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How to Photograph the Milky Way

10 min read

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milky way photography.
Quick summary

The Milky Way is one of the most magical astrophotography subjects to shoot. However, its movements and variable appearance can make it a hard one to master. In this guide, I’ll cover the tips and tricks, as well as the best camera settings and photography equipment for the job.

Milky Way photography produces — far and away — some of the most magical and enrapturing images. From the galactic tones to the arcing swirls, this astrological formation seems almost entirely otherworldly.

If you’ve ever held your breath and wondered how you can take just such shots, you’re not alone. As a photographer, you may know your way around a digital camera and lens. Yet capturing the mystical and often-changing Milky Way may still have eluded you.

That’s not surprising — there are a few eccentricities to photographing our home galaxy. Luckily, you’re in the right place to discover and apply these techniques! Bonus — you can apply most of these tips to shooting in low light scenarios, including astrophotography and night photography.

Planning Your Milky Way Photography Expedition

Photographing the Milky Way is not as simple as heading outdoors and taking aim at the sky. Our galaxy is an astronomic formation that — along with the rest of the inhabitants of the night sky — takes up residence in a different spot nightly.

Yes, subject to your locale, the season, and the time of day, its exact angle will vary astronomically!

Photographer capturing the Milky Way in the desert.

You may not be able to take a photo of the Milky Way for various reasons. First, you cannot see it during daylight hours or off-season (October to February). Secondly, visibility issues, including light pollution from a Full Moon or excessive city lights — or even weather, such as smog, cloud cover, or fog.

As such, you’ll need to plan ahead — especially if you want your image to rival those stunning shots you’ve seen of the Milky Way online!

The Best Months to Photograph the Milky Way: Northern and Southern Hemisphere

Being our home galaxy, the Milky Way is — fortunately — visible from anywhere in the world. Yes, unlike those pesky polar lights! However, there are optimal times of the year to view and photograph the Milky Way — in particular, from February to October.

Otherwise known as the “Milky Way season,” February to October is the time of the year when it’s visible above the horizon. However, expect its core to move to its most central position in the night sky over a shorter window of time.

An illustration showing the path of the Sun, Earth and Moon around the Milky Way.
© Wikimedia Commons – An illustration by Jim Slater showing the path of the Sun, Earth, and Moon around the Milky Way.

In the Northern Hemisphere, look up to the dark skies from February to May. Similarly, plan to shoot from February to May in the Southern Hemisphere. However, do note that the core may be visible in slightly different windows — especially if you’re further North or South.

Thereafter, the Milky Way moves into the Northern skies from May to July if you’re in the South of the world. Then further Northwest from July to November. Or to the Southwest skies from June to August in the Northern hemisphere. Then further into the South from September to October.

A panoramic photo of the arching Milky Way.

Pro Tip: Although later in the Milky Way season isn’t considered the best time to view its core, it’s still good for shooting Milky Way formations. In fact, many notable photographs of the Milky Way were actually taken later in the season. The time when it can be best captured as it’s arcing out of the horizon.

What is the Best Time to Capture Milky Way Photos?

The night is the best time to photograph the Milky Way — particularly closer to midnight. You also want to plan to shoot during the Milky Way season, from February until October. Otherwise, you may not be able to spot it over the horizon.

photographer standing in front of the Milky Way.

Useful Light Pollution, Weather, Milky Way, and Star Tracker Apps

Where the Milky Way is tonight is subject to where you are — which is unlikely to be where I am at this exact moment. So your best bet is to consult an up-to-date Milky Way calendar or app for its exact movements — not me!

Besides location, you also want to plan according to visibility conditions. Cloud cover will certainly limit your ability to photograph the Milky Way. However, light pollution can ruin a Milky Way photo on even the clearest of days.

Yes, clear, dark skies, calm weather, and minimal light pollution are all a must to ensure the best quality images.

There’s an App for That!

Luckily, technology is here to help you out. Milky Way calendars detail the estimated location of the Milky Way in the sky for both those in the Northern and Southern hemispheres.

In contrast, star tracker apps may help you track it — and any associated stars — down exactly in person using a smartphone or tablet.

Finally, weather and dark sky location apps will help you avoid low-visibility areas.

Some handy apps to use for planning a date with the Milky Way include:

Sky Guide: a free app to track stars in the sky and unique astronomical occurrences.
PhotoPills: a paid Sun, Moon phase, and Milky Way tracker and visualizer app.
Dark Sky Finder: a light pollution map app for researching visibility and dark sky locations.
Star Walk 2: Similar to Sky Guide, with an interactive sky map with star and constellation names.
The Moon: Moon phase calendar to check current and upcoming Moon phases and locations.

Moon and Milky Way composite image.

Pro Tip: the Full Moon also emits light pollution. Meaning the new Moon is the best time to photograph the Milky Way. Yet, if done right, a visible Moon can also be an interesting element to incorporate into your Milky Way images.

The Best Camera Gear for Photographing the Milky Way

If you’ve ever attempted night sky photography with only camera apps on your smartphone, you probably know that such basic tools won’t cut it when shooting the Milky Way. Though professional equipment — including a DSLR or mirrorless camera — is a good start, a few other considerations come to mind.

Ideally, a full-frame camera with a wide-angle lens that’s also a fast lens. Some photographers also use telescopic lenses or attachments to isolate smaller astronomical subjects.

A Full Frame Camera

Full-frame cameras are a step up from your run-of-the-mill digital cameras. Not only do these professional-grade camera bodies feature a larger sensor. One that captures the maximum amount of detail, producing better image quality.

This type of camera body also performs better in low-light conditions, comparatively — perfect for photographing the night sky or Milky Way, right?

Unsure which camera model to pick? Check out our top camera recommendations for night photography!

A Specialized Lens

A kit lens may be able to handle a spot of night photography. However, since stars, planets, and other astronomical bodies are located further afield, something more specialized is recommended.

Incidentally, it’s not a telephoto or zoom lens — but a wide-angle camera lens (14–35mm) — which is the most favored lens for nighttime and astrophotography. Since the sky is such a vast subject, its shorter yet wider focal length is better at capturing all of it in one go.

An inforgraphic illustrating the focal length of various camera lenses.

Yes, telephoto camera lenses do feature a longer focal length. But this feature generally comes bundled in with a narrower field of view, likely necessitating some post-production editing. Essentially, the act of combining multiple images to create a more comprehensive panorama of the ever-arching Milky Way.

A Fast Lens to Reduce Shutter Speed

That said, do look for a wide-angle camera lens that’s also a fast lens (f/2.8 or under). They’re able to achieve a higher exposure rate at faster shutter speeds because the larger aperture lets more light in. In this way, using one limits the amount of time it takes you to capture the Milky Way cohesively.

Camera Stabilization Equipment

Since longer shutter speeds are a must when shooting the sky at night, so is stabilization equipment. First off, a tripod — but also some more specialized add-ons, such as a tracking mount or ball head. These items will allow you to secure your camera.

Plus, aim it in whichever direction best suits your desired composition and the unpredictable movements of the night sky. You might also want to use your LCD screen to focus. Plus, look into manual or remote shutter release devices and apps to avoid blurry images.

A Camera With Higher ISO Capabilities

A camera body with higher-than-usual ISO capabilities (3200<) comes highly recommended for Milky Way photography. You’ll need to set your ISO higher than usual to let in as much light as possible when shooting the dark sky.

If your camera happens to feature a dual-gain sensor, even better, as it will minimize noise at higher ISOs.

Additional Artificial Lighting Equipment

Though not a necessity, artificial lighting may be worth packing. You can use it to elevate your image — particularly if you’re incorporating foreground elements into your composition. A number of notable photographers have used such equipment to light or augment human and non-human subjects.

Illuminated rock arch.

Pro Tip: You’ll also need a torch to find your way around — especially if you’re navigating treacherous terrain. Aside from sheer drops, slippery patches, and unexpected geological formations, there may be creatures prowling!

You can certainly play around with your camera mode or settings to achieve different effects. However, certain settings are best for night photos — which you can usually set in manual mode on your camera.

The basic camera manual exposure settings that work best for shooting the Milky Way include:

  • Aperture: f/2.8 or the maximum aperture (lowest) your camera lens can go.
  • ISO: between 3200 and 6400. Or lower for 25+ second shutter speeds.
  • Shutter speed: between 10 and 25 seconds. 25+ seconds for star trails. Around 5 minutes of exposure time for foreground images.
  • White balance: manual adjustment to 4000k (Moonlight) or cooler.
  • Long exposure noise reduction: only for foreground images and long exposures.
  • Shutter delay: at least 2 seconds to reduce camera shake.
Star trails captured using long exposure technique.

5 Stellar Milky Way Photography Tips

So, you’ve got your camera and gear all setup and made a date. Now it’s time to share some insider tips on how to ace shooting the Milky Way!

1. Shoot Long Exposure Images of the Milky Way

One common misconception is that the Milky Way looks the same as it does in professional images to the naked eye. Unfortunately, this assumption is untrue. You’re actually unlikely to ever view the Milky Way in this way in person — at least, without the assistance of your camera!

You see, your camera sensor is able to receive and store light data over a longer period than the human eye can. In doing so, your camera can more accurately capture this otherwise “invisible” natural occurrence. Talk about being shown up by a robot!

Yes, photographers capture such clear and detailed images of the Milky Way using the long exposure technique. Basically, setting your camera to a longer shutter speed. Setting it to maximum shutter speed increases the exposure time, allowing in enough light to unveil the secrets of the Milky Way.

long exposure with car light trails in the foreground.

2. Incorporate Foreground Objects & Elements

Being a popular photography subject, there’s no shortage of images of the Milky Way. And taken from every direction possible, at that! Hence why interesting foreground objects and elements are what will set your photograph apart, getting it noticed.

There are a number of interesting objects and elements that you can include in your Milky Way photography. Generally, the available subject matter will vary based on your region.

Some interesting foreground elements and objects to play with include:

  • Water: such as the ocean, waves, rivers, lakes, and streams.
  • People: posed or unposed, people can bring a touch of wonder to a shot.
  • Archaeological or architectural structures: old or new buildings make an interesting backdrop.
  • Geological structures: rocky outcrops, mountains, and other unique formations add character.

Pro Tip: Do note that, generally, pro photographers take their foreground images separately. Then, stack these with their best Milky Way shots. They do so to ensure the best quality, as both subjects are situated at very different focal lengths.

Illuminated rocky formation with the Milky Way behind it.

3. Stack Milky Way Images to Create a Composite

Stacking is an editing technique used to make singular composite images consisting of various photographs. It’s the best way to achieve a cohesive image with various elements and subjects in focus. Largely because you can focus accurately on each subject in each in a way you wouldn’t be able to in a single photograph.

You can stack using various editing software. The best stacking photo editing software for Milky Way photography includes:

  • Adobe Lightroom: for replicating exposure/color balance settings.
  • Adobe Photoshop: for blending and stacking various images.
  • Helicon Focus: for aligning/auto-stacking images assisted or entirely automatically.

Pro Tip: When taking photographs of the Milky Way, it’s important to keep your camera in one place and steady. Otherwise, it will be much more difficult (or near impossible) to stack them later — at least without producing a very blurry image.

Edited composite Milky Way image.

4. Shoot RAW Images

Though you can certainly get “the shot” the first time around, it’s a good idea to back yourself up. Shooting in RAW allows you more scope when it comes to editing your photos later on. As RAW images are — essentially — more “editable,” post-processing noise, white balance, exposure, and more, is easier and more effective with them.

5. Focus Manually on Bright Star or Astronomical Body

Since the night sky is far away, features few, if any, specific objects — and is generally pitch black — focusing is tricky. Manual focus using the focus ring on your lens is a good starting point. Ideally, manually focus on the brightest star in the night sky coming from a distance to ensure the best image quality.

Photographers staring at bright body of light in front of the Milky Way.

Milky Way Photography: In a Nutshell

The Milky Way is one of those subjects you have to photograph at least once in your lifetime — especially if you’re into your astrophotography. Who knows? Once you start, you may not be able to stop.

And it certainly is accommodating, posing, traversing, and arcing through the night skies worldwide at various angles and degrees! Regardless, the tips above should help you make the most out of your Milky Way and low-light photography.

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Caitlin is a professional writer and editor with a background in fine art, design, and photography, focusing on sustainability, climate change, equality, travel, tech, culture, and societal issues. She studies journalism with the NCTJ and has written for The Daily Mail, Durability Matters, CNN, Website Planet, PictureCorrect, and more.
Caitlin is a professional writer and editor with a background in fine art, design, and photography, focusing on sustainability, climate change, equality, travel, tech, culture, and societal issues. She studies journalism with the NCTJ and has written for The Daily Mail, Durability Matters, CNN, Website Planet, PictureCorrect, and more.
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