Welcome to our complete guide on how to photograph the Milky Way! The Milky Way is one of the most stunning sights in the night sky, and photographing it can be a truly rewarding experience. However, capturing the beauty of the Milky Way requires some knowledge and preparation. In this guide, we’ll walk you through everything you need to know to successfully photograph the Milky Way, from the best time and location to shoot, to the equipment and camera settings you’ll need, and even post-processing tips to make your images truly stand out. Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced photographer, this guide will provide you with all the information you need to take stunning photographs of the Milky Way. So, let’s get started and explore the wonders of the galaxy together!
How to Photograph the Milky Way | Table of Contents
- Plan the Best Times for Milky Way Photography
- Use Apps To Locate The Milky Way Core
- Pick the Right Lens
- Use a Sturdy Tripod
- Scout the Location Before it Gets Dark
- Choose the Right Exposure Settings
- Set Perfect Focus on The Stars
Plan the Best Times and Locations for Milky Way Photography
When learning how to photograph the Milky Way, it’s important to remember that timing and Location are critical for good Milky Way photography. The milky way core is not visible every single night of the year and varies by hemisphere. Here is a brief summary for the northern hemisphere. For the southern hemisphere, add or subtract 6 months.
- Mid-February – The Milky Way core will rise just before sunrise.
- April – The Milky Way will rise at about midnight, and be visible in the sky for the rest of the night.
- Mid-June, The Milky Way will rise just after sunset, and will be visible all night long.
- July – The Milk Way will have already risen by the time it gets completely dark and it will set during the night.
- August-October –The Milky Way will still be visible; however, it will set earlier and earlier each night, until in October when there will only be a very brief window of visibility before the Milky Way sets.
- November, December, and January, the Milky Way core will not be very visible at all.
In addition, Milky Way photography requires little to no light pollution, little to no moon light, and little to no clouds. We’ve dedicated an entire article on The Best Time To See The Milky Way, so be sure to read that before heading out!
Use Apps To Locate The Milky Way Core
The next step in learning how to photograph the Milky Way is get an app that shows you how to find the Milky Way. Mobile apps like Sun Surveyor, PhotoPills, and The Photographer’s Ephemeris are three of the most popular, and they should have both paid and free or trial versions. These apps will tell you where the Milky Way Core will be, and when.
For example, right now it’s winter here in the northern hemisphere, so the Milky Way isn’t visible at night, so I’m planning my Milky Way photography adventures for the spring of next year right now.
Pick The Right Lens
If you want to learn how to take pictures of the milky way, you’ll first need a fast, wide-angle lens. Typically, astrophotographers recommend anything that is at least 24mm or wider. 24mm prime lenses are very popular because they can be even faster than f/2.8 zoom lenses.
A great option is the Samyang 24mm f/1.8 lens, which provides amazing image quality, yet it’s extremely compact, lightweight, and relatively affordable among 24mm prime lenses. You may want to go wider than 24mm, of course, and if so, you have a few more compact, lightweight, (and affordable) options such as Canon’s RF 16mm f/2.8, or, for Sony users, the Samyang/Rokinon 18mm f/2.8. Alternatively, there’s the equivalent for APS-C cameras, the brand-new 12mm f/2 AF.
Last but not least, of course, the classic ultra-wide prime lens, the Samyang/Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 comes in quite a few different options, including AF versions for Sony and Canon mirrorless, and MF versions that are available for Sony, Canon, Nikon, and other mounts as well.
Either way, you want a 24mm or wider lens, with an aperture of f/2.8 or faster. In this article, we’re only recommending relatively affordable, portable options, however there are many exotic options, too! For more lens options, see our full list of the best lenses for milky way photography.
Use a Sturdy Tripod
Of course, you’ll need a tripod! You already knew that. But a really sturdy, strong tripod will be your new best friend (besides your favorite lens). Simply put, if you’re trying to use a cheap, wobbly tripod that you bought on Wish, you might still be getting blurry photos, even from a light breeze. Not all tripods are equal! So, even if you have a fancy lightweight travel tripod, you might also want to have a big, heavy, sturdy one for those shooting opportunities that don’t require lots of travel. Also, always check your tripod legs and make sure they are fully locked before you attach your camera! Always check and make sure your tripod head is tight and locked before you start shooting. Never step away from your tripod if there is a light breeze blowing! It’s impossible to learn how to take pictures of the milky way without establishing the importance of a tripod. Here are some of our favorite tripods:
- Most compact for travel: Peak Design Travel Tripod ($379 | B&H)
- Best for ultralight hiking/backpacking: SLIK Sprint 150 Aluminum Tripod ($59 | B&H)
- Best for medium-duty, everyday work: Manfrotto Befree Aluminum Tripod ($179 | B&H)
- Best heavy-duty, large tripod: Slik 700DX Pro AMT Tripod ($99 | B&H)
Once again, note that here we are only recommending the affordable options because we believe this is where it is very important to avoid truly poor quality and get something durable. There are, of course, “exotic” tripods costing over $1,000 (including a head) and they’re all excellent choices too.
Scout the Location Before it Gets Dark
This one sounds basic but it’s very important, both for getting gorgeous photos and for your own safety! Stumbling around in the dark trying to find the right location, especially in the mountains or wilderness, is a very bad idea.
A great nightscape photo needs a good main subject besides the night sky! If you don’t figure out what your subject/foreground will be before it gets dark, there’s a good chance you’ll get either a boring photo or a shot with a poor composition/framing. So, get there early, look around, be safe, (avoid slippery slopes/cliffs/rivers, etc), and try to practice ‘Leave No Trace’ while you get yourself set up to spend a night under the stars outdoors.
Then, just enjoy the sunset, (take some pictures!) and wait for the stars to come out! Of course, you should also have an astrophotography app on your phone, like PhotoPills or Sun Surveyor, to tell you where things like the Milky Way are going to be, (and the moon phase, very important!) …so that you can point your camera in the right direction, on the right night, at the right time of year!
Milky Way Photography Camera Settings
One of the biggest mistakes that people make when learning how to photograph the Milky Way is not understanding exposure. You are going to be pushing the limits of your camera and lens, so it’s no surprise that many people come home with a lot of totally dark, under-exposed images, a few totally blown-out long exposures, and maybe if they’re lucky, a few half-decent exposures. How do you set a good exposure every time? Check your histogram every time! With ultra-dark conditions, especially if there is zero moonlight or “light painting” to shine on your scene, your camera’s LCD will deceive you every time. Check the histogram! Here’s the thing: you will have to forget about “ETTR” or “ETTL”, and just try to get your exposure in the middle of the histogram. That’s a good start!
If you expose the night sky very brightly, you’ll actually wash out the color in the stars, and they’ll all be white dots, or worse, if your shutter speed is too long, they’ll be star trails. If you expose the foreground of your scene too darkly, however, you will not be able to just recover the shadows like you can with a normal daytime landscape, because the high ISO you’ll be using will not have the same dynamic range. What exposure settings are a good start, by the way? ISO 3200 or 6400, f/2.8 or f/1.8, and anywhere between 4 seconds and 30 seconds, depending on the conditions. Start there, and then adjust your exposure as needed to get your histogram looking better!
Remember the 500 Rule
The 500 rule is based on a simple concept – the earth’s rotation causes stars to move in the sky, so if your shutter speed is too long, you’ll get a star trail. Before the days of high-resolution digital cameras, you used to be able to just take the number 500, divide it by your focal length, (say, 20mm) and that would give you a number that is the shutter speed, in seconds, that you can shoot at. However, now that we have 30, 40, even 50-megapixel cameras this rule just doesn’t work as well. For starters, just throw away the number 500, and start with the number 250 instead.
There’s one challenge that comes with finding the perfect exposure that makes things even more difficult sometimes. Unfortunately, if your shutter speed is too long, the stars will go from pinpoint dots to star trails. If you’re just posting low-res images on posting on social media, then all you really need to do is take the number 500, divide it by your focal length, and that is your shutter speed! (500/24mm = ~20 seconds!) However, if you’re going to make big prints from a high-megapixel camera and want pinpoint stars, try using the number 250 instead of 500 for your shutter speed calculation. By the way, DO NOT trust your camera’s LIVE histogram! They are often highly inaccurate in extremely dark conditions. ONLY trust the histogram of an actual test exposure.
Use the 2-Second Shutter Release
In order to prevent camera shake, set your camera to a 2-second shutter release so that way you can press the shutter button and avoid moving your setup. This is especially important for longer exposures and avoiding star movement.
For more information, see our article on the Ideal Camera Settings for Milky Way Photography.
Set Perfect Focus on The Stars
Setting focus on the stars can be extremely frustrating if you’re not using the right technique. The best way to do this is to use live view! First, point your camera toward the brightest star (or planet) in the sky. It doesn’t have to be in the exact center of the frame, but it’s a good idea if it’s not in a corner, too. Then, with your aperture set wide-open, magnify your live view to 100% or 200%, right on that star. Use manual focus, and start with the lens set near infinity. But, don’t just trust your camera or lens even if it says infinity, there can be a broad range for “infinity focus”, unfortunately. Manually focus back and forth a little bit around infinity, and watch that bright star come in and out of focus until you can perfectly nail it. Once you set focus, leave it alone!
The Samyang 24mm f/1.8 has a bonus feature that will prove very, very helpful for those wanting to learn how to take pictures of the milky way. Not only is the manual focusing very smooth and precise, allowing you to easily focus perfectly on stars, BUT, there is also a green light that will stay illuminated when it is set to perfect infinity! You can fine-tune the exact focus position that leaves this light illuminated, and it will remember the focus point within the lens’ optics themselves, not just an electronic measurement for focus.
Shoot Your Foreground Before It Gets 100% Dark!
Before it gets totally dark, however, set up your shot, frame the scene, lock down your tripod, and shoot a few exposures of the foreground as blue hour goes by. Because later, especially if you don’t have a super-fast lens or a camera body with stellar high-ISO performance, it might get so pitch-dark that the image quality of your foreground will be terribly noisy and underexposed.
Consider Milky Way Photography with Portraits
While challenging, photographing the milky way with people in the photo is possible. This requires the subject to hold very still and for the photographer to use flash to help “freeze” the subject. To learn this, see our guide on How To Photograph The Milky Way With A Portrait Subject.
Video: 5 Essential Tips on How to Take Pictures of the Milky Way
To help you digest all of this information, see this video that we created on How to take perfect milky way photos.
To learn more about Milky Way Photography, see our full Milky Way Workshop inside of SLR Lounge Premium.