Definitive Guide On How To Photograph The Milky Way (Tips and Material)

What is the milky way?

The Milky Way is the galaxy from which I write to you and from which you read me (greetings for those who do it from another), that is, it is our galaxy and where the solar system is located .

Photographing the Milky Way has always aroused great interest, surely you remember some wallpaper from a night photograph with a splendid and bright Milky Way in the sky.

We see it in the form of a strip obviously but seen from space it has a spiral shape.

What do I need to photograph the Milky Way

First of all, let’s see what material you will need.

Do not forget that this is only a base to start, you do not need in any case to spend a million on accessories. You will discover for yourself where the limit of your equipment is and what you need to buy.

A camera evidently

This is one of those photographic modalities in which the camera makes a difference . As we are going to need to increase the ISO sensitivity , to values ​​high enough to get the maximum light before the stars start to appear as traces, if your camera does not manage noise well or it heats up easily, your photo will not look so good. as expected.

  • It does not have to be a SLR camera , also an advanced compact or EVIL can easily support long exposures and offer excellent quality but I repeat, it should support high sensitivities (1600, 3200, 6400 ISO) to get a photograph of the Milky Way with decent quality.
  • You will need it to shoot RAW.
  • Have the option of noise reduction .
  • Manual settings for shutter speed , aperture and focus.

A bright target

As you will understand, it is highly recommended to have a wide angle lens to capture the maximum possible scene, the Milky Way runs through the entire sky, so I would say that 10 to 24mm would be great.

The maximum aperture of the lens is essential, the more light it lets through, the less time and ISO sensitivity we will need to capture the stars. A lens with an aperture of f / 2.8 is highly recommended for this type of photos, but since many of them are too expensive, you can start perfectly with the lens that comes with most SLR camera kits, the famous 17-55mm with maximum aperture. from f / 3.5 to f / 5.6.

The result will not be as good but it will help you to practice until you can get a team with better benefits.

Recommended goals

Some of the most recommended lenses can be found available for all brands, make sure that the lens you buy is compatible with your mount.

Tokina 11-16 f / 2.8

Samyang Fish Eye

The tripod

Is there someone in the room who can take a freehand long exposure photograph ?

Exposures will be long, and can reach 30 or 40 seconds of exposure , so the camera should be well supported and supported on a sturdy tripod.

You can use the typical cheap tripod for some amount but it will help you get started because any gust of wind or vibration will be appreciated in the final result.

The tripod that I normally use for night photography is a Manfrotto 055 with a 3-axis ball joint that allows me to adjust the angle I need and the camera is perfectly supported.

Remote Switch

The simple act of pressing the shutter button can make a photo look jittery. It would be great if you could get a  remote trigger for these cases or to be able to use the BULB mode with total freedom, without having to hold down the shutter button for the entire duration of the exposure.

The BULB mode is set for greater control of shutter speed. When applied, the shutter will remain open while the button is pressed, the moment the exposure is released, it ends.

It is essential for exposure times longer than those that the camera has by default, which are usually 30 seconds.

The remote shutter locks the shutter button until you choose, allowing exposures for hours. I recommend you buy an intervalometer command , since in addition to the option to block the shot, you can also do Timelapses and the price does not increase too much.

Don’t forget the flashlight

I dare say that it is the most important accessory , even more than the camera. A flashlight with spare batteries will save you from unpleasant moments or headaches when looking for accessories in the middle of the night.

Personally, I prefer to carry a flashlight for night photography instead of using the mobile flash since it consumes too much battery and we could need the mobile for any other application or emergency call.

It is much more comfortable to carry a front and thus have your hands free to search or configure the camera.

Some recommended models of headlamps and flashlights at a good price:

How to locate the Milky Way in the sky

The first thing is to prepare to find the perfect location and thus emerge victorious from our first experience with the photography of the Milky Way . City lights can be annoying and easily ruin a photo, flee from light pollution as much as possible. 

I know it can be difficult when you live in a big city but if you can book a weekend and escape to the country you will appreciate it.

To find the best place to photograph the Milky Way without the light getting in the way, I use a mobile application that shows the best locations for night photography through a map.

The maps they show are very intuitive, you will quickly know how far you will have to travel to avoid finding light from the cities.

In the place where I live, it is easy and fast to find a suitable place, but as soon as we approach a big city like Madrid, the task becomes quite complicated.

There is also a desktop version that you can consult from your computer and thus have everything ready for the night out.

More applications that will be useful to you

If you still want more applications to plan photographs I leave you 3 proposals that will not disappoint you.

When to photograph the Milky Way

The success of a photograph of the Milky Way is 90% planning , we will continue to help each other with applications to plan our photographic trip and achieve success.

First you should know that the Milky Way has a more luminous area than others, it is where the constellations of Sagittarius and Scorpio are found . You can observe this part from February to October in Spain (the rest of the countries can be guided by the applications that I have put above).

Depending on the time we go, its position will be one or the other, although you will always find it between the southwest and the southeast , depending on the composition you want to achieve, you will have to go at a specific time so that it is placed at the exact point to photograph it.

Photographing with the Moon

Another factor to take into account is the Moon, it is recommended that there is not or is in a phase that barely provides light to the sky, you can  consult the lunar calendar on this website, once again consult the map and make sure that you are going to finding her at her best is the best idea.

The weather forecast

Finally and one of the most important factors is the weather, if the sky is cloudy few stars you will be able to photograph obviously. You will have to check the weather for the whole week to make sure that the night will be clear, although I would not trust the predictions after 48 hours .
You will have to look at:

  • The clouds , no matter they are dense or thin, if lose clouds stars. It is essential that the sky is clear or that you have clearings large enough to include them in the composition.
  • If there is a lot of humidity in the environment, it  could affect the sharpness of the photos since it accumulates on the lens as dew, it can also produce distortions and halos.
  • The low temperatures will be your great allies, the sensor will get less warm thus reducing heat noise.
  • strong wind can move the camera during exposure and cause you to lose sharpness, not to mention how uncomfortable it is.

I recommend you check the weather in at least three different places and trust the prediction that is repeated the most. 

How to photograph the Milky Way

Now that you have everything planned and ready for your getaway, it is time to see what parameters to configure to be victorious in your first photo of our galaxy.

The settings that you will see below should be taken as a reference, since most depend on the light that is around, the management that your camera makes of noise due to ISO sensitivity , if there is a moon or not, the area that you photograph of the spiral, etc. .

Shutter speed

With shutter speed you will need to pay special attention because it is usually the part that “chokes” the most.

As the Earth is in motion, if we spend time with the shutter open, objects in the sky will be shaken, it seems an insignificant movement but with only 40 or 50 seconds of exposure the stars will appear as traces instead of static lights.

This is a real problem, since to photograph the Milky Way we need to capture a lot of light and the exposure time is limited from the beginning, so we will have to help ourselves with the ISO sensitivity and the diaphragm to get the necessary light.

Formula to achieve the exposure time

There is a very famous rule among fans of night photography that will indicate the maximum time that we can open the shutter with a certain focal length (taking into account the crop factor of our camera) without the stars appearing in the form of traces.

It is known as the “rule of 600” or 500 for some and consists of the following formula:

600 divided by the focal length = At ​​the maximum exposure time that we can use.

That is, if you shoot with a 17 mm in full frame, you will have to divide 600 by 17 which is equal to 35 seconds, that is the maximum exposure time that you can configure so that the entire static sky comes out.

If your camera has a crop factor remember to apply it to the focal length, you know, if you have a factor of 1.6x then the formula in that case would be:

600 divided by (focal length x crop factor) = At ​​maximum exposure time.

According to the previous example 600 divided by 17 mm x 1.6 is equal to 27.2 seconds that you can use at most, easy right?

Mobile application to calculate the rule of 600

If you want to simplify the process even more, you can use the Dark Skies application , there is it for both iPhone and Android phones. You no longer have excuses for those stars to come out as light streaks.

Hurry up and try times longer than those set by the application to get a better result if possible.

Recommended opening

As what we need is to capture the maximum possible light and you have already seen the problem of abusing the exposure time, you will have to adjust the diagram aperture to the minimum possible that your lens allows, that is, open the diaphragm to the maximum.

ISO speed for photographing the galaxy

The ISO sensitivity you will discover for yourself. If you already know your camera and you know how high it can go then you have it easy.

If this is not your case, start with a high sensitivity of 6400 or 3200 and take the photo, then zoom to see closely the noise that may be in the image and know if in the next you can increase or on the contrary you will have to reduce the sensibility.

Once you have the correct ISO value, you will have to play with the speed, aperture and sensitivity to get the photograph you are looking for.

Focus on the Milky Way

Focusing at night seems like a complicated task at first but trust me it’s easier than it sounds, you have several options:

  • The unhelpful method:  Deactivate the autofocus and bring the ring to infinity, take the photo and enlarge it to see if the stars are in focus and adjust on the spot.
  • Deactivate autofocus and use the camera’s Live View Mode to see the areas in focus on the LCD screen in real time.
  • My preferred method:  Calculate the hyperfocal  or use a laser pointer to focus. Once done, you will no longer have to touch it all night, even if you prefer you can leave the house with the hyperfocal calculated and the camera already in focus ready to photograph.

The importance of development

In this type of photography the development is especially important , when you see the result in RAW on the screen you will know perfectly what I am talking about.

You will surely get a muted Milky Way, which is nothing like the ones you have seen on the internet but now is when you will have to squeeze Lightroom, Photoshop or the editing program you use to get the most out of photography.

If you have shot in RAW and the photo is correctly exposed, the image will have more information than what you can see with the naked eye. With the help of contrast, color temperature , highlights, etc., you will discover the piece of spiral of our galaxy that you just photographed.

Tips and quick summary

  • Make sure that the weather conditions will be correct.
  • Better that there is no moon or at least that there is not too much light in the sky.
  • Shoot in RAW, with  noise reduction activated.
  • Use high ISOS, from 1600 to 6400 depending on the camera.
  • Apply the 600/500 rule or use the application to calculate the maximum exposure time so that the stars do not appear as traces or unclear.
  • Use the camera’s hyperfocal , laser, or Live View mode to zoom in real time with the LCD and see if the sky is in focus.
  • You can cover the visor so that no light enters and halos are produced.
  • Use a remote trigger.
  • Spend time processing at home, these types of photographs need it to achieve good results.