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  • Writer's pictureMichael Ashley Gallery

Night Scene Photography: How to Photograph the Milky Way


As an astro photographer, one question I'm always asked is, “What is the best time to photograph the Milky Way?

I have broken this blog down into simple tips for night photography.

1. Time of Year

2. Gear

3. Location, Location, Location

4. Getting the Shot

1.) Time of Year

My favorite time to photograph the milky way is March - May. The great thing about photographing the these months is you can capture the full arch across the sky. By mid summer, the Milky Way will appear to high in the sky to capture the full arch but you are still able to get amazing Vertical shots with the galactic core.

March, April, May

June, July, August

September, October, November

2.) Gear

Photographing the night sky is not difficult, but having the right equipment makes all the difference. Getting sharp photos of the Milky Way is a lot more demanding than well-lit subjects during the day. Below is the gear I use when I'm out on location shooting the Milky Way.

  • Map of the stars

How are you going to shoot the milky way if you don't know where it's at? You can download some free apps but I recommend PhotoPills. It's only $9.99 for the full download and doesn't require any membership subscription.

  • Best Camera for night photography

There are many great-quality cameras on the market to suit everyone’s taste. But, when it comes to cameras for night photography, I'm a loyal Canon shooter. Whenever I'm shooting the night sky, my go to cameras are Canon 5ds r and Canon 6D.

  • Best lenses for night photography

24-70mm f/2.8 - Available for Canon and Nikon DSLR, Sony Mirrorless

14-24mm f/2.8 - Available for Canon and Nikon DSLR, Sony Mirrorless

16-35mm f/2.8 - Available for Canon and Nikon DSLR, Sony Mirrorless

24mm f/1.4 - Available for Canon and Nikon DSLR, Sony Mirrorless

  • Sturdy Tripod and Ball head

I use the TVC-34L Mk2 tripod and BH-55 ball head by a company called Really Right Stuff. I have gone through MANY tripods throughout the years and this company has the best on the market. Yes they are very expensive, but when your taking 2 minute exposures, any movement ruins your entire shot.

  • Sky Tracker

I use the iOptron SkyGuider Pro EQ Camera Mount for all my milky way shot. I understand the majority of my readers will not be using this, but it's how I'm able to take 2 minuet exposures. This produces extreme detail of the sky which allows me to enlarge my print up to 10 feet wide. I will write another blog in full detail about this process on a future date.

  • Flash Light

You will be shooting in complete darkness. I use an inexpensive headlamp from amazon. In populated areas like the Salt Flats in Death Valley. please use your red lamp to be courteous of other photographers shooting.

  • Cable Release

3.) Location, Location, Location

There are many things to factor when choosing the right location. Light pollution, season, moon phase, and weather. I live in Las Vegas so my favorite place to shoot is Death Valley.

4.) Night Photography Settings

An important factor to keep in mind is your intention for the photo. Are you looking for a detail image you can print large or something to post on social media for your friends to enjoy? Everything I shoot is intended for my gallery with the ability to print large. A good baseline exposure for the Milky Way on a full frame sensor with dark skies is 24mm, f/2.8, ISO 3200, 16 seconds. Take a few test shots and tweak your setting from there.

  • What is the best Shutter Speed for night photography

Wide angle lenses let you use longer exposures at night without stars streaking. A good rule of thumb is to divide 400 by your focal length for the maximum number of seconds you can use for an exposure and still get acceptably sharp stars. It’s a relative figure; stars don’t appear to move as fast near the north star, but the further away from Polaris and the closer to the equator you get, the faster the stars to move. Here are some examples:

400 ÷ 16mm on a full frame sensor = 25 seconds

400 ÷ 24mm on a full frame sensor = 16 seconds

If you are using a camera with a crop sensor, you will have to divide by the crop amount

400 ÷ 16mm ÷ 1.6 for a Canon crop sensor = 15 seconds

400 ÷ 24mm ÷ 1.6 for a Canon crop sensor = 10 seconds

  • What is the best aperture for night photography

You want to be as wide open as you can go on a moonless night. If I'm shooting without my tracker, I shoot everything at f/2.8. You don’t want to go above f/4 unless your camera has a very high ISO range.

  • ISO

Unless you are using a tracker or stacking images for longer exposures, we have to use very high ISOs to capture enough detail of the Milky Way. The cameras on the market today are able to produce incredible images at higher ISO. You’ll want to experiment to find the ideal balance between detail and noise with your camera. ISO 1600 to 3200 is a good ISO range for photographing the Milky Way. I would not recommend going above ISO 6400.

  • White Balance

I find a proper white balance is between 3000° and 4000°K. I’m usually around 3200 or 3400K. Experiment around with different settings until to achieve the look you like. If you are shooting in RAW, set your WB to auto and adjust it in Lightroom during post processing.

  • How do I focus my camera at night

Critical focus is necessary for sharp stars and detailed milky way. Autofocus on most cameras will not work on dim stars. The best method is to manually focus on a very bright star using live view on a tripod. Live view won’t see any stars until at least 5x usually, and then you can pan around a bit until you find it and zoom in again to 10x or higher. Manually adjust your focus until the star in live view is as small a pixel as you can get it with no soft edges or halos around it.

5. Editing

Now for the fun part. I actually hate editing photos so I've come up with a quick system that only takes me 10-20 minuets if I don't have to stack or blend images. Please check back soon for my tips on how to edit Milky Way photos.

Moon Photos

Crescent Moon

Lunar Mystique

tags night pictures, night images, milky way photography, how to shoot the milky way, astrophotography workshop, astrophotography, where to shoot the milky way, starry night photography, blood moon photos, blue moon photos, full moon photos, night photography tips, how do I focus my camera in the dark


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