milky way photography

Milky Way Photography : The Ultimate Guide

Milky Way Photography

Every photographer knows that the right subject ( like Milky Way photography)  can make all of the difference when it comes to the quality of their finished product. In terms of subject matter you can find in nature, very few things can compare to the unprecedented beauty of a sparkly night sky.

Photographers of all types, from the novice cell phone photographer to the experienced professional often try Milky Way Photography , but really capturing the beauty of this thick, glowing band across an evening sky is often more difficult than it seems. If you have ever seen the Milky Way in person on a clear night, then you know just how breathtaking the Milky Way is in person, and you will want any photograph of this natural phenomenon to look just as stunning.

Milky Way Photography Looks like this:

As opposed to this:

Is all in the little details.

This is really where the difference lies between good photos of the Milky Way and great photos of the Milky Way.

Gathering Your Supplies

The right photograph always requires the right equipment, so before you go snapping away at the night sky, you need to gather the right supplies.

A Good ISO Camera

Now, most first-timers, won’t go out and invest in a new camera just so they can get the right shot of the Milky Way, but if you can, you want a camera with good ISO capabilities since you will be shooting with hardly any available light. Typically, an ISO 3200 is a great place to start. A full-frame camera is preferable as well.

A Wide-Angle Lens

When it comes to choosing a lens for your Milky Way photo, a wide angle lens is always a good start. Since the night sky is so large, this is going to be the best way to capture a huge portion of the Milky Way.

The size, specifically, is up to you and is based on what you have and what you feel comfortable with, but in general I recommend something between 14-24 MM. The lower the aperture of the lens, the better as a faster lens will let you bring your light into your shot.

These are of course all recommendations, so if you only have the lens that came in your entry level DSR kit, you can also make that work.

A Tripod

When shooting a picture of the Milky Way, a tripod is a necessity. It really isn’t an option, especially because you will want to take long exposures of at least 15 seconds, meaning your camera is going to need to be as sturdy as possible.

A Remote Shutter

Once again, one of your biggest challenges when shooting the Milky Way photography is going to be lighting. If you want to capture more light and create a brighter exposure, then you need to have a longer shutter speed. You will also want to use a remote to control the shutter on your camera.

Consider using the “bulb” mode on your camera, instead of one of your device’s programmed shutter speeds. This gives you more control over how long the shutter stays open and how much light you can bring into your shot.

Setting the Scene

So, how do you manipulate the scene of something as big and as grand as the Milky Way? Well, it is more involved than you may think.

Yes, technically you can see the sky whenever, wherever in the evening, but if you really want to bring out the brilliance of the Milky Way photography you need to get out of the city and into as rural of an area as possible. The less human-made lighting around the better.

Time of year is also a consideration. Depending on where you live, different times of the year may be best for shooting the Milky Way, and yes, there is an app for that. Starry night apps for star gazers and photographers alike can help you find the best time to shoot and discover when the sky is going to be clearest. This includes programs such as Sky View.

However, here is a basic guide to work off of when it comes to planning the best times to shoot the Milky Way:

  • Southern Hemisphere: February through October. Peak visibility in June and July.
  • Northern Hemisphere: Late April to late September

Pay close attention to the moon as well, as you will want no moon or very little moon showing. This is because, even though the moon can be pretty on its own, it can actually wash out some of the color and brilliance of the Milky Way.

Kilauea Milky Way

Milky Way Photos require a high ISO

Composing Your Shot

You’ve set the scene and found the right conditions for your Milky Way shot, and now it’s time to actually take your photo. Chances are with something as large and as complex as the Milky Way, you are going to want to try a few different techniques until you get a final product you enjoy. The good news is, in general the Milky Way isn’t going anywhere.

A great place to start when it comes to actually taking your shot is to set your focus on a star instead of blindly setting your focus to infinity. This will help you get a clearer picture. Shooting on White Balance is also another way that many photographers get a clear shot and it also helps to create a more realistic and neutral temperature in your shot.

new mexico satellite milky way

A composited image of the milky way over the NRAO satellite displays. Foreground shot at ISO 100 f2.8 15 seconds. Sky: ISO 8000 f2.8 15 seconds.

Processing Milky Way Photography

For many photographers, even experienced photographers, even a carefully timed and detailed shot can end up falling flat.

The truth of the matter is, even when you shoot pictures that look like this:

They can easily be transformed into stunning photos like this:

With the right processing.

Obviously, the better your starting point is, the better your final product will be. As you start processing your photo at home, you can start correcting imperfections, bring out the details you want and hide the details you don’t want until you get the final product your imagined.

You can fix lens distortions, color correct, change balance and perspective and while some people may see this as “cheating” the photography process, it is important to view it as enhancing the work that you’ve done. You don’t want to over-do it and make your photo seem fake, or to change tones or colors that weren’t there, you want to simply polish up your photo and help it look as close to what you saw in person as possible so that your final product looks like this.

You can shoot something as stunning and as large as the Milky Way and you can have it look just as awe-inspiring in print as it is in person. You just need the right setting, the right tools, the right approach and a little trial and error to bring it all into fruition.


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