Learning how to photograph the Milky Way isn’t anywhere near as hard as you may think, and not only that, it’s one of the most rewarding and impressive types of photography that you can master.
When done right, astrophotography produces awe-inspiring results that will impress your friends and wow strangers who view your portfolio.
Photographing the Milky Way is about 20% technique, 30% gear, and 50% preparation, so it’s important to not only know which settings to choose and lens to use, but also how to find the Milky Way at night without worrying about the moon washing out the night sky, or the clouds blocking your view.
Setting Up for Astrophotography
Taking photos in the middle of the night, in pitch black darkness, can be as tricky as it sounds, so it’s important to make sure that you come prepared with the right gear, set up and ready to go.
In this first section we’re going to talk about the gear you need, from camera and lens, all the way through to the clothes we recommend you wear.
Astrophotography doesn’t require as much expensive or specialised gear as you may think; you can capture incredible results with just a basic dSLR camera. However, not all gear was made equal, and if you’re going to invest in any additional equipment, it should definitely be the lens we recommend in this post below.
We also go over a few handy accessories that you won’t want to leave home without.
Shooting the Milky Way at night means that you’ll always have to contend with lowered outdoor temperatures (which can range from chilly to brutally cold), and navigating terrain with decreased visibility.
This article will show you what clothes and accessories you’ll need to stay warm on long nighttime shoots, along with a few field-tested recommendations for each piece of gear. Being properly attired and equipped will ensure that you can take the photos that you’ve ventured out to get.
A red LED headlamp can help you navigate the terrain at night without forcing your eyes to adjust too much.
How to Photograph The Milky Way
Once you have gotten the proper equipment for your shoot and are ready to head out into the field, you’ll need to spend some time orienting yourself to your main subject: the Milky Way.
While it may seem easy enough to locate your subject, it’s not as simple as going outdoors at night and pointing your camera towards the heavens.
There are a number of important things you need to know about the Earth, sky, and your own camera, that will affect your ability to get good pictures of the Milky Way. These include seasonal and environmental factors like what time of year you’re shooting, where you are on the planet, weather conditions, and light pollution as well as camera exposure considerations.
The following articles will help you grasp these technical details so you can find the Milky Way and be ready to capture it beautifully in your photos.
Astrophotography requires a totally different approach than almost any other kind of photography, largely because you need to deal with the dark of night, the movement of the earth, and an expansive subject that’s millions of miles away.
Because of this, we’ve written an entire article on the settings that you’ll need to take your shots of the galaxy. We delve into the specifics of shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and focus and why you need to set them as you do here.
These settings can be used for nearly every shot of the Milky Way you’ll take, so master these and you’ll be ready to start shooting.
Setting focus for Milky Way photography is relatively simple.
If you want to take pictures of the Milky Way, it goes without saying that you need to be able to find what you’re looking for in the sky for even before you point your camera towards the stars.
You’ll take the best photos when the environmental conditions are best suited to seeing the Milky Way clearly. This means picking the right time and place for your shoot. Locating the position of the North Star will also help you get a sense for the sky that you’ll be shooting.
Once you discover your orientation in relation to the Milky Way, you can start to make decisions about when and where to shoot to have it appear a certain way in your photos, as well as on what parts of the sky to include and emphasise in your photographs.
Locating the North Star is essential if you want to capture a Milky Way image with star trails.
Getting the aforementioned conditions just right does take a little bit of planning, but luckily we live in an era when technology can help us immensely in doing that planning.
There are a number of mobile apps that you can take advantage of to help you do everything from find the darkest skies near your location, check the phase of the moon, discover when you’ll have full darkness on any given day, get accurate weather forecasts, and more.
These apps are our personal, field-tested favourites and are the same ones used during the making of our Milky Way Mastery course.
Screenshots from Deluxe Moon and Sol: Sun Clock, two of our recommended apps.
Processing Milky Way Photography
It’s important to know that processing Milky Way photographs is not at all like processing typical landscape photos.
Because of this, once you’ve learned how to capture the images, you’ll also need to learn how to bring out the best in them through post-processing as well. This applies even if you’re already comfortable with post-processing other types of photos.
For striking photos of the night sky, you’ll want to remove certain colours while enhancing others, and modulate highlights, shadows, and clarity so that the stars in your image really pop in contrast to their surroundings.
In addition to that, you will also want to correct the occasional lens distortions that occur in Milky Way photos, as well as reduce the appearance of haze in front of the stars in the sky you’ve photographed.
Here we take a closer look at the exact adjustments that you’ll want to make in Adobe Lightroom and the settings that will give the pictures the finished look that you’re after.
We’ve included a free downloadable presets pack in this article to help you get started.
Once you’ve gotten the hang of shooting the Milky Way and processing your photos, you’ll soon find yourself with an impressive collection of images that you can build on, no matter where on Earth you travel (light conditions permitting, that is).
In case you’re just getting started on your own portfolio of stellar snaps, here’s a feast of gorgeous photos of the Milky Way to inspire you as you create your own.
This linked article has 24 different Milky Way photos, plus a free download at the end that collects each of the images in full resolution, so you can use them as wallpaper to beautify your desktop.
Creative Night Photography
Capturing images of the Milky Way is, of course, part of the broader category of night photography, and if you enjoyed the experience and challenges of working in low-light conditions, you may well enjoy exploring other types of night photography.
If you’re ambitious, you may even want to combine some other nighttime photography projects with a trip out to photograph the Milky Way.
Here are a few more ideas for photography you can do after night has fallen and your surroundings are cloaked in darkness.
This unique variation of light graffiti is a great way to create some stunning images using simple household materials.
In essence, you’re taking a long-exposure photo while “painting” within the frame using pieces of steel wool that have been set aflame.
Since the equipment you need to do it is inexpensive, easy to find, and highly portable, steel wool photography makes for an excellent side project during Milky Way shoots.
The most important thing when doing this type of photography is safety, since you’re working with flames. Our article covers not only the techniques of creating these images but also the essential precautions you need to take when doing it.
Everything that can be photographed during the day can be shot at night, and often with more dramatic or interesting effects because of the methods you’ll use to get a proper exposure.
When you’re comfortable modulating aperture, shutter speed, and ISO at night, you can begin to plan your shots for certain effects that you can only achieve during the nighttime.
Light trails, reflections, moonlight, and image noise are just a few natural, in-camera effects that you may want to explore.
Think of night landscape photography as a hybrid of Milky Way photography and traditional landscape photography.
Many of the same concerns about shooting conditions and camera settings apply, with the key difference being that your subject is the landscape rather than the sky above.
Because of this, you’ll mainly be paying more attention to the foreground and composition, and won’t necessarily have to worry so much about the moon and the position of the stars in the sky.
You will still need to think about the movement of the Earth, however, and you’ll need to time your long exposures accordingly (depending on whether or not you want star trails in your shot).
Your Free Video Course: The Milky Way Mini Series
This article will provide you with excellent base knowledge for understanding how to capture photos of the Milky Way, but we wanted to go one step further.
We’ve put together a free three-part video course on Milky Way photography, to help you understand how to capture those breathtaking images in no time at all.
Inside this course you’ll learn:
- Your Camera Settings – Find out the settings we use for 98% of our Milky Way Photography and how to find your ideal settings too
- Essential Gear – 5 inexpensive accessories that will make a world of difference to your Milky Way photography
- How to Find The Milky Way – The knowledge pros use to get the best and most breathtaking views of the Milky Way galaxy
Free Course: Capture Stunning
After spending months capturing photos of the Milky Way, we’re proud to share our free video series showing you how to capture photos so gorgeous, people may accuse you of stealing them from National Geographic!
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