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How to photograph the Milky Way: A guide for beginners and enthusiasts

How to photograph the Milky Way
(Image credit: Tom Ormerod)

Learning the tricks and techniques for how to photograph the Milky Way isn’t as difficult as it first seems. When you first start taking pictures of the night sky you’re likely to see those amazing pictures of the Milky Way glistening brightly, fronted by an amazing mountain range or landmark and think “I’ll never be able to take anything like that”... but it is easier than you imagine.  With a bit of planning and practice anyone with a camera can capture the Milky Way but be warned, running around in the dark chasing a new Milky Way shot can become quite addictive!

There are many techniques to advance your Milky Way shooting but this guide will get you up and running. There aren’t too many differences between shooting the Milky Way and regular astro, although the timings and direction you shoot in need to be considered.

Basic equipment for shooting the Milky Way

These days it is even possible to capture the night sky with a phone camera but for this guide we will focus (excuse the pun) on using a standard interchangeable lens camera.  When we are teaching new night sky shooters they are always asked to bring 5 things:

  1. Their camera – any DSLR or Mirrorless camera will be fine
  2. Their "fastest" or "largest" aperture lens (lens with the lowest f/ number on it) - most people will have around a f/3.5 kit lens but the faster the better. We recommend f/2.8 or faster if possible. Generally, we advise a wider lens (24mm full frame equivalent or less) for beginners as they are easier to work with when starting out
  3. A stable tripod – most tripods are fine but make sure it can hold your camera completely still! 
  4. A remote shutter release – you can use a wired, wireless or app release. A 2 second self-timer is a good alternative.
  5. A head torch with a red light mode – not essential but it makes a huge difference when you are out in the field (red light doesn’t affect your natural night vision). 

We recommend a wider lens for beginners, as they're generally easier to work with in astrophotography.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Planning your shoot

OK, now you have your kit together you also need to do some basic planning. You will need: a clear sky, a dark sky location, and Milky Way visibility.

The Milky Way Season is generally considered to be February to October.  There are lots of nuances and factors that affect the visibility depending on your location and the time of year but we’d recommend using an app such as Photopills, Star Walk 2, SkySafari 6 Pro, or Stellarium to pick the right time based on your location. In general the Milky Way Core will be to the south so keep that in mind when planning your shot.

Next you need a dark site (e.g. as little light pollution as possible), and there are various websites that can help with this such as Dark Site Finder and Light Pollution Map

Finally, you just need a clear sky, so keep an eye on all those weather forecasts!

How to shoot the Milky Way

(Image credit: Tom Omerod)

Get your set-up right

Before heading out into the field to get your first shot, it is good to do some basic set-up at home.  

First, set your camera to Manual mode, make sure you are shooting in RAW and turn your screen brightness down to a minimum.

Next I always advise people to practice the basic process in the dark in their garden/close to home before heading out. We have a beginners guide to astrophotography if you need the basics.

Mount your camera on the tripod and practice focusing on the stars in the dark. Most cameras can’t autofocus on the stars, so you will need to learn to manual focus, which is probably the hardest thing to master and can be quite a barrier for some people. The basic idea is to pick a bright star (or very distant light), use any sort of focus zoom you can (most cameras have this) and adjust the focus until the star/light appears as small as possible.  Alternatively, if you know the exact infinity focus point on your lens you could use that. Remember when you are using a zoom lens, if you change the focal length you will need to refocus!

Milky Way Photography

(Image credit: Tom Ormerod)

Basic settings for shooting the Milky Way

This is tricky to advise as it will be dependent on your exact set-up, but most importantly you need to always use the widest/fastest (lowest number) aperture. Assuming you are using a wide lens, around f/2 and you are in an area with a little light pollution then we would recommend starting with f/2, ISO 3200 and 15 seconds.

The ISO can be adjusted up or down, but ISO 1600-6400 is usually used by Milky Way shooters, remembering the higher the ISO the more noise you will get. We have a guide to reducing noise in astrophotography, if you need it.

The shutter speed is important; if you leave the shutter open for too long then the stars will start to trail (especially at the edges of the frame).  You can use the NPF rule to calculate your ideal shutter speed for your set-up, and there is a handy calculator built into the Photopills app. Alternatively a little trial and error can be applied - keep adjusting the shutter speed and checking the resulting picture. Zoom in and as soon as the stars become ovals you have gone too far.

How to photograph the Milky Way

(Image credit: Tom Omerod)

Tips for your first shoot

Once you have all your gear ready, you know when and where you are heading to, and the conditions are right, it is time to put it all together.

If you can, get on site during daylight hours to scout out your spot and get set-up safely. Set up your tripod, ensuring the legs are securely locked in position, mount your camera, connect your shutter release and again check everything is secure. 

When the stars are visible, perform your focusing steps and then compose your final shot. Composing your shot in the dark can also be very challenging, by temporarily setting the ISO very high (ISO 12,000) you can take a quick (2-3 sec) test shot to check your focus and composition.

Finally, dial in your main settings and shoot. Review the image for pin sharp stars, make sure they are not blurry (re-focus) or ovals (increase shutter speed).  Also don’t forget the basics like straight horizons and using the histogram.  

Night sky image over circle of stones

(Image credit: Stuart Cornell)

Editing your Milky Way photos

Once you have a few shots in the bag it's time to head home and do some editing, as with most elements of night sky shooting there are many techniques you can utilize at this step but here are the basics we always start with. Remember editing is very much a personal preference, so do not be afraid to experiment.

The first thing to do after importing files is adjust the white balance. Somewhere between 4000k-5000K usually works well (with some cameras you can manually adjust the K of the white balance as you shoot, if you’d prefer). You will almost certainly need to increase the exposure, and we usually find shots need a 1-2 stops increase.

We usually decrease the highlights and increase the contrast and shadows a little.  If you are comfortable using radial gradients then they can be fantastic for adding some extra touches to the Milky Way. Try adjusting the clarity, dehaze and whites to make the Milky Way pop a bit more. Remember that the Milky Way is meant to be white, so if you’re trying to retain the proper colors, don’t go crazy with any color adjustments.

Also, if you are an Adobe Lightroom user, try using RAW profiles (the “Modern” profiles are good for Milky Ways) to get a start.

How to photograph the Milky Way

This shot shows the before and after versions of the same photo. (Image credit: Tom Omerod)

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Tom Ormerod

Family man Tom lives in Bournemouth on the south coast of England. As an Olympus OM-D Mentor and Astrophotography workshop/webinar leader he spends a large amount of time sharing his knowledge and passion for the night sky and landscape photography.  Tom is well known for his enthusiasm and friendliness, encouraging the social side of photography as much as the creative and technical aspects.