7 basic night photo tips for photographing the Milky Way

by Apr 28, 2022Photography

Marshall Point Milky Way Photography Tips Pinwheel

Photographing the Milky Way is an art, but one that will reap great rewards and satisfaction for you. Read these basic night photo tips for gear, accessories, and settings to get you started.

The first time you turn your eyes to the sky and see the colorful Milky Way lighting up the heavens, expect to gasp in awe as I did. Stars are impressive enough when you get to a truly dark sky location, but the Milky Way with its dense core of pinks and blues is a sight to behold, especially if your goal is indeed photographing the Milky Way.

Astral and night photography is an art that many spend their lives learning and fine-tuning – I have found a passion in photographing the night skies, a love that is enhanced by the glory of being outdoors with the silence of the night and all those stars. I don’t think you ever perfect the art of night photography. So if you want to photograph the Milky Way, expect the quest to be a never-ending educational journey. That is one of the attractions of night photography for me; it’s a thinking person’s activity.

Ready to start your own personal photo journey with the Milky Way and stars? Begin by first reviewing these gear suggestions and camera setting guidelines, below. Don’t forget that “guidelines” is the operative word. This is an art, as I said, not a science. There is a suggested starting point, but you then have to use your head to make changes – and you will find a lot of variations on this so-called starting point if you look around. First, though, you’ll need to move beyond your smartphone, although with the right camera app you can get something admirable enough. Oh, but you want more than “admirable enough,” right? Then read on.

Jordan Pond Night Photo Tips Photographing The Milky Way

Milky Way floating in the distance over Jordan Pond in Acadia National Park in Maine. Night had just barely officially fallen and although Acadia is a Dark Sky Park, you can still see some light pollution on the horizon. This was taken from a scrambly hike up to South Bubble. P.S. The meteor that photo-bombed the shot is an extra.

Gear you need for photographing the night skies

Photographing the Milky Way isn’t really all that difficult once you know the basics, but do remember that rules are made to be broken. That’s where the thinking and lifetime of learning comes in.

Below, you’ll find seven basic tips to get you started photographing the Milky Way and the night skies. But be warned: When you are out enjoying the quiet of the night and the beauty of the galaxy overhead, it’s easy to get bitten by the night photography bug, as I was. First, though, ensure you have the right gear and accessories:

When it comes to snagging impressive night and astral photos, it’s essential to have a camera that allows you to adjust settings precisely, including aperture (also known as F-stop or how wide open the lens is), shutter speed (how fast it takes a photo), and ISO (how sensitive the camera will be to available light).


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You will also need a tripod since the length of the exposure will be a few seconds or more. Holding your camera in your hands will mean you’ll get blurry everything. When stars and skies are sharply focused, that’s when the oo’s and ah’s really start.

To trigger a shutter for a longer exposure without pushing the camera button by hand, which can cause the camera to shake, you will also want to have a remote shutter release that attaches to the camera by a cable or via Bluetooth.

If the Milky Way is your goal, you need to determine when it is visible where you are. By visible, I mean the central area, or that really colorful area called the “Galactic Core.” Generally speaking in the Northern Hemisphere, that will be from about early spring to mid-fall, although it can be earlier or later, depending on where in the world you are – and what time you might be willing to go looking.

Rhyolite Shack Night Photo Tips

At the Rhyolite Ghost Town in Nevada – but considered part of Death Valley National Park in California — the Milky Way graced us briefly with its presence in early November with a little light painting of a deserted shack adding to the foreground.

Location is also key. You also won’t see it as well when the moon is full or there is too much light pollution. Do yourself a favor prior to heading out and check out an area’s extra light on a light pollution map for better night photography choices. Plus, seek some kind of foreground, from water to mountains or trees, to make the Milky Way even more impressive.

Basic settings for photographing the Milky Way

Once you have the right gear, apps, accessories, and timing, it’s time to start shooting:

  • Use a wider-angle lens, such as 14-20 mm. A wider angle will usually collect more light. And since photographing the Milky Way is all about collecting light, that’s a good thing.
  • Change the camera to manual mode so you can adjust everything yourself.
  • Plug in your wired shutter release or connect your Bluetooth remote so you can release the camera shutter without any jiggle.
  • Set the ISO to 6400 (you may later try moving that down to even 3,200, which I often prefer). Bigger numbers mean more light sensitivity but also the chance for more “noise.”
  • Set the aperture to F/2.8. Smaller numbers mean wider aperture and thus more light. Of course, I am also hoping that your lens is a so-called “fast” lens, meaning you have the ability to change to a wider aperture below F/4.5. If you do not, the photo’s look will change but you can also add light by selecting a higher ISO.
  • Shutter speed is pickier. Milky Way photographs are not super long exposures since the stars are moving surprisingly fast, and you don’t want streaks. How fast you set the speed will depend on your lens and other factors. It may be a few seconds or even up to 30 seconds. Unless you have an app that helps you determine that length, you can just start experimenting. Start with 15 or 20 seconds. After a shot, zoom in on your camera monitor to see if the stars are elongated or actual points. If not a real star point, then make your shutter speed shorter. If there is not enough light, but you still have points, go longer. Then check again to find the right balance for your camera and lens.
  • Focus is king. This is even trickier. You can set the camera for infinity, which can work. You can also focus on a bright star. If you have foreground, you’ll need to find a point that allows both to be in focus. Again, until you are more advanced, you may want to just try taking some shots, then looking at them to see where you need to adjust.

Now, start shooting and experimenting, taking a number of shots with different scenes and light and length, looking at them zoomed in on your camera monitor to see what you think you should change. Remember, this is a digital world so you can always delete!

Eagle Lake Milky Way

Also at Acadia park in Maine, the Milky Way dances above Eagle Lake, with some star reflections adding to the drama in the water. And a touch of light added via flashlight on the foreground grasses.

Processing your Milky Way photos

Of course, taking the photos is the first step. Adjusting them using photo editing software such as Lightroom or Photoshop is yet another art and yet another learning process.

After taking a photo, you will need to adjust the tones and so-called “white balance,” and bring out a few colors in the Milky Way, too. There are free programs to get you started.

These tips will help you get a feel for photographing the Milky Way, stars, and galaxies. Remember, thought, the complexity of what, when and how to shoot goes much deeper. Start dabbling and see how excited you get when you see the potential. Not to mention the shriek of joy when you nail your first Milky Way shot.

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