The Beginners Guide to Milky Way Photography

This article is for those heading out to take their first shot of the Milky Way, or are just learning. Here are some tips to help set you up for success!

Milky Way over Horizon

Focus at Night – This is one of the most important factors. Take the time to get it right. For photos of the stars, you want to manually focus your lens to infinity. Focusing your lens to infinity at night might seem like it should be easy considering most lenses will have an infinity symbol on them. However, perfect focus is usually off the infinity point of focus by a bit. The best thing to do is to use live view or the viewfinder, find a bright star or light and manually focus until its a small pin point. Take a test shot at high ISO and zoom in to double check. Then make sure that you don’t move the focus ring during the night. Some people go as far as taping their lens down to ensure focus stays sharp. Make sure to double check your focus once and awhile throughout the night. There is nothing more frustrating than coming home to find out most or all of your photos are slightly out of focus. This makes focus the most important part of capturing the milky way.

TIP: When I was first learning night photography, I would focus my lens to infinity during the day before I planned to head out that night. I’ve also marked the point on my lens. Its easier for learning, and my eyes are bad.

The Gear- You will need a DSLR or mirrorless camera and a sturdy tripod. It is recommended to have a remote shutter release, or you can use the 2 second timer on your camera to get rid of camera shake. (yes even pushing the button can cause blur) The lens you use is up to you, however it is recommended to have a lens with a f/2.8 or lower aperture to allow in more light. Also a wider lens will allow you to keep the shutter open for longer without causing stars to trail.

The Settings- Depending on the lens you are using, the settings may need to be adjusted accordingly. Also if you plan to stack sky photos, you are able to use a higher ISO and lower shutter speed but that is a more advanced method so for now I will outline what is needed for single exposure shots of the milky way. By single exposure shot, I mean you are taking just one shot and processing it. Its one shot of a moment in time. So using your camera to its fullest capabilities without causing a bunch of noise is key.

For a single shot exposure of the milky way I commonly use:
f/2.8, 14mm, 20 sec, 6400 ISO

TIP: A digital sensor can create noise as it heats up. Taking photos in cold weather has an advantage of less noise. If it is warmer out, try to reduce the amount of shots you take to keep the noise level in each shot down.

As you continue to learn and advance, the technical way for Milky Way photography involves stacking photos, or blending photos to reduce the overall noise in the sky and the foreground. Once you have the basics figured out, I recommend you look into ways to reduce noise and improve compositions because Milky Way photography can be an awarding journey.

Finding the Milky Way – Simply look up. If you are in a dark area with a clear view to the sky you can’t miss the milky way! Looking up into a sea of stars, a distinct hazy extra bright band emerges. During the spring and summer in Canada, the photogenic core is visible over the horizon. For fall and winter the core of the milky way doesn’t reach over the horizon, but the milky way band of stars is still visible. The visibility of the milky way core depends on your geographic location. There are plenty of apps and websites that can help you determine when the milky way is visible for you.

TIP: An app called PhotoPills is one of the best apps to help you plan for milky way shots. (I am in no way sponsored, I just really LOVE that app!) With augmented reality you can plan out compositions and know precise times that your photo will line up. The app also includes calculators that help you determine the proper shutter speed to use as well!

Get Creative- I started out learning Aurora Photography before I got into Milky Way. So for me the huge difference was the slow pace of action. The Milky Way doesn’t move fast, on a clear night its always there in a totally predictable position. This was new for me, aurora photography is totally different. The advantages of Milky Way Photography are that you can plan for the shot, you can focus more on composition and learn to perfect your settings.

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