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If you ever looked at a photo of the Milky Way stretching across the night sky and wondered how such an image was taken, you’re certainly not alone. Pull up Instagram and you’ll find millions of images of the Milky Way. Hundreds more are added every day – even by me. If you’re a new or hobby photographer who has never tried it, night photography can seem quite intimidating.
But the truth is, once you’ve gotten the hang of it, taking a photo of the Milky Way or night sky is actually pretty simple. I won’t go so far as to say it’s easy. Quality long exposure photography takes both skill and practice. Selecting the proper night sky settings, a great location, and correct equipment to photograph the Milky Way are all crucial.
However, once you’ve practiced the basic skills and simple steps outlined below, you’ll be surprised how quickly you get good at it.
I’m breaking this blog up into several components. It’s a long post, but it will address most (if not all) of the various aspects you’ll need to consider while learning to photograph the night sky. I’ve also written a separate post that takes an in-depth look at the various equipment necessary for night sky and Milky Way photography.
This post is going to cover the following aspects of night sky photography:
- Night sky photography equipment
- Useful smart phone apps
- When to go (including ideal weather conditions)
- Finding Night Sky photography locations:
- The basic steps for taking photos of the night sky
- The best settings for night photography
- Making the necessary corrections and adjustments
As I already mentioned, I’m also posting a more comprehensive guide for all of the equipment you’ll ever need. There is also a comprehensive guide to wild camping in the works. For now, though, you’ll have to settle for my guide to low-cost travel, and if you want more specific advice – either submit a form online, or contact me directly.
Night Sky Photography equipment
Capturing the beauty overhead doesn’t require a ton of expensive equipment, but there are a few necessities. For a more detailed review of the equipment I use, check out my comprehensive post on Night Sky photography gear.
Equipment I must have to photograph the Milky Way and Night Sky
- A camera body that allows you to take long exposures. I use a Nikon D5300.
- A tripod to stabilize the camera. Long exposure images, especially of the Milky Way or night sky, are far too long to be taken hand-held. A tripod is a must. I use an Amazon Basics 72″ Pistol Grip tripod and I absolutely love it!
- A wide and fast lens. I primarily use a Tokina 11-20MM f2 wide angle lens – hands down my favorite!
- SD Cards or Film. I’ve spent a lot on high end SD cards, only to have them stop working. I recommend you buy SD cards or film in bulk and have backups for whatever problems may come.
Equipment that makes my Milky Way and Night Sky photos better
- A good headlamp. A hands-free source of light is invaluable. Having a red light setting is ideal for night photography. I have several headlamps that I use – I buy them whenever they go on sale. My two favorites are the Eddie Bauer basic headlamp (for night photography), and the Petzl Tikka lamp (for general use).
- A quality UV filter. A good UV filter provides two primary benefits: protecting your lens and providing clarity to all your images. I like the Waka UV filters, and the Tiffen Skylight 1A filter.
- A quality light pollution filter. The light pollution filter linked here is hand-made in the United States, and is quite possibly the single best piece of glass that I own.
- Step up and step down rings. Adapter rings allow you to connect filters to lenses if the diameters do not match. I like the Neewer Step up and Step Down sets that I have.
- A sturdy camera bag. Now that you have all this equipment… how are you going to carry it and keep it organized? I prefer this backpack-style bag, as it’s more functional in the event you are walking or hiking to a location.
Useful Smart Phone apps for Night Sky photography
There are a few apps you should have on your phone. The apps I recommend are described in more detail in my equipment post. A quick synopsis is below. Unless otherwise noted, the apps listed are free.
- Google Maps. Google Maps is useful for both planning and navigating.
- Light Pollution Map. A light pollution map helps you scout for locations to photograph the Milky Way. The app I use is literally called “LightPollution Map” (no space between Light and Pollution).
- Weather Forecasting. Knowing the weather is critical, not just for camping under the stars, but for knowing about atmospheric conditions that affect your photographs. I use an app called “Dark Sky,” which costs $4.99 to download.
- Campsite Locations. The best way to capture images of the Milky Way is to camp on location. I use “The Dyrt” – it provides a wide variety of filters and options for finding excellent free campsites.
When to photograph the Night Sky and Milky Way
Yes, I know… the best time to photograph the night sky is…. at night! But seriously, there are several things to consider when it comes to scheduling night photography, especially with the Milky Way.
The best time of year to photograph the night sky & Milky Way
It might almost be easier to talk about the worst time of year to photograph the night sky: the winter. Though there is little to no humidity to distort your imagery, virtually everything else about shooting at night in the winter is bad: the temperature makes it unpleasant for even the hardiest of souls, there’s no Milky Way, the snow reflects any and all ambient light and magnifies light pollution, there’s usually a lot of cloud cover, etc.
So when’s the best time to go out? Late spring or early fall. Though bad weather – rain, clouds, and humidity – can be a factor, generally speaking the conditions are usually ideal for night sky photography in May/June and September/October. Temperatures are comfortable, the air tends to be more dry, and the sky is often clear. July is also a good option, though it tends to get pretty hot and humid.
NOTE: North of the equator, the Milky Way is generally only visible from April through November, and ideal viewing conditions occur from May through October.
The best time of month to photograph the night sky & Milky Way
This is a much easier topic to address. The best time of each month to photograph the night sky is during the seven days on each side of the new moon. New Moon means that there is no visible moon in the sky, because it is completely in earth’s shadow. The week leading up to, and the week following the New Moon is ideal for night photography. Because the moon brightly reflects the sun’s light, it washes out much of the night sky – especially the comparably dark Milky Way. The less moonlight, the better your images will be.
The best time of night to photograph the night sky & Milky Way
This is perhaps the most complex question to address, because it requires that you review several factors: Sunset/sunrise, moon rise, Milky Way “rise,” and other night sky event times (astronomical events like meteor showers, northern lights, etc). As you likely are aware, each of these factors occur at different times each day, week, and month…. so you’re going to have to adapt your plans accordingly.
The best time to photograph the night sky is when it is fully dark. Though I am definitely a huge fan of “blue hour” images, they are not ideal for capturing the stars nor the Milky Way. The sky is not fully dark for at least an hour or two after sunset.
Utilize a moon phase schedule to find when the moon rise occurs each night. Capture as many images as you can before the moon comes up. I’ve also captured a couple unique images of the moon coming up, slowly washing out the Milky Way as it rises.
The Milky Way itself “rises” or appears in the night sky at different times each month. As the earth rotates around the sun and changes its tilt angle, the Milky Way’s location and rise changes. It’s a good idea to spend some time before your trip researching when and where it will be while you’re traveling. Also be sure to look up whether there are any meteor showers or other astronomical events during your trip.
The best atmospheric conditions for night sky photography
Quite simply, you want good weather: low humidity, few to no clouds, and mild temperatures. Dry air is key to image clarity, and you don’t want clouds blocking your view. The advantage of mild temperatures, aside from basic creature comforts, is that it reduces the chances of condensation fogging your lens and filters.
How to find locations to photograph the night sky
Sadly, unless you live in a very isolated location, the Milky Way is almost certainly not visible overhead where you live. People create a lot of light pollution – street lights, porch lights, lamp posts, billboards, etc – virtually everything we do creates at least a little bit of light pollution. The more light pollution that’s generated, the less visible the night sky will be.
The problem is even worse when you’re trying to photograph the Milky Way. First, the Milky Way is very difficult to see with the naked eye. It generates very little light, so it’s only clearly visible in the darkest locations. Second, the more ambient light there is at your location, the brighter the image will be. Contrast and darkness are key to highlighting the beauty of the night sky.
Thus, the best locations for photographing the Milky Way – or the night sky in general – are the darkest locations. But darkness is only one component of the equation. You want a site that provides beauty to your image. If all you can see is the sky, your image will be beautiful but generic. It could be anywhere. In addition to providing context to your image, including some of your surroundings in the foreground will make it compelling and unique.
Finding Night Sky photography locations out East
Finding interesting surroundings will depend heavily on your region. Sadly, much of the eastern half of the country is awash with light pollution. So finding sites that are both appealing and dark can be tricky. If you’re looking for a site on the eastern half of the country, start by utilizing your Light Pollution app to locate the dark areas nearest to you.
Once you’ve located a couple dark sky options that are within a reasonable driving distance, start looking for other interesting geographic features.
- Forests are a great option, because they’re sparsely populated, the trees block any local ambient light, and they provide a number of interesting compositions for your image.
- Similarly, large bodies of water such as ponds, lakes, or even the ocean are good options. A marina full of boats provides a really fun feature to include in your images.
- Sometimes unique buildings can contribute a lot to an image. Know of an old abandoned church, house, gas station, or other isolated building? Incorporate it for a powerful image of the Milky Way!
- If none of the options above are available in the spots you’ve found, look at a terrain map to spot interesting contours in the areas you’re considering. You can also switch to a satellite view or even Google Earth to better scope out potential options. If you still don’t find anything fitting …. you’re going to need to broaden your search area!
Finding Night Sky photography locations out West
I’m not going to lie – the western half of the country has a distinct advantage when it comes to finding night sky locations. Due to the often harsh landscapes and sparse population density, the “wild west” has significantly less light pollution and significantly more locations to photograph the Milky Way. You certainly can and should still review locations on your Light Pollution app; however, there are far more options to choose from out west.
The vast majority of my Milky Way images were captured deep in the desert, or along the coastline, of the American West. The rugged terrain of the western mountains and deserts provides photographers with infinite compositions to choose from. The large stretches of publicly owned land provides countless places to camp, miles from any other people or lights.
The best part is that you often won’t have to drive more than a couple hours from even the most densely populated cities to reach incredibly dark sky areas. Mojave National Preserve is less than two hours from Las Vegas. Joshua Tree National Park is two hours from downtown Los Angeles. Yosemite Valley is three hours from downtown San Francisco… And so on.
You have to travel a bit further out to get to areas that are completely dark …. but a vast number of locations that have absolutely zero light pollution are a simple weekend-trip away from virtually anywhere out west.
In addition to the geographic features listed above, out west you will also find:
- Snow-capped Rocky mountain peaks
- Craggy desert mountain peaks
- Unusual and unique rock formations, such as those in Monument Valley or Joshua Tree
- Desert valleys lined with cacti, rocky outcroppings, and other interesting flora and fauna
- And much more!
How to Photograph the Milky Way
Now that you know a little bit about the equipment and locations to photograph the Milky Way, it’s time to start capturing images! The best option for you is to start out taking photos of the night sky. This is a great way to “ride the bike with the training wheels on” so to speak.
If you’re going on a trip, or travelling somewhere to photograph the Milky Way, you should start this practice a couple weeks or months before you leave.
Photographing the night sky is an easy and low impact way to practice the skills you’ll be utilizing to capture photos of the Milky Way. You can start out in your own backyard if you want – that’s what I did. It’s a no-cost way to work through the mistakes you’ll make and issues you might have before it’s time for the real deal.
More importantly, the practice will give you time to get comfortable with your camera equipment. It took me about a year of consistent shooting before I was fully comfortable with my Nikon D5300.
The steps outlined below are a useful guide on how to photograph both the Milky Way and the night sky in general. Utilize them for both practice runs and when you’re attempting the real deal. The more practice you have before you leave for a trip, the better you’ll do when you’re on the road!
Steps to taking photos of the Milky Way
Taking photos of the Milky Way is not complex. Depending on what you accomplish, the process could be very simple: mounting the camera on the tripod, setting it up, and hitting the shutter button. I’m going to provide a more in-depth review of the instructions, for those who are “starting from scratch.”
My instructions presume that you already know the basic functions of operating your camera, lenses, and tripod.
It would be impossible to write up camera-specific instructions anyway. If you need help learning the basics of using your camera, I strongly recommend finding a course online, or even better – go take a class at your local community college!
In addition, these instructions presume you are not stacking images.
If you don’t know what that means, fear not – it doesn’t apply to you!
- Decide what image you would like to capture. To put it simply, what are you imagining your image will look like? Personally, I’ve found that photos that are just of the sky and stars and don’t show any foreground are boring. The foreground is what gives your image character. It tells the viewer a lot about what you were experiencing while looking up at the stars – where you were, what the conditions were like, and more. A photo of the night sky will look very different with the forest, the mountains, or a lake in the foreground than it would with your backyard in front.
- Wait for good weather. This is the frustrating part. You cannot, of course, take images of the night sky when it’s raining, snowing, or cloudy. In addition, the less moonlight there is, the more stars you will see. This is crucial for night sky photography. The moon is much brighter in long exposure imagery than it is to the naked eye, and its light washes out many of the dimmer stars.
- If appropriate, travel to your site. If you’re just shooting in your backyard for practice, this doesn’t apply. But if you have a location in mind for your photos, leave in enough time to arrive a little before dusk. You’ll want to have time to find the best spot available and get your gear set up in the daylight. It’s much harder to do once night has fallen.
- Set up your gear. Make sure the proper lens is mounted to your camera. If applicable, put the various filters (UV, light pollution or redhancer, etc) on your lens. Mount your camera on your tripod.
- Compose your image. This is where it can get a little tricky, especially once it’s dark. If it’s still light out, you can compose in the viewfinder. Change and adjust your camera angle, and tripod if necessary, until what you see in the viewfinder is pleasing. If it’s after dark, the trick I use is that I aim the “barrel” of the lens in the general direction of what I’m hoping to capture. Then I turn on the live view feature, so I can “see” the composition on the screen instead of in the viewfinder. Using a bright flashlight, I light up the foreground of the picture, and line it up on screen until it’s composed properly.
- Ensure your photo is in focus. If you have a manual lens, or your lens has markings on the barrel to show you the focus range, this is simple. Make sure the lens is focused exactly at infinity, and you’re good to go! If your lens does not have markings on the barrel, you’re going to have to do this using the Live View feature. Turn the camera on Live View, then find a star on screen. Scroll the focus box over to the star, and hit the zoom in button a couple times, until the star is fairly large on screen. Gently adjust your focus ring until the star on screen is crisply in focus.
NOTE: Be sure your lens is NOT on auto-focus. Switch it to manual focus. Your Auto Focus feature will NOT work in the dark, and cannot focus on the sky.
NOTE: If your lens or camera provides Image Stabilization (IS) or Vibration Reduction (VR), be sure to turn it OFF. IS / VR functions are meant to eliminate movement in hand-held shots and actually ADD BLURRINESS to tripod-mounted shots!
Select the best settings for Night Photography.
For now, I’m only going to address adjusting three simple settings – exposure time (how long the shutter will be open), aperture (how much light the lens allows to reach your sensor), and ISO (how fast the sensor absorbs light). My recommendations are going to be somewhat generic – every camera and lens processes light differently, and the specific atmospheric conditions when you are shooting will affect things dramatically.
- Exposure time: If you’re in an area with a fair amount of light pollution – near a city, town, or other source of man-made light – start at 10 seconds, and adjust from there. If you’re in an area with minimal light pollution – little to no man-made light nearby – start at 20 seconds. The more light pollution there is, the more quickly it washes out the night sky – hence the shorter exposure times. Many people still use the “500 rule” to determine exposure time, but this was primarily a tool for film photography. With a DSLR camera, we have instant feedback on how the image looks on screen. This allows you to review your photo, determine how well you did, and adjust accordingly. NOTE – the wider your focal length (for example, 11mm is wider than 18mm), the longer your exposure can be before star trails (stars having lines or “trails” due to the Earth’s rotation) become visible.
- Aperture: As mentioned above, aperture is denoted at the “f number” of the lens. If you have an old/retro manual lens, you select the aperture on the lens itself by rotating the appropriate ring to the number of choice. If it’s a newer lens, select the aperture by adjusting it on your camera body. Generally, you want the lowest f number possible. This allows in the most light that the lens is able to capture.
- ISO: Sparing you the technical details, ISO determines how quickly your camera (or film) absorbs and “develops” light. The higher the ISO number, the faster this process takes place. In other words, if you are taking a ten second long exposure, a shot at ISO 2000 will be twice as bright as one at ISO 1000. Similar to exposure time, you want less light (lower ISO) if you are near light pollution, and more light (higher ISO) if you are far from light pollution. As you increase ISO, your image becomes brighter and brighter, and will quickly become washed out. In addition, it’s critical to bear in mind that the higher the ISO number, the more “pixelated” the image becomes. You want images to be as crisp as possible, so if you need an image to be brighter, it’s better to try using a longer exposure first. Bumping ISO speed too high is damaging to the quality of the image.
Set your camera to Exposure Delay mode (or connect your remote control). This step eliminates any motion in your image (shaking, blurriness) that occurs when you press the shutter to start the image. Remember – the goal is to get the most crisp image possible. Exposure Delay means that your camera does not open the shutter after you release the shutter button, it waits a half-second or so then opens. Similarly, using a remote control allows you to release the shutter without touching the camera.
Hold your hand immediately in front of the lens for a split second as the shutter is opening. Yes, really. I promise you, this ridiculously easy trick makes a noticeable difference in the clarity of a long-exposure image. No, your hand will not show up in the image! Even when using exposure delay or a remote control, the movement of the shutter opening creates small vibrations in the camera. Some camera bodies have recording modes that eliminate this, but most do not. This is the easiest way to eliminate that problem. NOTE: If shooting near a campfire or other source of light, make sure that your hand is not illuminated when it’s in front of the lens! It WILL show up in the image if it’s illuminated! Create a shadow by placing your body between the source of light and your camera.
Take your Night Sky Image. Review the picture, and adjust your photo settings accordingly.
Look at your photo critically. Is it composed properly? Is it interesting? Is it too bright or too dark? Is there too much / not enough contrast? Does it appear pixelated? I’ll address a few of the more common mistakes below.
- Image is too dark. If your photo is too dark, try adjusting your exposure time first. Depending on how dark the image is, add 3-5 seconds to your exposure. If that causes you to see star trails, only add 1-2 seconds, and bump your ISO up 1-2 steps (on most cameras, ISO comes in pre-determined numbers – 400, 640, 800, 1000, etc).
- Image is too bright. In this case, adjust your ISO back 1-2 steps instead of reducing your exposure time. If that doesn’t work, then reduce your exposure time 3-5 seconds. If it’s still too bright, you might be in an area with too much light pollution!
- Image is blurry. There are several potential offenders here. The most obvious is that your lens is not focused properly. It could also be that the camera moved somehow – a gust of wind, it was bumped, the tripod isn’t on stable ground, etc. If possible, weigh your tripod down. Many tripods have a hook under the central column. Hang your camera bag, a water bottle, or some other heavy item from the hook. Your exposure might be too long, creating the aforementioned star trails…. or if there are trees in the image, the branches might be swaying in the wind (nothing you can do about that!).
- Image has an orange or white tint to it. The most likely culprit is your campfire or other source of light nearby. The easiest solution is to stand between the source of light and the end of your camera, creating a shadow over the opening of your lens. If you have a hood for your lens, put it on. If you don’t, cup your hands around the opening of your lens (careful not to bump it!).
- Image has a haze or glare, or the stars are not completely crisp. If you have a UV filter, put it on your lens. If you don’t have one – buy one! Keep it on your lens at all times – it’s a cheap way to protect your lens AND you’ll be surprised how much of a difference it makes on all of your images – day and night.
- Image is crooked or otherwise unappealing. Many tripods have at least one level on it, and often more than one. Make sure that your tripod is level, and try again. If you’re still not happy, recompose your image from scratch.
Try different angles, compositions, and locations. Once you’ve gotten that first good shot – start building from there! Try out new angles to capture similar images. Go for an entirely different composition. Walk ten feet away, turn around, and take an image of where you just captured the last shot. Travel to new locations.
That’s pretty much it…. 4,500 words later! If there’s anything I missed, or any questions you might have, please feel free to leave a comment below! You can also email me.
The Equipment I use to Photograph the Milky Way
Looking for our comprehensive guide to the equipment needed for Night Sky and Milky Way Photography? Click HERE