Easy Milky Way Photography for Everybody


Milky Way Photography at Joshua Trees National Park


3 Steps to Awesome Milky Way Photography


The title of this article could have been Milky Way Photography for Dummies, but, I thought, why insult my audience? It’s really quite easy and I never knew it, even after 35 years of photography under my belt. My whole life I kept making up stories that I wasn’t good enough or didn’t have the right equipment, or anything else and it stopped me from even trying to photograph the milky way. Then, last year, I got a wild hair to give it a try.  It was easy!  Here’s what I learned to make it really easy for you to do it too!

1: Find a dark sky.

This is the hardest thing about photographing the milky way or any astro photography you may want to do.  The National Parks seem really great.  My first try at photographing the milky way was last year in Yosemite National Park at Olmstead Point.  Then, just last month, I was at Joshua Trees National Park and shot the photo above.  Neither shot was under ideal dark sky conditions, but good enough to get some fun images that people seem to like quite well.  You won’t be able to do milky way photography in the city. There is just too much light pollution.  Recently I read somewhere that 85% of americans live where they cannot see the milky way. So, like they say on TV, “do not try this at home.”

2: Put your camera on a tripod.

Exposures will be 20-30 seconds long so you need your camera on something solid.

3: Use a wide angle lens

It doesn’t need to be super-wide.  Any lens of 35mm equivalent for wider will be just fine.  I’ve learned from experience that the lens doesn’t even have to be super fast either.  The photo above was taken with an f3.5 lens.  It’s great to report that this goes against other advice I’ve read which pontificates that you need at least an f 2.8, or faster, lens.


image: Milky Way Over Ryan Campground-Joshua Trees National Park

Milky Way Over Ryan Campground-Joshua Trees National Park. It was closer to dawn in this shot so the sky is just beginning to lighten at the horizon.

Some Tips to Ensure Your Success


1: Summer months are best.

In the northern hemisphere the milky way is higher in the sky and brighter from late Spring through early Fall.  In the winter months, your milky way photos may not be as dramatic.  Also, wait for the sky to get really dark, so at least two hours past sunset or before sunrise.  Plan on losing some sleep. It’s for a good cause though.  For two weeks every month, the moon will be in your way too, don’t forget that.  Consult a sky chart app on your smart phone or somewhere to check moonrise, moon set, and phase. Successful milky way photography depends on the moon being somewhere between first and last quarter and definitely NOT in the sky when you shoot.


2:Keep your exposure under 30 seconds

The 30 second limit is what I recommend so that your photo doesn’t have little star trails caused by the rotation of the earth while your shutter is open.  Here’s why: The photo at the top of the page, taken with a 18mm equivalent lens, is 40 seconds long and you can start to see star trails when you view it full screen. The 2nd photo, with the Joshua Tree, was a shorter 30 second exposure which eliminates any evidence of star trails. Here’s a rule of thumb: The wider the lens you use, the longer the exposure time you may use before the stars start to streak.  For example, maybe for a 35mm equivalent lens your longest shutter speed might be only 15 seconds while for a 21mm equivalent lens you can get away with the full 30 seconds before the pinpoint stars morph into disks….then into curvy lines. Use your camera in shutter priority mode and set it for 30 seconds.  That’s the “S” on most cameras.  You can’t just leave it on automatic and let ‘er rip.  There is an equation to figure that out, but I say,  “Experiment with shutter speeds and see what you like.”


3: Set Your Camera’s ISO Higher

Changing ISO is what changes your camera’s sensitivity to light. In normal shooting your ISO is most likely on automatic and will run from 100 to 200 on a bright day. Things are different at night. You need to crank your ISO up to at least 2500.  Both shots above were at an ISO of 3200.  Higher ISO means more sensitivity to light.  It also means higher noise in your final image that you’ll have to deal with.  Happily also, it’s easy enough to take care of noise with noise reduction software.  The best, in my opinion, is Topaz Denoise, but the noise reduction in Lightroom also does a pretty good job. It’s a balance; higher ISO gathers more light but the added noise is the price you pay.  At least you can get rid of the noise during post-processing. Much more difficult is going back to gather a little more light. If you ever find that you want DeNoise, remember to save 15% when you use the coupon code PerfectHDR.


4:Have a foreground object in your shot

A photograph of the milky way surrounded by blackness and lonely stars isn’t very interesting to look at. Jazz up your photo by including a foreground object.  Use anything handy; a building, person,, tent, tree, rock. In the photo above I used the Jumbo Rocks, (something Joshua Trees National Park is known for) for my foreground.  Remember that you have to light the foreground somehow so take along a bright LED flashlight, or two, and paint light on your foreground during your 30 second exposure.


Now, Go Shoot Your Own Awesome Milky Way Photo!

There you have it.  When planning your summer vacation this year it might be fun to schedule a night of milky way photography too.  Your vacation pictures will definitely be leveled up with a dramatic shot of the milky way to take home to show your family and friends.

Showing 3 comments
  • Tony Houston

    Wonderful captures and great tutorial!


    Finally a great tutorial for milkyway!! There aren’t many tutorials on web, this is powerful…well done.

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  • […] in the book about taking pictures of the milky way and other astro-photography. I wrote a small tutorial about milky way photography just last week.  Although I have a different opinion about what the maximum exposure time can be […]

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image:HDR photo-sunrise at arches national park