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Ultimate Guide to Milky Way Photography
Ultimate Guide to Milky Way Photography

Ultimate Guide to Milky Way Photography

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Ultimate Guide to Milky Way Photography

In recent years, Milky Way photography has been rapidly growing in popularity and for good reason. The beauty of the starry sky has been a source of inspiration for people for thousands of years. There is nothing more breathtaking than witnessing thousands of diamond-like stars above your head.



Thanks to the impressive low light capabilities of modern digital cameras (and even smartphones!), taking really good pictures of the Milky Way has become much easier and more accessible for any photographer. Being an astronomer and astrophotographer, I have spent countless nights taking images of the starry sky in various places on our planet. Now, I would like to share with you some of my tips and experiences with Milky Way photography.

Taking pictures at night might sound tricky but I hope this guide will help you to understand the basics and inspire you to expand your own horizons in photography. Let's get started.



Planning

When to Photograph the Milky Way

The Milky Way is visible in the night sky every single night, provided that you are under dark, clear skies far away from artificial lights. However, the brightest and the most scenic part of the Milky Way – the region close to the Galactic centre – is visible only during certain periods.

In the Northern Hemisphere, the best period to capture the Galactic centre is from March to October. In the Southern Hemisphere, we can start seeing the Milky Way as early as February. Note that due to the Earth's rotation, the apparent position of the Milky Way in the sky also changes during the night. Therefore, the timing is important.

Ultimate Guide to Milky Way PhotographySchematic view of the Milky Way from the same locations and time of the night but in different seasons. Summer view (right) vs autumn view (left). Photo by: 'Yuri Beletsky'.

Another important factor to consider is the Moon. The moonlight is quite bright and it does seriously impact the visibility of the Milky Way in the night sky. Therefore, it is recommended that you take images while the Moon phase does not exceed 25%. Make sure to check the Moon calendar before going on a trip. The Moon Phase Calculator is a website that I recommend that you use. There are also a wide variety of useful apps for your smartphone, including PhotoPills, The Moon, as well as Moon Phase Calendar.



Where to Photograph the Milky Way

Dark skies are essential for taking photos of the Milky Way. Unfortunately, we cannot see it from big cities due to strong light pollution, which is continuously getting worse. Therefore, I would recommend that you get away from the city lights as far as possible.

Apart from the light pollution, cities usually produce significant amounts of smog and aerosols, which also affect transparency of the sky. But where should you go? A good starting point is to take a look at nearby national parks or reserves. Usually, those areas are protected and well managed to minimise the impact of human activities.

Finding Dark Skies

There are various online resources which can help you to find areas with dark skies, both in your neighbourhood and around the world as well. One of the most popular is The Light Pollution Map. If you prefer to use apps for your phone, I suggest Light Pollution Map (LPM, for both iOS and Android) and DarkSkyFinder (for iOS).

Ultimate Guide to Milky Way PhotographyLight pollution map of the area around Santiago, Chile. The red and pink colors correspond to the brightest levels of the artificial lights. Screenshot by: 'Yuri Beletsky' from the Light Pollution Map.

All of these services display colour-coded maps of the intensity of light pollution on top of the geographical map. The blue colour corresponds to the darkest areas that are free from light pollution. The areas with slightly increased levels of artificial lights are displayed in green. The yellow zone is the last one, where we may still have a chance to see some faint stars. However, red and pink colours designate the areas with heavy light pollution and those areas should be avoided when doing any Milky Way photography.

Scouting and Points of Interest

Since we already know how to find dark skies, the next step is to find an actual photography location. It is always a good idea to prepare in advance and do some research online. Google MapsGoogle Earth, Instagram, Facebook, and even local sources (such as newspapers, local TV, online forums, etc.) are excellent starting points. Besides being useful in terms of providing geographical locations with a description, they also often include images of particular sites. This will definitely help you to narrow down the search and select the most interesting places for scouting.

Ultimate Guide to Milky Way PhotographyScouting is an important part of Milky Way photography. Photo by: 'Dino Reichmuth, Unsplash'.

Scouting a location is very important. First of all, online sources may be outdated or the available information could be incomplete. There is nothing worse than finding your perfect spot for photography and driving all the way over there, only to find that there is a closed gate on the road a few miles before. Perhaps the whole area itself is private land with restricted access. Therefore, I highly recommend that you scout your potential sites of interest in advance during the daytime.



How to Find the Milky Way

There are a number of desktop and smartphone apps that can help you to find the Milky Way and predict its visibility, as well as the apparent position in the sky that it will take for any given date and time, at any location. Stellarium is probably the most famous desktop application to do the job and it's absolutely free! This is a full featured planetarium software that has all the essential tools when it comes to predicting and displaying positions of celestial objects, such as stars, constellations, the Moon, planets and more.

For smartphones, one of the best apps is PhotoPills. One of its most powerful planning tools is Augmented Reality. It allows the overlaying of a schematic view of the Milky Way over the Live View from the cellphone camera. This opens up endless possibilities during scouting, as you can check the position of the Milky Way at the site and figure out both the precise timing and composition of your shot.

Weather

Since our goal is to capture the stars, having clear skies are essential. That's almost quite the opposite to conventional landscape photography, where clouds and rain are often needed to create dramatic light and enhance the scene. Heading into the night on a hunt for stars during heavy cloud coverage doesn't make much sense. Therefore, we need to check the weather well in advance.

There is no shortage of weather forecast services these days, from websites to apps and TV. I suggest checking local sources first. They may have much better experience in forecasting the weather in very specific locations that you're planning to go to. Among the global ones, I recommend the following websites and their corresponding apps:

Ultimate Guide to Milky Way PhotographyPhotopills App in action. Select Night AR function (left) Augmented reality view of the South Pole about a monument (middle) and the predicted position of the Milky Way above a volcano (right). Photo by: 'Yuri Beletsky'.



Safety

Obviously, the importance of safety cannot be underestimated, especially when we are talking about activities during the night. If possible, try not to go out alone. Travelling with a companion or within a group is more desirable. Always inform your family or friends about your travel route and the destination, as well as provide them with a planned return date and time. If you are planning to go to a remote location, make sure to register at the nearest ranger or police office. Always bring a sufficient amount of supplies and water. Don't forget a first aid kit and be familiar with how to use it! Also, keep in mind that there might not be real reliable (or any) cell phone coverage in the area. For the most remote areas, carrying a satellite phone is a good idea.

Remember, no potentially "epic" image is worth your life. 



Equipment

Camera

Practically any DSLR camera which allows manual control of exposure, shutter and aperture will be suitable for Milky Way photography. A full frame DSLR or mirrorless camera would be preferable, due to their abilities to use larger lenses (hence collecting more light). However, any modern crop-sensor camera will work as well.

The camera brand doesn't really matter; these days, even a smartphone can be quite a powerful instrument to capture the Milky Way! Among the proven choices of cameras for low light photography, I would suggest investing in Nikon (D750, D810 or D850), the Canon 6D (released in late 2012 but still remarkably one of the best Canon cameras for nightscapes), and the Sony A7SII (it has relatively low resolution but amazing low light sensitivity).

Ultimate Guide to Milky Way PhotographyYou can use practically any DSLR or mirrorless camera to photograph the Milky Way. Photo by: 'Zoltan Tasi, Unsplash'.

Lenses

More important than the camera in low light photography is which lens you choose to use. There are two important parameters we should look at when choosing a lens: focal length and the maximum f-stop.

Focal length determines the size of the field of view. The smaller the focal length, the larger the field of view. Wide angle lenses (14-24 mm) allow us to capture very wide views of the Milky Way. Mid-range focal lengths (35-70mm) will help to focus on certain parts of the Milky Way, such as the Galactic centre, while revealing more details.

I suggest that you have at least one wide angle lens (approximately 14mm) in your kit. Lenses with maximum f-stop numbers of f/1.4 to f/2.0 are considered to be “fast” lenses. They will be able gather as much light as possible at the given exposure. This is especially essential in low light conditions, allowing us to capture the maximum amount of light. The Sigma 14mm f/1.8 DG HSM Art and Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G ED are a couple of the best lenses for Milky Way and star photography. 



Tripod

A sturdy tripod is a must. At night, a typical exposure time can consist of 10 seconds or more and we definitely need to keep the camera steady. Modern carbon fibre tripods are the best. They are both fairly light (which is especially handy if you hike) and durable.

Ultimate Guide to Milky Way PhotographyNikon D810a camera with Nikkor 14-24/2.8 lens on a heavy-duty Fotopro tripod (left). Vello ShutterBoss II Timer Remote Switch. Note, the red LED is covered with a piece of aluminium tape out to prevent light contamination during the night (middle). The same was done for an LED on the rear back of the DSLR (right). Photo by: 'Yuri Beletsky'.

Remote Shutter Release / Intervalometer

These are simple yet very useful devices which allow us to trigger a camera from a distance without touching it. They also help us to avoid possible vibrations within the camera. The intervalometer function will help to take a sequence of images or assist when you need to introduce a time delay (for example, taking a selfie in front of the Milky Way). Remote shutter releases and intervalometers can be either wired or wireless. Many camera brands offer their own intervalometers, which are usually pretty pricey. If you are looking for a more budget solution, I recommend taking a look at Vello and Yongnuo brands.

Accessories

There are a couple of useful accessories worth mentioning for Milky Way photography. The headlamp is an essential one. Remember, we'll be photographing at night. As such, situational awareness is key. Besides, we do need some light to illuminate the camera while we change the settings and move the tripod. I suggest getting a headlamp which has at least two LED colours: white and red. The red light is especially useful at night, since it won't seriously affect your night vision. Another suggested accessory is gaffer tape (or a simple black tape). Yes, just a tape. We are going to tape all of those shiny LEDs on the camera and remote shutter release. Leaving them uncovered can produce some nasty colour gradients on your images, especially if you are shooting close foregrounds.

Ultimate Guide to Milky Way PhotographyA headlamp is an important accessory to have for Milky Way photography. Photo by: 'Štefan Štefančík, Unsplash'.



Recommended Camera Settings

Camera Mode

We are going to use the camera in Manual mode as it offers the greatest flexibility. Besides, none of automatic algorithms would be able to effectively select the correct parameters for nightscape photography. We will set ISO, aperture, exposure and focus manually. It's not that difficult at all, since these settings are pretty similar for most nighttime scenes.

Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO

I would say one of the most common settings for Milky Way photography is the following: f/2.8, 25 sec exposure and ISO 1600-6400.

Generally speaking, a wide aperture (f/1.4-2.8) is the best. Try to keep an exposure within the range of a few tens of seconds.

Ultimate Guide to Milky Way PhotographyMilky Way above the road in Joshua Tree National Park. Green colour cast is due to atmospheric airglow. Photo by: 'Yuri Beletsky'.

ISO mostly depends on your camera model and the local conditions. These days, camera sensors are quite sensitive, which allows us to use ISO6400 with acceptable noise levels. At the same time, the higher the ISO is, the lower the dynamic range will be. If you are photographing in places with significant light pollution, I would suggest lowering the ISO down to 800 or 400, and probably also stopping down the lens to f/4 or thereabouts.



RAW or JPEG

Short answer: RAW only.

Long answer: RAW format offers several key advantages over JPEG format. RAW is uncompressed and unprocessed, which allows you to get the most of your data. It gives you much greater flexibility in recovering both shadows and highlights, as well as offering better options for further adjustments and sharpening. Besides, both colour space and the white balance can be easily changed during post processing. Therefore I would strongly suggest to shoot in RAW only.



500 Rule

Due to our planet's rotation, the stars are not still objects in the focal plane. They "move" in your image if the shutter speed exceeds a certain period of time, producing so-called 'star trails'.

The 500 Rule is a rather simple empirical rule. It defines the maximum exposure time for a given focal length, which will allow the stars to remain pinpoint when photographed and not to trail. Basically, it stipulates that to obtain a sharp (un-trailed) image of the stars, the exposure should not exceed the value equal to 500 divided by the focal length.

Example: For a 20mm lens, the exposure will be 25 seconds.

For a crop sensor camera, I suggest to use the number 300 instead of 500.

Ultimate Guide to Milky Way PhotographyGalactic core above the telescope dome. Photo by: 'Yuri Beletsky'.

This rule was derived quite a long time ago for film cameras. In the era of multi-megapixel cameras, such exposures have to be even shorter. To facilitate your calculations, the PhotoPills app has an excellent “Spot Stars” calculator, which does this job in a much more precise fashion. For those who want to learn the theory in much greater detail, I recommend this excellent review by Aaron Priest.

In-Camera Long Exposure Noise Reduction

During a long exposure, the camera's sensor gets warm. The longer the exposure, the longer the sensor is powered the more heat which is generated. This effect produces additional noise and hot pixels.

To deal with this situation, many camera manufacturers came up with a function that is now called "Long Exposure Noise Reduction" (LENR). You can check your camera manual to find this function in your camera menu. When LENR is enabled, the camera will take two consecutive images: one is the normal exposure (at the requested exposure) and then immediately after, another one will be taken with the same exposure but with the shutter closed. That second image is called a "dark frame" and it gets automatically subtracted (in-camera) from the first image.

Theoretically, this should produce a clean image (free from clean hot pixels). In practice though, this approach has its own drawbacks. Firstly, it basically doubles the exposure time (image + dark frame). Secondly, in some cases, subtracting a dark frame leads to even higher luminance noise in the image. Therefore, I would not recommend using the LENR function; we can deal with the noise in post-processing. Another way to reduce the noise is to obtain much longer exposures using a tracker or to acquire a sequence of images with subsequent co-addition (stacking).    

Ultimate Guide to Milky Way PhotographyIt's best to turn off in-camera noise reduction when photographing the Milky Way. Photo by: 'Ian Chen, Unsplash'.

Focusing

Unlike daytime photography, low light conditions pose serious challenges when it comes to focusing. In most cases, autofocus will not work properly at night. The best way to focus is to do it manually using Live View. Just point your camera on a bright star, centre the star in the field of view and then bring it to the best focus by manually rotating the focusing ring on your lens. When you use zoom lenses, just keep in mind that the focus can change slightly while you zoom. Also, make sure to switch off image stabilisation on your lens (if there is that option). It doesn't work for long exposure anyway and especially when the camera is on a tripod.

Another tip: Be careful with the infinity marks that you'll often see on the top of lenses. On many lenses, the real true infinity does not strictly correspond to the position of that mark. Always double check your focus!



Smartphone Photography

It might sound surprising but the new generation of cellphones are equipped with pretty capable cameras, especially smartphones such as the Xiaomi Mi Note 10 and Samsung S20. Their low light sensitivity is already comparable to a good APS-C sensor. Therefore, I would definitely encourage you to experiment with your smartphone as well.

Ultimate Guide to Milky Way PhotographySmartphone Xiaomi Mi Note 10 capturing the Milky Way from on a tripod (left) The Galactic core image taken with this smartphone (middle) Southern Cross constellation above the house and the Milky Way (right). Photo by: 'Yuri Beletsky'.

The setup is very similar to photographing the Milky Way with a DSLR. You need a tripod in combination with a good phone holder. The standard built-in camera app is usually sufficient. Make sure to use the smartphone camera app in "Pro Mode", where you can manually select the aperture, ISO, and the exposure. I suggest the following settings: f/1.67, ISO 3200, 16 or 32 sec exposure. Under dark skies, it will produce quite some remarkable results. Just forget for a moment that you're using a smartphone. Treat it like a professional camera. It's totally capable of capturing more complicated images like star trails, panoramas and stacked images of deep sky objects.



Composition

Composition is one of the most important elements in photography. Properly composed images of the Milky Way will definitely attract more attention will make your images much more visually pleasing. Similar to daytime photography, many well established composition techniques are applicable for nighttime as well (the Rule of Thirds, S-curvesleading lines, etc). You should be using these rather than just pointing your camera into the night sky and taking a shot. The Milky Way is a beautiful subject by itself but it is an even better idea to include an interesting foreground into your shot. In your image, you need to "connect" the starry sky and the foreground elements, thus making them work together. Consider using various natural foreground elements in your compositions, such as:

Standalone Trees

They work perfectly, offering practically endless possibilities to express your creativity. Using a wide angle (10-15mm) lens will allow you to reveal the vastness of space and put the scale into perspective. At the same time, a telephoto lens will give you a much deeper and focused view on a particular part of the Milky Way, revealing fine details.

Ultimate Guide to Milky Way PhotographyComet PanSTARRS and a Crescent Moon next to a tree. Photo by: 'Yuri Beletsky'.

Waterfalls

Long exposures are the key to capturing a perfect Milky Way image but at the same time, they will allow you to obtain silky smooth water in your images. As a tip, I suggest using a flashlight at its low intensity to gently light up the water. It will help to enhance the water flow and also emphasise other foreground elements, like rocks and trees.

Ultimate Guide to Milky Way PhotographyWaterfall under the Southern Milky Way and the Magellanic clouds in Atacama desert in Chile. Photo by: 'Yuri Beletsky'.

Lakes and Ponds

Reflections – this is why we love pictures of lakes and ponds at night. Photos of Milky Way reflections are some of the most popular and for a good reason. Apart from the photography aspect, the whole experience of witnessing the night sky in the water is truly mesmerising. 

Ultimate Guide to Milky Way PhotographyMilky Way and Zodiacal light above a pond in the desert. Photo by: 'Yuri Beletsky'.

Monuments (Man-Made and Natural)

These objects are one of the most suitable foreground elements for Milky Way photography. If you are looking for inspiration, The World At Night (TWAN) website has a vast collection of stunning landscape astro photographs of the world’s most beautiful and historic sites against a nighttime backdrop of stars, planets and celestial events.

Ultimate Guide to Milky Way Photography“Hand of the Desert” monument and the Milky Way. Atacama Desert, Chile. Photo by: 'Yuri Beletsky'.

This suggested list is not complete by any means. Please, feel free to explore the area where you are planning your trip and try to find something interesting that will enhance your composition! 



Milky Way Panoramas

Panoramic photography is probably the best way to capture the Milky Way in its full glory. You have probably already seen such images, where the great arc of the Milky Way spans over a landscape. Most of these are actually panoramic shots.

To capture a panorama, we need basically the same equipment and settings or parameters described earlier in the article. The only difference is that instead of taking one single image, now we will take a series of images which we will then stitch together in post-processing.

Ultimate Guide to Milky Way PhotographyPanoramic image of the Milky Way above VLT telescope at European Southern Observatory, Chile. Photo by: 'Yuri Beletsky'.

To begin, carefully level your tripod and mount the camera vertically (having an L-bracket is very helpful in this situation). Point your camera to the direction of the far left side of the Milky Way, which will be your starting point. Then, take the first image. After the exposure is complete, pan your camera slightly to right so there is an overlap of about 30% with your previous image and take the second image. Keep photographing until you reach the far right side of the Milky Way.

Tip: It's a good idea to capture a bit of a wider area than the Milky Way itself. This will help during the stitching phase in post-processing and will offer greater flexibility when it comes to fine-tuning the composition.



Milky Way Post Processing Tips

For image processing, I use a combination of Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. Although every image is different, my typical image workflow consists of the following steps:

In Adobe Lightroom

  1. Exposure Adjustment. Usually I increase this value by 0.5-2.0 stops (watch for the highlights!)

  2. White Balance. To set the initial white balance, I use the White Balance Selector (W) tool. Try to find a neutral grey area on your image and click in this area with the tool selected.

  3. Sharpening. Switch off any sharpening! On images of the night sky, sharpening just adds undesirable noise.

  4. Noise Reduction. Slightly add some noise reduction (+10-15 or so).

  5. Lens Corrections. Switch ON lens corrections (the options Remove Chromatic Aberrations and Lens Profile Corrections).

For the rest of the sliders, just leave them unchanged. Export the image to Adobe Photoshop (either directly from Lightroom, or save it as a 16-bit TIFF file).

In Adobe Photoshop

  1. Layer Masking. Mask the foreground (Quick Selection tool is the best for that).

  2. Adjustments. Create two additional Level adjustment layers (one for the foreground and another one for the sky). Adjust both Levels layers separately, keeping the overall balance. Increase/decrease highlights, midtones, blacks of the foreground, if needed. Do the same for the sky. The reason why we treat the foreground and the sky separately is because usually, there is quite a substantial difference in the levels of brightness between those two objects.

  3. Colour Correction. Fine tune colour correction using the colour Balance tool.

  4. Saturation. Add some saturation (if necessary).

  5. Noise Reduction. If your image still looks a bit noise, apply some noise reduction (Filter--> Noise --> Reduce noise).

  6. Merge. Merge all layers.

Save the image as a 16-bit TIFF file or export it as a JPEG (for web and social media publications).

Ultimate Guide to Milky Way PhotographyPanoramic image of the Milky Way above Racetrack Playa in the Death Valley. The green colour of the sky above the mountain is due to strong atmospheric airglow. Photo by: 'Yuri Beletsky'.

For panoramic photography, we first need to stitch our images into a single one. It can be done using either Adobe Lightroom (go to Photo --> Photo Merge --> Panorama), or in Adobe Photoshop (go to: File --> Automate --> Photomerge). If you want to have full control over the stitching process, I highly recommend using dedicated software, such as PtGui.



Conclusion

Ultimate Guide to Milky Way PhotographyMilky Way photography gives you the opportunity to unite with nature. Photo by: 'Mahkeo, Unsplash'.

Milky Way photography is a truly fascinating hobby. It gives you a unique opportunity to unite with nature and to enjoy the real beauty of the night sky. Over time, you'll acquire photographic experience whilst witnessing some amazing phenomena happening in the night sky. Whether it will be a shooting star or colourful Aurora, the night sky will always have splendours to surprise you. You will be the last photographer arriving on the site in the twilight and you'll probably be the first one to leave but at night, you'll be the only one under the stars. You'll learn much more about the Universe and you'll master your photographic skills. Despite cloudy weather (which will happen) and sleepless nights (that's a given), don't give up and never stop exploring!


About the author:  Yuri Beletsky is a professional astronomer and nightscape photographer based in Chile. You can find more of his work on 500px, Facebook or Instagram.


Have you ever tried to photograph the Milky Way? What was it like? Did you get the results you were hoping to achieve? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below!