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How to Photograph the Milky Way

Have you ever looked at some of those incredible images of the Milky Way and wished you could create something that spectacular? Maybe you thought that photography like that was just too far beyond your skill level or that you didn't have the right equipment. Well, the fact is, Milky Way photography is part of a genre called wide-field astrophotography, and it's not as difficult as you might think, nor does it require lots of specialized equipment.

All you really need to get night shots of Earth's galaxy is a SLR or DSLR camera with good low-light capabilities and a high ISO setting. We're going to focus on using a DSLR camera in this lesson, since the only real difference is waiting for film to be developed. Here's what you need to know to get good photos of the Milky Way and how it's done:

What You Need to Know

There are a few very important things to know about Milky Way photography:

  1. The farther you are from lights, the better view you'll have of distant stars.
  2. Different portions of the Milky Way are visible at different times in different parts of the world.
  3. Your camera sensor can record light from distant stars better than your eyes.
  4. Camera stabilization is extremely important, as the slightest motion will cause blurring.
  5. Long shutter speeds will allow you to gather more light from distant stars.
  6. Long shutter speeds also cause blurring of stars caused by Earth's rotation. This phenomenon creates “star trails”, another fun astrophotography project, but we're after clear, sharp Milky Way shots right now.

Before we move on, let's consider the last two items on that list. It should be apparent that you need to determine how long your shutter can be open before the stars begin to blur. Your camera sensor size and lens focal length will determine this, and there are a few apps that can help you figure it out.  Here's a web-based calculator that will get you in the ball park.


The Gear You'll Need

  • A heavy tripod or a standard tripod with a sandbag for weight
  • A DSLR camera with high ISO capability
  • A wide-angle lens (14mm – 24mm recommended)
  • A remote shutter release
  • Spare batteries
  • Spare memory cards
  • Flashlight and/or headlamp

Plan Your Shoot

Before you go, check weather conditions and make sure the Milky Way will be visible where and when you'll be shooting. There are apps than can help with that, too. Light Pollution Maps like  Dark Sky Finder or Dark Sky for Android will help you find the best places to shoot. Apps like PhotoPills for iPhone and Stellarium for Android will help you locate the Milky Way. Use these tools to find where to go and when.

Camera Setup & Shooting

Once you've determined when and where to shoot and arrived there, here are the basic steps for camera setup:

  1. Set up and level your tripod, weighing it down for extra stability. Don't extend the legs more than necessary.
  2. Mount your camera with lens attached firmly to the tripod.
  3. Set your ISO to the highest setting that doesn't create too much noise. This will vary with camera brand and model and the best way to know is to experiment. The larger your camera's sensor, the higher you'll be able to push the ISO setting.
  4. Set your exposure mode to Manual (M)
  5. White Balance can be left in Auto or select Daylight
  6. Set your aperture to maximum (smallest f/stop).
  7. Switch off your autofocus and IS or VR settings.
  8. Set your shutter speed to Bulb (B).
  9. Set the lens focus ring to infinity*
  10. Check focus with the LCD and optical zoom.
  11. Take several shots at various shutter speeds, near the maximum time that you determined with the calculator above.
  12. As you shoot, check the image previews for focus, star trails or other blurring and exposure.
  13. Change your framing occasionally to include different areas of the sky or to include objects in the landscape. Experiment with “painting” landscape objects with light from a flashlight or hand-held flash unit. 

*If your lens lacks an infinity setting, use the LED view to zoom in on a bright star and set the focus as sharp as possible.

Post Processing

When you return home with your photos, the real fun begins. You'll be amazed at how deep into space your camera sees. Chances are you'll want to do some noise reduction and you may also want to play with sharpening, contrast levels, vibrance and saturation, among other things.

A good editing software package will be your best friend at this stage and while Photoshop® is the go-to app for many photographers, We'd recommend that Mac users try Luminar by Macphun. It's intuitive, powerful and inexpensive, and you can use this link to get 10% discount on your Luminar purchase. Take a look at some of their awesome video tutorials to see how easily you can get the most from your photos.


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