Photographing the Milky Way is one of those experiences that leaves you in awe and gets you forever hooked.
Seeing the stars with the naked eye is always impressive, but there’s something special about when you shoot the Milky Way and see our galaxy captured on your camera screen.
However, taking pictures of the Milky Way seems like a daunting task: Which are the best settings to photograph the Milky Way? Is my camera good enough for Milky Way photography? How can I focus on the stars?
I’ve spent years photographing the Milky Way in many different locations, and I can tell you one thing: Milky Way photography is easy as long as you understand just a few basic concepts.
Ready to learn how to photograph the Milky Way like an expert?!
A good starting point to photograph the Milky Way is aperture f/2.8 or the widest possible in your lens, ISO 1600-6400, and a shutter speed between 10-25 seconds depending on your focal length to capture sharp stars.
Before going into details, this is how to photograph the Milky Way in 12 easy steps:
- 1. Know the best time to photograph the Milky Way
- 2. Find the best places to shoot the Milky Way
- 3. Use a camera with a good high-ISO performance
- 4. Pick a fast lens
- 5. Mount your camera on a sturdy tripod
- 6. Adjust the best Milky Way camera settings
- 7. Set a wide aperture
- 8. Adjust the ISO setting
- 9. Use a rule to calculate the best shutter speed
- 10. Focus on the Milky Way
- 11. Check the histogram
- 12. Edit your Milky Way photo
Also, don’t forget to plan your Milky Way session. You can use our 2020 Milky Way Calendars to see at a glance the best days of the year to photograph the Milky Way according to your location.
1. Know the best time to photograph the Milky Way
There are a few elements that will help you determine the best time to photograph the Milky Way, and they’re related to the time of the year and the hour of the day.
best months to photograph the milky way
Although you can photograph the Milky Way at any time of the year, the Galactic Center will be most visible in the following time frame:
- In the Northern Hemisphere, the Galactic Center will be visible from the end of March to the beginning of October. You’ll find the best months to photograph the Milky Way are between May and August.
- In the Southern Hemisphere, the Galactic Center will be visible from the end of February to the beginning of October. You’ll find the best months to photograph the Milky Way are between April and August.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t take photographs of the Milky Way during winter, but the Milky Way core won’t be visible during this season.
The best time to photograph the Milky Way will also depend on the type of Milky Way photography composition you’re looking for, since the position of the Milky Way on the horizon changes over time from southeast to southwest.
Using the Northern Hemisphere Milky way season as an example:
- In April and May, the Milky Way will be practically horizontal across the southeast, perfect for panoramas capturing the Milky Way bow.
- In June and July, the Milky Way will be facing south with a diagonal inclination for many different compositions.
- In August and September, the Milky Way will be increasingly vertical and located towards the southwest, ideal for shots where you can highlight an element along with the Milky Way.
You can learn more about photography composition here.
Best time of day to photograph the Milky Way
As for the best time of day to photograph the Milky Way, this will also depend on the season. In addition, you must consider other factors, such as the total hours of sun, moonrise time, and the moon phase.
The best time of day to photograph the Milky Way is usually between 00:00 and 5:00 on nights with a new moon during the Milky Way season.
2020 Milky Way Calendar
To nail down the best hours for photographing the Milky Way, I recommend using a specific 2020 Milky Way calendar for your location. In these calendars you’ll find:
- Milky Way hours
- Milky Way visibility
- Moon phase
- Moonrise and Moonset
- Sunrise and Sunset
- The angle between the Milky Way and the horizon
- Best days to photograph the Milky Way in 2020
This is an example of our Milky Way calendar:
Since these values change depending on the location (latitude and longitude), we’ve created Milky Way calendars for 14 different places. These calendars will also give you an estimated value if you’re planning to shoot the Milky Way in a similar latitude:
- USA (East Coast)
- USA (West Coast)
- Canada (West Coast)
- Spain (Peninsula)
- Spain (Canary Islands)
- Italy (Dolomites)
You can download the Milky Way calendars for 2020 here:
GET THE CALENDAR WITH THE BEST DATES TO PHOTOGRAPH THE MILKY WAY
In addition, we will send you the PDF guide to photographing the Milky Way
2. Find the best places to photograph the Milky Way
Once you know the best time to photograph the Milky Way, you must consider one of the most important factors for a Milky Way location: light pollution. This will be critical for deciding where to photograph the Milky Way.
Just as with stargazing, darkness is the fundamental requirement to see and photograph the Milky Way and the Galactic Center. The darker the location, the better the conditions to take images of the Milky Way with a DSLR or mirrorless camera.
Nowadays, total darkness has become increasingly difficult to find, and there are just a few places near metropolitan areas without heavy light pollution.
To find dark places for Milky Way photography while getting an idea of the area’s light pollution, have a look at the following light pollution map, where you’ll see the most “polluted” areas in different colors.
Green, yellow, orange, and red indicate a progressive increase in light pollution. Photographing the Milky Way will be very difficult in the green and yellow areas, and almost impossible within the orange and red areas.
Blue indicates areas with an acceptable night sky visibility, while grey/black indicate the best places for Milky Way photography.
Best places to photograph the Milky Way in the northern hemisphere
Considering location accessibility, which leaves out remote areas such as the Arctic and Siberian regions, the Northern Hemisphere is generally very populated, making it challenging to find skies free of light pollution in many regions like Europe and the US East Coast.
Across the Northern Hemisphere, some of the best night skies can be found in Canada, the western half of the United States, Northern Africa, and in unpopulated regions of Asia, such as Mongolia or Western China.
The Canary Islands and Hawaii are a couple of ideal islands in the Northern Hemisphere to photograph the Milky Way, as they are free of light pollution.
Best places to photograph the Milky Way in the southern hemisphere
In the Southern Hemisphere, there are many perfect locations to photograph the Milky Way, due to low population density. However, many of them, such as Antarctica or the Australian outback, are quite inaccessible.
Some of the best places to photograph the Milky Way in the Southern Hemisphere are found in South America, such as the Atacama Desert in Chile, the Chilean Patagonia, Argentina, and the mountainous regions of Peru and Colombia. On other continents, you can also enjoy great starry skies in Namibia, Madagascar, as well as in large areas of Australia and New Zealand.
3. Use a camera with good high ISO performance
Technique is crucial, but the camera plays a key role in Milky Way photography.
Having the best camera for Milky Way photography is essential to succeed in your Galactic Center photography session.
Today, most digital cameras on the market can photograph the Milky Way in decent quality. It’s totally up to you and your goals whether you want to use an entry-level or an advanced camera:
- If you’re planning to just do some casual Milky Way photography, you can take decent images of the Milky Way with an entry-level camera if you use the right settings that you’ll find below.
- If your goal is to have the best Milky Way images, capturing as much detail as possible while keeping the digital noise under control, you should go for a more advanced digital camera; preferably a Full-frame camera with a high pixel pitch (Pixel density size), since bigger pixels are more efficient for shooting in low-light conditions.
You can see more information and a list of models according to your skills, budget, and goals on our guide to cameras for shooting the Milky Way.
4. Pick a fast lens
As regards camera lenses for Milky Way photography, these are equally as, and sometimes even more, important than the cameras. The best lenses for taking pictures of the Milky Way are generally bright wide-angle lenses.
In terms of focal length, you can also use a longer focal length to capture some details of the Milky Way, but to shoot the entire Milky Way, it’s easier and faster to use wide-angle lenses.
Prime lenses are also better than zoom lenses for shooting the Milky Way. These are less versatile, but if you want to invest in a top lens for Milky Way photography, I’d check a fast-prime lens.
As for the quality, you can photograph the Milky Way with a kit lens, but you’ll see the best results using a specific faster lens. I created a comprehensive list of lenses for shooting the Milky Way, where you can check if your camera and lenses are suitable for Milky Way photography.
If you’re planning to photograph the Milky Way but don’t want to spend a fortune on cameras and lenses, or you simply want to test the gear before buying it, renting is a great option.
In my case, I always rent with this company, (here you can check the best camera rental companies in the World) as there’s some gear I only use on certain occasions, and, at the end of the day, it’s cheaper to rent rather than buy and use occasionally. They deliver within the US, and you can get a 15% discount using the code ATLAS 15.
5. Mount your camera on a sturdy tripod
One of the key steps for shooting the Milky Way before adjusting the settings is to mount your camera on your tripod.
The first step is to make sure you’re using a sturdy and reliable tripod. Milky Way is a type of long exposure photography where you’ll be using a slow shutter speed, so it’s fundamental to avoid camera vibrations to take sharp images.
You can follow some basic rules, like keeping your tripod low when possible, don’t extend the center column, extend the leg sections from top to bottom, or add your camera bag as a counterweight if your tripod has a tripod stabilizer weight hook.
You can learn more tripod tips for stabilization in our guide to take sharper photos.
6. Adjust the best Milky Way camera settings
Before photographing the Milky Way with a DSLR or mirrorless camera, I recommend adjusting the following camera settings:
- Screen brightness: The first step is to turn down your LCD screen brightness. It will help you avoid underexposing your Milky Way photograph.
- Shoot in RAW: This is mandatory in Milky Way Photography. Shoot in RAW to capture as much detail as possible, both in the highlights and the shadows.
- Set a manual white balance: This is especially important if you want to take Milky Way panoramas. I usually set my Milky Way white balance around 3200 Kelvin. Remember that you can change the white balance later in the editing/processing.
- Metering mode: In stars and Milky Way photography, my favorite light meter mode is the matrix mode.
*You can also photograph the Milky Way with an iPhone or with advanced smartphones, but these settings are aimed at how to photograph the Milky Way with a DSLR or Mirrorless camera.
7. Set a wide aperture
To photograph the Milky Way, you need to use the settings that allow your camera to capture as much light as possible while using the right exposure time, so the stars are captured as sharp spots and not as trails.
Don’t forget that to take quality images of the Milky Way, you should also try to have the lowest amount of digital noise in your photographs. (+ tips on our article on camera settings for digital noise reduction)
To find the perfect balance, you need to adjust the best Milky Way settings on your camera: aperture, ISO, and shutter speed. For taking photographs of the Milky Way, the easiest setting is the aperture.
As mentioned before, the goal is to capture as much light as possible, which translates into using the widest aperture on your lens.
My suggestion is to use at least an f/2.8 aperture or lower if possible. If your lens has maximum aperture values like f/4 or f/5.6, don’t worry – you’ll still be able to take images of the Milky Way with your DSLR camera.
8. Adjust the ISO settings
Choosing the best ISO in Milky Way photography is one of the most common challenges.
However, this parameter isn’t as easy to adjust as the aperture, since the right ISO for Milky Way photography depends on different factors:
- External lights: Like the moonlight or artificial lights. The stronger the lights in the scene, the lower the ISO you should use to shoot the Milky Way. When there’s a considerable amount of external light, my ISO usually ranges between 800 and 3200. This depends on more conditions, but it can be a good starting point.
Below you’ll find more information on how to photograph the Milky Way with a full moon and with light pollution.
- Your camera: Generally, advanced cameras with full-frame sensors can adjust to a higher ISO in Milky Way photography, normally between 3200 and 6400.
Entry-level cameras with crop sensors are more sensitive to high ISOs, so if you’re using one of these models, I don’t recommend raising your ISO above 3200. (You can learn more about why camera sensor size matters here).
Digital noise is related to ISO. To take sharp and noise-free images of the Milky Way, I suggest reading our article on digital noise reduction. If there’s already noise in your Milky Way images and you want to fix them, use any of the best noise reduction software.
9. Use a rule to calculate the best shutter speed
The most important setting for Milky Way Photography is the shutter speed.
To take quality pictures of the Milky Way, you have to capture sharp stars and not star trails, which happens when you take longer exposures.
The max. exposure time for shooting the Milky Way is determined by your camera sensor, megapixels, and focal length.
If you’re using wide-angle lenses, the shutter speed usually ranges between 15 and 30 seconds, but to know the best shutter speed for Milky Way photography, use one of the following rules:
- The 500 rule: This is the most popular rule to calculate the shutter speed when shooting the Milky Way with a DSLR. According to this rule:
500/focal length = maximum time to have sharp stars
Example: If we are shooting with a Nikon lens 14-24 mm f2’8 at 14 mm, the 500 rule will give us:
500/14mm = 35.7 seconds
Even though this rule can be a good reference point, my advice is to take the 500 rule with a pinch of salt.
The 500 rule in Milky Way photography and other similar rules like the 400 and 600 rules are no longer accurate, especially with modern camera sensors that are designed with more megapixels.
- The NPF rule: This rule uses a more complex formula, but it’s much more precise than the above rules to calculate the Milky Way shutter speed. In this case, my advice is not to bother with numbers and formulas. Just type your camera model and focal length into the Photopills app, and you’ll see the best exposure time for taking pictures of the Milky Way. As you can see in the example below, the maximum exposure time to photograph sharp stars as spots shooting at 14mm and f/2.8 is 16.45 seconds according to the NPF rule, which makes a big difference from the 36″ of the 500 rule.
10. Focus on the Milky Way
The most common mistake in Milky Way photography is not setting the focus properly. Although setting the focus for Milky Way correctly is not difficult, if you get very excited, it’s easy to forget about the focus.
To avoid this issue and take sharp images of the Milky Way, pay attention. My suggestion is to follow these Milky Way focusing steps:
- If possible, try to adjust the focus to infinity before the Milky Way session using the daylight. Just focus manually or automatically on any far subject on the horizon.
- If you have to focus at night, use the live view mode on your camera, zoom in on a distant light, like a bright star or the moon, and adjust the focus ring of your lens manually until you find the sharpest focus. (You’ll see the star as a spot).
You can also do this step using the automatic focus, but most cameras struggle to focus in low light conditions, so it’s better to do it manually.
- Whether you focus using manual or auto, once the focus is ready, switch the focus mode to manual on your camera and don’t tweak the focus ring during the rest of the Milky Way session, unless you need to use a different lens or focal length.
- The last step for focusing in Milky Way photography is to open your image on your camera and zoom in on the stars to double-check if the focus is correct.
In my workflow, I don’t do this with every image I take, but rather, when I move from one location to another, since sometimes, the focus ring moves involuntarily.
Many photographers focus at the hyperfocal distance in Milky Way photography, but if you want to achieve the maximum sharpness in the stars, I don’t recommend this method.
11. Check the histogram
To check that you’ve used the right Milky Way settings, open your Milky Way image on your LCD screen.
After zooming in on the stars and verifying that everything is in focus as we mentioned above, check the histogram on your Milky Way shot. Some factors like external lights or the camera brightness can trick your eye when you’re shooting at night, so the best way to ensure that you’re taking good photographs of the Milky Way with the right exposure is by using your histogram. You can learn how to read the histogram here.
12. Edit your Milky Way photo
The last step to get your Milky shot is to edit your Milky Way photo using any editing/processing software.
Milky Way post-processing is something very personal and a matter of style and taste; some people prefer doing a simple Milky Way edit, while others prefer to take an artistic approach doing in-depth processing.
In any case and, disregarding your editing skills, there are some basic editing adjustments that you’ll need to do to your Milky Way image, like compensating the lights and shadows, adjusting the right white balance and color, refocusing your raw file, and other basic but important adjustments.
Other tips to learn how to photograph the Milky Way
Beyond the best steps to photograph the Milky Way explained above, Milky Way photography involves particular challenges, like learning the tools to plan your shot, photographing with light pollution or with the moon, etc.
To help you take your Milky Way images to the next level, below you’ll find a series of tips for shooting the Milky Way:
How to plan your milky way photography shoot
Photographing the Milky Way requires not only good gear and technique, but also great planning.
As we explained above, It’s essential to plan your session and to know when and where to shoot the Milky Way to increase your chances of success.
Planning your Milky Way shot with a Milky Way app is perhaps the best advice for taking great images of our galaxy.
With a Milky Way app, it’s easier to find the Milky Way. You can check in advance the Milky Way direction so you can photograph the Milky Way, as well as the elevation of the Galactic Center over the horizon. For all this, the best Milky Way photography app is, without a doubt, Photopills.
Using this mobile app, you can check the Milky Way’s visibility (from 1 to 10) for a single date, considering the moon phase. However, keep in mind that this Milky Way app doesn’t consider light pollution or cloud coverage in the location.
After this step, you can check the Galactic Center visibility section (GC), where you’ll see:
- The time when the Galactic Center visibility starts and ends.
- The direction of the Milky Way, displaying its arch through different dots. (Bigger dots indicate the Milky Way core).
- The number of degrees that the Galactic Center will rise over the horizon. This elevation is calculated through the location of the Milky Way dots in the circumferences around the locator. If it is at 90º, the Milky Way will be placed vertically, whereas if it is at 0º, it’ll be completely horizontal.
- The lines where the Galactic Center will rise above the horizon and the moment when it will decline, marked in light grey and dark grey.
Once you are in a specific location, you can try the augmented reality mode (AR Night), where you can see live the direction to photograph the Milky Way and the Galactic Center.
Also, I suggest checking the weather forecast in advance to get an idea of the cloud coverage. You can use sites like Windy.
How to photograph the milky way with light pollution
Photographing the Milky Way in light-polluted skies is a real challenge.
If you want to shoot the Milky Way in a city, your chances to capture the galaxy are very low, since the city lights won’t allow you to see more than the moon and a few bright stars.
If you want to photograph the Milky Way with light pollution, try to go to the darkest place around, like a big park with trees. Secondly, don’t raise the ISO too much, since you’ll blow out the highlights of your image if there are external lights like streetlights. Also, you can use a higher aperture if there are powerful external lights.
how to photograph the milky way with a full moon
The other tricky situation is photographing the Milky Way with a full moon.
Photographing the Milky Way with the moon in your compositions is possible, and while you won’t capture as much detail of the Milky Way and the core as with a new moon, the surrounding landscape and foreground will be more illuminated, providing a further depth in the scene.
However, it’s the same as with city lights: strong moonlight will erase the stars from the sky. Under a full moon, it’s almost impossible to take pictures of the Milky Way.
If you want to try to photograph the Milky Way in a full moon, you can follow the steps described above for city lights, since raising your ISO will blow out the highlights of your image.
How to capture the Milky Way arch/bow
When photographing the arch of the Milky Way, the first step to follow is planning the photograph by considering the time of year and location.
Depending on the time of year, you can photograph the Milky Way bow as follows:
- From the end of March to the end of May
The Milky Way arch is located above the horizon, and a panorama of vertical images will be enough to photograph the entire Milky Way bow.
- From June to August
The Milky Way and the Galactic Center will be more vertical to us, and therefore, it will be more complex to photograph the Milky Way arch.
The best technique for these situations is to take a “Vertorama.” This type of photography consists of taking different photographs from top to bottom and from left to right, forming a kind of mosaic. This technique requires more intense post-processing.
Note: If you’re photographing the Milky Way arch, it’s important to manually set the white balance in both panoramas and vertoramas so there is no difference between the shots.
How to photograph the Milky Way F.A.Q
As additional tips, below you’ll find the most common questions related to Milky Way photography:
The best time to photograph the Milky Way in most of the Northern and Southern Hemisphere goes from early March to late October when the galactic center is visible. However, it’s possible to photograph the Milky Way throughout the year even if the galactic bulge is not visible
The best shutter speed for shooting the Milky Way ranges between 10 and 30 seconds depending on the focal length. The longer the focal length, the shorter should be the shutter speed.
A popular option is the 500 rule. However, for more precision, it’s recommended to follow the NPF rule. You can use any Milky Way app to calculate the maximum shutter speed for your Milky Way shots.
The best ISO for shooting the Milky Way usually ranges between 800 and 6400. The right ISO depends on many factors like light pollution, the moonlight, and your camera gear, among others.
Using generic lenses, you should use f/2.8 or your widest aperture in order to capture as much light as possible in your Milky Way image. For specific Astrophotography lenses with f/1.8 or lower, you can close your aperture down to f/2.8 or f/4 to achieve more sharpness.
For Shooting the Milky Way, the basics you need are a digital camera, a fast lens, a sturdy tripod, and a remote shutter.
Photographing the Milky Way in some small cities is possible but the Milky Way will be fainter. In heavily-populated and polluted cities you can’t see or photograph the Milky Way.
Summary: 10 steps to photograph the Milky Way
To summarize this article, check these step-by-step guide to photographing the Milky Way:
- Keep in mind the elements you want to shoot. Scout the location before taking the photographs. Always check for possible light pollution in the area before your session. Stay out of heavily light-polluted areas.
- Depending on the type of composition you want to shoot, choose the best time of year (March-May → Arches, May-July → Diagonal, August-September → Vertical).
- Plan your shoot on days of the month with less moonlight. (Follow our Milky Way Calendars).
- Check the weather forecast before going out to take the picture. Cloudy skies will keep you from finding the Milky Way.
- Once in the location, confirm the direction of the Milky Way using the “Augmented Reality Night” mode in the Photopills app.
- Reduce the brightness of the screen on your camera to avoid underexposing your photos.
- Make sure the focus is correct before you start shooting the Milky Way.
- Set the best Milky Way settings:
- Edit and process your photographs if you want to highlight all the details inside the Milky Way, especially the core.
- Look for new locations and unleash your imagination. The creative possibilities in Milky Way photography are endless!
I hope this Milky Way photography guide helps you succeed in taking breathtaking images of the Milky Way! If you need a little inspiration, here is our selection of the best Milky Way photographs taken by some of the best landscape photographers in the world.