Best Camera Settings for Milky Way Landscape Photography

Best Camera Settings for Milky Way Landscape Photography

Aug 03, 2021

There are not many things more enchanting than the magic that can be found in the night sky. When all is quiet and asleep, the sights of our galaxy at night assure us that there's much more beauty than what is seen when the sun is shining.

The Milky Way core is again visible here in the Canadian Rockies, and with the upcoming new moon, the warmth of the summer nights, and a more reasonable rising time of the core compared to the springtime Milky Way. Now is the perfect time to try capturing the beauty in the night sky. 

Milky Way and landscape photography at night break many of the traditional landscape photography rules for camera settings, so it can be confusing when trying to navigate what settings are best for capturing starry skies. Amidst other challenges that come along with night photography capturing the Milky Way is no easy feat...

When your goal is to capture the Milky Way, there's a few important decision you'll need to make about your camera settings. 

First, shoot in manual mode so that you can manually input your exposure triangle settings (aperture, shutter speed and ISO). 

Second, begin with dialling in a shutter speed. In most circumstances, when you intend to capture the Milky Way, you'll likely want to use a shutter speed between 12 to 20 seconds to acquire pinpoint stars. Shutter speeds longer than 20 seconds will likely result in visible star movement, from the earth's rotation, within an exposure. Keep in mind that the shorter shutter speed of 12 seconds might require a higher ISO input which can introduce high ISO noise in a frame. 

Third, choose your aperture. Most often, night images are captured with apertures of around f2.8. This is a good starting aperture for Milky Way. You want to use a large aperture because this allows more light to enter your camera, which will help you acquire a well-exposed night image. You can open up your aperture more ( f2, f1.8, f1.4) should your lens accommodate these choices. This might help keep a lower ISO. Keep in mind that these wide apertures will result in a shallower depth of field within your image. 

Fourth, balance out the exposure of your image with an ISO of around 3200 to begin. You can increase or decrease your ISO depending on the exposure outcome of the chosen exposure triangle settings. Sometimes under very dark skies, I use ISOs of 6400 or greater.  

ISO 6400, 14mm, f2, 20sec

Don't be afraid to experiment with your exposure triangle settings. For example, try using a wider aperture to increase exposure brightness or keep your ISO a little lower to help reduce some of that high ISO digital noise. 

Remember that as beautiful as the night sky is, it's not easy to photograph and capturing a Milky Way image will take experimentation, patience and practice.