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If you’ve ever looked at a photo of the Milky Way or the night sky and wondered how such an image was taken, you’re certainly not alone. The night sky presents an intimidating challenge for most new and hobby photographers…. and night sky photography requires certain pieces of equipment.
Lucky for you, I’ve put together these two guides to help you learn the basics, described in the next paragraph. In addition, Take Back Roads offers a basic guide to finding cheap places to stay, if you’re travelling to dark sky locations. There’s a comprehensive breakdown of some of the best back road adventures you can take in each state – many of which are located in areas with minimal light pollution. I will also soon post a thorough piece on how to wild camp. And, of course, if you want personalized assistance with planning and preparing, I offer that as well!
This post provides a detailed look at the various gear and smart phone apps that will help you to capture beautiful photographs of the Milky Way. The how-to post offers a thorough breakdown of all steps to follow to take captivating images of the Milky Way and night sky!
What equipment do I need to photograph the Night Sky and the Milky Way?
Capturing the glittering beauty of the night sky doesn’t require a ton of expensive equipment, but there are a few necessities. I’m going to break it down into two categories – “must have” essentials that you truly cannot do without, and “should have” equipment that will help make your images transcend from great to stunning!
Equipment I must have for night sky photography
A camera body that allows you to take long exposures.
Virtually all SLR (or Single Lens Reflex – AKA film cameras) and DSLR (or Digital Single Lens Reflex) cameras allow users to take long exposures (several seconds or longer). Some point and shoot cameras will allow you to do this, but many are very limiting on the settings you can adjust. Because digital cameras provide both instant feedback and drastically more versatility and flexibility, I strongly prefer them over film cameras. Personally, I use a Nikon D5300 digital camera.
A tripod or other similar way to mount and stabilize the camera.
In order to take long exposure images, the camera has to be extremely still – any motion at all will show up as blurs or streaks in your image. Long exposure images, especially of the Milky Way, are far too long to be taken hand-held. When taking photos of the night sky, even the smallest movements are magnified – especially if you’re using a zoom lens. A tripod or other method of stabilization is a must. I use a Ravelli (now Amazon Basics) 72″ Pistol Grip tripod – and I love it! The pistol grip head is extremely easy to use and quick to manipulate angles and compositions. The legs are also easy to adjust. Though the tripod is a bit heavy if you need to hike a lot, it’s very stable. The feet twist up to reveal spikes that can be driven into soft soil. There are several bubble-type levels to assist composing a straight image, and the telescoping neck is tall and quick to adjust.
A wide and fast lens.
A wide angle lens is very important, because it allows you to capture a large portion of both the night sky and your surroundings. The lower your focal distance MM number is (in other words, an 18MM lens is better than a 50MM lens), the more of the sky you can capture. NOTE – you can use a fisheye lens for this, but the image will be distorted, especially at the edges. A fast lens (in other words, it absorbs a lot of light very quickly) is also helpful because, quite frankly, the Milky Way is not very bright. It does not emit much light, so having a “fast” lens helps immensely. The lower your “f number” – or aperture number – the faster the lens is (in other words, an f2 lens will capture more light, in the same exposure time, than an f4 lens). I primarily use a Tokina 11-20MM f2 wide angle lens – hands down my favorite lens! Clarity, contrast, and color are all excellent, and there is very little distortion around the edges, even at 11mm.
SD Cards (digital camera) or Film
Seems pretty simple, right? Can’t take a picture if you don’t have a medium to capture the information. The medium you choose will be guided by what you intend to do with the images. If you are going to print the files on very large formats – large posters, or canvas / acrylic / metal prints to fill up an entire section of wall – then you’ll need top quality medium. Otherwise, your money is better spent on other gear – filters, lenses, etc. I’ve spent big bucks on high end SD cards, only to have them glitch and need to be returned. That’s the last thing you want on a road trip, so I recommend you buy SD cards or film in bulk and be ready for whatever may come. One other thought on digital vs film photography: it’s very hard – and costly – to buy high speed (high ISO) film, whereas virtually all DSLR cameras offer ISO speeds of 5,000 or higher – essentially unheard of for 35mm film.
Equipment I should have to take better night sky photos
A good headlamp
It sounds silly, but a good headlamp is the most critical piece of non-photographic equipment that I use while photographing the night sky. A hands-free source of light on a dark night cannot be undervalued. Even a high quality headlamp is inexpensive, so there’s not much sense in cutting corners. The headlamp should pivot, have multiple settings, and have a red light setting. Red light is ideal for night photography because it does not cause your pupils to shrink the way that white light does. I have several different 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 camping use).
A quality UV filter
A UV filter will provide you with two primary benefits: it will protect your lens glass from scratches and other damage, and it will provide clarity to your images by removing the haze created by UV light. There are a number of excellent options available in the $10-20 range. Personally, I like the Waka UV filters, and the Tiffen Skylight 1A filter. Selecting the right filter for your lens is easy. Virtually all lenses are marked at the end what size filter is needed – look for the number next to the circle with a slash through it. If you cannot find it on the front or side of the lens, you might need to search on Google.
A quality light pollution filter
A light pollution filter does exactly what it sounds like – it filters out the ambient light pollution. In addition to washing out the night sky, light pollution also adds an unpleasant yellow or orange tint to your images. The light pollution filter eliminates this tint, and helps to bring forward the colors within the Milky Way. 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. I cannot recommend it more strongly. It’s half the price of comparable filters and is absolutely phenomenal! Comparison images below:
Step up and step down rings
Step up and step down adapters allow you to connect filters to lenses if the diameters do not match. Step up adapters allow you to use larger filters on smaller lens openings, and step down adapters allow you to use smaller filters on larger lens openings. I really like the Neewer Step up and Step Down sets that I have – they are easy to use and the threads do not bind up.
A remote control, wireless shutter button, or smartphone camera app
In order to release the shutter and begin your long exposure image, you will need a way to do so without creating vibration in the camera. The best way to do so is by using a corded or wireless remote control. In addition, if your camera body has a WiFi feature that connects it to your smartphone, you can download an app to use your phone as a remote control.
A good camera bag
Now that you have all this equipment… how are you going to carry it around and keep it organized?! A good camera bag serves both purposes – easy to carry, and well organized. It needs places to conveniently store your lenses, camera, filters, memory cards (or film), and laptop. I prefer this backpack-style bag, as it’s more functional in the event you are hiking to a location. There’s plenty of room for all my gear, it’s functional and convenient, and as an added bonus, has a sleeve that allows me to slip it over my rolling luggage handle.
Useful Smart Phone apps for Milky Way photography
There are a few apps you should download on your phone to help you improve your night sky photography. The apps I recommend should be easy to find on both iPhone and Android platforms. They are immensely helpful in optimizing your time and efforts to photograph the Milky Way. Unless otherwise noted, the apps listed are free.
Light Pollution Map
A light pollution map will help you to scout for good locations to photograph the night sky, and the Milky Way in particular. As you might imagine, the less light pollution there is, the better your images will be! The app I use is literally called “LightPollution Map” – with no space between “Light” and “Pollution” – and it provides maps, night event calendars, aurora maps, an ISS tracker, moon phases, and much more!
A good weather forecast is crucial, not just for camping under the stars, but for knowing about precipitation, humidity, cloud cover, and other atmospheric conditions that will affect your photographs. I use an app called “Dark Sky,” which costs $4.99 to download, but is both accurate and informative.
Moon Phase Forecasting
Though my Light Pollution app provides some moon phase information, an app called “Lumos” provides me with much more detailed and useful forecasting. It turns on your camera, and when you hold your phone up to the horizon, shows you where and when the moon will rise every night!
The best way to capture images of the Milky Way is to camp in the dark sky location of choice. You have an entire evening of taking photos uninterrupted by travel necessities. I use “The Dyrt” – it provides a wide variety of filters and options for finding excellent free campsites.
That’s pretty much it. There are several apps that tracks the Milky Way’s location and provides you with names and locations of various constellations… but I’ve never used either.
Additional things to consider for night photography
- Location matters immensely. I delve deep into finding excellent locations for night sky images in my “how to” post.
- Image composition is critical. Again, I describe in detail how to compose the most compelling image you can in my “how to” post.
- Patience is definitely a virtue. You’re going to make mistake along the way – that’s why practicing your skill set before you take a trip is so important. And, of course, the weather, the night sky, the rotation of the earth, the moon rise, and so many other natural phenomena all occur at their own pace.
- Planning is important… but so is flexibility. As best you as you can, schedule your trip around a new moon, at times of year when the weather is most conducive for your images. That being said, you must be flexible in order to adapt to the conditions presented to you on the nights you want to capture images. Things can change, conditions may not be ideal, and you may need to make adjustments accordingly.
Looking for our in-depth guide on how to photograph the Milky Way and the night sky? Click HERE
Missed something you like? Didn’t include your favorite piece of photographic equipment? Have any questions? Let us know in the comment section!
The Equipment I use to Photograph the Milky Way
A visual summary of most of the items listed above.