A good starting point to photographing the Milky Way is: aperture f/2.8 or the widest in your lens, ISO 3200-6400, and a shutter speed between 10-25 seconds depending on your focal length to capture sharp stars. The longer the focal length, the faster your shutter speed should be.
However, photographing the Milky Way is more complex than adjusting a few settings. I found my first Milky Way photography sessions very challenging, and it took me years until I could master the best steps and settings to shoot our galaxy.
If you want to learn how to photograph the Milky Way and skip the trial and error, keep reading. I’ve created this Milky Way photography guide where you’ll find the best way to shoot the Milky Way like an expert!
To summarize, these are the best steps to photograph the Milky Way:
- Use an aperture of f/2.8 or the widest in your lens
- Set an ISO between 3200 and 6400
- Adjust the shutter speed between 10 and 25 seconds
- Set your white balance to 4000k
- Focus manually on a star or distant light
- Adjust the general camera settings for the Milky Way
- Use a shutter delay of at least 2 seconds
- Check your Milky Way shot histogram
- Edit your Milky Way image
Also, don’t forget to plan your Milky Way session. You can use our 2023 Milky Way Calendars to see at a glance the best days of the year to photograph the Milky Way according to your location.
GET THE CALENDAR WITH THE BEST DATES TO PHOTOGRAPH THE MILKY WAY IN 2023
You'll also receive our PDF guide to photographing the Milky Way!
1. Use an aperture of f/2.8 or the widest in your lens
The aperture is the first setting that you have to adjust before taking pictures of the Milky Way.
To capture our galaxy, it’s key to use the best exposure settings to photograph the Milky Way: the aperture, ISO, and shutter speed. The end goal is to capture as much light as possible while using a relatively short shutter speed according to the movement of the stars.
Like in other types of low-light photography, set the widest aperture in your lens to gather as much light as you can.
If possible, use an aperture of f/2.8 or lower. The wider the aperture, the best results you’ll see in your Milky Way images, and with less digital noise. To do this, it’s fundamental to use a good lens for Milky Way photography.
2. Set an ISO between 3200 and 6400
Setting the best ISO for Milky Way photography is essential. This setting is key to getting the correct exposure at night while using a short shutter speed.
To capture the Milky Way, raise your camera’s native ISO between 3200 and 6400. That said, the best ISO for Milky Way depends on three main elements:
- Your camera: In general, advanced cameras with Full-Frame sensors are designed to set higher ISO values to photograph the Milky Way, normally between ISO 5000-12800.
If you use an entry-level camera and you raise your ISO over the limit, chances are that you’ll find digital noise. In crop-sensor cameras, my recommendation is to set an ISO between 1600 and 3200. (You can learn more about why camera sensor size matters here). We’ll also dive deeper into the best cameras for Milky Way below.
- The moonlight: The moon’s brightness doesn’t provide the best conditions for shooting the Milky Way, but it’ll allow you to use a lower ISO between 800 and 3200 depending on the light conditions.
- External lights: If you’re photographing the Milky Way and there are street lights, house lights, or any other type of artificial lighting, you should reduce your ISO to avoid overexposing the highlights. This is also a good trick if your camera sensor is ISO invariance.
To capture crisp and clear photos, take a look at our guide on how to take noise-free images. If you still find digital noise in your shots, don’t worry; you can get rid of it using any of the best noise reduction software.
3. Adjust the shutter speed between 10 and 25 seconds
The last and most important exposure setting in Milky Way Photography is the shutter speed. To take quality pictures of the Milky Way, you have to capture sharp stars rather than star trails, which happens when you take longer exposures.
The max. exposure time for shooting the Milky Way is determined by your camera sensor, the megapixels, and the focal length.
If you’re using a wide-angle lens, the shutter speed usually ranges between 10 and 25 seconds. To get the best shutter speed for Milky Way photography, use one of the following two rules:
This is the most popular rule to calculate the shutter speed in Milky Way photography. It’s a very simple rule, as you simply divide 500 into the number of your focal length. The result will be your shutter speed.
500/focal length = maximum time to capture sharp stars
Example: If you are shooting with a Nikon 14-24 mm f2’8 lens at 14 mm, according to the 500 rule, your max. shutter speed should be:
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 grain 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.
This rule is much more precise for calculating the Milky Way shutter speed. The calculation is more complex, but 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 find the best shutter speed.
As you can see in the example below, following the NPF rule, the maximum shutter speed shooting at 14mm and f/2.8 is 16.45 seconds, which makes a big difference compared to the 36″ of the 500 rule.
If you are already comfortable with the Milky Way photography basics, you can break the Milky Way shutter speed rules and capture more quality in your images by using a good star-tracker. You can learn more about this on my Milky Way photography with star-tracker guide.
Note: If you use a longer shutter speed and you see some trails, you can improve the sharpness of the stars using a piece of software to fix blurred images. I always use Topaz Sharpen AI to increase the sharpness of the stars.
4. Set your white balance to 4000k
Even though you can easily adjust the white balance when you shoot in Raw, you should set a manual white balance when you photograph the Milky Way.
Values between 3800k and 4200k are usually a good starting point to capture the most natural colors in our galaxy. Personally, I always set my white balance to 4000 kelvin and then adjust this value in post-processing to achieve the best color accuracy.
The reason for this is to maintain the color uniformity in your images, something that will make editing your Milky Way shots much easier. This is especially important when you shoot Milky Way Panoramas.
5. Focus manually on a star or distant light
Setting the focus on the Milky Way is one of the biggest challenges and easiest mistakes to make when you shoot the Milky Way for the first time.
However, the best way to take razor-sharp images of the stars is by following these Milky Way focusing steps:
- Set the live view mode on your camera.
- Use the digital focus magnifier and zoom in on a distant light, like a bright star or the moon, in the center of the frame.
- Move the focus ring of your lens manually until you find the sharpest point.
Important Note: Once the focus is set, leave the focus mode as manual and don’t move the focus ring during your Milky Way session unless you change your focal length or your lens.
My last tip for focusing in Milky Way photography is to take a test shot, open your image on your LCD screen, and zoom in on the stars to check if your focus is correct. Do this from time to time in case you accidentally move the focus ring.
Many photographers recommend focusing at the hyperfocal distance for shooting the Milky Way, but if you want to capture the sharpest possible stars, I don’t recommend this method.
6. Adjust the general camera settings for the Milky Way
Before taking pictures of the Milky Way with your mirrorless or DSLR camera, adjust the following settings:
- Screen brightness: Turn down your LCD screen brightness to see a more realistic preview that will prevent you from underexposing your Milky Way images.
- Shoot in RAW: Like in any type of photography, this will allow you to capture more information in the highlights and shadows and edit a better image in post.
- Long exposure noise reduction: Turn this setting off, or it’ll slow down your shooting process and the number of images that you can take. You can reduce the noise later in post-processing using Denoise AI or any of the best noise reduction software.
7. Use a shutter delay of at least 2 seconds
To achieve maximum sharpness, attach your camera to a sturdy tripod and use a shutter delay of at least 2 seconds. If you’re shooting under windy conditions, change the shutter delay to 5 or 10 seconds so you can avoid vibrations when you press the shutter button.
Another option is to use a remote shutter release or an intervalometer. I use this when I’m doing advanced Milky Way photography with a star tracker or for shooting Milky Way time-lapses.
8. Check your Milky Way shot histogram
If your focus is correct, the last step to see if you’re using the best Milky Way camera settings is to check the histogram. To do this, first I recommend learning how to read the histogram.
Checking the histogram in Milky Way photography is important since the camera brightness and light conditions can trick your eye when you see your images on the camera screen. To make sure that you’re taking the right exposure, always look at the histogram.
As a reference, the histogram should be tilted to the left.
9. Edit your Milky Way image
The last step is to edit your Milky Way image!
To do this, I recommend starting with the basic adjustments of color balance, exposure, color, detail, etc. If you are familiar with the editing basics, you can apply more advanced techniques like star reduction to improve the overall look of your photos.
Editing is one of the most challenging parts so be patient, try to follow some trusted editing tutorials, and apply the same steps to your images. With time, you’ll be able to develop your own Milky Way editing workflow.
In my Milky Way photography course, I teach over 12 hours of editing content where you’ll learn everything from the basic adjustments (including how to get started with Lightroom and Photoshop) to the most advanced techniques that will allow you to extract the maximum detail and color out of your images!
Capture the Milky Way The Ultimate Milky Way Course
Capture the Milky Way
The Ultimate Milky Way Course
As you can see, photographing the Milky Way is easy if you know the basics.
Below you can see an infographic with all the basic steps to photographing the Milky Way. You can also download the image or print it to take it as a quick reference when you are in the field:
However, there are more things to consider in Milky Way photography beyond the basic camera settings. Now I’ll show you other things you should know before shooting the Milky Way:
- Best camera gear for the Milky Way
- When to see the Milky Way
- Where to see the Milky Way
- Other tips on how to photograph the Milky Way
Best camera gear for Milky Way photography
Having the right camera for Milky Way photography is key to taking the best possible images.
You can photograph the Milky Way with any digital camera (even with an iPhone). However, there’s a significant difference in the image quality depending on the type of camera you use:
- If you’re planning to do some casual Milky Way photography, you can take decent images of the Milky Way with an entry-level camera if you use the best Milky Way settings that we discussed above.
- If your goal is to take the best Milky Way images, capturing greater quality while keeping the digital noise under control, you should go for a more advanced digital camera. The best models are Full-frame cameras with a low megapixel count since bigger pixels are more efficient for shooting in low-light conditions. (More about this in my camera sensor size article).
You can see more information about what makes a great camera for Milky Way and the best models in our guide to the best Milky Way cameras in 2023.
Lenses are as equally important (and sometimes even more) than cameras. The best lenses for taking pictures of the Milky Way are generally fast wide-angle lenses.
In terms of focal length, you can use a longer focal length to capture details of the Milky Way, but to shoot the entire Milky Way, it’s easier and faster to use a wide-angle lens. Any focal length between 12 and 24 mm will allow you to capture a reasonable portion of the ground and the Milky Way.
Prime lenses are also better than zoom lenses for shooting the Milky Way. These are less versatile, but they’re faster, lighter, cheaper, and offer better image quality. Composing images is easier with a zoom lens, but you should consider this according to your budget and goals.
I created a list of the best models in our guide to the best lenses for Milky Way photography in 2023.
Other gear for shooting the Milky Way
There are other basic pieces of gear that you’ll need to shoot the Milky Way, like a tripod, a headlamp, an intervalometer, etc.
If you’re shooting the Milky Way during the winter or fall, I recommend some photography gloves to keep your hands warm. I always use the Heat 3 Smart photography gloves from The Heat Company.
A last good tip related to camera gear is to rent a camera or lens for your Milky Way session or trip. Full-frame cameras and fast-quality lenses are expensive, so sometimes it’s best to rent for that particular trip, especially if it’s your first time shooting the Milky Way and you don’t know if you’ll use it again.
In my case, I like testing new lenses and cameras during my astrophotography tours, and I always rent photography gear with Lensrentals. They operate within the US, and you can get a 15% discount using the code ATLAS 15.
If you’re a reader from another country, check here to see where can you rent photography gear.
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 only visible during a period of time known as the “Milky Way season.”
- In the Northern Hemisphere, the Milky Way season starts in February and ends in October. You’ll find the best months to photograph the Milky Way between May and August.
- In the Southern Hemisphere, the Galactic Center will be visible from the end of January to the end of November. You’ll find the best months to photograph the Milky Way between April and August.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t take photographs of the Milky Way in winter, but the Milky Way core won’t be visible.
The best time to photograph the Milky Way will also depend on the type of Milky Way photography composition that you’re looking for. This happens because the position of the Milky Way on the horizon changes over time, depending on the hemisphere.
You can see how the Milky Way changes over the months and when can you find the best compositions in our guide to the best time to see the Milky Way.
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. You must also consider other factors, such as the total hours of sunlight, the 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.
To see at a glance the best time and hours to photograph the Milky Way, I recommend using a specific 2023 Milky Way calendar for your location. To help you out, I created a series of calendars where 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 2023
This is an example of our Capture the Atlas 2023 Milky Way calendar:
I created Calendars for 23 different regions on earth. They are very easy to use and, to learn how they work, I recommend checking this video:
GET THE CALENDAR WITH THE BEST DATES TO PHOTOGRAPH THE MILKY WAY IN 2023
You'll also receive our PDF guide to photographing the Milky Way!
There’s one key factor to consider when looking for a good place to see the Milky Way: light pollution. This will be critical for deciding where to photograph the Milky Way.
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.
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 indicates the best places for Milky Way photography.
You can find the best places in the world to see the Milky Way along with extra tips to find good places near you in our guide to the best places to see the Milky Way. Also, if you plan to shoot in the United States we have a specific guide with the 10 best places to see the Milky Way in the US!
Other tips on how to photograph the Milky Way
Before finishing, I’d like to share a few extra tips to help you plan and photograph the Milky Way!
How to plan your Milky Way photography shot
Planning your shot with a Milky Way photography app is perhaps the best piece of advice if you want to increase your chances of success.
With a Milky Way app, it’s much easier to find the Milky Way. You can check in advance the direction where you can photograph the Milky Way and the elevation of the Galactic Center over the horizon. One of the best Milky Way photography apps is Photopills.
Using this mobile app, you can check the Milky Way 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 the location’s light pollution or cloud coverage.
After this step, you can check the Galactic Center visibility (GC), where you’ll see:
- The time when the Galactic Center visibility starts and ends.
- The direction of the Milky Way, shows the 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 using the Milky Way dots in the circumferences around the pin 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’ll 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 a live view of the direction to photograph the Milky Way and the Galactic Center.
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, or you’ll overexpose the highlights of your image if there are external lights. Also, you can use a smaller 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. Even though you won’t capture as much detail of the Milky Way as with a new moon, the surrounding landscape and foreground will be more illuminated, providing more depth in the scene.
However, the same as with city lights, a strong moonlight will drown out the stars from the sky. It’s almost impossible to take pictures of the Milky Way under a full moon unless the moon is rising or setting.
If you want to try to photograph the Milky Way during 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 your goal is to photograph the Milky Way arch or bow, the first step is to plan 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 in the Northern Hemisphere:
- 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, and it’ll be more complex to photograph the Milky Way bow, especially later in the night.
- From December to March, you can capture the winter Milky Way arch, which is also very impressive.
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, creating a mosaic. This technique requires more intense post-processing.
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 color difference in the shots.
I strongly recommend checking our guide to photograph milky Way panoramas to plan, shoot, and edit your photos of the Milky Way arch.
How to photograph the Milky Way F.A.Q
Lastly, below you’ll find the most common questions related to Milky Way photography:
The best shutter speed for shooting the Milky Way ranges between 10 and 25 seconds depending on the focal length. The longer the focal length, the shorter the shutter speed should be.
A popular option is the 500 rule. However, for greater precision, follow the NPF rule. You can use any Milky Way app to calculate the maximum shutter speed for your Milky Way shots.
F/2.8 or the widest aperture in your lens in order to capture as much light as possible in your Milky Way image.
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.
The best time to photograph the Milky Way in most of the Northern and Southern Hemisphere goes from February to 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.
To Shoot the Milky Way, you need 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 this step-by-step guide to photographing the Milky Way:
I hope this Milky Way photography guide helps you succeed in taking breathtaking images of the Milky Way! If you need some inspiration, I highly recommend checking our selection of the best Milky Way photographs taken by some of the top landscape photographers in the world.
Happy shooting and clear skies!
Capture the Milky Way
The Ultimate Milky Way Course