Shooting the Milky Way: 10 Tips for Beginners

Nothing stimulates the imagination like a night under a star filled sky, and capturing stunning images of the Milky Way is a bit of an obsession for me.  The truth is, it isn’t that difficult and you don’t need professional gear to pull it off; but it can be intimidating when you are just getting started, so I thought I would share a few tips that I’ve discovered along the way.   If you have additional tips, or if these tips helped you capture that magic shot, share it with us in the comments below!

TIP 1: RUN AWAY FROM THE LIGHT

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Nothing ruins a night sky like light pollution and it’s becoming more and more difficult to find yourself a nice patch of unpolluted sky.   If you can’t see the milky way clearly with your naked eye, the chances of capturing a compelling image are not great.  You might want to start your dark sky search here.

TIP 2: MIND YOUR MOON

A bright moon will wash out your starry sky just as city lights might.  Here is an example that I shot in Death Valley – one of the darkest sky parks in America.   Note what happens to the stars as the moon rises over the mountain.

You want to shoot when there is little or no moonlight. Check the moon phase calendar – to plan your trip during the few days before, during and after a new moon phase.

TIP 3: FIND THE MILKY CENTER

The center of our Milky Way is a dense star factory.  It’s bright, it’s beautiful and it’s the star of your Milky Way shot.

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In the northern hemisphere this core is not visible during the months of Nov – Feb, but during the months of March – October you can find the core just above the horizon in the southern sky.   You can also use phone apps such as Photo Pills or Star Walk 2, to help you anticipate the location of the Milky Way core based on the time and location of your shoot, but for our purposes, let’s just say – point the camera south, have a clear view and a low horizon.

TIP 4:  THE MUST HAVE TOOLS

You’ve probably noticed that your smart phone is pretty useless at night photography, and is wholly inadequate for capturing star photographs.    While you don’t need to invest in professional grade equipment, you will want to get your hands on a DSLR camera with manual settings and good low light performance, a reasonably fast lens and a sturdy tripod.   I’ll cover each of these in more detail.

TIP 5: CHOOSING THE RIGHT CAMERA BODY

I shoot with a Canon 6d.  It’s an excellent choice for budget friendly star photography because it uses a full frame sensor which translates to better low light performance and wider shooting angles, but you can get started with ANY camera that gives you full manual control over photo settings.  If you are shopping, look for reviewer input on High ISO / Low Light performance on the model you are considering.

TIP 6:  CHOOSING THE RIGHT LENS

Most entry level DSLR cameras come with a kit lens and the good news is that you are perfectly capable of capturing Milky Way shots with that lens.   If you’re considering adding a lens specifically for Milky Way photography, the best budget friendly option is the Rokinon 14mm which is a no frills, fully manual, ultra wide angle lens that’s fast (f2.8) and sharp all the way to the edges of the image.

TIP 7: CHOOSING A TRIPOD

When you are shooting the night sky, the camera has to remain completely motionless for long periods of time, usually 20-30 seconds per picture or 2-3 hours for a timelapse movie.  Any movement or vibration of your camera will result in a blurry capture.  You don’t have to have a tripod, and almost certainly a wall, a tree or even the ground will give you better results than a shaky plastic tripod, but it sure makes life easier.   I shot the photo below by placing the camera on the ground and using my wallet under the lens to get the angle I was looking for.  (I subsequently left my wallet on the ground and had to drive 3 extra hours of windy mountain roads as a result…  Useful Tip: use your wallet to buy a tripod, not be the tripod.)

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My advise here is that if you are going to use a tripod, get a sturdy one.  It doesn’t have to be expensive carbon fiber, usually the heavier the better.  I use a fairly cheep but heavy duty aluminum one because it is solid and I didn’t have room in the budget to splurge.

While we’re on the topic of tripods, another tip is to keep the tripod low to the ground.  The lower it is, the more stable it will be and the clearer your night sky pics will be as a result.

TIP 8:  STAYING FOCUSED

The light from the stars will not be enough for your automatic focus to work, so you’re going to have to do this manually.   The infinity focus mark on your lens is often not accurate, so here are a couple techniques to achieve optimum focus.

Set your ISO to its maximum setting, open your aperture fully and aim your camera towards the brightest thing in the sky.  Turn on the live view, and usually the brightest star in the sky will be visible on your screen.   Then zoom in to 10x magnification and you’ll be able to see that star clearly enough to adjust your focus.  You’re trying to get that light to be the smallest point possible.

If you’re shooting with a prime lens, you can do an automatic focus on something like a sun set, or a full moon and then mark that focus position on your lens barrel so that you can manually zoom to infinity focus whenever you like.

Of course it’s always a good idea to double check your focus after you take a photo by zooming in to the maximum extent your camera will allow.   If your stars look sharp(not blury) but they look like pills instead of dots, that’s because your exposure is too long.  More on that in the next tip.

TIP 9:  CAMERA SETTINGS

Astrophotography is all about capturing very faint light, and to do that effectively, you need to understand some basic manual functions on your camera.   Since this is a beginners’ guide, I’ll give you the settings I use and a little information about each, and I have also included links to good articles that explain each function in greater detail.

My settings are based on shooting with a 14mm (wide angle lens).  As a general rule, you want to shoot the Milky Way as wide as possible.   So if all you have is the lens that came with your camera, it is probably a zoom lens.  Leave it at its widest angle and give the settings below a try.

There are three settings that will determine how much light reaches your cameras sensor:  ISO, Aperture (f-stop) and Shutter Speed.  Let’s explore each.

ISO

ISO determines how sensitive your sensor is to light.  A low setting, like 100, is great for bright outdoor photos, but for Milky Way photography you’re going to want to push this number way up.   Push too high and your image will be very grainy, so you’ll need to play with this and find the maximum ISO your camera will shoot without introducing too much noise.

I usually shoot at ISO 3,200 – 6,400

Aperture

There is a ring inside your camera lens that controls how much light that lens lets pass through to the camera sensor.   The lower the setting, the more light the lens will let in.  Typical values are shown below.Screenshot 2017-10-12 00.22.58

I usually shoot at f/2.8 but if your lens won’t let in that much light, just choose the lowest possible value in your camera settings

Shutter

The camera shutter sits between the lens and the camera’s light sensor.  It stops all light from reaching the sensor until you take a picture, and then the shutter opens briefly and the camera’s sensor records all light that falls on it, rendering that light into a lovely memory.     Opening and closing that shutter extremely quickly will allow you to freeze a very brief moment in time, like this image shot with a shutter open / close speed of 1/2000th of a second.

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When shooting at night, you need to hold that shutter open long enough to allow the sensor to absorb enough light to create an image, but not so long that the stars begin to streak (or turn from dots into pills) due to the earths rotation.   The sweet spot for a wide angle lens is 20-30 seconds of open shutter.

Sometimes you may wish to capture that streak of the star light, called Star Trails, such as this picture below, where I held the shutter open for 700 seconds.

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But for Milky Way shots, you want your stars to be nice and crisp.milkyway2048-1050

Other Camera Settings: Shoot RAW

Most cameras have ability to shoot RAW or JPG photo formats.   If you have this feature, always shoot RAW.  This will produce a much larger file (because it contains much more data about the scene) and shooting raw will give you much more flexibility when it comes to editing your perfect shot.

TIP 10: EDITING MILKY WAY PHOTOS

If you are serious about capturing amazing images of any kind, you are probably already using software to clean up photos after you take them off the camera.   Ask any group of photographers what they use and someone will inevitably bring up Adobe Lightroom.    If you aren’t using it yet – get it and use it.  After the camera and lens, it might be the most important tool in your photographer toolbox.  And unlike more powerful photo manipulation software such as Photoshop, Lightroom makes photo adjustments easy and intuitive for the average user.

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When I’m showing someone a Milky Way shot, a question that I frequently hear is, “Does the sky actually look like that?”    My answer is usually, “Yes and No”.    Yes, in the sense that nothing artificial has been added to this photo and you can clearly see the core of the Milky Way with the naked eye, but no, your eyes are not sensitive enough to make out this level of detail.

Here is what this scene might look like to your naked eye.

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And here is the same image as shot directly off the camera.

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And finally after making some adjustments in Lightroom to reduce light pollution, increase the details in the shadow areas and add some local contrast to help define the Milky Way.

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How you edit from here is a matter of personal taste, but if you want to see more advice from experts, here is a great place to start: https://photographingspace.com

Once you’ve learned to capture great Milky Way images, you’re ready to move into Milky Way timelapse – that’s where things get really fun!

See you under the next dark sky.

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