Photographing the Milky Way

By Wanda Krack

author imageEquipment needed:

  1. A camera that allows manual settings
  2. A tripod, a sturdy one if there is wind
  3. Preferably a wide angle lens or a semi-wide angle. A lens that allows you to include all of the space that you want in the image.  I use a 14-24, and have used an 8mm fish eye to include the entire sky.  If you don’t have a wide angle, you can take several shots panned, and stitch them together using Photoshop or similar software.  If you do this, try setting the camera for vertical orientation, overlapping almost 50%, thereby capturing more of the foreground, or more of the sky.
  4. An external shutter tripper, or use the delayed shutter setting on the camera, to prevent any shake.

Near Mount Ranier

To have clearer images, try to locate a dark area, where there is little ambient light at night.  Here is a website that shows all of the darkest and brightest night skies in the world.  Zoom in to find specific areas.

Check online to see when the darkest nights of a month are, where and when the stars will not be competing for light from the moon.  The darker sky, the better.  You can check to see when the moon rise and sets at any location, online.  is one website that will tell most of this information.  There are many others out there….Google it.

Crater Lake

Clouds can obliterate the stars, so a clear night is preferable, and ground dew and low fog can also be detrimental to getting a good shot.

To locate the Milky Way, look to the South and/or Southwest.  Identify a band of stars that goes all the way across the sky, and you have found it.

The pretty part of the Milky Way (I call it the tail) (the galactic center) is only visible in the northern hemisphere from sometime in or around mid-March to mid-October.   Early in the Spring, this is seen around 3 am or so, gradually moving in time until June/July/Aug, it is visible soon after total darkness.

Camera Settings:

  1. For focus, you can use live view, or set your lens on infinity.  My lens I set on infinity and then move it back just a tad.  The stars are sharper at this setting with this particular lens.
  2. I use mirror up setting, so not to deal with camera shake when the mirror goes up. I wait about two seconds after tripping the shutter (when the mirror goes up), and trip the shutter again to start the exposure.
  3. The tripod is firmly set in the ground, well-extended legs, and already know what part of the sky/foreground I want to use in the exposure.
  4. ISO, start at 400 and adjust as needed.
  5. Start with 30 sec. exposure, although some lenses will need a longer or shorter exposure, due to the fact that it will start recording star trails when exposed longer than necessary.  There is a simple rule to use when determining the time of the exposure, called the the 500 Rule:  500 Divided By the Focal Length of Your Lens = The Longest Exposure (in Seconds) Before Stars Start to “Trail”  So, if I am using a 14mm lens, I would divide 500 by 14 and have an exposure time of 35 seconds.  If I have the lens set for 24mm, I would divined 500 by 24 and h
    Standing Stone

    ave an exposure time of 20.8 seconds.  Starting with a 30 second exposure time, you can adjust the time and/or ISO to capture the image you want.  You might also try bracketing, using both the time and the ISO settings.

  6. Aperture, use the smallest f-number on your lens, and then try upping it one number.

Shooting the Milky Way is not difficult, finding a dark area, and possibly an interesting foreground can be time-consuming.  If you have trees, or objects in the foreground you would like to be in the image, try light-painting with a good flashlight or similar lights.  It doesn’t take much light to have them show up in the image. (just a few seconds of light on the object/s usually does it.)  This is something else that is fun to experiment with.  You can also try taking two different exposures……….one for the Milky Way and sky, and a longer one for the foreground, then blend them in post-processing.  In the long exposure (possibly up to a minute or two or more), the sky will be overexposed.

There are MANY tutorials online that will tell you more than you need to know about shooting the milky way.  Just Google it, and you might be surprised.  There are people who want to sell you tutorials, there are YouTube videos, and many, many written out tutorials.  Happy Shooting!