on your lens; increase shutter speed (but beware of star trails forming); increase ISO.

12. Process it

There will be a lot of variation at this final stage and, again, there is no one right way to handle the post processing of your shots. The two most important things you can do to make post processing a little easier is to shoot raw and get the best exposure you can in-camera. You may need to apply some sharpness and noise reduction. According to some sources, the color temperature of the Milky Way is around 4840°K; if you find it too much on the yellow/orange side, adjust white balance until you have a neutral scene. You will definitely need to increase contrast; it’s okay to be a bit heavy handed here, so long as you’re not losing shadow detail. If the photo editing software you are using allows curves adjustments, make use of it, as you can be more precise with your work. Assuming you got a good in-camera exposure you shouldn’t have to play with the exposure slider too much


Photo by Damian Witkowski, on Flickr



As you can see, you don’t need a whole lot of specialized equipment in order to be successful in astrophotography. In addition to having a passion for the subject, you’ll certainly have to invest a lot of planning, practice, and patience. The pay-off, however, will be worth all the time and effort you expend.

More Great Resources on How to Photograph the Milky Way

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Jason Little is a photographer (shooting macros, portraits, candids, and the occasional landscape), writer, and music lover. You can see Jason’s photography on Flickr, his Website or his Blog.

56 thoughts on “How to Photograph the Milky Way in 12 Steps (With 6 Epic Examples)

      1. Levi

        Stacking can greatly reduce the noise in the image. Especially if you shoot at ISO 3200. I want to write an article on that and check out the results with my own eyes. Stay tuned.

  1. Kenneth Willim

    With a 16-35mm f4 and a Sony A7s ,do you think its possible to shoot the milky way? Especially since the A7s has a very high ISO capability, will that compensate for the lens’ aperture of f4?

        1. Anonymous

          I have shot the Milky way with a crop sensor Nikon and a 8 mm f3.8 fisheye so you’ll be fine. Just gotta bump up your ISO.

  2. Eoin Winters

    Out of curiosity, are you using two seperate images for the “final product”? As in, is there one exposure for the milky way, and another for your foreground interest? If so, what are you using to put these images together? I presume PS?

    1. Gareth.O

      That’s one method of doing it. However you can also capture it all in one shot. During the long exposure you can “paint” the foreground interest using a torch or some other light source during the exposure. The amount of time you need to paint the interest for will vary on the power and size of the light source as well as to capture the desired look you’re after!

  3. Darren Hawkes

    Hi All

    Wow great photo’s,
    Ok, heres my issue,
    I only have a bridge camera, tiny tiny sensor,Fujifilm Finepix S8200, max time is 8 seconds however I can go to iso 12800 (noisy). Will I manage a milky way image with this camera by stacking a number of images?
    If I can access dark skies?
    Im unable to purchase a dslr due to disability.
    Looking foreward to some excellent advice

  4. gaurav bansal

    Hi, i have a bridge camera, Nikon P510, is it capable to take good galactical shots and what shall be the recommended settings, if possible?

    Thanks in advance

    1. Anonymous

      You need a wider lens so that you can get the sky and foreground. so the 16-35 f4 will work. Just don’t forget to raise your ISO.

      1. Mike Lennett

        If you know how to make panorama pics with stitching multiple images together you can get a great shot with the 85, but it would take about 10 frames across, and at least 2 frames high, for a 20 shot image.

  5. Ali Imran

    can we do it with a zoom lense?, if i got a70- 300mm lense with f/5.4 is it possible to capture such pictures?I have Nikon D5200

    1. Jeff

      You can get a section of the Milky Way with the lens set at 70mm, but you’d have to set your shutter at around 7 seconds… which means you’d need a really high ISO with at f/5.4. Not sure I’d take the time with a zoom lens. Maybe you can rent a wider-angled lens.

  6. Anonymous

    Hi all,i live in indonesia. Especially in Ponorogo,east java. In my town there are many spot for best milky way. So,this the great article for me,Thanks

    1. Toni

      I’m planning to take photos this week of the Milky Way. I have a Nikon D300s. Going to go with the highest ISO ~3200 and a shutter speed of about 30 seconds using my 10-20mm Sigma F2.8 at 10mm and F2.8. I’ll dial up or down exposure comp first if it’s completely black outside (I live in the country and there is zero light pollution at night except for the wayward neighbor who may forget to turn off the driveway light). If the exposure comp doesn’t fix any issues then I’ll play with the ISO. To actually find the Milky Way I recommend getting the app SkyWalk2 (you’ll need to get the whole deep space package but it’s only 2.99 and worth every penny). The Milky Way IS THERE! it’s extremely difficult to see in most places though without some PS or LR assistance unless you are looking at the most prominent part of it (the widest cloud region). You could also just look for the constellation Sagittarius A and get the general location since this constellation is at the heart of the Milky Way. Good luck. (Oh I plan to shine a flashlight on a tree nearby to get something in the foreground

      1. Philippe

        Thanks Toni for the tip about Sagittarius. I tracked the constellation in Stellarium and it helped me understand some things…

        I tried yesterday to photograph the milky way with my new Batis F/2.8 lens but it was a failure (moon too bright and hardly and milky way). I got much better results 2 months ago with my 16-35 F/4. Now I understand that in October I was lucky enough to have a better slice of the milky way in the sky, and also a less disturbing moon. Will have to try again.

  7. karen clautice

    A trick that helps get sharp pinpoint stars is to focus the camera on a distant object during daylight hours using auto focus. Tape down the lens to keep it from moving and switch to manual focus. Now you’re ready to shoot at night without fussing. If you’ve forgotten to do this during daylight hours, a magnifying lens/hand lens/jewelers loupe helps focus using live view.

  8. George Corneille

    AF-S DX NIKKOR 35mm f/1.8G is the lens I am using.keep getting blurred images.the camera mount is a Nikon D5000 ,i cannot seem to go below Fstop 4 ,I have camera set at ISO 3200 and have tried iso 1600 with no success,exposure is at 25 sec.Any advice would be greatly appreciated.I am just a beginner.

  9. David

    Does anyone have tricks to get good focus on foreground objects at night? I can get the stars to show but it seems like my objects are out of focus

    1. Eric

      You should try taking more than one shot, one with the sky in focus and one with the foreground in focus. Then you should combine the two images in photoshop.

  10. Gerald Murphy

    I have Pentax apsc with a 16-85mm f/3.5-5.6. Can I compensate for the f/3.5 by using exposure compensation? The camera also has a gps and astrotracer capability. if I use that, what exposure would you recommend?

  11. Loyd Dalton

    I will take photos of the Milky Way with a D500 with a Nikon DX 17-55mm f2.8 lens. Since I am using a DX lens with a DX camera, do I still have to account for the crop factor when figuring the length of exposure time?

  12. Petra

    It’s almost like some didn’t read the article, it tells you how to take the pics and what settings to use. If you can’t figure that, go practice and read some more about your camera. I’m not a professional, hence why I’m reading this, but I understand my gear.

  13. malith sameera Samarathunga

    Hi I have canon 70d and tamron 16-300mm f 3.5. Will I still be able to shoot milky way.not sure about my cameras low light capabilities

  14. Sara

    I am going to Phoenix, AZ and Sedona the week of June 19th. The only camera I have aside from my phone, is a Cannon SX530. Is this camera going to be able to capture the milky way? I am not super familiar with how to use it other than the auto feature.
    Thank you.

    1. Andrew

      Hey Sara,

      I think you will be able to get a decent shot of the milky way after looking at the camera specs, but remember you will need a sturdy tripod (use that timer delay to reduce shaking if you don’t have a remote shutter release), longer shutter speed (appx +/-20 secs), max out your aperture (f/3.4), zoom all the way out, higher ISO (before you get too much graininess in the picture), and I think you will need to post process a bit more. Also, not stated above, if your camera has high ISO noise reduction capability and long exposure noise reduction capability, turn those on.

      Also, be aware that the moon will still be about “1/2 size” as it is waning during the evening of the 19th. The new moon (no moon visible) will be on the 23rd and so your best bet is to shoot on or close to that date. If you shoot on the 19th, the moon will rise at 0152 in the am. Your window will be from 2230 – 0030. Here’s a link to moonphase/time data…. https://www.timeanddate.com/moon/usa/sedona

      Lastly, I recommend using PhotoPills App on your phone/tablet. You can see all data for the milky way ( as it has a planner). You can figure out at which bearing the milky way will rise, its path over time, and it’s orientation.

      Sorry, that’s a long answer for the SX530…haha, enjoy your time and best of luck-

      Las

  15. Paul Harding

    I wish………..
    Post processing is just impossible for me to learn. So damm complicated and confusing.
    I am forced to shoot exclusively in jpg and I know I am losing a lot but all I get from a computer is error messages 😡
    Tried many times to follow tutorials and still end up with nothing but problems .

  16. Soumyo

    I have D5300 with a kit lens 18-55mm 3.5f and a 50mm 1.8f lens.
    Which lens is best suited for milkyway?
    I am reluctant to use the kit lens as its inferior compared to the other.
    Please advise

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