Milky Way Photography Tips
Gravity will eventually have its day but this ancient Whitebark Pine has tenaciously clung to the rim of Crater Lake for eons. Seemingly stretching toward the glory that is the Milky Way I could understand its desperation to touch that distant beauty.The 'pointy hat' of Wizard Island protrudes from the calm water in the caldera which reflects the glow from the sky above.

Milky Way Photography Tips

Updated: August 2021

Photography isn’t exactly a new art form.  And the downside of shutterbugs working their craft for more than a century is that it’s challenging to come up with something new.  You constantly read articles and blogs (mine included) that contain repeated references like: “Don’t take the standard shot,”  “Find a unique perspective,” “Put your own spin on the image.”

Well, Milky Way photography is something new.  Sure, I guess astronomers have been doing it for a century, but in just the last handful of years, we’ve started to see amazing shots of the Milky Way taken by regular people.  Like many of you, I found these photographs to be enthralling but didn’t understand how it was possible.

Milky Way Photography Tips
Midnight Run” Alpha Centauri? Vulcan? Nope: One of the ‘sailing stones’ at Death Valley’s famous ‘Racetrack’

Well, the simple answer is that recent technological improvements in both camera sensors and software have made it possible for nearly anyone with a newer, decent camera, a quality wide-angle lens, and some inexpensive software to take shots like this:

But there IS a catch (isn’t that always the way?)  Most of us live near urban areas that have so many lights that the Milky Way is ‘washed out’ at night.  Therefore,  You first have to find a location that isn’t smothered by light pollution.  One quick way to do that is by checking out Blue Sky.  This is a free website that allows you to look at any location on the globe and see how free it is from light pollution. 

With this information, all you need is a dark night with clear skies and you are good to go! Okay, okay, there ARE a few other things you need to know but seriously, it really isn’t rocket science and I’m going to walk you through what you need to know in this blog.

Please be aware that internet bandwidth limitations result in my photos being displayed on this blog with less than 25% of their full resolution. The images you can capture should be far sharper (my originals have at least 4 times the resolution shown here).

Necessary Equipment

Camera

  • Full frame cameras (either DSLR or Mirrorless) truly excel at low-light photography. Their large sensors capture lots of light and they can deliver exceptional results
  • ASPC cameras (“cropped-frame”) are certainly more affordable but they can’t deliver the same level of quality. Nevertheless, they can still produce impressive Milky Way shots.

A Fast, Wide-Angle Lens

  • The Milky Way isn’t bright, so you need a lens that excels at capturing light.
    • You can tell how good your lens is at capturing light by checking what its lowest aperture setting is (known as the f stop). The lower the f stop a lens has, the better. Lenses that can gather a lot of light are known as being ‘fast.’
    • I consider a lens with a 2.8 f stop (f/2.8) to be the minimum for Milky Way photography (a f/2.8 gathers TWICE as much light as a f/4.0 lens)
  • The Milky Way is WIDE…it can stretch from horizon to horizon. So, ideally, you need a wide-angle lens.
    • If you have a full-frame camera, then I’d suggest a minimum of a 16mm lens.
    • If your camera is ASP-C format, then a 8 or 10mm fisheye might be your best bet. A regular 10-12mm would work as well, but it will be difficult to get the full Milky Way in the shot.
  • An alternative to a wide lens is to use a lens that isn’t as wide but take series of smaller, overlapping images and then stitch them together as a panorama using the ‘photomerge’ function in Photoshop.
An example of a panorama. This is actually 12 different images, each slightly overlapping each other that have been combined in Photoshop. This lone cottonwood tree is a favorite subject of mine. Located near Dancehall Rock in Utah’s Escalante Staircase National Monument.

Tripod

  • Milky Way photography requires long exposures..far longer than you can make if you handhold your camera. You will need a tripod
  • Get a substantial, solid unit (even a mild breeze can shake a lightweight tripod, which will ruin your shot)
  • Treat yourself to a tall tripod. You will often need to review the images on your camera and if you have a short tripod, you might find it aggravating to continually have to contort yourself to view your LCD.
Milky Way Photography Tips
The wind on this summit was insane. This image of an ancient Whitebark Pine on the rim of Oregon’s Crater Lake wouldn’t have been possible with a lightweight tripod.

A Shutter Release cable or a Wireless Shutter Release

Milky Way Photography Tips
Washington’s Palouse Falls would have been invisible without my external lighting in this Milky Way image.

These inexpensive accessories let you to trip your shutter without actually touching the camera.  Even a minor shake can blur your image, so why take the chance?

Intervalometer

Intervalometers are simple devices you plug onto your camera that allow you to automatically take a number of sequential shots.  This comes in handy when you are “Star Stacking” (see below).  Most higher-end cameras already have an intervalometer built-in but if your camera doesn’t, just pick one up for less than $20 (they are camera-specific, so be sure to get one made for your model.) 

Headlamp

You will need both hands to manipulate your camera and a headlamp is a perfect solution. Get one that has a red light since that color won’t ruin your night vision (and infuriate any nearby photographers).

Lights

Off-camera lighting allows you to illuminate the foreground so that the Milky Way isn’t just a bunch of stars behind a black silhouette.   As of 2021, I am using Lume Cube 2.0s, which are small, lightweight, and can be controlled remotely with my phone!

Lights Stands

  • Foregrounds are best illuminated with light coming in at a sharp angle from the side of the frame to emphasize texture and shadows.  Elevated light often gives even more dramatic results, so having light stands is essential.   Currently, I use these carbon-fiber units made by Besnfoto which weigh less than 1.5 lbs and will loft my light-weight Lume Cubes over 7′ high. 
  • Add a $5 tilting head to your stand and you will be able to adjust your light in any conceivable direction.  
How to photograph the Milky Way. A detailed description of the equipment, software, and techniques used for high-quality Milky Way photography.
I had scouted this location out on the previous afternoon. My PhotoPills app helped me visualize this shot AND let me know exactly when I needed to be back to capture the Milky Way in this exact position. Metate Arch in the Devil’s Garden near Escalante Utah. 

PhotoPills

  • This smartphone App allows you to “see” exactly where the Milky Way will be visible in the sky at any location in the world at any time on any date. This allows you to visualize and preplan shots far in advance.  I consider PhotoPills to be an absolutely indispensable tool for Milky Way photography. Plus PhotoPills is an incredible bargain for $9.99.

Processing Software

  • Yes, we photographers are gearheads.  We tend to obsess over the latest camera or lens (didn’t I JUST list all the equipment you need before I even mentioned software?)  But to be honest, how I process my images has far more impact on their quality than the camera or lens I use to take them. Recent software advances have delivered dramatic improvements in Milky Way image processing compared to even a few years ago.
    • Photoshop.
      • Photoshop is the 500-pound gorilla of photo processing, and with good reason…it can do almost anything and it is the foundation of 90% of my Milky Way workflow. If you really want to capture a great shot of the Milky Way, you are going to need to process the photo in Photoshop/Lightroom or a similar photo processing program. Your shot right out of the camera might be impressive, but just a bit of work in Photoshop can make your shot a real knockout!
    • Nik Topaz DeNoise AI, Astro Panel, etc.
      • There is other software on the market that does some things better and/or quicker than Photoshop. I’ll talk about two of those (Nik and Astro Panel) later in this blog.

Technique on Site

Find a place to shoot

How to photograph the Milky Way. A detailed description of the equipment, software, and techniques used for high-quality Milky Way photography.
A partial moon on the island of Bonaire was bright enough to illuminate the foreground but not so much that it also washed out the Milky Way.
  • As I mentioned before, you first need to find a spot that isn’t saturated with light pollution. That doesn’t mean that you have to be in the middle of nowhere…a glow on the horizon from a distant town can be a nice touch, but light pollution from large urban areas creates so much illumination that it can overwhelm the Milky Way in your images.

Decide when to shoot

  • Ideally, you want a moonless or near moonless night. A full moon is so bright it overwhelms the Milky Way and makes it difficult/impossible to photograph well.
  • Obviously, you also want a clear night…no lens is going to see stars through thick clouds. 
  • Although the Milky Way is visible throughout the year, the galactic plane or core (which is its most attractive feature), is best viewed in the Northern hemisphere from May through September (late February to late October for those of you in the Southern Hemisphere.) Plan accordingly.

Find a Foreground

Milky Way Photography Tips
Having a good foreground can make or break your image. In this photo, Kauai’s old Wai’oli church serves as a quaint foreground.
  • Just like daytime landscape photography, your Milky Way images will be more impactful if they include an attractive foreground element. Sure, a shot of the Milky Way with nothing else in the frame is cool but don’t stop there.
    • Trees, mountains, buildings…find subjects that are situated in such a way that the Milky Way will appear behind them (use your PhotoPills app for this).
    • Scouting locations during daylight hours is critical. Showing up in a new location for the first time at night hoping to get a great Milky Way shot is not a recipe for success.

Set up your Lighting

  • If you are going to show anything in the foreground, you will probably need some lighting.  Natural ambient light might be enough in some circumstances but if you bring your own lighting, it will open up a lot more possibilities.
    • At one time, most photographers just used a flashlight to ‘light-paint’ the foreground in their Milky Way shots. However, light-painting gives inconsistent results that are difficult to control and repeat.

Low Level Lighting (LLL)

  • Low Level Lighting (LLL) is a much better technique than light painting. It uses stationary lighting which gives you much more control and consistent results.
  • Low Level Lighting is also much less obtrusive to others since it uses far lower levels of light plus it doesn’t ‘move around’ like a hand-held light does.
  • Personally, I found LLL to be an absolute game-changer which resulted in a step-function improvement in my imagery. Check out this article for more detail on to use Low Level Lighting.
  • Be Aware that ALL lighting for night photography is prohibited in some locations (Including Arches and Canyonlands NPs). Be sure to check the local regulations since these rules can and do change with no notice.
How to photograph the Milky Way. A detailed description of the equipment, software, and techniques used for high-quality Milky Way photography.
Sunset Arch is located in Utah’s Escalante Staircase National Monument.  This is a great example of how Low-Level Lighting can really make your shot. Cross lighting serves here to emphasize every nook and cranny of this delicate, graceful span of Navajo sandstone making for a dramatic image.

Shoot in RAW

  • If you’ve never shot anything other than the default JPEG format, you will need to give RAW a try if you want to make your Milky Way shots the best they can be. 
  • Unlike JPEG, which condenses and throws away a lot of the data your camera’s sensor captures, RAW files keep all the data.  As a result, the files are larger, which gives you the ability to process your image with better results.

Set your Focus:

  • Your autofocus won’t work well at night, so you need to shoot with manual focus.
  • Simply setting your lens to ‘infinity’ usually won’t work…most lenses don’t have a hard stop on their focus ring at infinity…if you go a bit too far the stars will be unfocused.
  • The best idea is simply to focus on an object in the far distance before the sun goes down. Then turn off the auto-focus and put a piece of gaffers tape on the focus ring to hold it in place. This way, your camera will already be pre-focused for your Milky Way shots. If you don’t use the tape, you could bump the lens during your shoot throwing all future shots out of focus.
  • If you don’t get a chance to set up your focus before dark, try to focus on any illuminated item in the distance…perhaps a particularly bright star. Take a shot, then review it at full magnification to see if your focus is crisp. Adjust until you get it perfect then tape your focus ring in place.
  • Note: Some newer lenses (the Nikon Z series for example) use ‘focus by wire’ for their manual focusing rather than the traditional ‘mechanical’ manual focusing. What this means is that once you turn off power to the camera/lens, you ‘loose’ the manual focus settings. In other words, you can’t just set the focus as described above and then tape the lens, because the lens ‘resets’ when it looses power.
Shooting the Milky Way during a meteor shower can reap rewards. This image was taken at Lost Lake Oregon during the Perseid Meteor Shower. Capturing a meteor in the shot along with the Milky Way, Mount Hood and a reflection in the lake was just an embarrassment of riches for one image.

Check your Composition

Once you figured what you want in your composition, take a trial shot to make sure it is actually showing on your camera (trust me, it is easy to accidentally cut off stuff when shooting at night). 

  • First, increase your ISO to 12,500 (or more) and take a 5-second shot. The result will be noisy but you will be able to clearly see your composition. 
  • Then adjust our camera until the composition on your image is perfect.
    • Then just reset your camera settings as detailed below and get to work. 
How to photograph the Milky Way. A detailed description of the equipment, software, and techniques used for high-quality Milky Way photography.
The foreground in this image was a ten-minute exposure. The Milky Way part of the shot is composed of ten, 8-second exposures combined with Sequator software. Temple of the Sun at Capital Reef National Park in Utah

Take your Foreground shot

  • Now that you have your composition perfect, your next step is to take a high-quality image of the foreground, which you will later combine with an image of the background to make your final photo.  This is necessary because the camera settings you use for the foreground are completely different from those used for the Milky Way.

Foreground Camera Settings

  1. Set your camera to Manual Mode (Manual Priority)
  2. Set your ISO to 400
    • This setting will allow most cameras to create a near-pristine image. Your camera might be different but ISO 400 is a good place to start.
  3. Set your lens aperture to its sharpest setting (f/8 works for most lenses)
  4. Now all you have to do is figure out how long a shutter time you need to give you a properly exposed foreground image.
    • To start, just take a 15-second exposure and then look at the results on your LCD. Adjust your shutter speed accordingly for your next shot and keep doing this until you end up with a properly exposed image
    • You may well need more than the 30 second maximum that most cameras offer as an option. If so, use your Shutter program’s “Bulb” option. This will keep the shutter open as long as you keep the trigger depressed on your remote shutter cable.

Take Your Milky Way Shot

After getting your foreground shot, don’t move or adjust your camera in any way.  Your next step is to make a high-quality Milky Way shot but you will need different camera settings:  

Shutter Speed

The goal here is to take as long an exposure as you can without the stars start to streak in your image (when stars no longer appear as round spots but instead appear as a line…because of the earth’s movement).  

How to photograph the Milky Way. A detailed description of the equipment, software, and techniques used for high-quality Milky Way photography.
“Heavenly Hanalei”  The pier at Kauai’s Hanalei Bay
  •  So how long?  Well, with my D810 and the Nikon 14-24mm lens, I start seeing star trails after about 12 seconds
  • HOWEVER, every camera/lens combo will be different. Just take a bunch of shots starting at 30 seconds and keep reducing the shutter time until you can’t see any ‘streaking’ when you review the stars on the back of your camera at full magnification.

ISO

You will have to boost your ISO far higher than you did for your foreground shot.  With my current camera, the ISO sweet spot for night photography is ISO 6400. Although high ISO settings do result in more noise, they also capture more of the color that makes the Milky Way so beautiful. If your camera isn’t as light-sensitive as a high-quality full-frame model, then you will likely have to shoot at a higher ISO

Aperture

Use the widest aperture your lens has can since you want to capture every bit of light possible. I consider f/ 2.8 to the minimum.

Star Stacking

Star stacking is a process that will result in an image with sharper stars and less noise.  Rather than taking a single shot of the Milky Way, with this technique you take a bunch of shots (say 5 to 10) with each image being about 10 seconds each.  When you get back home, you combine all of them into a single image with a software program.   

How to photograph the Milky Way. A detailed description of the equipment, software, and techniques used for high-quality Milky Way photography.
With my memory, I really need a Cheat Sheet!
  • This topic is worthy of an entire blog post, so if you like to learn more click on this link if you have a PC or this one if you have a Mac (they use different software).
  • Your intervalometer (mentioned above) really makes taking these multiple shots easier.

All these steps may seem overwhelming and frankly, it is easy to mess something up.   To avoid problems,  I just print the steps on a laminated card (see below) and refer to it when shooting at night. 

Post-Production Processing

  • After you return home, it’s time for real fun.  The processing!  There are basically three steps:
    1. Process your foreground image on a layer
    2. Process your Milky Way image on a layer
    3. Combine both layers
  • Let’s review those steps below:
How to photograph the Milky Way. A detailed description of the equipment, software, and techniques used for high-quality Milky Way photography.
“Mars Attacks” Mars appears in the upper left reflecting off of a small cloud over the Bisti Badlands. This shot combines a number of features: Lighting for the ‘wing’ in the foreground, another light placed down in the canyon to the right, some light pollution on the horizon combined with near verticle Milky Way complimented by the planet Mars.

Color/Temperature

  • When set to the default setting of “Auto White Balance” most cameras will capture the Milky Way in shades of blue.  And since we all know that the sky is blue, most photographers will naturally let the blue tones predominate in their Milky Way photos.  That’s unfortunate because the night sky is actually nearly colorless although light pollution will often add greens near the horizon.  The interstellar dust that comprises much of the Milky Way results in shades of reddish-brown but it also has other subtle colors that are quite attractive. 
    • I made this same mistake when I was starting out, as you can see in the photo below:
Milky Way Photography Tips
A 5 shot panorama of the Milky Way that I took at Zion NP over six years ago.  My original processing over-emphasized blues.  Plus, the foreground had little illumination resulting in basically a black silhouette

Compare the image above to the one below.  I think the result below is far more subtle and attractive (as well as being more color-accurate):

The exact same image (from the exact same raw file) but reprocessed with a new understanding of accurate Milky Way color.  I also used new software that wasn’t available when I first processed the shot back in 2014 which allowed me to show more details in the foreground.
  • If you would like to learn more about accurate Milky Way color,  this article discusses the topic in great detail.
  • When processing a Milky Way image in Photoshop Camera Raw, start by adjusting the temperature slider between 3000 and 4500 until you find a setting that has a nice balance between the cold blues and warm oranges.  
    • I have to admit that I still like some blue in my star-field.  Let’s just call it artistic license… 

Noise

You are going to have noise in your image…there is no way around it with current levels of technology.  But noise-reduction software has improved dramatically over the past five years.   

  • For example, I have found that the latest (March 2021) update of Topaz Labs DeNoise AI software to be very effective in reducing noise in my Milky Way images.
  • •Photoshop is another option. Although not as good as Topaz software for noise reduction, it certainly can help.
  • •There is other anti-noise software on the market and new products are introduced and old products are updated all the time. This is an area where you just have to keep up with the times…

Emphasize the Milky Way, not the starfield in the background

Milky Way Photography Tips
The Milky Way has a subtle beauty, don’t distract your audience’s attention away from it by overprocessing the stars surrounding it in your images.
  • Make the Milky Way pop by using your dodge and burn tools to subtly bring out the lighter and darker details in the ‘cloud.’
  • Kill off some stars.  Okay, I don’t mean call up Darth Vader and have him bring the Death Star over, but if you over-process your image by sliding the brightness control over too far, it is easy to emphasize the starfield and draw attention away from the Milky Way
    • AstroPanel is a Photoshop Plug-in program that handles this ‘star reduction’ task automatically.  The program isn’t cheap ($80) but it does a great job.  It also automates some other aspects of Milky Way processing that can save you time and provide impressive results. 
      • Just a warning, if you have a 4K monitor AstroPanel will not have full functionality due to a software glitch (The app’s designers are working on the problem but it is still an issue as of June 2021, Astro Panel version 5.1)  

To me, the whole processing effort is the most creative part of Milky Way photography.  Yes, it can be frustrating and time-consuming.  But just consider it to be a learning process.  If your results aren’t immediately what you had visualized, take your time.  Experiment. Have fun!

The information in this blog will help you create impressive Milky Way images.  But I can guarantee you that the techniques, software, and hardware will continue to evolve and improve…I have no doubt that this article will be obsolete in less than five years. Stay tuned!

Cheers,

Jeff

PS: I mention a lot of products in this article. Unlike a lot of folks, I do not get kickbacks or compensation of any kind from these companies. I don’t blindly trust someone’s endorsement who is getting paid to sell a product. I wouldn’t expect you would either.

How to photograph the Milky Way. A detailed description of the equipment, software, and techniques used for high-quality Milky Way photography.
These four photogenic hoodoos can be found in the Devils Garden area of the Escalante Grand Staircase National Monument in Utah. Boasting some of the world’s darkest, light-pollution-free skies, the Milky Way can be seen in all its elegant beauty

 

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