How to Photograph the Milky Way

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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.

169 thoughts on “How to Photograph the Milky Way”

  1. 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!

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. Maaaaan! You rock!! I’ve been diyng to try my 35mm f1.8 anda my D7000 on pitch black sky and all these tricks are awesome to “get it right” quicker!! 😉 Thanks a bunch and keep up the awesome job!
    Cumprimentos de Portugal! 😉

  5. AleksandarKymahob

    Hello. Thanks for great tutorial, but can you explain how to simply combine the two pictures with different focus areas in Photoshop? 1st with focus at the stars, 2nd with focus at the house. 🙂

  6. Hi Jim,

    To answer your question about sunrise/sunset times, I simply use Google. Just type in “(Zip code of the location) sunset”, and Google will tell you the sunset time(even sunrise). For example, to find New York’s sunset time, just type in “10002 sunset”.

  7. Thanks for this tutorial! I was wondering this and just happened to scroll down and see this article!

    Now, with people nit picking on every detail… Jim, I understood what you meant and I’m a beginner… Don’t worry! lol

    Oh and your photo is absolutely amazing!

  8. Hi, what if your camera only goes up to 1600 in ISO speed…is it still possible to get something like this? also, do you use NR (noise reduction)?

    thanks and great little video clip…

  9. Thanks for the tips! The milky way will be visible again near Betelguese/Orion this week after nightfall on Thursday the 6th. A great website I use for all things dealing with the sun/stars/moon/planets is http://www.earthsky.org, check it out and thanks again!

  10. Thanks Jim
    I’m very new to dslr photography and just found your web site, i really enjoyed your tutorial on the night photography, very helpful.
    Unfortunately I live in Wales quite near the town of Bridgend so light pollution really does ruin any chances of seeing the sky as you have shown.
    However I will try to get out one dark clear night and see if I can take some images.
    Thanks again Jim and keep up the great work you do, I’ll be watching thats for sure

    Billy

  11. Am I able to shoot a photo like this with my Nikon d5000 using the standard 18-55mm lens (lowest aperture is f/3.5). I attempted one while camping with the settings you outlined and following your instructions but the photo only showed what I could already see with my naked eye. I neglected to switch on long exposure noise reduction but I dont think that would have been the issue? I shot this well away from the nearest town while camping in the mountains in Australia.

  12. This old retired professor is learning photography and your teaching methods are most effective. “Keep it simple” is working because I am learning.

    AF-ON button focusing for sharpening was the best advice ever learned. Sharpening all RAW shots is equally great. Thank you, Jim.

    Oh yeah, I hate lawyers and love photographers.

  13. Cool guide. I didn’t know there was a Long Exposure NR on my camera, thanks for that!

    On another note: You didn’t see other galaxies. The Milky Way is our galaxy and all the visible dots on the sky is stars in it (except for the few planets of our own solar system). The line you see in the sky is just the the high density of stars in the disc-shape (which we are in).

    1. Wrong. You can often see galaxies if you photograph the night sky, I’ve got them a couple of times by accident. They look like a fuzzy oval shape and you can tell they are a galaxy. You can even see the Andromeda galaxy with your naked eye although it only looks like a smudge.

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