The definitive guide to learning how to photograph the Milky Way

The definitive guide to learning how to photograph the Milky Way
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Photographing the Milky Way or any starry sky can be a challenge for those who are just starting in the night photography world.

The stars and planets have impressed mankind throughout history. We have always looked up to admire the majestic beauty offered by the universe and all the hidden mysteries.

Nowadays, technological advances such as telescopes, sensors, and forecast instruments have triggered an uprising interest in astronomy and astrophotography. Today, it is possible to photograph the Milky Way with a beginner DSLR camera, something that was unattainable until recently.

The magical experience of photographing the milky way

The Milky Way is the spiral Galaxy where our Solar System and planet Earth is located.

While gazing at the Milky Way is wonderful in itself, photographing it turns this into a magical experience. With a camera, we are able to capture details beyond what the eyes can see.

How to photograph the Milky Way

Before going through all the in-depth information, here are the main steps to photograph the Milky Way:

  1. Find a location away from light pollution. 
  2. Confirm the Milky Way movement with an external application like Photopills.
  3. Set the tripod correctly to prevent any vibration.
  4. Point the camera to the sky and compose your photograph.
  5. Reduce the brightness of your camera screen to avoid underexposing the photos.
  6. Focus on infinity through an external and distant source of light.
  7. Set the maximum aperture of your lens
  8. Adjust the maximum ISO in your camera until the noise is notable.
  9. Control the shutter speed following the 500 rule.
  10. Check the histogram and repeat if necessary.

Now we will dive deeper into how to photograph the Milky Way like a pro:

 

Best time to photograph the Milky Way

There are a few elements to determining the best time to photograph the Milky Way. Bare in mind that it crosses the sky like a line, and its specific location varies based on time (hour of the day, time of the year, etc.).

best months to photograph the milky way

Although we can see and 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. Between May and August are the best months to photograph the Milky Way here.
  • In the southern hemisphere, the Galactic Center will be visible from the end of February to the beginning of October. Between April and August are the best months to photograph the Milky Way here.

The best time to photograph the Milky Way will also depend on the type of photography since the position of the Milky Way changes from southeast to southwest on the horizon over time.

photograph milky way with moon exposure to photograph milky way

Take the Northern Hemisphere during summer as an example:

  • In April and May, the Milky Way will be practically horizontal across the southeast, ideal for panoramic photographs which feature a large part or the full band of the Milky Way.
  • During 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 located towards the southwest and increasingly vertical, ideal for shots where we want to highlight an element along with the Milky Way.

This does not mean that we cannot take a photograph of the Milky Way during winter, however, the Milky Way core will not be visible during this season.

Best time of the day to photograph the Milky Way

As for the best time of the day to photograph the Milky Way, it will also depend on the season. In addition, we must consider other factors such as the total sun hours, moonrise time, and the moon phase.

In the Northern Hemisphere, the Milky Way will be barely visible from January to March. The same happens from September to November, where it would appear gradually, but the sky would not get dark enough to photograph it.

The best months to photograph the Milky Way will be from May to July between 00:00 and 5:00 on the nights when the moon is least bright.

To nail down the best hours for photographing the Milky Way and Galactic Center with certainty, we prepared a 2018 Milky Way calendar where you can find information on sunlight hours, moonlight hours according to its phase, visible hours of both the Way Milky Way and Galactic Center throughout the year, and the best days to photograph the Milky Way in 2018.

calendario via lactea 2018

 

Best places to photograph the Milky Way

Once we know the best time to photograph the Milky Way, we must consider one of the most important factor for a photo shoot location: Light pollution. This will be critical for deciding where to photograph the Milky Way.

Same as stargazing, darkness is the fundamental requirement to enjoy the Milky Way and the Galactic Center. The darker our location, the better the details we will be able to capture in our photographs.

Total darkness is increasingly difficult to find in the society we live in, and there are just a few places near metropolitan areas without heavy light pollution.

can you photograph the milky way from earth

To seek darker places for Milky Way photographs while getting an idea of light pollution levels in each place, we can rely on the following light pollution map where we can locate the most “polluted” places, differentiated by colors.

Green, yellow, orange, and red indicate a progressive increase in light pollution. It is very difficult to see the Milky Way 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 areas with ideal darkness.

Best places to photograph the Milky Way in the northern hemisphere

Considering location accessibility, which leaves out remote areas such as the Arctic or Siberian regions, the northern hemisphere is generally very populated, making it difficult to find skies free of light pollution in many areas like Europe and the American 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.

In addition, the Canary Islands and Hawaii are a couple ideal islands in the northern hemisphere to see the Milky Way, as they are free of light pollution and are situated at an appropriate altitude. There are also several astronomical observatories located there.

how to take pictures of the milky way galaxy

Best places to photograph the Milky Way in the southern hemisphere

In the southern hemisphere, we can find 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. In other continents, we can also enjoy great starry skies in Namibia, Madagascar, as well as in large areas of Australia and New Zealand.

Since the beginning of 2000, several countries began designating protected areas free from light pollution known as “Dark-Sky Preserve”. While most of them are found in Canada and the USA, several European countries such as France, Germany, and the Czech Republic have joined in the similar effort during recent years.

Best places to photograph the Milky Way in Spain

In Spain, even though there aren’t any protected Dark-Sky preserve areas, there is special protection on La Palma (Canary Islands), where you can find some of the best spots to photograph the Milky Way in Spain. In the neighboring islands like Tenerife, there are some settings in very high locations (Teide National Park) which is ideal for this type of photography. These would be the best places in Spain to photograph the Milky Way.

photograph the milky way settings

Focusing on the peninsula, the largest dark areas are found mostly because of the depopulation and rural exodus rather than designation of a dark-sky preserve. The mountains of Teruel and Cuenca, the Sierra de Cazorla, and the Pyrenees would be the best places to photograph the Milky Way in Spain around the peninsula.

Photographing the Milky Way with light pollution

In Europe and Spain, it is not easy to find places completely free of light pollution, but that does not mean it is impossible. Obviously, you cannot photograph the Milky Way in the city, but with patience and correct scouting, you can find places dark enough to capture stars and some parts of the Milky Way.

Even in places that a priori may seem impossible, there are people who tried, for example, to photograph the Milky Way in Madrid, as the astrophotographer Javier M. Morán did in his project “There are stars in Madrid!”. He searched for locations in Madrid for years before taking these incredible shots amidst the heaviest light pollution in Spain.

how to photograph the milky way with light pollution

Miky Way arch photography – Laguna de los pájaros, Sierra de Guadarrama. Picture taken and edited by Javier Martínez Morán

 

How to best photograph the Milky Way

Once we know the best time and places, we can start with the technical features of how to photograph the Milky Way.

 

How to plan our Milky Way Photographs

Planning our Milky Way photos is perhaps the most essential for taking successful shots.

We should be aware of the exact coordinates that the Milky Way will follow, as well as the elevation where the Galactic Center will take over the horizon. For this, the best tool we have found is the PHOTOPILLS application.

how to take pictures of the milky way

Using this application, we can get an idea of the Milky Way’s visibility (from 1 to 10) in the meter section of the Galactic Center, for a single date and considering the moon phase. However, keep in mind that this meter does not consider light pollution or cloudy skies in the location.

how to photograph the milky way with dslr

After this step, we will check the GC visibility section (Galactic Center) where we will see:

  1.  The time when the Galactic Center begins and ends.
  2. The direction of the Milky Way, displaying its arch through different dots. (Bigger dots indicate the Milky Way core)
  3. 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 located around the locator. If it is at 90º, the Milky Way will be placed vertically and completely horizontal if it is at 0º.
  4. 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.

how pictures of the milky way are taken

Once we are in the specific location, we can try the augmented reality mode (AR Night), where we can see live the direction that the Milky Way and the Galactic Center will follow.

how to photograph the full band of the milky way

In addition, we suggest checking the weather forecast in advance to get an idea of cloud coverage. It will be useful to download applications such as Windy that forecast cloud conditions in a given area.

For further information on the Milky Way photography subject, refer to the Photopills official guide.

Best gear for Milky Way PHOTOGRAPHy

Having the right gear is one of the most important things when photographing the Milky Way. We wrote this article about the best photography gear for traveling for you some time ago, so we will only talk about the differences to consider for Milky Way photography here.

best camera for milky way photography

One of the main questions for many amateur photographers is how to photograph the Milky Way with an iPhone or any other smartphone. There have been great advances in cell phone camera sensors over the last few years, but many years of development is still needed before we could take a high-quality Milky Way or other night time photograph with a smartphone. While it is possible with a go pro and the right settings, the quality is yet to be what we consider acceptable. Therefore, we put the focus of this article on only the best DSLR cameras for photographing the Milky Way.

While we agree that you can get stunning and high-quality photographs with any good entry-level camera, we evidently saw a big difference between using beginner and professional photography gear for not only Milky Way, but night photography in general (i.e. Northern Lights).

I especially recommend opting for a Full Frame camera to photograph the Milky Way if possible, instead of cameras with a smaller sensor (Aps-c).

how to photograph the milky way stacking

Photography captured with an Aps-c camera Nikon D3200

Full frame cameras have bigger sensors and therefore can collect more light. Subsequently, you can take photos of the Milky Way and the core with better details at a higher ISO while generating less noise compared to its cropped senor counterpart.

Since most full frame cameras are higher end (therefore more expensive), they also tend to perform better – for example, a faster focus speed in low light situations and less sensor heating during long exposure sessions, like the ones we do when photographing the Milky Way.

how to photograph the full band of the milky way

Even if you do not have a Full Frame gear, do not give up. With crop-sensor cameras, great photographs of the Milky Way and the Galactic Center can still be achieved using a high quality “bright” lens.

Best lenses to photograph the Milky Way

The main feature that we must consider to photograph the Milky Way is luminosity. I recommend using lenses with an aperture as high as possible and equal to or less than f 2.8.

Regarding the focal length, it is best to use wide angle lenses (approximately 11 to 24 mm).

For crop-sensor beginner equipment, I recommend one of these three generic lenses. Make sure to buy the equivalent for the camera brand you are using:

  • Tokina 11-16 mm f2,8 → Possibly the best quality/price lens for night and Milky Way photography using APS-C cameras.
  • Samyang 12 mm f2,8 → Fisheye lens, more versatile than the Tokina with manual focus, but at a very low price.
  • Samyang 14 mm f2,8 → Similar to the previous one, with a reduced wide-angle focal length.

For Full Frame cameras, lenses must not only be bright, but able to reduce wide angle deformation by reducing the so-called “Commas”, or deformed trails at the curved ends of the lens, which translates stars into traces instead of points.

Some of the best lenses to photograph the Milky Way with full frame equipment would be:

  • Nikon 14-24 mm f2,8 → One of the best wide-angle lenses for night photography in general and for Milky Way photography in recent years. Can be used with bodies from other brands such as Canon or Sony through adapters. The only drawback might be the high price.
  • Tamron 15-30 mm f2,8 → Another outstanding wide-angle lens and very bright quality for this type of photography.
  • Sigma 14 mm f1,8 → One of the brighter, sharper, and faster wide-angle lens ever built for full-frame cameras. Ideal not only for photographing the Milky Way but also other related phenomena such as Northern Lights.
  • Irix 15 mm f 2,4 → Quality lens, bright and at a very economical price for this range of lenses.

Note that not all lenses have to be angled or wide-angled. Photographing the Milky Way with a 50 mm (or other middle focal lens) is just fine. You can instead take sections of the Milky Way with precise details and later stitch them together into a larger panel.

Accessories

In addition to the camera and the lens, there is a series of accessories that will help us with photographing the Milky Way:

  • Tripod: A sturdy tripod will be another essential elements in our gear if we want to photograph the Milky Way without trepidation and lack of sharpness. Same as for any other night photography shot.
  • Front flashlight: Another essential item for night photography. It will also help to illuminate any element when necessary.
  • Replacement batteries: Same goes for night or long exposure photography, shooting the Milky Way makes the battery life drop, so we must go with a replacement set of several batteries.

photograph the milky way settings

If you are interested in more information about the photography gear and accessories for night photography as well as landscape photography, we advise you to check our guide to choosing the best photography equipment.

Renting photography equipment

One last suggestion on photography equipment is that renting is an affordable option for special sessions such as Milky Way photography if we do not have the necessary gear or budget to obtain them.

How to compose our Milky Way Photographs

Now let’s switch our focus to composition of Milky Way photographs. Though photographing the Milky Way is magical enough as is, if we can include the Spiral Galaxy inside the composition, the resulting shots would certainly be more meaningful and visually more powerful.

photographing the milky way in winter

Depending on the position of the Milky Way and the Galactic Center in the sky we can create different compositional schemes:

  • Milky Way as an arch on the horizon

Probably best for a panorama showing full band of the Milky Way. It will be very useful to place one or several elements under the arch, such as a tree or group of trees, lighthouses, or large extensions of the landscape, such as fields of lavender.

  • Diagonal Milky Way

When the Milky Way and the Galactic Center are placed diagonally towards our position, we can use this to strengthen our night photography compositions, with the Milky Way as a line from one of the corners to the element that we want to highlight in our shot.

  • Vertical Milky Way

During the time of the year when the Milky Way is completely vertical, we can also use it as a guideline for a particular element to highlight the composition.

Another useful advice in addition to good planning is keeping your eyes wide open. The skies sometimes offer otherworldly scenes and very often some areas of the Milky Way can rise in unexpected places, further enhancing our compositions.

shooting the milky way best camera for star photography

Photographing the Milky Way with the moon in your compositions is also viable, and while you won’t get as many details of the Milky Way and the core with a new moon, the surrounding landscapes and foregrounds will be more illuminated, providing a further depth in the scene.

Best settings to photograph the Milky Way

One of the most frequent questions is parameters for photographing the Milky Way.

Although this depends fundamentally on both our equipment and the lighting conditions we have in the scene, the general outline is as follow:

  • ISO: The highest allowed by our camera, provided the noise is acceptable. In beginner cameras, this noise is usually under control in ISOs below 3200 and between 1600 and 6400 in advanced cameras. The last generation of mirrorless cameras allow users to raise the ISO up as high as 25600.
  • Aperture: In general, we will use the widest opening allowed by our lens, always equal or below 2.8 if possible. Where there may be too much light pollution or abundant moonlight, we may have to close the aperture a little to maybe F4 or F5.6.
photographing the milky way during full moon

Photography of the Milky Way with a full moon

  • Exposure: To capture the Milky Way, we want the stars to be bright points and not as trails which happens when we take longer exposures. In general, we will take exposures between 15 and 30 seconds, although as a guiding point it will be better to use the 500 rule – a simple rule that will tell you the maximum exposure time to capture the stars as points.
“The 500 rule”

500/focal length that we are using = Maximum time to have stars as points. 

Example: If we are shooting with a Nikon lens 14-24 mm f2’8 at 14 mm, the 500 rule would give us:

500/14mm = 35.7 seconds.

This result is the maximum time to set if we don’t want to photograph the stars as trails. Accordingly, we will set the exposure time of our camera to 30 seconds, open the aperture to the maximum (2.8 in this case), and adjust the ISO until we get a correct exposure with an acceptable amount of noise (In this case we would try between ISO 3200 and ISO 6400, but consider other factors in the scene).

  • White balance: We will always set a manual white balance to avoid differences between the different shots we are taking, especially in Panoramic pictures. Around 3000 K would be a good reference.
  • Shoot in Raw Mode: Important in order to later process the Milky Way.

 

How to focus for photographing the Milky Way

The last technical setting and perhaps the most basic and important is about how to focus on the Milky Way correctly.

Even with great planning, proper gear, and perfect shooting parameters, without proper focusing, we would end up with a blurry photograph, effectively throwing away all of the work we have done so far.

mejor epoca fotografiar via láctea parametros

We can focus the Milky Way in different ways, although the safest and most practical approach will be using the hyperfocal distance. To calculate this distance, I recommend using the Depth of Field tool from the application PhotoPills. 

As with other types of night or low light photography, we can try to illuminate the point of the hyperfocal distance (remember that it is always better to go longer than shorter when measuring this distance) and focusing on that exact point, or placing someone with a light at that distance and focusing on the light. (For instance, a friend with a lamp/lighter).

Once our focus is ready, we will deactivate autofocus in our camera and leave it in manual focus mode.

Important: Remember that if we change the focal length or lens, we will have to repeat the process of focusing to the hyperfocal distance again.

how to photograph the milky way arch

When photographing the full band of the Milky Way, the first step to follow is planning the photograph considering the time of year and location as we have discussed before.

This Milky Way will help to strengthen and create more interest in our compositions, especially when we take a Milky Way panorama.

how to photograph the milky way with light pollution

Depending on the time of year, we can photograph the arch in the following way:

  • End of March to the end of May

The Milky Way will be located just above the horizon and a panorama of vertical photographs will be enough to capture the entire arch.

  • From June to August

The Milky Way and the Galactic Center will be more and more perpendicular to us and therefore it will be more complex to photograph the arch of the Milky Way. The best technique for these situations is to perform 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 a more intense post-processing, so we can adjust the proportions of the different elements in the shot as well as the Milky Way.

Note: It is important to set the white balance in manual in both panoramas and vertoramas so that there is no difference between the shots.

How to edit Milky Way photos

When we finally capture our long-awaited Milky Way photographs, we always have a final optional to do: process our Milky Way and the Galactic Center photos. 

Personally, I believe that this processing is necessary if you want to further highlight the details of the Milky Way, even if it is just through a few minimum adjustments.

For this, we can use any photography software tool such as Lightroom, Photoshop, etc.

how to photograph the milky way with film

The main adjustments in our Milky Way photographs will be aimed at adjusting the overall tone through white balance, noise reduction, clarity, contrast, and details in general, enhancing both the Milky Way nebula light and the darker areas inside the core.

Also, do not forget that you took a photograph of the Milky Way and the stars, so for consistency,  the stars that surround the Milky Way should also be enhanced so that the photos do not look stitched.

Besides a simple processing of the Milky Way, we can use the following more complex techniques that you may have heard of before.

What is a “photography stack” and how can we use it in Milky Way photography?

In short, stacking consists of taking different photographs with the same parameters, composition and focal length, which are then processed in Photoshop.

In the processing of the Milky Way, image stacks are generally used to make the stars look brighter while reducing the noise in the photo. The steps to creating a stack is:

  • Take a series of Milky Way photographs, usually with a lower exposure and higher ISO than we would use for a single Milky Way photograph.
  • Stack the images through a computer program such as Starry landscape Stacker for Mac, and once the Stack is made, import the shot into Photoshop for editing.

What is blending and how we can use it in Milky Way photography?

Blending consists of taking two or more photographs with the same frame and focal length but in different settings, and combining the photographs later on so we can use the parts that we prefer from each individual picture.

milky way from earth

If we apply this for the Milky Way processing:

  • Keeping in mind the 500 rule, ensure the stars are captured as points, take a shot of the sky with the ISO considerably high to get more information from the Milky Way.
  • Take another shot for the ground area with the ISO considerably lowered while increasing the exposure to get more detail and sharpness in the foreground.
  • Blend in Photoshop, using masks to hide and show the areas we prefer of every picture.

What is a composite and how can we use it in Milky Way photography?

A composite is the digital creation of an image through sections of different photographs, that can be taken in different compositions and places, with a different focal length and even with different cameras.

Applied to the processing of the Milky Way:

  • Technically we would follow the same process as for a blending, masking the parts that we want from each image.

This technique would be the most creative, although the least representative of reality. For example, imagine photographs of the Milky Way in New York with the Galactic Center on top of the buildings or photographs of the Milky Way in unlikely places, such as being next to the Eiffel Tower.

To learn the different techniques of editing and processing, it is very useful to watch tutorials on how to process photos of the Milky Way, since there are many different techniques that achieve similar results.

Summary: 10 tips to photograph the Milky Way

To summarize this article, consider these step by step tips for photographing the Milky Way:

  1. Keep in mind the elements you want to photograph. Scout the location thoroughly before taking the photographs. Always check for possible light pollution in the area before-hand. Stay off heavy light pollution areas.
  2. Depending on the type of composition you want to enhance the Milky Way with, choose based on the time of year (March-May → Arches, May-July → Diagonal, August-September → Vertical).
  3. Plan your shoot on days of the month with less moonlight. (Follow the moonlight phases calendar)
  4. Check the weather forecast before going out to take the picture. Cloudy skies will keep us from finding the Milky Way.
  5. Once in the location, confirm the direction and path of the Milky Way using the “Augmented Reality Night” mode in the Photopills app.
  6. Reduce the brightness of the screen of your camera to avoid underexposing your photos.
  7. Make sure the focus is correct before you start shooting the Milky Way – use the hyperfocal distance.
  8. Set the best possible parameters:
    • Aperture: Maximum allowed by the lens.
    • ISO: Maximum allowed by the camera with noise under control.
    • Exposure: Follow the 500 rule.
  9. Edit and process your photographs if you want to highlight all the details and information inside the Milky Way, especially the core.
  10. Always look for new locations and unleash your imagination, the creative possibilities in the Milky Way photography are endless!

Our best images of the Milky Way

Here is a small selection of our best Milky Way photos. I hope you find this article interesting and helpful for your future Milky Way pictures. I will be happy to help you with any questions in the comments section below 😉

danzafra photography how to photograph the milky way
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