Learning how to photograph the Milky Way isn’t anywhere near as hard as you may think. 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. These will impress your friends and wow strangers who view your portfolio.
Setting Up for Milky Way Photography
Photographing the Milky Way is about 20% technique, 30% gear, and 50% preparation.
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 other factors.
For example, the moon washing out the night sky, or the clouds blocking your view, or city lights hiding the Milky Way.
Taking photos in the middle of the night, in pitch-black darkness, can be as tricky as it sounds. We suggest checking a light pollution map too, to avoid city lights. Your location matters too, as the Milky Way is not always visible. Check visibility times in the southern and northern hemispheres before you head out.
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. This ranges from your camera and lens choices to remote shutters and tripods, all the way through to the clothes we recommend you wear.
Astrophotography doesn’t need as much expensive or specialized gear as you may think. You can capture incredible results with a basic DSLR digital camera, or even an Android phone or an iPhone.
You don’t need a Nikon, Canon, or Sony full-frame camera. But if you have one, it’ll help you avoid the ‘crop factor’.
But, all gear is different. If you’re going to invest in any more equipment, it should be the lenses we recommend in this post below. These include wide-angle lenses and manual focus lenses.
We also go over a few handy accessories that you won’t want to leave home without.
Shooting the Milky Way at night means thinking about the clothing you’ll need to have. You need to contend with lowered outdoor temperatures (ranging from chilly to cold).
On top of that, you need to navigate the terrain with decreased visibility. Lights and good boots are as important as your camera and tripod.
This article will show you what clothes and accessories you’ll need. Especially if you plan to stay warm on long nighttime shoots.
We also provided a few field-tested recommendations for each piece of gear. Being properly equipped will ensure that you can take photos that you’ve ventured out to get.
The best images come from perseverance, which is difficult to do when you’re freezing.
How to Photograph The Milky Way
Once you have gotten the proper equipment for your shoot, you are ready to head out into the field. Start by spending some time orienting yourself to the Milky Way.
It may seem easy enough to locate your subject. But 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. These will affect your ability to get good pictures of the Milky Way.
These include seasonal and environmental factors. Such as what time of year you’re shooting, and where you are on the planet.
Weather conditions, light pollution, and camera exposure time considerations are also important.
The following articles will help you grasp these technical details. They will help you find the Milky Way and be ready to capture it in your photos.
Astrophotography requires a different approach than almost any other kind of photography.
This is because you need to deal with the dark of night. On top of this, 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 are effective for almost every shot of the Milky Way you’ll take. Master these and you’ll be ready to start shooting.
So, you chose the Milky Way as a focus. It goes without saying that you need to be able to find what you’re looking for in the dark sky.
This is before you point your camera towards the stars.
You’ll take the best photos when the environmental conditions are on your side. Better images come from seeing the Milky Way clearly.
This means picking the right time and place for your shoot. Also, 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.
Two important ideas are when and where to shoot to have it appear a certain way in your photos.
On top of this, you should think about what parts of the sky to include and emphasize in your photographs.
Getting the conditions just right does take a little bit of planning. But luckily we live in an era when technology can help us in that planning.
There are many mobile apps that you can take advantage of to help you do everything.
For example, finding the darkest skies near your location and checking the phase of the moon. It’s best to shoot during the new moon.
On top of this, they’ll help you discover when you’ll have full darkness on any given day. Accurate weather forecasts are important too.
These apps are our personal, field-tested favorites. There are the same ones used during the making of our Milky Way Mastery course.
One of the apps on this list is Photopills. This is great if you have a manual focus lens like Rokinon 14mm f2.8, as the calculator function gives you right shutter speed for shooting Milky Way photos.
Processing Milky Way Photography
It’s important to know that editing Milky Way images is not like processing typical landscape photos. You don’t just open Lightroom or Photoshop.
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. This is where post-processing comes into play.
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 colors. You’ll want to do this while enhancing others.
On top of this, modulate highlights, shadows, and clarity so that the stars in your image pop. This is in contrast to their surroundings.
Besides that, you will also want to correct the occasional lens distortions. They will likely occur in your Milky Way photos.
Reducing the appearance of haze in front of the stars in the sky you’ve photographed is also helpful.
Here we take a closer look at the exact adjustments that you’ll want to make in Adobe Lightroom. You’ll also see settings that 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, you’ll need to process them. One that is sorted, you’ll soon find yourself with an impressive collection of images.
After a few, it is easier to build on. No matter where on Earth you travel (light conditions permitting, that is).
Just starting out with your own portfolio of stellar snaps? Here’s a feast of gorgeous photos of the Milky Way. Hopefully, they inspire you as you create your own.
This linked article has 24 different Milky Way photos. On top of this, you’ll find a free download at the end that collects each of the images in full resolution. This will give you a wallpaper image to beautify your desktop.
The milky way is one of the highlights of the nighttime sky. Once you get the hang of capturing it, it can become a little boring.
By incorporating different elements into the scene, you break that monotony. Capturing foreground landscapes are one addition you can make.
For more impressive images, why not combine meteor showers?
NASA says approximately 30 visible meteor showers occur each year. Some of these showers have been around longer than 100 years.
That gives you a pretty good chance of capturing them, no matter where you live. Our article here provides all the info you’ll need.
Creative Night Photography
Capturing images of the Milky Way is, of course, part of the broader category of night photography.
If you enjoyed the experience and challenges of working in low-light conditions, you can expand. You may well enjoy exploring other types of night photography.
For the ambitious, you may even want to combine some other nighttime photography projects.
Milky way photography can take a long time. So it might be best to make the most out of your milky way photography trip.
Here are a few more ideas for photography you can do after night has fallen and darkness cloaks your surroundings.
This unique variation of light graffiti is a great way to create some stunning images. The best thing is, you’ll only need a few simple household materials.
In essence, you’re taking a long-exposure photo. the shutter stays open while you are “painting” within the frame.
By painting, I mean waving around pieces of steel wool that have been set aflame. Sounds like fun, huh?
The equipment you need to do it is inexpensive, easy to find, and very portable. This makes steel wool photography an excellent side project during Milky Way shots.
The most important thing when doing this type of photography is safety. Since you’re working with flames, you’ll want some safety measures.
Our article covers not only the techniques of creating these images but also the essential precautions you need to take when doing it.
Everything photographable during the day is repeatable at night. Oftentimes, you can do it with more dramatic or interesting effects.
This is because you’ll need to harness methods to achieve proper exposure.
When you’re comfortable modulating aperture, shutter speed, and ISO at night, you can begin to plan your shots.
There are certain effects that you can only achieve during the nighttime.
Light trails, reflections, moonlight, and image noise are only a few natural, in-camera effects that you may want to explore. You don’t always need noise reduction software.
Think of night landscape photography as a hybrid of Milky Way photography and traditional landscapes.
Many of the same concerns about shooting conditions and camera settings apply. The key difference is 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.
You won’t necessarily have to worry so much about the moon and the position of the stars in the sky.
Yet, you will still need to think about the movement of the Earth. And you’ll need to time your long exposures accordingly (depending on whether you want star trails in your shot).