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  • Writer's pictureAbdul Qudoos

How To Photograph the Milky Way: Everything You Need to Know


man doing milky way photography

You’ve seen those amazing photos of the Milky Way, right? The ones that make you feel like you’re in outer space, gazing at the stars.


And you want to take photos like that, don’t you? (Of course, you do.) But how do you do it? How do you capture the beauty and majesty of our galaxy in a single shot?


It’s not as simple as pointing your camera at the sky and pressing the shutter. You need a strategy. A plan. A method.


And that’s what I’m here to give you. In this guide, I’ll teach you how to photograph the Milky Way like a pro. You’ll learn:

  • When and where to shoot for the Milky Way

  • The best gear and settings for Milky Way photography

  • Tips for capturing the best photo

  • How to edit your images for stunning results

Ready to blast off? Let's go!


Key Takeaways

  • Photograph the Milky Way between April-October in the Northern Hemisphere and February-November in the Southern Hemisphere.

  • Locate dark sky sites at least 45 minutes away from city lights to avoid light pollution.

  • Use a full-frame DSLR or mirrorless camera and a fast wide-angle lens with f/2.8 aperture or wider.

  • Set the camera to manual mode, infinity focus, and ISO between 1600-6400.

  • Set the shutter speed to 10-25 seconds to avoid star trails based on the camera sensor and lens specs.

  • Take multiple exposures from short to long durations to blend for optimal brightness.

  • Enhance images in post-processing by reducing noise, boosting clarity and texture, and selective color grading.

When and Where to Photograph the Milky Way?

Finding the perfect time and location is critical for a fruitful Milky Way expedition. Here is what you need to know to prepare:


Best Time for Shooting the Milky Way

Due to the Earth's rotation and orbit around the sun, the visibility and orientation of the Milky Way change significantly depending on your location and the time of year.


Northern Hemisphere

In the Northern Hemisphere, the Milky Way is most visible and in the best position for photography from April through October, with peak season from May to August when the galactic core reaches its highest point in the sky during the long hours of darkness.


Southern Hemisphere

In the Southern Hemisphere, the Milky Way arcs overhead from February to November and is most aligned for photography from March to September.


No matter which hemisphere you're in, to maximize viewing and photo opportunities, it's also essential to consider factors like moon phases and light pollution that can obscure the stars.


Tools like PhotoPills make it easy to determine optimal shooting windows anywhere on the planet.


Milky Way Photography Location

Selecting the right landscape location is critical for stunning Milky Way photos.

Here are some key factors to consider when researching spots:


Dark Sky Locations

Let's start with the most important consideration - avoiding light pollution. To truly reveal a dazzling starry backdrop, you need dark skies.


A good way to identify remote locations far from city light interference is by consulting a light pollution map online:

light pollution map

Aim for those dark blue or black zones indicating minimal artificial light. Favor rural over urban locations whenever possible.


While truly pristine dark sky parks and preserves offer the best conditions, sometimes more accessible suburbs, countryside, or deserts work perfectly fine too. Be flexible and don't rule out unexpected local gems.


Apps like DarkSiteFinder also identify dark sky havens worth checking out.


Compelling Foreground Interest

Simply pointing your lens at the heavens is only half the equation. To capture truly stunning nightscapes, the landscape below matters just as much.


When scouting locations, seek out compelling foreground elements that could complement or contrast beautifully with the Milky Way, creating layers of visual interest.


Compelling subjects include:

  • Land formations - mountains, hills, rock formations, sand dunes

  • Water features - lakes, reflections, ocean coastline

  • Trees and foliage

  • Manmade structures - old barns, abandoned buildings, windmills

  • Epic architecture - arches, bridges, ruins


Checking Moon Phases and Cloud Cover

The moon can be either a blessing or a curse for Milky Way photography. While some photographers like to use moonlight to illuminate and expose a darker foreground, too much brightness will overpower the stars.


A moonless night is still generally best. Use a moon phase calendar app to plan your shoot on new moon dates when the skies are at their darkest.


No amount of proper camera settings will help you if the sky is filled with clouds, so monitor the cloud cover and precipitation forecast closely using weather apps too. Aim for less than 30% cloud cover with no rain or snow. Wispy high clouds can sometimes make interesting compositional elements.


Essential Gear for Milky Way Photography

With planning done, let's talk about the essential gear for executing superb Milky Way photography.


Beyond a suitable DSLR or mirrorless camera body, particular lenses, and accessories play a starring role in this niche.


Best Cameras for Capturing the Milky Way

Pretty much any interchangeable lens camera on the market today will capture the Milky Way with decent results. However, cameras with larger, full frame sensors ranging from 35mm to 44mm deliver superior low light and high ISO performance critical for Milky Way photography.


Some great full-frame options to consider include:

  • Sony a7 IV

  • Nikon Z6 II

  • Canon EOS R6

If your budget doesn't permit a full-frame camera, modern APS-C sensor cameras can still deliver very nice Milky Way images.


Best Lens for Milky Way Photography

The next essential piece of gear is a fast, wide-angle lens with an aperture of f/2.8 or wider. Wider apertures allow more light capture when exposures need to be short, preventing star trails. The 14mm to 24mm focal range offers a nice balance of incorporating some foreground while still capturing the Milky Way's sweep.


Some top lenses for Milky Way photography include:

  • Rokinon 14mm f/2.8

  • Sigma 14mm f/1.8 Art

  • Sony FE 20mm f/1.8 G

Essential Astrophotography Accessories

A variety of accessories help set you up for success when shooting a dimly lit scene like the Milky Way.


Sturdy Tripod - Prevents blur from camera shake during the multi-second exposures needed.

Remote Shutter Release - Reduces vibration risk from physically pressing the shutter.

Intervalometer - Enables perfectly timed interval exposures for timelapses.

Star Tracker - Specialized mounts that counteract Earth's rotation so you can gather more light and detail through exposures over a minute without star trailing.

Red Light Headlamp - Illuminates gear changes without compromising your night vision.


Camera Settings for Capturing the Perfect Milky Way Photo

camera settings for milky way photography

With your gear assembled, let's calibrate those camera settings for phenomenal Milky Way images!


Set the Manual Mode

Autofocus systems struggle to lock onto stars, so manual focus techniques are a must in astrophotography.


Use these steps to nail sharp starry scenes:

  1. Switch to manual focus mode on your lens.

  2. Set focus to infinity if available.

  3. Engage Live View zoom on a bright star, magnifying as much as possible.

  4. Manually dial the focus ring until the star is as small and sharp as possible.


If needed, take some test exposures to double-check results on your camera's rear LCD review screen at high magnification. Fine-tune focus for optimal sharpness across the entire star scene.


Aperture

The aperture controls how wide the lens opens to let in light. Wider openings denoted by smaller f-stop numbers (f/1.4 vs. f/8) pass exponentially more light.


When shooting the Milky Way, always use the widest aperture available on your lens. This allows collecting as much of the dim galactic light as possible.


But keep in mind, that ultra-wide apertures also decrease the depth of field. So you need to carefully manually focus on the stars as previously covered.


Shutter Speed

Shutter speed controls the duration of each exposure and requires careful consideration when photographing the moving night sky.


To freeze Milky Way stars as sharp points, exposure length must be brief enough to sidestep the Earth's rotation motion blurring effects.


The ideal shutter speed range is typically 10-25 seconds but depends on your focal length and preferences on star trail visibility in exchange for higher image quality.


Apps can recommend optimal shutter speed values but taking test shots and evaluating sharpness will finalize your selection.


ISO

milky way image at different iso

The camera's light sensitivity ISO allows for boosting its ability to gather light. But higher values also introduce noise and muddying details.


When shooting the Milky Way, start with ISO 3200-6400 depending on your camera's high ISO noise tolerance.


Adjust from there based on your aperture choice and desired shutter speed to achieve a bright enough correctly exposed image.


Higher-end cameras may allow ISO 6400+ before image quality degradation. Test different ISO values and inspect your images closely on the rear screen at high magnification to confirm noise levels are acceptable to you.


Advanced Shooting and Composition Techniques

While basic settings deliver decent Milky Way shots, more advanced capture techniques can dramatically enhance results.


Time Blending For Balanced Exposure

Even with optimal ISO and noise reduction, getting the entire Milky Way properly exposed from the bright core to the dim outer regions is tough. A helpful technique is called time blending or exposure blending.


Take 2-4 frames at the same camera position with a wide time spread, like 15s, 30s, 60s, and 120s. Cleanly mask and stack these using specialized software post-processing programs like Sequator or StarrySkyStacker. This helps balance both bright and faint sections of the galaxy.


The short shutter speeds preserve dark sky contrast, while the long ones pull out wispy outer detail.


Star Trackers

Sophisticated star trackers offer the ultimate quality enhancement by completely eliminating star trails during extended exposures.


A motorized equatorial mount moves the camera to precisely counteract the Earth's rotation, keeping the Milky Way sharply stationary even during exposures measured in minutes instead of seconds.


Investing in trackers like the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer opens new creative possibilities and even higher-quality results!


Light Painting

Light painting is an intriguing technique that uses handheld light sources during long exposures to selectively illuminate foreground elements. This adds a creative twist to Milky Way scenes.


Strategically painting light (usually from an LED flashlight or headlamp) on trees, rock formations, buildings, etc. can make them stand out against the starry sky. Light intensity, color, and angle all affect the results.


Tips for Post-Processing Milky Way Photos

Once you have all your RAW images imported into Lightroom or your preferred RAW editing software, it's time to apply some post-processing magic to really make them shine!


Here is an overview of some of the key adjustments for Milky Way photos:


Reduce Noise and Boost Details

Even at base ISO, noise from long exposures and boosted shadow brightness is common. Start by using the noise reduction tools (luminance, color, and grain sliders) to smooth noise while maintaining detail.


Then, lift collapsed shadow details by boosting blacks and shadows. Reduce blown highlights if desired to recover Milky Way color.


Finish detail enhancement by boosting overall clarity and texture values. Dehaze also helps considerably with creating contrast to really make the Milky Way pop off the sky.


Make Targeted Color Enhancements

The Lightroom color grading tools like luminance mixing, color curves, and calibration sliders offer extensive means to intuitively enhance color based on specific brightness ranges.


Some great edits to try for improved Milky Way color:

  • Boost purple luminance to intensify magenta stars

  • Shift aqua luminance towards teal to emphasize galactic dust clouds

  • Increase saturation selectively on mid-tone blues

Don't overdo color changes during RAW adjustments. Save more wild, artistic interpretations for global edits in Photoshop after initial corrections.


Final Image Optimization & Export

Once overall color balance, exposure, details, and noise appear regulated to your liking, finish off by using:


1. Profile corrections - remove vignetting and aberrations

2. Tone curves - add contrast and brilliance

3. Local adjustments - selectively brighten the Milky Way


When satisfied, export finished Milky Way images as high-quality JPEGs or TIFFs for sharing online or printing large canvas gallery wraps!

Quick Checklist for Milky Way Photography

Here is a handy checklist covering the key planning, shooting, and post-processing tasks for capturing spectacular Milky Way photos:


Planning Your Shoot

🔲 Use planning apps to pick new moon dates with good Milky Way visibility

🔲 Choose dark sites at least 45 minutes from city light pollution

🔲 Scout interesting compositions with natural or man-made foregrounds

🔲 Check for low cloud cover and no precipitation


Camera Settings & Gear

🔲 Use a full frame, mirrorless or DSLR camera and fast, wide lens

🔲 Shoot RAW image format for maximum post-processing latitude

🔲 Set ISO between 3200-6400 to balance noise and visibility

🔲 Calculate max shutter speed using 500 or NPF Rule to avoid star trails

🔲 Use 10s self-timer or remote trigger for maximum sharpness


Capturing the Shoot

🔲 Take multiple time exposures from short to long for exposure blending

🔲 Create focus stacks across the aperture range for tack-sharp stars


Post Processing

🔲 Reduce luminance + color noise and boost texture clarity

🔲 Enhance Milky Way contrast with tone curves and local adjustments

🔲 Make targeted color grade adjustments to nebulae and stars


There you have it, folks - everything you could possibly need to know about photographing the magical Milky Way galaxy! Still have any other questions unanswered? Drop them in the comments section below and I’ll try my best to help you out!


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