How to take photos of the Milky Way

Are you ready? The Milky Way's Galactic Core is Back!

Feb 14, 2023

The night sky is enchanting. When most humans are asleep, the sights in our galaxy are breathtaking. Here in the Northern Hemisphere, the galactic core in the Milky Way is again rising and will become more visible over the next few months. The night sky and Milky Way photography break many traditional daytime landscape photography rules. Amidst other challenges that come along with night photography capturing the Milky Way is no easy feat. Today, I'll share some essential tips for considering Milky Way photography this season.

1. Planning is key 

"By failing to plan, you are preparing to fail." Winston Churchill.

Planning in landscape photography is foundational to the photographer's success, especially when aiming to capture the Milky Way. When all is dark, you must have the right tools, like a headlamp, to help you maneuver your way in the dark, the correct camera equipment, like a tripod and intervalometer, and knowledge about how to locate the Milky Way and timing for galactic core visibility, I highly recommend PhotoPills as your go-to source for planning Milky Way photography. If you don't plan you will not be all that successful in capturing the Milky Way. 

2. Choose a dark sky location 

The darker the sky, the more visible the night sky and the Milky Way. Light pollution will interfere with successful Milky Way photography. Many governments worldwide have committed to protecting dark sky locations to preserve the night sky's beauty and protect plants, insects and wildlife that thrive beneath the darkness. If you cannot find a dark sky preserve close to where you live, try to venture out of city lights. A quick half-hour drive from a major city should be dark enough for successful Milky Way photography. 

3. Use night sky landscape photography settings

Manual exposure mode should be your choice in landscape photography during the day and at night; however, this choice is even more important when aiming to photograph the Milky Way. Try starting with the following exposure triangle settings:

  • Use a wide aperture like f2.8. This will allow for more light into your camera which is important in the dark of night. 
  • Use your NPF shutter speed. What's NPF? This is the shutter speed needed to acquire pinpoint stars for your camera and choice of focal length. You can use PhotoPills to calculate your camera's NPF shutter speed. Alternatively, try a shutter speed of around 13-20 seconds. 
  • Use as high of an ISO as needed to balance your exposure triangle for correct exposure. Usually, at night this is a minimum of ISO 3200; however, under very dark skies where the Milky Way will be most visible, don't be afraid to use even higher ISOs.  

Foreground ISO 1250, 18mm, f2.8, 120 seconds
Background stacked with light and dark frames ISO 4000, 18mm, f2.8, 15 seconds

4. Be prepared to post-process the night sky

Post-processing in landscape photography is, in my opinion, an essential step in developing a landscape photo, especially at night. Adjusting white balance, contrast, and clarity are all very important when processing a Milky Way image. Be sure to choose a RAW file format in the camera as this will leave all the data captured by the camera under the night sky available to you to work within your choice of post-processing program.  

 5. Be prepared to experiment and practice 

As beautiful as the night sky is, it's not easy to photograph, so be gentle with yourself as you learn how to photograph the night sky and the Milky Way. Keep a positive mindset, be open to experimenting with locations and camera settings, and, more importantly, practice repeatedly. Of course, practice will result in you making mistakes. However, these mistakes will result in your learning. 

If you want to learn more about how to capture the Milky Way with a step-by-step plan for successful photos, be sure to add your name to my waitlist for The Art in Landscape Photography. The spring run of this workshop will be open for your enrollment very soon.   

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