9 Things You Can Do to Take Better Photos of the Milky Way
- Heavy-duty construction with strong legs and easy-to-use leg locks.
- A center column hook so you can hang a heavy object (i.e. your camera bag) to help pull the tripod into the ground for a more stable base.
- Large, rubberized feet to ensure the tripod stays in place.
- Retractable metal spikes in the tripod’s feet for those occasions when you need to set up on uneven, wet, or slippery surfaces.
- Spare batteries (that are fully charged) for your camera. Cooler temperatures reduce battery life, so you might find you need to swap batteries.
- Spare memory cards, just in case you decide to pull an all-nighter and shoot continuously through the night.
- A headlamp or torch so you can see your camera’s controls. They’re also handy for lightpainting, should you want to add that element to your shots of the Milky Way.
- Warm clothing, even if you’re shooting in a warm climate. Even in the Sahara, nighttime can be quite chilly!
- Snacks, so you aren’t rushing the process along so you can get home and eat.
- A tent, in case you want to get some shut-eye (or it could make a neat bit of foreground interest).
- Smartphone, so you can jam to some tunes while your camera does its work (and check the various apps I recommended above as well!).
One of my favorite memories growing up was laying out on the deck with my dad, gazing up at the stars.
Under that vast ocean of space, it was hard not to be in awe of just how small I am compared to the planet, let alone the galaxy.
I imagine for many stargazing enthusiasts, there are similar feelings of awe at the sheer scale and beauty of the sky above.
And though many folks try to capture that beauty in a photograph, I’d say more often than not it doesn’t turn out well.
But that’s the beauty of photography - if the first try is a fail, all you have to do is learn from your mistakes and try again.
With this guide, I present nine tips that will help you minimize mistakes and maximize results, that way you can create gorgeous shots of the Milky Way.
Who knows, you might create a few photos that are worthy of hanging on the wall!
Let’s find out how...
Get a Full Frame Camera
Ok, so it’s not in the cards for everyone to go buy a full frame camera right this second. But, in a perfect world, a full frame camera is the best choice for photos of the Milky Way.
The reasoning is quite simple: the more light your camera can collect, the better your image will be.
And when it comes to light-collecting power, full frame cameras are at the top of the heap. Reason being, full frame cameras have larger sensors than crop sensor cameras. That additional surface area makes collecting light an easier task.
As a result, full frame cameras produce images of the Milky Way that are more detailed and crisp than most crop sensor cameras can create. That detail and crispness can make all the difference in the world when viewing your final image.
There are a host of full frame camera options out there today. Depending on your brand preference, you could go with something like the Canon EOS 5DS is a top choice given its incredible 50.6-megapixel resolution.
Good crop sensor alternatives might be the Canon EOS 7D Mark II, like the Nikon D500, gets high praise for its rugged construction. Both are much less expensive options than the full frame variants suggested above.
What to look for: Good low light performance and RAW shooting capability. Also look for a camera that has an articulated LCD screen. You’ll need to use the LCD for live view focusing, and being able to adjust the angle of view is a handy feature.
Use a Fast Wide-Angle Lens
There are two primary features that any lens you use for Milky Way photography needs to have: a large maximum aperture and a short focal length.
Let’s address the aperture first.
Naturally, since you’ll be shooting in the dead of night, the ability of the lens to capture light is a critical factor.
Because of this, you need to look specifically at the aperture range of the lens. Though a lens with a maximum aperture of at least f/2.8 would be great, they can be quite spendy. An f/4 lens can get good results as well.
To help offset costs, consider third-party lenses. The Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 IF ED UMC Ultra Wide Angle Fixed Lens is a great choice for Nikon cameras.
Better still, they are far less expensive than comparable lenses from Nikon and Canon.
In the video below, Toby from PhotoRec TV gives us a tour of the Rokinon 14mm lens, and offers up his take on why it’s one of the best budget choices for astrophotography.
The second factor to consider is the focal length. Note that the recommended lenses above are both 14mm. On a full frame camera, that puts them in the ultra-wide-angle range, and on a crop sensor camera, they are squarely in the wide-angle range.
Using a wide-angle lens is important because you want to be able to capture as much of the sky as possible, as was done in the sample images throughout this article.
Remember, the Milky Way extends from one side of the sky to the other, so having a wide-angle lens will help you incorporate as much of it into the frame as you can.
What to look for: In addition to a wide maximum aperture and a short focal length, look for a lens with manual focusing (more on that topic later).
Don’t Neglect the Tripod
Photos of the Milky Way require long exposure times, usually in the 20-40 second range.
That means that if your camera is mounted on a cheap tripod that sways in the wind, your images will be a big, blurry mess.
Instead, you need to invest in a solid, well-built tripod that has added features that allow you to improve its stability. That means looking for a rig with some or all of the following features:
What to look for: After setting up your tripod, be sure to remove your camera’s strap. It can catch enough of a breeze to cause the images to be blurry, even if your camera is mounted on a solid tripod!
Use a Dedicated Mount
Perhaps one of the best accessories you can add to your kit for astrophotography is a specialized mount.
Something like the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Motorized Mount is an ideal choice for Milky Way photography. This equatorial mount that gives you the ability to track celestial bodies with great accuracy. You will find that it helps you locate the Milky Way as well as other popular bodies in the sky, such as the sun or the moon.
The Star Adventurer comes equipped with a buttery smooth DC servo motor, so it moves along its programmed path with ease. You can decide between various speed settings, including 0.5x, 2x, 6x, and 12x.
Maybe the best feature of this handy mount is that it’s compatible for usage in the northern and southern hemispheres. That means you don’t have to hunt around for your subject and waste precious time away from actually creating photos.
Use it for stills, videos, timelapses, or even as a telescope mount. It’s powerful enough to meet the needs of expert astrophotographers, but easy enough to use for novices to get into the astrophotography game.
For more details about the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Motorized Mount, check out the video above.
Find a Dark Spot
Obviously, finding a spot that’s away from the light pollution of cities is going to greatly impact your ability to get a clean shot of the Milky Way.
Rather than wander aimlessly around the countryside, there are a couple of fantastic websites that will help you find the best locations for nighttime photography.
The first is the Light Pollution Map. It’s pretty self-explanatory: it maps light pollution, as seen in the screenshot above. Just zoom in on an area, see if it’s polluted with light, and map out your journey to get there. It’s pretty simple!
Another option is Dark Site Finder. Like the Light Pollution Map, you can zoom in on a specific area (you can also search for a location in the search bar) to examine what the light pollution levels are at virtually any spot on earth.
Either way, you’ll save tons of time and heartache by planning your photo shoots in advance and avoiding areas that have a lot of light pollution.
Get Help Locating Celestial Bodies
Part of planning your Milky Way photo shoots is also being able to find the darn thing in the sky. Used in combination with the light pollution maps listed above, an app like SkySafari 5 (available for iOS and Android devices) can help you pinpoint the Milky Way (and many other celestial bodies, for that matter) and get the shots you want.
The app gives you nightly information on the location and rise/set times of various planets, the sun, and the moon. You can even find out when the International Space Station will cross over your location.
Better still, SkySafari has over 200 star clusters, galaxies, and nebulae built into its library, so if you want to venture beyond the Milky Way, you can!
Another much-needed app is The Photographer’s Ephemeris (on iTunes for $8.99 or on Google for $4.99).
The Photographer’s Ephemeris helps you plan your shoot by giving you the lighting information for your desired location.
That means all you have to do is dial in your location, and it will tell you when the sun or moon will rise and fall in the sky and where. That’s valuable information for photographing the Milky Way so you know the best time of night to get set up to avoid light pollution from the moon.
Use Manual Focus
Though today’s cameras have excellent autofocus systems that are able to get pinpoint sharpness in many situations, they do not perform well when shooting at night.
Put simply, even the best autofocus systems will struggle to obtain focus on something that’s so small in the field of view as a star. Instead, it’s best to opt for manual focusing.
Just put your lens in manual mode, then move the focus ring to the infinity settings. Then, using live view mode, zoom in on a particular star in the Milky Way and use the focus ring to bring the star into perfect focus.
Next, take a test shot. Afterward, again use live view to zoom in on the star to examine the focus. The star should appear as a solid, white dot. If you see blurriness, you’ll need to repeat the process to try to bring the shot into focus.
As mentioned earlier, having a camera with an articulating LCD is handy for this process. Since the camera might be pointed upward at a pretty steep angle, it’s easier to be able to adjust the angle of view of the LCD than crouch down below a static LCD and crane your neck upwards to view the screen.
For another method to get tack-sharp manual focus, check out the video above. In it, Milky Way Mike offers a quick solution for finding and noting your lens’s infinity focus point.
Add Foreground Interest
When you take your first photo of the Milky Way, just seeing the array of stars in the shot is going to be enough to make you say WOW.
After all, a lot has to come together to simply get to that point.
However, as time goes on, you’ll likely notice that photos of the sky alone can get a little boring. That is, they need a little bit of foreground interest to give the image some depth and a better sense of scale.
That means you’ll need to start thinking more purposefully about composing your shots.
A great compositional tool for improving your Milky Way photos is to include foreground interest, like the sand dune in the image above. Note how the ridge of the sand dune acts as a leading line, first directing the eye toward the human figure climbing the dune, and then to the Milky Way above.
In that regard, the foreground interest doesn’t just add context to the scene, but it also helps the eye navigate around the photo, helping the viewer to understand the layout of the landscape and engage with the shot in a more meaningful way.
Be Prepared for Nighttime Shooting
Photographing the Milky Way requires that you be outside, at night, for a reasonable amount of time.
So, that means that you need to be prepared for nighttime shooting by adding a variety of accessories to your kit:
With that, you’ve got a better idea of the gear, the camera settings, and the accessories that will help you find success in photographing the Milky Way. Now it’s just a matter of putting your plan into motion, heading out, and seeing how well you can capture the beauty of the night sky!