Ten Steps to Photograph the Milky Way

  1. A camera body with high ISO capabilities, preferably a full frame sensor. I have a review of Nikon full frame cameras for more info. While it is certainly possible to capture milky way images with lesser cameras, you will have much more noise and not be able to print as large.
  2. A fast wide angle lens is the best place to start, I would recommend theRokinon 14mm 2.8, or the Rokinon 24mm 1.4. I cover lens selection in depth here Lenses for Night Photography.
  3. A sturdy tripod is essential due to the long exposure times. Don’t skimp here, a good tripod will last a lifetime. Here’s a list of all my recommended gear
  4. Focusing at night can be a challenge, my preferred method is to use live view, zoom in on a bright star (with the zoom buttons, not the lens) and manually focus until it’s a sharp point of light. If you’re using a prime lens you can simply set your hyperfocal distance with the markings on the lens.
  5. High ISO’s are the key to capturing a bright milky way, don’t be afraid to push the limits of your camera, this is the only way to capture enough light to create a great image. Start with ISO 3200 and go up or down from there to get the correct exposure
  6. Long shutter speeds allow you to collect light over time, the longer you go, the brighter the milky way will be. There is a caveat to this though; the earth is rotating. If you leave the shutter open for too long you will create star trails, which is not desirable for the milky way. To avoid this you can follow the 500 rule.
  7. Set your aperture wide open, meaning the smallest number possible (f2.8, f1.4, etc.), this will depend on the lens your using. We have to capture as much light as possible, so depth of field is less of a concern than it would normally be. You may have to stop down some lenses to correct for coma or softness, for example you may need to stop down a f/1.4 lens to f/2, this varies by lens.
  8. Finding a dark sky is the most important step to seeing the milky way. Light pollution from cities washes out the night sky, you may have to drive a long distance depending on where you’re located. Using Dark Sky Finder will help you find these spots, find an area with at least ‘green’ skies, black is preferred though.
  9. Careful attention must be paid to the phase of the moon, a full moon will wash out the milky way. The best time to go out is 4 days before or after a new moon. Take a look at the Moon Phases Calendar.
  10. Many people are surprised to find out the milky way is not visible the entire year, at least not the brightest portion that is easily visible to the eye. The best viewing times are February thru September in the northern hemisphere. To learn more you can use the planetarium software Stellarium to determine exactly when it will be out. Quick tip: Look SE in the spring a couple hours before sunrise, look South in the summer around midnight, and look SW during the fall an hour after sunset.

Bonus tip: Start with ISO 3200, 20 seconds, f/2.8 as a starting point, this is what I call my ‘no fail’ setting. There is a lot more involved to get the perfect exposure, but this will get you a good exposure 90% of the time.

About the author David Kingham

David is a professional landscape and nature photographer originally from Loveland, Colorado who is now traveling the American West full-time in an RV with his photography and life partner Jennifer Renwick, and their two cats. David has published an eBook called Nightscape and has in-depth videos on post-processing. David and his partner Jennifer Renwick find joy in teaching others photography in their photography workshops, and through their blog.

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