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How to Photograph the Milky Way

By on May 2, 2016 in Tutorials
How to Photograph the Milky Way

If you’ve never spent a night under the stars, put it at the top of your bucket list. Photographing the Milky Way galaxy is a truly humbling experience and is not as hard as you might think.

Milky Way by Adrian PelletierSave

Equipment

First off, I’m going to assume you have a DSLR camera and a sturdy tripod. Don’t worry if your camera isn’t the latest and greatest — nearly any modern DSLR is capable of photographing the night sky with some practice.

Which Lens to Use

Wide-angle lenses are ideal for capturing the stars. They have a larger field of view (great for the Milky Way) and they also allow you to use longer shutter speeds (I’ll explain why below). Around 35mm or shorter would be a good choice for a full-frame camera and 24mm or shorter for crop sensors. Also try to get a fast lens with an aperture of around f/2.8 or larger. This will let more light into your photographs and you'll be able to use a lower ISO for reduced noise.

Best Location

Light pollution is a common problem when photographing at night. Even if the sky looks dark to the naked eye, a camera will pick up any nearby light pollution. Try to avoid being near houses, busy streets, or any other significant light sources.

One useful website you can use to find dark skies is NASA’s Blue Marble map, which shows countries lit up at night. There’s also a newer 2015 version of the map but it uses a black and white color scheme that isn’t as easy to view.

Astrophotography Light PollutionSave

Interesting Foreground

Although the sky will be your main focus, also keep in mind how interesting the landscape is in your shot. For example, photographing the Milky Way rising above a calm lake can create some really neat star reflections in the water.

Light Painting

To highlight any interesting landscape objects, like rocks or trees, you could also use a flashlight to “light paint” the foreground of your photo. Once you press the shutter button on your camera to begin an exposure, gently wave the light in the foreground areas you want to illuminate. Keep in mind: you don’t want to use too bright of a light, otherwise you will overexpose the photo.

When to Shoot

Most people don’t know this but there’s actually a season for photographing the Milky Way. In the Northern Hemisphere, the best time is around March to October when the core of the galaxy is above the horizon at night.

Avoid the Moon

You also want to avoid the moon because it’s so bright — it will drastically reduce the number of stars you can see. The best time to shoot is during a new moon phase, which you can check using this online calendar.

Camera Settings

Switch your camera to Manual Mode to give you the most control. What settings you use will vary depending on many factors but as a general starting point, begin with the following:

  • Exposure: 20 – 30 seconds
  • Aperture: f/2.8 or faster is ideal (above f/4.0 is not recommended)
  • ISO: 1600 – 6400
  • White Balance: Around 3500k
  • Lens Focus: Manual
  • Flash: Off

Exposure Time & The Rule of 500

The exposure time you use is largely dependent on your lens. Because the earth is always rotating, 30 seconds is usually the longest exposure you can use before stars begin to “trail” and no longer look like pinpoints in the final image.

You can use the “500 Rule” to calculate what your maximum exposure length could be before stars would trail. Simply take 500 and divide it by the focal length you will be shooting with. For example, if you were using a 20mm lens, 25 seconds would be the maximum exposure time you could use.

Finding Focus at Night

Finding focus at night can be tricky since Autofocus will struggle in the dark. A good way to do this is to turn your camera’s Live View mode on, point toward a bright star in the sky or other faraway light, and then manually focus the lens until the light is as sharp as possible.

Taking it Further With Time-Lapse

Time-lapse photography is when you take many photos over a long duration of time and then combine them into a single video. The results are quite fascinating, especially when photographing the Milky Way. Here’s a short video I created as an example:

Milky Way Rising — West Rattlesnake Mountain from Adrian Pelletier on Vimeo.


Adrian Pelletier has been building digital products for over a decade and specializes in web design, development, and mobile applications. He is founder of Build Interactive, shares freelance advice on his blog, and recently launched a photography website.


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4 Comments

  1. creatifolio
    • Staff

    Wow, Adrian! This is great! I've always wondered how people shoot the Milky Way but always thought it would be way too difficult. Thanks for this article! I can't wait to try it out :)

  2. buildinteractive

    @Beth R thanks the kind words! Capturing the Milky Way is such a rewarding experience and is very achievable with a little practice. Have fun and feel free to follow up with any questions.

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