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How to Photograph the Milky Way

Photographing the Milky Way

Milky Way

Milky Way

When you photograph the Milky Way, you can produce some of the most spectacular night sky images you can create. It’s also fun and relatively easy. The Milky Way is visible with the naked eye all through summer in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. The hardest part is not actually the photography, but finding a great location to shoot that is dark enough to see the stars!

Let’s start with the basics. For equipment, all you’ll need is a D-SLR that has good low-light performance, a wide-angle lens, and a tripod. If your D-SLR goes to at least ISO 3200 or higher, you should be able to try this technique. If you have a shutter release remote control you can use that as well.


As mentioned above, the hardest part about photographing the Milky Way is simply finding a place that’s far enough from city lights to have a dark sky that shows off the stars, and to choose a night where the moon is not shining at the time of your photo shoot.

If you live in a more rural area, it may be easy to find a location near a farm or field or on a less-traveled road where you’re far from city lights. If you live closer to a city, you can always plan your photoshoot for when you’re away on vacation somewhere farther away from a big city. I like shooting out in the American West by the National Parks. Caribbean islands and beaches are also great places for photographing the stars.

It’s easy to pick a night when the moon won’t interfere with your shoot. Just Google the name of the place where you’ll be photographing with the words "moonrise time". For example, for Jackson, Wyoming just Google "jackson wy moonrise time" and you’ll see plenty of webpages which will show you the moonrise time for the days of that month. Pick a day when the moon will rise after you’re done with your shoot. You can also choose a day when there is a "new moon" -- no moon shining at all. Be sure to watch the weather forecast so you can photograph on a day predicted to have clear skies with no clouds.

The Photo Shoot

On the night you’re planning your photography, remember to bring your camera, tripod, a flashlight, and warm clothes depending on the weather.

Once at your location, let your eyes adjust to the darkness for a least a few minutes. You may want to set up your tripod and camera with your flashlight before you let your eyes adjust.

If you’re shooting on a clear night in the summer you should be able to see the Milky Way with the naked eye. If you’d like some assistance locating the Milky Way, a star viewing app for your smartphone such as Stellarium can be very helpful. With Stellarium, you actually hold your phone up to the sky and the app shows you what you’re looking at as you move your phone around. It’s fantastic.

When you’ve located the Milky Way and you’re ready to photograph, it’s time to set the camera.

Use RAW, set the camera to manual exposure mode and start with an ISO around 3200. Set the widest aperture (preferably F2.8 or wider) on your widest angle lens. Lenses in the 16-24mm range (full-frame equivalent) work best. The wider the angle on your lens, the less you’ll see movement and blurring of the stars from the rotation of the earth.

Set the shutter speed to between 20 and 30 seconds.

For focus, use Manual Focus. Autofocus won’t work in the dark. If your camera has a Live View LCD, use it and manually focus on the brightest star you see, in magnification mode if available. If your camera doesn’t have Live View, set the focus to infinity. While not ideal, setting to infinity will get you close. You can always review the test shots and tweak focus as needed.

When the exposure and focus are set, aim the camera toward the Milky Way and take a test photo. If there are foreground elements in the photo, make sure they are level and look how you envision. Adjust the ISO and shutter speed as necessary, ensuring that the shutter speed doesn’t get so long as to blur the stars into little streaks.


That's all there is to it.  Experiment with a variety of exposures, foreground elements, and compositions.  In your photo editing software, you can adjust brightness and color temperature to finalize your amazing night sky. Most importantly, when you're done with the photography, don't forget to just relax and enjoy the beautiful stars.

For those looking to improve your photography, I've also created an app for iPhone / iPad / Android which teaches photography and how to get photos like these while you're out taking pictures. It's perfect for when you're traveling. Click here:

Photography Trainer for iOS and Android

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