How to Photograph the Milky Way

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Milky Way

 

Photographing our own galaxy: The Milky Way is a great experience. From a dark location without light pollution the dusty band of the Milky Way is a wonderful sight to the naked eye and it looks even better in long exposure photographs. Summer in the North Hemisphere and Winter in the South Hemisphere is the best time to photograph the Milky Way and here’s a short article about how to do it.

Milky Way

Preparation

Good preparation is critical if you want to get a good shot of the Milky Way. I use Stellarium (free) to forecast how the sky will look from any location at a given time. For the Milky Way, you will get a good shot around 3am in March, around 2am in April, around 1am in May, and at midnight in June. In July and August you the ideal times are 9pm or 10pm.

The brightest part of the Milky Way is towards the direction of Scorpius/Sagitarius. Look for those constellations on Stellarium and take note of the direction where you need to point the camera and the best time of the night to do it (when the constellations are higher in the sky).

Then you need to find a location that has little or no light pollution in the direction of your shot. This can be hard depending on where you’re at. Rural areas are fine but make sure the Milky Way is not in the direction of a town or city.

Milky Way

 

Setup & Taking the shot

To take a good photo of the Milky Way you need to avoid star trails. Use a very wide lens, a fast one if you have it and a solid tripod with a good ballhead.

The following procedure will help you frame the shot and take the best possible exposure.

First Stage: Framing

- lens wide open

- ridiculous ISO (12800,25600 etc)

- 2 or 4 second exposures

Use this short exposures moving the camera around to find the framing you like. The photos are useless but we are using the camera as an extra pair of eyes, eyes that are far more sensible to the light than ours.

Once the framing is found we move to stage 2, the exposure.

Milky Way

Second Stage: Exposure

- lens wide open

- ISO800 or 1600

- 20 seconds exposure

Take a shot and in the camera LCD examine the stars near the borders of the frame (not the center) if you see trails, then repeat with a shorter exposure. If you don’t see trails repeat with a longer exposure. Do this until you find the longest exposure you can afford without trails.

Note: when you check the stars for trails you might see the stars at the borders display a strange triangular shape. That’s called “comma” and is an optical defect on the lens. To solve that close the aperture 1 step (for example move from F2 to F2.8). Some lenses are good at F2.8 others at F4 and others around F5 for night time photography.

Milky Way

Following these steps you will get a shot with a framing you like and the longest possible exposure time without trails or optical defects. That’s your Milky Way photograph!

The Milky Way will move in the sky following Earth’s rotation as the stars move, this means you will have different compositions at different times of the night. You can get the band of our galaxy in vertical or horizontal orientation and in the middle you will have a diagonal.

The Milky Way is huge, you can attempt a panorama to get the whole band of the Milky Way in the sky. Just make sure to allow a gentle 40% overlap between shots to make things easier to your stitching software. Besides that it’s like any other panorama.

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  • Comments
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  1. Aparna B.

    Awesome tips! Thanks. However, I do have one question. I only have the nifty fifty for Canon where the widest aperture is at 1.8. I can definitely go to 2.8, but what do you use for light source? Often times my lens is going crazy trying to find something to focus on before it will take the shot. Or do you set to manual and adjust the lens until you think the stars are in focus? I end up with star bokeh more than anything else :( Thanks!

    • Reply
    • Caleb McGinnis

      Aparna,

      Yes, it is essential to set the lens on MF. If you have it in AF, the camera will struggle to find something to focus on because it is too dark. There is no way to automatically focus on the stars because the long exposure time is required to bring them out of the darkness.

      For most lenses, the stars will have max clarity if you set the focal length to
      “infinity”. However, if you are using a Canon, setting it at the “L” bracket just before the infinity mark works the best I hear. Hope that helps!

      • Reply
    • prashanth peethala

      you dont have to adjust focus, you need to put it in manual focus mode and turn the focus ring all the way to infinity(you will know when the pointer is on the horizontal * figure on your lens) and then shoot… the stars are at infinity focus rt? therefore.. happy shooting!

      • Reply
    • candido

      You have to turn of the autofocus and manuel focus it yourself. The nifty fifty can’t set to infinity but if you get a lens that has an option to set to infinity then you be fine. You can buysome good price ones on amazon.

      • Reply
    • Dave

      Manual focus

      • Reply
  2. OddThomas

    Awesome photos. I was always under the impression you needed something like a motorised equatorial mount, but this is so straightforward! Can’t wait to try this out … just need to find somewhere suitable!

    Thanks!!

    • Reply
  3. Filemon

    How do you shoot long exposures in the middle of the day? ie in june? Will you need a 10 Stop ND?

    • Reply
  4. Luis Argerich

    Hi Aparma.
    Focus using live-view at 10x magnification. Find a bright star, center it on live-view. Zoom at 10x and focus manually until you have the best focus possible on the star.
    If you use the 50mm F1.8 after you find your focus switch the lens back to AF, if you leave it in MF the focus will shift because the focus ring is usually very loose.

    Filemon:
    [offtopic]
    If you need daytime long exposures you can use a 10 stop or 9 stop ND filter. They Hoya ND400 is a reliable filter for that.
    [/offtopic]

    • Reply
  5. Alim Khan

    thanks for making such beautiful and wonderful website for thr asthetic peaple

    • Reply
  6. march test

    Maybe I should get more into with this type of stuff.

    • Reply
  7. JP

    Aren’t all the stars by definition at infinity? Can you not just set the focus manually at infinity then?

    This article is fantastic. I didn’t think you can get shots like this without a lens that tracks the motion of the sky, which is a whole new level. Now all I need is darkness. Not likely to find it in London … not to mention the sky in general!

    • Reply
  8. Dave Yuhas

    The author left out one important detail: to use the ridiculously high ISOs you have to be using a top of the line Canon or Nikon ($$$$).

    • Reply
    • Michael McKee

      You don’t need a top of the line camera. If you read more carefully, you see that th ridiculous ISOs are only for framing your shot. The real shots are at ISOs reasonable for any current APSC sensor camera.

      • Reply
    • Jack Sassard

      You don’t need a high end Nikon or Canon. My Pentax K-30 max ISO is 25600.

      • Reply
    • Ahmed sohair

      No. That high ISO was just to find out the frame we like. The writer has mentioned that ” The photos are useless but we are using the camera as an extra pair of eyes” just to find out a suitable frame and then set a lower ISO at the same frame to get a perfect shot.

      • Reply
  9. james

    great photos! i hope i can also capture stunning images like this someday :)

    • Reply
  10. Bwardell

    Aparma, going to manual focus will be your best bet. JP is correct, focus to infinity. Putting it back into autofocus I’m guessing is where you were having problems with your camera searching for focus. Just be careful not to touch your camera after you set your framing and fucusing and trip your shutter via cable or wireless if possible with your mirror up prior to trigger. No cable or wireless shutter release isnt a problem if you don’t have one, just use the camera’s self timer and you should be alright. Your nifty fifty will probably look best around f/ 4.0. Hope that’s a good place to start.

    • Reply
  11. Calgary Wedding Photographer David Sherjan

    Hey, Awesome tips and even better captures. Bookmarked!

    Best,

    David
    DSP

    • Reply
  12. Sam B

    Dave, i have a Canon T2I and you can set the ISO on that, and thats a Amature photographers camera.
    or you can go to http://www.BorrowLenses.com/ and rent the camera and lens of your choice.

    • Reply
  13. Anil

    @Dave Yuhas,

    Not really! You can rent a top end gear (Nikon or Canon) along with lens from various websites!

    Thanks for info, Luis!

    • Reply
  14. TommyC

    Dave, not necessarily. You can use something like ‘skyviewcafe.com’ to ‘see’ the milky way’s cloud band so you know where in the sky to point without all the test shots. Most cameras support 800-1600 after all.

    Unfortunately ever since I read this site it’s been cloudy for a week straight! *cry*

    And a note for a few others, yeah just manual focus to infinity for the stars since focusing automatically in such light is not always easy.

    • Reply
  15. Jose Alonso

    Luis,

    I want to thank you for posting this information. You have no idea how valuable it is to beginner photographers of all levels. Sometimes a long time photographer stumbles on a new road block, in my case astrophotography became a recent interest and after weeks of research on the appropriate settings for star and milky way settings, I realized that it was like walking in the desert. The more I Googled the less i advanced. Most photographers are either keeping this data to themselves or being very careful in giving advice as, like they put it there are so many variables.

    So I started the trial and error and am moving along quite slowly. But this post is helping more then anything I have read to date, so muchisimas gracias.

    Helping me discover Stellarium is also noteworthy, thanks for that too.

    • Reply
  16. Steven Christenson

    How long you can expose before streaking occurs is the subject of much debate. You may have heard of the 600 Rule – but I say it’s almost useless, and almost certainly wrong. You can read about the math and analysis of the rule here: http://blog.starcircleacademy.com/2012/06/600-rule
    or if you want more background, you can try on this article.
    http://blog.starcircleacademy.com/2010/10/exposing-for-stars

    Bottom line is that photographing the Milky Way is indeed a wondrous thing and you can even do it where the sky is not as dark as you’d like.

    By the way, my favorite tip for planning to shoot the Milky Way is to get a planisphere (search Amazon). It’s much faster than spinning through days and hours on Stellarium.

    • Reply
  17. Abhijit

    Thanks for this detailed article…
    I have been looking for this for a while. Just a question I have Canon EOS 550D with 18-55mm Kit Lens & Canon 50mm f1.8 Prime Lens.
    Since Canon 50mm can go upto f1.8 wide aperture but lacks the wide angle capability should I use Kit lens at 18mm focal length to take photos of galaxy? which one you think is better?

    Thanks

    • Reply
  18. Sophia von Blacha

    Oh I have to try this! Thanks a lot!

    • Reply
  19. gaurav borra

    is it possible to take photo of milky way galaxy with semi-pro cam ??

    i have tried with my sony hx-100v.
    but only gets stars only .
    my cam has 28-811 mm lens
    30s- 1/4000 s shutter speed
    iso 100-3200 .

    i tried in completely dark place.
    please tell.
    thank you

    • Reply
  20. Michael

    Awesome article . I definitely need to try this. Thanks

    • Reply
  21. Jonathan

    Simply amazing! Wonderful work!

    • Reply
  22. Tanmay Khandelwal

    Can anyone tell me where to find dark locations to shoot MilkyWay near Delhi?

    • Reply
    • John Shutz

      There is a dark sky website that will show you (at least here in the USA) on a map the various color coded regions related to dark skies. Black being the darkest with dark blue, blue, brown, yellow and ultimately white being the worst place for light pollution. I can’t say in that exact order, but close. I think if were to Google the topic something like it will appear I’m certain. Good luck.

      This summer I’m attending an annual dark sky event in the Sierra Nevada mountains in Northern California called the Golden State Dark Sky Party. I’ve been preparing my astro imaging kit for the last few months in preparation for taking my first prime focus astro images through a telescope with my T4i as the camera. I’ll also be taking piggy back style images of the Milky Way with my DSLR connected to the top of my Vixen 102 refractor telescope, using a wide angle zoom lens. The beauty of this set up is the fact the telescope is mounted on a motorized and computer controlled mount/tripod in equatorial mode. After accurately polar aligning the mount I can take long exposures without any worry of star trails or problems associated with field rotation. Its kind of overkill because the author aptly instructs on how to take photos of the Milky Way with just a tripod limiting exposures to under 30 seconds. In my situation I’m hoping to capture more light and expose nebulae and other targets that require longer exposures. Last year I rode up to the event on my motorcycle just to check out the public viewing night they host. We are talking about 300-350 astronomy geeks with many of them putting out the welcome mat so you can look through their fabulous telescopes at wonders of the universe. The location has a clear plateau view of the night sky with the Milky Way being so bright it casts a shadow on white paper. On the darkness scale the location is located right on the border between black and dark blue coded skies. With the unaided eye you could see various nebula, star clusters and even the Great Andromeda Galaxy. Being a city dweller all my life, the only other time I could see any stars clearly was when on camping trips as a kid. It really is a sight to behold, very humbling to know our solar system is located on the Orion Arm of the Milky Way Galaxy and about 98% of anything you see in the night time sky is part of the Milky Way, which is hugh. Hard to wrap your head around how big it really is and that is 100,000 light years across and our solar system is about 30,000 light years from the central core. So it will take your everyday space ship travelling at 186,000 miles per second (speed of light) 100,000 years just to get from one side of the galaxy to the other. The Andromeda Galaxy is approx 2.5 million light years from us, a short distance in astronomical terms so that means what we see at any given time of the galaxy is actually the galaxy from 2.5 million years ago, a virtual time machine! Did you know the Andromeda Galaxy is on a collision course with the Milky Way? No worries, it will happen some three billion years from now and when it does theres a good chance nothing will happen to Earth. Thats because the galaxies are so vast the chance of getting hit by a star in the Andromeda Galaxy is very low, even though each of the galaxies contain billions of stars each. I’m generally optimistic, but at the rate we are degrading our planet there will be nothing left of it by the time Andromeda arrives.

      Good luck

      • Reply
  23. Paddleman

    Does the height/angle above the horizon change with the seasons?

    • Reply
  24. KaHLiL

    Awesome tips!

    If you have trouble finding the milky way while on location, You can download the Planets app at the iTunes appstore, its free and gives you the location of the planets, constellations and of course in milky way as you move your phone around/towards the sky wherever you are, its augmented reality at its finest.

    • Reply
  25. Blake S

    For those of you using the nifty fifty – I do too! There’s a VERY easy way to focus it, simply set it on AF, focus on the moon (it’s bright enough) and then switch it back to MF and make sure not to touch it.

    Problem solved!

    • Reply
  26. Sonny Kresse

    Thanks so much for the great info……I tried my first attempt a few weeks ago and it took me alittle time to figure out a decent time frame I thought, looking at my canon xti’s little screen…..lol….when I got home I found out the stars turned out as dashes and not dots. The actual milky way turned out pretty cool though. My setting were : ISO-800, F-3.5, Time- 90 seconds, white balance set to auto, lens used was 18-135mm . I know now that I can shorten the time frame some and get dots instead of dashes for stars….lol. The question I have is what would be the best white balance for this type of shooting? When I took fireworks shots this year I used a custom white balance and a black card and a 3-stop nd filter attached during exposure with bulb setting and they turned out amazing. Would a custom wb be better here than auto balance? What really amazed me was how the camera showed more light waves than I saw looking at it from here, as did it when I shot the fireworks too. THANKS AGAIN :)

    • Reply
  27. eboy

    The moon tip from Blake S is no good for this topic. If you can see the moon to focus on, the sky will never be dark enough for a good milky way pic (even if you’re 100 miles from the city lights – the moon is the biggest ‘light polluter’ of them all). The two are therefore mutually exclusive. IF you have no magnifying focus peeper feature on your camera then experiment around infinity with manual focus is call you can do (take the snap of a bright star and zoom on the taken photo to examine the star close up – then tweak the focus ring back and forward until you get a sharp point) never takes more than a couple of minutes.

    • Reply
  28. John Romero

    Your Milky Way photography is just stunning! Great tips!

    • Reply
  29. Lindsay Gee

    Thank you very much. This is great advise.

    Your photos are absolutely stunning. One day I hope to be taking photos like these

    • Reply
  30. Rain Hitchcock

    So, i have a rokinon fisheye lense, will that work. or does it need to be more of a telephoto

    • Reply

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