How to Photograph the Milky Way

In Landscape/Nature by Jim Harmer167 Comments

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Last week, I took a photo of the Milky Way above an old schoolhouse building in Idaho. I posted the photo on our Facebook page, and it received 1,548 likes, 177 comments, and was shared 84 times. I was pretty happy (okay, fine… I was ecstatic) that so many of you said such nice things about my picture.

MANY of you asked how the photo was taken, and wanted a tutorial on photographing the Milky Way.  Your wish is my command.

If you are subscribed to this website via email and don't get the videos associated with my posts, be sure to check out the on-location video of me photographing the Milky Way here.

Milky Way in Idaho

Camera Settings for Night Photography of the Milky Way

Shutter speed – 30 seconds: For this photo, I shot most of the night using a 30 second shutter speed (meaning that a professional tripod is necessary to keep the camera rock solid).  I find that if you use a shutter speed that is too long, the stars in the sky start to look oblong because of Earth's rotation.  30 seconds of shutter speed only makes the stars look BARELY oblong, and you really only notice it if you zoom way in on the computer.

However, don't take 30 seconds as the perfect answer for taking pictures of the stars that aren't star trails.  The longer the lens you use, the shorter the shutter speed will need to be.  If you shoot on a crop sensor camera with an 18mm lens, you probably won't be able to use a shutter speed longer than 15 or 20 seconds, because the stars will appear larger in the frame, so the streaking is far more noticeable.

Aperture – f/2.8: Normally, you would want to use a high aperture for landscape photography to achieve maximum depth-of-field.  Photographers often get tricked into thinking they need a very high aperture since the stars are far away, but remember that depth-of-field is about how much of the picture is sharp, not where the sharpness appears.

So the correct aperture for this photo is–the lowest f-stop you have available to you on your lens.  By focusing on the stars, you're focused to infinity (the furthest out the lens can focus), so you can use a low f-stop to capture the dim star light.

In this photo, I had a lens (the Nikon 14-24mm lens) that could go down to f/2.8, so that's the aperture value I used to take this picture.  The trouble with using such a low aperture value is that I chose to take this picture with a large foreground element, the old schoolhouse, so when I used f/2.8, the house was blurry since I was focused on the stars.  Knowing that it would be impossible to shoot a photo in such low light with an f-stop like f/16 that would have afforded me more light, I chose to shoot one picture of the stars at f/2.8 and one picture focused on the house at f/2.8.  Then I simply combined the two in Photoshop.  If you're a “get it right in the camera” zealot, this may not sound like an attractive way to take this photo, but I promise you that it is also the ONLY way to take this photo.  Yep, the only way.  You need a high f-stop for the depth-of-field, but a low f-stop for light gathering… so you have to use post-processing.

If you take a photo out in the woods or the desert or another open location with nothing in the foreground to worry about, then you could easily just shoot at f/2.8 and forego the Photoshop bit.  But if you're shooting a photo just like mine, there is no other way with current technology.

ISO – 3200: Normally, photographers like to keep the ISO as low as possible to prevent the photos from becoming grainy.  However, many types of night photography require high ISO values.  Such is the case here, where I shot with an ISO of 3200.  If you have a camera made in the last couple years, it will likely allow you to choose an ISO as high as 3200 or even higher (I shot some photos this same night at ISO 6,400).

Since I shot at ISO3200, there is definitely some noise in the picture I took.  Frankly, that is unavoidable with current technology, but there are quite a few things you can do to at least mitigate the noise in the photo caused by the high ISO and long shutter speed.   One of those methods is long exposure noise reduction.

Long exposure noise reduction is available on all DSLRs (that I know of, anyway) that were made in the last few years.  On a Nikon, you'll find “Long Exposure NR” in the shooting menu of the camera.  On Canon cameras, go to your menu, then go to custom functions, and browse through them until you find long exposure noise reduction (it's a different custom function on each Canon model).  This feature uses a technology called dark frame subtraction that I explain in the video associated with this post.

Photography tips for shooting the milky way and night photography.

This photo was made for those of you who are kind enough to pin my stuff on Pinterest.

How to Focus for Night Photography

All autofocus systems require some amount of contrast in order to find proper focus.  When shooting at night, there is rarely enough light outside for your camera to autofocus properly.  The best way to solve this problem is to look around you for a street light or other light that is the same distance away from you as where you want the focus to be.  Then, autofocus on that light, and slide the focus mode switch on your lens to “manual” this will keep the focus where you last set it as long as you don't accidentally twist the manual focus ring at the front of your lens.

If you're taking a picture of the stars and don't have to worry about focusing on anything in the foreground, then you may want to rack your focus all the way out as far as it will go, and then come back just a slight bit.  This will focus your lens to infinity (as far as it focuses), which is always the proper focus for shooting the stars.  If the moon is bright enough, you could also focus on the moon and then you're set.

If I need to focus on something closer to the camera, like how I focused on the schoolhouse for one of the photos, then shining a bright flashlight or laser pointer on the building will help your camera to find focus.  One other technique is to simply show up to the location where you'll be shooting before it's actually night time.  Then you can adjust your composition before it gets dark, and lock down your focus while there is still enough available light.

How to See the Milky Way

Most people never see the Milky Way with their naked eye.  Usually, the artificial lights from houses and streetlights are too bright for our eyes to see the faint glow of the ring around the Milky Way at night.  However, by using the amazing light gathering ability of newer DSLRs, the Milky Way can usually be captured in a picture.

I intentionally waited to take this picture until a night that did not have a bright moon.  This lessens the amount of light in the sky to make the Milky Way less visible.  Also, I drove 1.5 hours away from the nearest major city to get rid of all of the city lights.  In this rural location, I could see the Milky Way with my naked eye, which was intensified when I took a picture and gathered the light with a 30 second exposure.

Frankly, I'm not much of an astronomer to tell you if the Milky Way is visible, or even to point you to a resource where you might find out when and where the Milky Way will be visible.  But in Idaho, I find that it's visible most all of the year for most of the night.  I just go out and shoot a couple times to know where it will rise and set, and approximately what time of night.  For this shoot, I knew the Milky Way became visible as soon as it was FULLY black outside, and was directly overhead around 2PM.  Perhaps someone in the comments can point us to a good resource to check the sunrise time/location for different parts of the world.

Conclusion

Photos like this don't happen by accident.  It takes a lot of practice and planning to take a photo of the Milky Way, but the payoff is huge!  Although it was quite cold outside taking this picture since I didn't bring a proper jacket, the time I got to spend out in the middle of nowhere looking at the brilliant stars for a few hours last week was incredibly soothing.


About the Author

Jim Harmer

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Jim Harmer is the founder of Improve Photography, and host of the popular Improve Photography Podcast. More than a million photographers follow him on social media, and he has been listed at #35 in rankings of the most popular photographers in the world. Jim travels the world to shoot with readers of Improve Photography in his series of free photography workshops. See his portfolio here.

Comments

  1. 2PM?? Otherwise, a useful read! I like it when people are willing to share “secrets” and give extra little hints. As much as we are individually in it to win it, we are also all in it together and I believe teamwork is a good thing! Thanks!

        1. THANK YOU, Storm. As someone who has never done this sort of photography, I appreciate it that he’s put an obviously simplistic method of accomplishing the photograph. Sure, there’s all sorts of scientific and mathematical approaches but numbers do my head in – I would rather know settings and SHOOT and GET THE SHOT.

    1. Your posts are still useful three years later! I am a 17 year old budding photographer with a Canon 550D! I use my 55-300mm lens and shall try this tonight if there isn’t too much pollution! Thank you Sir!

      1. I’ve read his comments in the past and taken some notes. The majority of the people who shoot night stars and the milky way are usually at remote locations where there is very limited light pollution. This past Fourth of July weekend, I decided to travel 7 hours north to Cherry Springs State Park in PA, USA. Its one of the darkest zones on the Eastern US coast. I brought my son and his girlfriend along. They had an 8 inch diameter telescope. I have a Canon T3i, a wide angle lens, an amazon basics tripod, extra memory cards, batteries and ample coffee. I set the camera up for the manual mode. From the manual mode, you can change the canon to the bulb mode by selecting the shutter speed under the manual mode and reducing the shutter speed until you see the word BULB. Then it is extremely important to by a timer that will shoot an infinite amount of photos. I had the ISO set to 1600, the lens, which is a Rokinon wide angle lens for Canon, allowed me to go down to f 2.8. I did not focus on infinity – i basically turned it to the stops on infinity and backed it off slightly. The Timer I bought was pretty simple to set up. It offers 4 settings. The first setting was a delay. The second setting was for how long I wanted the camera to take the shot (30 seconds). The third setting was how long of a delay I wanted between shots (5 sec) and the 4th setting was leaving the numbers to 00 for an infinite amount of shots. The LCD display kept coming on, so I settled for about 200-250 shots per battery. I used a 64GB memory card, so I had plenty of room. It easily held all 600+ shots without issue. It’s best to make sure your setup is away from any light which WILL become amplified in that 30 second shot. It’s best to take a shot, look at it and determine if you need to make any changes. I must admit, I was a little worried since I had the preview shut off on the camera that these shots might not make the grade. It was my first time dedicating this much time to shooting stars. I was in Cherry Springs State Park from 6pm to 6am, with the majority of that standing close to the equipment. It gets cold up there – in July, the days might be in the 80’s but be prepared for nights as low as 45 degrees F. Wearing a winter coat, a couple pairs of socks, and thermal underware or sweats under a pair of jeans is a smart thing. It was below 50 degrees from near midnight to sunrise, and that sort of exposure WILL eat at your body temperature. Once home, early in the morning on the Fourth of July, while I was unpacking and getting settled in, I decided to take all the photos from the Night of the 3rd and compile them RAW, unedited and put them into movie maker. I wanted the movie to be close to 4 minutes long, so I played with the duration until it was close. each photo was shown for less than 1 second each, until I got the time i needed, and I added a song to the creation and uploaded it to you tube. In the END of the video, you will be able to see some different exposure times, anywhere from 45 seconds, all the way up to 2 minutes. In the end, the trip was worth the effort and its something that I will probably do again, more than likely this time next year.

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OUbDEyhB5yA

  2. Thank you so much for that great tutorial! I’ll try it in Bavaria, Germany!

  3. One VERY useful tool for that cause is a free iOS app called “Planets”.
    http://www.qcontinuum.org/planets/

    Tells you the visibility times of the planets, including sun and moon and shows where the milky way is atm. By changing date and time you can already plan ahead by checking where it’s gonna be at which time. Got it for the love of stars and realised its insanely useful for star photography:)
    Great article!

  4. Thanks for the info on night photography. We camp at a place In Iowa that has an open field in front of us and the stars and moon are wonderful. Now I will try to capture them. Thanks again

  5. There is something called the “Rule of 600” where you divide 600 by your focal length to get the number of seconds you can expose until you get trails. Of course if you have a crop sensor, you need to multiply by the crop sensor multiplier. For example, a 20mm lens on a crop Nikon would be a 30mm lens equivalent. Camera’s with high ISO ability with low noise of course are important, and so are lenses that can open up as much as possible.

    1. This is really cool! I’ve never heard that before. But doing the equation seems a little long for what I’d feel comfortable with (42 seconds). Maybe I’ll follow the Rule of 500.

      1. Jim, again the rule of 600 isn’t some made up rule, it’s derived from the precise rotation of the earth and the focal length of your lens and is simple maths. That hole is getting deeper …

      2. The Rule of 600 is not a precise rule because the amount of a star’s perceived motion for a given shutter duration isn’t just a function of the earth’s rotation, it’s also a function of the star’s angular distance from the axis of rotation. As I’m sure you observed, there’s much less stellar motion when pointing toward the celestial poles than when pointing toward the celestial equator. For example, a one hour exposure of Polaris at 200mm would show very little streaking; a one hour exposure of Betelgeuse at 200mm would stretch across the frame.

  6. You could use stellarium on your pc to check for the Astronomical bodies where you are and if the date you would like to do some shooting would be possible since the time and date can be manipulated. For Android phone user you can use Google sky map app which can be downloaded for free. 🙂

    1. Stellarium is awesome – it is now an app for the phone so you can check the night sky out anywhere – see if the moon is going to be up or down to ensure you get the darkest night sky for your photo

  7. For those with smart phones, Star Chart, or Sky Map (both on Android), are great apps for finding where the milky way, or other constellations will be. Not sure if they provide “rise” times, but they are handy for finding what you need at the moment.

  8. Hey Jim, great photo and tutorial. I was wondering if you could a quick tutorial for the layer masking process? If you could that would be stupendous! Thanks for all the tips

  9. Jim! Why oh why did you have to ruin such a brilliant and useful tutorial at the end with such a poor analogy for the big bang..Please consider that the scientists behind the BBT have dedicated many live’s worth of time to the actual science of our ever expanding universe, it really isn’t just a scribble on a napkin. Sorry to be a bore, its a pet hate!

  10. Nice
    capture, Jim, and good information. Please allow me to respectfully correct a
    couple of things. First, there’s no need to shoot this (or most other wide open
    night images) in two frames–even if you’re using your lens’s maximum focal
    length (24mm), at f2.8 the hyperfocal point is less than 23 feet away. That
    means if you focus on something 23 feet distant, you’ll be sharp from a little
    less than 12 feet all the way out to infinity (sharp enough to shoot with a
    single frame). And second, while racking the focus ring all the way out works
    with a prime lens, you can’t assume a zoom lens has a fixed infinity point–to
    do so risks a soft image. Your suggestion to autofocus on a bright light
    is a good one–(assuming a hyperfocal distance of 23 feet) you can use a
    flashlight as close as 23 feet, but even if you choose headlights a mile away,
    you’ll be sharp from 23 feet to infinity.

    Shooting
    the Milky Way requires a moonless sky, away from city lights (as you noted).
    The Milky Way runs through several prominent Northern Hemisphere
    constellations–Cassiopeia, which is visible year-round in North America, may
    be the most recognizable, but the densest part of the Milky Way is in
    Sagittarius, a summer constellation. In other words, photographing the Milky
    Way at its best is a summer activity in North America.

    Thanks for sharing your image and
    insights.

    1. I respectfully disagree on the focus, Gary. You did watch the video where I showed what the picture looked like when I focused on the house, and what it looked like when I focused on the stars, right? To get both of them to be tack sharp and also gather as much light as possible, you can SEE the evidence that focus didn’t work on either one.
      Your scientific approach might make sound right to you, but you can SEE THE EVIDENCE that this simply didn’t work. The house and the stars were not sharp when I focused on one or the other.

      1. Well, from your last paragraph, I’m not surprised by your disdain for science (believe it or not, it is possible to embrace science and be awed by the universe). Nevertheless, hyperfocal focus isn’t “my” scientific approach, it’s a universally accepted photographic standard (I’ve never heard a professional photographer question it). Hyperfocal focus is not perfect because any image has only one plane of perfect sharpness, but when properly applied it does ensure far more sharpness than you showed throughout your two blended images.

        So, whether you choose to believe it or not, the reality is that there was something else going on with your focus–something you could probably figure out with very little effort if you understood focus better. I realize that your audience mostly relative beginners who may not know better, but I’m afraid denying hyperfocal focus severely undermines your credibility among those who do. Before digging your hole even deeper, I suggest you do yourself a favor and research hyperfocal focus. It’s not that hard.

        1. I teach photography in Barcelona. I’d have to agree with Jim’s shoot-and-stitch approach for sharpness here. You’re right; depth of field is inherently subjective (it’s based on the acceptable size of the circles of confusion) so the hyperfocal distance is fuzzy, not exact. Personally, I’d have shot the stars at the high ISO to freeze their movement then photographed the house at a low ISO for reduced noise and combined the two. Done properly, this technique would give the best sharpness.

          Ben

          My photography courses in Barcelona – http://www.BarcelonaPhotographyCourses.com

        2. I teach photography in Barcelona (Google; Barcelona Photography Courses). I’d have to agree with Jim’s
          shoot-and-stitch approach for sharpness here. You’re right; depth of
          field is inherently subjective (it’s based on the acceptable size of the
          circles of confusion) so the hyperfocal distance is fuzzy, not exact.
          Personally, I’d have shot the stars at the high ISO to freeze their
          movement then photographed the house at a low ISO for reduced noise and
          combined the two. Done properly, this technique would give the best
          sharpness.

          Ben

        3. I teach photography in Barcelona. I’d have to agree with Jim’s
          shoot-and-stitch approach for sharpness here. You’re right; depth of
          field is inherently subjective (it’s based on the acceptable size of the
          circles of confusion) so the hyperfocal distance is fuzzy, not exact.
          Personally, I’d have shot the stars at the high ISO to freeze their
          movement then photographed the house at a low ISO for reduced noise and
          combined the two. Done properly, this technique would give the best
          sharpness.

          Ben

          My photography courses in Barcelona – http://www.BarcelonaPhotographyCourses.com

        4. I agree completely, Ben–yours is a perfectly valid reason to stitch two images. My issue was with stitching to correct a focus problem that doesn’t exist. Certainly, given that Jim had two partially soft images when he got home, he had no option–but the softness in his sample images clearly had nothing to do with the f-stop or an inherent inability to focus near and far in that scene; to state otherwise creates misconceptions in people who don’t understand focus. I should have just let it drop, but I saw lots of value in the rest of the post and thought maybe he’d welcome the opportunity to learn something. My mistake.

    2. In optics and photography, hyperfocal distance is a distance beyond which all objects can be brought into an “acceptable” focus. Not perfect focus.

  11. I realise this tutorial is aimed at the novice, however I thought I’d point out that the in Camera Noise Reduction is nowhere near as good as applying a bit of manual noise reduction in Lightroom or Photoshop. I take a lot of similar milky way photos in Australia and the in camera Noise Reduction ruins a lot of detail as well as the fact that the camera will take another 30 second image for the dark frame after every photo you take which wastes time. Give it a try with NR off and you will be surprised. I also find there is a sweet spot for each camera with the amount of ISO and shutter speed. On my Canon 5dMkii the sweet spots are Iso6400 and 15sec Iso 3200 and 20 sec and Iso1600 and 30 sec. Any longer than that amplifies the noise more than the stars ….. Your camera will also have its sweet spot.

  12. Excellent! Thank you so much. I love watching your tutorials as an Amatuer Photographer, I get so much out of it! xx

  13. I know that you’ve copped a lot of flack for this post, Jim, but this little clueless Aussie THANKS YOU for your efforts in providing a simple, doable method to achieving such a shot. 🙂

  14. “Knowing that it would be impossible to shoot a photo in such low light
    with an f-stop like f/16 that would have afforded me more light,”
    This statement does not make sense since f/16 is a smaller aperture so it will give LESS not MORE light.

  15. Any star chart or planetarium simulation program such as Starry night will give you a map of the sky. Star charts are not as precise but are precise enough for this situation. Star positions vary with time moving 15 degrees westerly per hour so be sure to check your local standard time.
    Stellarium (http://www.stellarium.org/) is a free program that will do all you want and a lot more.

  16. The forums on the astronomy website, Cloudy Nights, is a great resource for astrophotography both with telescopes and without, CCD cameras, DSLR’s and point n’shoots. I’m not great at astrophotography by any standard but I’ve been able to image some things I never thought I’d see or make myself. http://www.cloudynights.com

  17. Very small editorial correction
    ” For this shoot, I knew the Milky Way became visible as soon as it was FULLY black outside, and was directly overhead around 2PM.”

    I think you meant 2 am, unless Im completely misinformed about Idaho’s location. ;P

  18. Wow Jim! I scoff at how other photographers like to nitpick details that they wouldn’t of or would’ve done. If they don’t like it, they can go do it themselves however they want. The proof, your picture, speaks volumes as to the effectiveness of the said technique. It works and the picture is brilliant!

  19. Awesome picture!
    My buddy Tom over at photographiccoach.com sent me over here saying you had a nice site setup, seems he was right and the pics are bloody good on this post also.

    Best I tell Tom to work harder and get some great pics like that on the go lol.

    If ur reading Tom, just kidding buddy! 😀

  20. That has helped me no end! Thank you! Great image and really informative tutorial.

  21. Thank you for this article. It was so helpful when I just photographed the milky way while I was in Minnesota. Also loved that I was able to capture the northern lights!

  22. Wait – the idea of the big bang makes you laugh, but you take seriously the idea that some magical, bearded old man in the sky wished it all into existence a few thousand years ago?
    Hmm.

  23. Thank you! This was an inspiring picture and lesson, both with Jim and all the comments. 🙂 I’m looking forward to trying out a few new ideas!

  24. Too bad Gary has to be a nay sayer. Jim and Dustin are to be HIGHLY commended to offer this sort of learning environment and I appreciate everything they’ve done and do to make learning photography in such a informative manner and their willingness to share their knowledge. This isn’t a science class, it’s a photography class and the criticisms aren’t appreciated. It must be a pain to have live one selves when they can’t help but to criticize and degrade, shame on them.

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