How-to: Photograph the Milky Way

Simple tips and tricks for getting the best milky way photos - from when to go, where to go and what gear to use.

When to Shoot


March to October is good but the best times to see the galactic core is late April to late July here in the Northern Hemisphere. In the southern hemisphere February to October with the galactic core best visible during June and July - The galactic core is arguably the most interesting and most photogenic section of the milky - So take a moment and add a calendar reminder to watch this video again in the spring.You also want nights with no moon - this means a new moon or dates when the moon is below the horizon - a quick search online yields lots of helpful info. On iOS and Android, I love Photopills it has at a glance moon info as well as rise/set times for the Galactic core for your location AND a mode that lets you overlay the night sky & milky way on the landscape where you are standing!


Someplace with low amounts of light pollution - to figure out the closest dark skies visit website Dark site Finder - Yellow is eh, Green is ok, blue is good, black is even better. But don’t let this stop you from trying - Your milky way shots might not be the best but at least get out, practice and develop the skills so when you end up at the right time and place you can get THE SHOT.DO include interesting foreground elements - rocks, trees, mountains, something to ground your viewer on earth while giving them a taste of the stars above.


Irix Firefly

Irix Firefly

You need a sturdy tripod - I have my favorites listed below. As for lens choice. Full Frame equivalents of 14 to 30 work well for me. The IRIX firefly is my current budget favorite - I have a review of several lenses perfect for astrophotography linked below. You could go fisheye or shoot a panorama if you have a full view of the sky with little light pollution.

Camera Settings

Get manual focus during the day and then tape or lock your focus ring at that point.

  • Aperture - Use the widest your lens allows - f/2.8 is great wider is even better Kit lenses at f/3.5 are a possibility too.

  • Shutter speed - Probably about 20 seconds but follow the 500 rule and keep that shutter speed as short as possible so stars are pinpoints and not streaks. Taking multiple shots and stacking for lower noise higher detail is an option too - I haven’t done that yet - I have been happy with single shots.

  • ISO You are probably going to end up around 1600 - lower if you have a faster lens than f/2.8 - higher if you have a slower lens.


In Post

Post Processing I typically cool the image - brighten overall image but especially the stars by increasing the highlights and I use a brush to increase the brightness of the milky way and a second brush to decrease the brightness of the darker sections - overall increasing contrast and making the milky way stand out more. 

Beyond the Settings - Manual Mode & Auto ISO beyond the settings and focus on the image, the key point to a recent article we had on the weekly live show. As photographers when we go to shoot we're balancing the camera settings, composition, timing, not tripping on something, and possibly handling a model. When you're starting out you usually cram learning the camera settings, but what's the next step?

As you move beyond the basic settings and focus more on composition your photography is going to improve immensely.

How we approach a scene usually goes aperture, shutter speed, then ISO. A shallow setting like f/2.8 is perfect for a portrait but a landscape needs something a bit slower at f/8 (btw, video on aperture coming soon!). Next shutter speed comes into play, you need to make sure the shutter speed is 2x the focal length to be safe, the reciprocal rule. You can find out more about shutter speed settings here and here. Once we get that down as a start, then we need to move past it to improve.

 What about AV mode? We've all been at the mercy of a wrong camera setting at some point. The thing is the camera is smart, but it's not you, it just sees pixels and can't interpret a scene. Especially if my subject is moving, dancing, running and even walking - the camera doesn’t know this on AV mode and you'll end up with a blurry subject. Manual puts you in control letting you tell the camera what you need.But AUTO ISO can be good - Compared to aperture or shutter speed, ISO means the least to a shot technically. That it affects exposure and noise only, compared to aperture and shutter speed that drastically alter the look of a shot. With modern cameras, a high ISO setting can mean a bit of noise and has to be extremely high before it is a detriment to a photo. Having AUTO ISO on takes away part of the exposure triangle I have to focus on and lets me concentrate more on composition and timing.If you are starting out get those camera settings down. That way it's secondhand, so you don't need to be chimping (checking the screen) when it counts. Once you understand that then you can let the camera take over, a little bit, giving you room to be creative and focus on more important issues.

Tutorial: How to Shoot Video without Natural Light

Step by step approach to setup your camera (in this case a T4i) for shooting in low light/without natural light.   A few posts back I have a video tutorial that covers how I setup for my video review.   I waxed somewhat poetic about natural light, it is flattering and free.  But what about shooting videos at night or in a room that doesn't get lots of natural light?   In this video I go through the settings step by step and offer a few cheap lighting suggestions including a 500 Watt work light and a little LED light panel.