Shooting milky way photos or any star photos comes down to three important factors: gear, settings and clear/dark sky. I’m going to share below exactly how I shot the photo above, and more generally how I shoot photos of the milky way.
I am by no means an expert in shooting milky way photos (or even photography), but much of what I’ve learned so far has been from others explaining what they’ve done, so I want to do the same.
Let’s get right into things, and start by looking at what kind of gear I use.
Gear I use for Shooting the Milky Way
As I mentioned in my last How I shot this Photo post, my go-to equipment is a Sony a6000 with 12mm Samyang f2.0 lens. You can get this setup from Amazon for about $1000, and it does a great job for landscapes or night photography.
Most any DSLR will also work for milky way photos. You just need something with reasonable ISO performance. You also want a wide angle lens, and one with a wide aperture as well. 12mm at f2.0 is pretty ideal, but even f3.5 will likely work alright (you may need to compensate with a higher ISO).
I also use a cheap tripod (one day I’ll be cool enough for a fancy tripod…) and shutter remote control. You don’t have to have a shutter remote, but it is very convenient, and also allows you to shoot photos longer than 30 seconds if you want to do star trails, or other long exposures. If you don’t have a shutter remote, you can also set the timer on your camera to 2 seconds, and use that to eliminate camera shake from when you push the shutter button.
Here’s another milky way photo I shot using this gear:
The image above was shot at f2.0, ISO 3200 for 25 seconds.
And that’s about it for the gear, nothing too complicated about it.
Settings I use for Shooting the Milky Way
My basic settings for milky way shots are ISO 3200, f2.0 and shutter speed 25 seconds. These settings are what work best for my camera/lens setup. If you are using, say, a 50mm lens, you won’t be able to shoot for 25 seconds because the stars will look blurred (because of the motion of the earth). With a 50mm lens you would have to use a shutter speed of closer to 10-15 seconds. There are much more in-depth guides that explain this better if you are curious to learn more.
The reason for such a wide aperture and high ISO is because you need to let in a lot of light to capture the milky way. If your lens only opens to f3.5, you may need to try raising the ISO to 6400 or more. Many newer cameras are getting very good at shooting at high ISO without too much noise, but you may need to experiment with your camera and see how it performs.
Whenever I go out to shoot photos of the stars or milky way, I’ll almost always begin by using the settings above, and then adjust from there as needed.
Finding Clear and Dark Skies for Milky Way Photos
This is a factor you don’t always have control over. You need both clear skies, and also limited light pollution. If you live near a big city, you will probably need to go a long way away to get a nice dark sky.
There are light pollution maps available, here’s one that seemed pretty accurate. The best thing to do is just get out there and start trying and learn from your experience.
Finding where the milky way is in the sky can also be tricky. There are apps that will show you, or some test photos will also reveal it for you.
How I Shot Stargazing at Malaekahana
Now I want to share how I shot the photo of myself looking up at the stars at Malaekahana camping ground. I was on a weekend camping trip with a great group of friends to a camp ground on the North-East side of Oahu. This area doesn’t have a lot of light pollution, and you could actually see the milky way just looking up at the night sky.
I setup my camera, adjusted to the settings I described, and started shooting some photos. Unfortunately there were a lot of clouds, particularly in the part of the sky with the most visible section of the milky way, so I had to stick with a lesser visible part. To make it a little more interesting, I decided to jump in the photo myself, and shine a flashlight up at the sky.
Here’s the image in Lightroom, before any adjustments:
The is actually a little underexposed, because it was so dark in that area. If you notice the histogram in the upper right corner, you can see it is bunched on the left side. So most of my editing of this photo consisted of increasing the exposure, adding contrast, and noise reduction.
Here’s the final product, showing the basic adjustments:
As you can see, most of the sliders are pushed to the right, many of which help increase the brightness of the photo in various ways. Editing milky way photos can be hard, I find that shooting using RAW images, and editing with a more advanced image processing program like Lightroom, allow for greater control. Usually adding contrast and adjusting the white/black points is a good start.
In the end, you have to do what looks best to you, and enjoy the process of it all.
I hope some of this was helpful or inspiring. My best tip is to just keep practicing. I spent quite a few hours in dark, rural places trying to get a decent photo of the stars (and when you’re in rural Northern Thailand, your mind quickly starts to wonder about tigers, snakes or other possible dangers lurking int he dark). I still have plenty to learn, and try to take advantage of opportunities to see the stars, and sometimes shoot photos too.
Thanks for visiting, leave a comment if you have any questions!