How to Photograph the Milky Way in 12 Steps (With 18 Epic Examples)

How to Photograph the Milky Way in 12 Steps (With 18 Epic Examples)

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.

Attention: Grab your free cheat sheet for Milky Way photography! Click Here

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.

how to photograph the milky way

If you want to take your milky way photography to the next level then you will probably want to go beyond our short blog post and into the minutiae of shooting and post production. Take a look at our Milky Way Magic Toolkit.

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.

Click here to download your free Milky Way Photography Cheat Sheet so you can get great shots like these.

milky way photography
Photo by Jason Henkins on Flickr

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.

Here’s how to photograph 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 photograph 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 is the optimal times. You will find your celestial subject in the southern half of the sky, rising from the east.

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.

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.

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).

night sky long exposure
Photo by Ahmed Rizkhaan

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 fine 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.

milky way photography
Photo by Bala Sivakumar 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. When you notice there’s too much noise, simply decrease the ISO.

Finally, when you spot 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

night sky photography
Photo by Damian Witkowski on Flickr

Some Quick References

How To Find The Milky Way

Before you learn how to photograph the Milky Way, you need to be able to find it. To locate the Milky Way, you need to be in a location free from light pollution due to the city lights, you need to have a clear sky. May to August is the best time to photograph the Milky Way. A very easy way to locate the Milky Way is to use an app that can accurately show you the location of the Milky Way at any time or tell you at what time the Milky Way rises and sets.

  • The Sky Guide app for iOS gives an accurate location of the Milky Way and alerts you of astronomical events.
  • Sky View Lite is a free app to locate the Milky Way and free for Android and iOS.
  • For Android users looking for a good app, Star Walk 2 is the one to go for and it is free. The Star Walk 2 lets you see the position of the milky way for future dates and times which is a good feature of the app.
locating the milky way
Screenshot of the Apps used to locate the Milky Way

Here are some more tips to photograph the Milky Way!

Night Sky Photography Settings:

When photographing the night sky, there are a few rules to follow based on the camera that you use, to avoid star trails.

The most common one is the 500 Rule where you divide 500 by the focal length of the lens you are using and if you are using an APS-C sensor, take into account the crop factor.

The various rules used for calculating shutter speed for star trails are below:

  1. The 500 Rule
  2. The 600 Rule
  3. The NPF Rule

Other settings that you need to take care of are:

  • Have the camera on manual mode on a sturdy tripod. Turn off image stabilization.
  • Have a wide angle lens between 14mm to 24mm to get a good view of the Milky Way in the frame along with foreground.
  • Set the aperture to the widest – at least f2.8, but if you have only the kit lens, use it at 18mm / f3.5.
  • Start with the lowest ISO possible, about 1600. Depending on the result, you can decrease further or increase the ISO up to 3200, above which the image quality can start to deteriorate.
  • Put your lens on manual focus and focus on the brightest star in the sky. Zoom in on live view and turn the focus ring till the star shows up as a bright point in the screen.
  • Calculate shutter speed based on one of the rules above.
  • Use the mirror lockup feature if using a DSLR to avoid blur due to camera movement.
dark foreground milky way
Photo by Michael

A Good Starting Point For Your Night Sky Settings:

This is a bit of a rule of thumb that photographer Jenn Cooper from the Canon Collective mentioned in one of her live courses. It is not meant to be set it stone. It is a good starting point for your camera settings from which you can then make adjustments relevant to the specific situation.

Camera FunctionSetting
Shutter Speed25 sec
Aperturef/2.8 (or as wide as possible)

If you use that setup, then the first thing you will want to change (assuming it doesn't quite work for you) is the ISO.

How To Take Pictures Of Stars

In order to photograph stars, you need to be in an area where there is least light pollution. Websites like Light Pollution Map and the Dark Sky Finder can be used to find dark locations nearer you.

To take picture of stars:

  • Look for clear skies and keep an eye on the moon. A new moon or a night when the moon is not up in the sky is the best.
  • Have the camera on a sturdy tripod and turn off image stabilisation.
  • Use manual mode to have more creative control over settings.
  • You need a fast and wide-angle lens with focal lengths between 14mm to 24mm and aperture at least f/2.8, to capture a wide scene of the foreground and the sky and photograph the Milky Way at lower ISO values.
  • Manually focus the lens (as you do not want to lose focus each time you take a shot) on a bright star till it is point sharp. If you want to include a foreground, you can focus one third into the scene.
  • Use a cable release one and mirror lockup feature for DSLRs, as this can help avoid blurry images due to camera shake.
  • Use apps like the Sky Guide app or  Star Walk 2 to locate the North Star for the Northern Hemisphere and Southern Cross for the Southern Hemisphere if you are planning to make star trails.
  • Calculate maximum shutter speed based on the 500 rule or NPF rule in order to avoid star trails. If you will be shooting for web images, you can use the 600 rule.
  • Set the white balance tungsten or daylight to get the right sky colours, or even set to auto. You can change this while post-processing as you will be shooting the Milky Way raw.
photo by hassan pasha
Photo by Hassan Pasha

Here are some apps to calculate shutter speed for the Milky Way photography:

  1. 500 Rule Calculator for iOS
  2. 600 Rule Calculator for iOS but this calculation could create some star trails. So it is better to use this setting when shooting for web images.
  3. Pin Point Stars for Android helps to calculate the best exposure times for star and milky way photography

Find more star photography dos and don'ts here!

If you want to take your milky way photography to the next level then you will probably want to go beyond our short blog post and into a detailed guide like Milky Way Mastery by Josh Dunlop. Take a look at it here.

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 payoff, however, will be worth all the time and effort you expend.

Shareable Images

Click here to download your free Milky Way Photography Cheat Sheet so you can get great shots like these.

Milky Way Photography Gallery

There's no doubting that Milky Way photography is among the most striking among the various subject genres and hopefully you have a much better handle on shooting it now. But what makes a good Milky Way photo shoot?

Well, a lot of that is up to personal taste. For many, it's a case of “you know it when you see it.” So with that in mind we decided to put together a small gallery of Milky Way photography that we think really has that wow factor.

More Great Resources On How to Photograph The Milky Way:

About the author

Jason D. Little

Jason Little is a photographer, author and stock shooter. You can see Jason’s photography on his Website or his Instagram feed.


Leave a comment: