How to Photograph the Milky Way – The Right Way

Milky Way

Milky goodness streaks across the sky overhead. You grab your trusty hunk of photo makin’ metal, and point it towards the heavens above. Now what?

For thousands of years mankind has been looking at the stars with a grounding effect on their sense of belonging. These days we are further from those beautiful twinkling diamonds in the sky than ever before. Maybe that is why a photograph of the Milky Way tugs on the viewer’s attention in such a powerful way. Let me walk you through how to make your own professional image of the Milky Way!

It always starts with choosing the right night and location, so let’s begin.

 

1. Choose the Perfect Night

When choosing the right night to make star photos, you need a couple things to go your way. First you need a clear, cloudless night. That one is up to Mother Nature. The other thing that you need is a moonless night. That is a little easier. Just check your calendar for the new moon, and shoot within a few days either side of it and you will be golden.

 

2. Location

Light pollution is always a night photographer’s foe. Get yourself as far from the city lights as possible, and find a nice dark sky to really see the stars shine. Also finding a nice foreground element is key to framing up the Milky Way in your photograph. Composition is just as important at night as in day.

 

3. Equipment

You don’t need much to shoot the Milky Way. You need a camera that can shoot in manual mode, with a standard or wide angle lens, and a tripod. A remote trigger release is a great tool but is optional.

 

4. Camera Menu Settings

Mirror Lock-up

An SLR or DSLR camera uses a prism shaped mirror to allow the photographer to look through the viewfinder and see exactly what the camera sees. This mirror flips up when the photo is being taken in order for the image to be burned into the film or sensor. This flipping up motion can cause the tiniest amount of motion blur. The mirror up function allows the mirror to click up with a delay before the actual photo is taken, eliminating any motion blur from the mirror.

Mirror Lock-Up shown on a Nikon D7000 - refer to your manual
Mirror Lock-Up shown on a Nikon D7000 – refer to your manual

Noise Reduction Off

You can use noise reduction in the camera if you would like. It basically attempts to remove digital noise after the image is taken by doing things I won’t try and explain here. If you shoot a 30second exposure, you will then have to wait another 30 seconds for the camera to run the Noise Reduction software. Many pros will tell you that it does a less than stellar job. The better way to reduce noise is to make a dark frame. To do this use the same camera settings that you used to make your shot and repeat it with the lens cap on. In Photoshop you can then lay the dark image over your final image, and use the Subtract or Difference mode, while adjusting the opacity to get the desired look and feel. If you are new to the game then you can completely skip this step. Although I would still make a dark frame, just in case someday you want to revisit this image when your editing skills have improved.

Noise Reduction Off on Nikon D7000, refer to your camera's manual
Noise Reduction Off on Nikon D7000, refer to your camera’s manual

RAW File Format

Shooting in RAW gives you all the information your camera can gather. You get the maximum resolution, and the most advanced editing capabilities. I understand it takes up more space on a hard drive, but luckily memory is cheap these days. We are going to need all the resolution we can get when pushing the camera sensor to its max.

 

5. Exposure Settings

Manual Mode

We are going to take full control over the camera, so set your camera on Manual Mode.

Shutter Speed

Set your shutter speed somewhere between 30-40 seconds. If you have a wider-angle lens, you can get away with a little longer exposure. The Earth is spinning and after 30 or 40 seconds you will start to see the stars turn into lines.

Aperture

Next set your aperture to the lowest ƒ number your lens can go to in order to let in the most amount of light possible. Ƒ2.8 is a great example.

ISO

ISO is basically your camera sensors sensitivity to light. The higher you raise the ISO number, the brighter the image gets, but also the more noise. Every camera has different ISO capabilities when it comes to the amount of noise, so I suggest you bracket your ISO to learn what you camera is capable of. Start with ISO 400, and take a shot, next bump it up to 800 etc. until you can clearly see that the image is a noisy mess. Find your sweet spot between the Shutter Speed, Aperture, and ISO, and you will be shooting like a pro.

 

6. Focus

To Infinity and beyond! Focus your lens to the infinity mark. Looks like this ∞, and then back it off just a hair. That should give you some crispy looking stars.

 

7. Don’t Touch that Camera

Now that the camera is all set up and ready to go, either use a trigger release button or set the timer on your camera so you don’t shake the camera as you push the shutter button.

 

8. Overshoot

You have all the tools you need, and a clear star filled sky, so it’s time to shoot your hearts desire. After going through all this effort, it will be worth it to shoot as many shots with different settings, angles, and locations as you can squeeze into the night. It will be worth it when you are scrolling through your images on the computer learning what worked and what didn’t.

Camera Settings on Nikon D7000 - 30s ƒ2.8 ISO2000
Camera Settings on Nikon D7000 – 30s ƒ2.8 ISO2000

Extra Tip:

If you open your image in Adobe Bridge, Lightroom, or any RAW editing software, you will see your metadata. This will tell you your camera settings, and allow you to remember what settings worked best for you camera on that night.

 

Now get out there and Stimulight the Night!

Author Dan McCreight

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *