Capturing a photo of the night sky can seem like a real challenge because it’s nearly pitch-dark, you can barely see your subject or your camera. It’s actually very easy, though, once you know these five key steps of how to take pictures of the milky way. Thank you to Samyang for sponsoring this video and allowing us to bring high-quality educational tutorials to our YouTube channel.
Video: 5 Essential Tips on How to Take Pictures of the Milky Way
Guide on How to Take Pictures of the Milky Way
- 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
1. 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. Samyang just released their first 24mm f/1.8 lens, and it is truly incredible for the price. It provides amazing image quality, yet extremely compact and 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 options such as Samyang/Rokinon’s 18mm f/2.8 for full-frame (Sony) cameras, or 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.
2. 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. One of our favorites is the Peak Design Travel Tripod.
3. Scout the Location Before it Gets Dark
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!
4. Choose the Right Exposure Settings
One of the biggest mistakes that people make when learning how to take pictures of 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!
Avoid Star Trails From Long Shutter Speeds
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.
5. 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 towards 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 that focus point within the lens’ optics themselves, not just an electronic measurement for focus.
Bonus Tip – 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.
We hope you enjoyed this guide on how to take pictures of the milky way. Make sure to check out Samyang’s incredibly affordable lenses for your next astrophotography adventure!