How To Take Photos of the Milky Way

Have you ever seen those photos of the Milky Way and wondered how to get a photo like that? Surprisingly, you don't need to learn voodoo or be an expert photographer to know how to capture our beautiful galaxy hanging in the sky. This simple guide will teach you the basics of taking photos of the Milky Way and other celestial bodies. 

I remember vividly being out at my grandparent's house in Arriba, Colorado and my dad showing me the Milky Way one night. I remember thinking that we had to have been the only people on Earth seeing the Milky Way, since my dad had pointed it out to me and at that time in my childhood he was still basically a superhero. Fast forward years later and I was living in Gunnison, trying to do everything possible to take star trail photos and actually being frustrated with the Milky Way because it was so bright that it actually ruined one of my star trail photos. I've always been fascinated with the Milky Way and the night sky, as I think everyone is at some level, and since becoming a photographer I wanted to learn to capture the night sky. Which brings us to the subject of this blog, how to take photos of the Milky Way. 

You're going to need a digital SLR

As advanced as our cell phone cameras are, you are still going to need a digital SLR. The reason being is the sensor is much bigger and more sensitive than a cell phone camera sensor. You're going need the ability to take photos of at least 30 seconds, and if you have a bulb setting on your dSLR then you can use a shutter release cable to extend that beyond 30 seconds. You're also going to need a wide-angle lens, it just makes it easier when starting out to use wide-angle lenses. 

You're going to have to go somewhere dark

City lights obscure the Milky Way and it makes it easier if you are far away from city lights. I'm blessed with easy access to the mountains here in Colorado, where a 30 minute drive can get me into very dark areas. If you want to know where a dark area is near you, use the incredibly helpful resource called The Dark Sky Finder, here you can find where light pollution ends and go to areas that will ensure being able to see the Milky Way. 

You're going to need to check the weather

Nothing will ruin a Milky Way shoot faster than thick cloud cover, so find an area of the world where there will be a dark sky and then watch the weather. For example, in Colorado almost every afternoon there are thunderstorms in the mountains. However, usually those clear out around sunset and give way to clear skies. That is a generalization of course, but knowing the weather in the area where you plan to go will save you frustrations. 

You are going to need a tripod

One of most important tools you have as a photographer hasn't changed too much over the last 100 years, you're going to need a tripod to take clear photos of the Milky Way. Your tripod doesn't have to be a top of the line model, as long as it will support the weight of your camera and remain stationary you should be good to go. I have been using Manfrotto and Gitzo tripods for many years and they have always been high-quality and reasonably affordable. 

 Paradise Divide, Crested Butte, Colorado

Paradise Divide, Crested Butte, Colorado

Now that we go that out of the way with, let's do some work on how to actually take a long-exposure of the Milky Way and have a reasonable chance of it turning out to be a good photo. 

The absolute hardest element of taking photos of the Milky Way is the issue of, how do I focus at night? Well, it's not always easy and you're going to have to be familiar with one of two methods; method one, find a bright light in the distance and use auto-focus to attempt to focus on that, then switch the camera over to manual focusing and pray you don't mess with the focus ring. Method two, in the daylight start practicing manually focusing your camera to objects far away from you. Do this over and over until you begin to get familiar with how much you need to rotate the lens to focus on things in the distance (and you use lens's built in focus range and distance scale). 

Now that you have prepared the gear you'll need, you have researched a location, it's going to clear weather, and you have practiced focusing your lens near infinity. You are ready, so here are three steps to help you get the best photo your first time out. 

What is your ISO?

On a digital camera, your ISO is what mimics film sensitivity (ASA). Think of back in the day, using 800 speed film meant you could take some photos at night. Your ISO behaves the very same way, the higher you make your ISO the more sensitive it's going to be to light. Before you go turning it up all the way, as your increase your ISO the "noise" it going to increase too. No, that doesn't now mean your how loud your shutter is. Think of noise being film grain, on that 800 speed film back in the day the film grain was significant and resulted in less clear photos. With higher ISOs, the noise is going to increase and start to degrade image quality. A good place to start is if your dSLR can go to ISO 3200. If that is as high as it will go, you might be pushing it having it there. If your camera can go much higher, you'll probably be fine at 3200. If the sky is really, really dark you might go to 4000. 

What is your shutter speed? 

The reason you need a digital SLR for best results is you need to be in control of your shutter speed. You'll need to take long exposures, often up to 30 seconds in length. Your shutter opens and exposures the sensor to the light, the longer the shutter is open the more light can be captured by the sensor. When you are adjusting your speed speed, it is best to be in completely manual mode. This can be intimidating, but it doesn't have to be. We will get to your aperture next, but for now have your shutter speed be as long as it will go. This is often 30 seconds. That is a good place to start too. 

What is your aperture? 

Aperture is the mechanism that controls how much light hits your sensor, and consequently your depth of field. We won't get into depth of field for now, but for aperture you'll need to have it be what is called "wide-open". A wide-open aperture allows for the most amount of light to hit your sensor, which is what we are after when shooting photos of the Milky Way. While you area in manual mode, after you have adjusted your shutter speed, you will need to adjust your aperture to the LOWEST number possible. It's the number that is often a decimal (eg. 2.8, 3.5, 4, 4.5, 5.6, etc). This will allow for the most amount of light to be caught by your camera's sensor. Once you have it set at the LOWEST number possible, you are ready to start taking photos of the Milky Way. 

All the other "rules" of photography still apply when taking photos of the Milky Way, you'll have to compose an interesting scene by using the rule of thirds (if possible). You are going to learn a lot by trial and error too, so don't give up and don't get frustrated if your photos don't look spectacular right off the bat. Fine-tune your ISO, shutter, and aperture settings. Remember what settings you are using and write those settings down with how much ambient light is available, so next time you'll have a baseline to start from. You'll always have to fine-tune your settings, eventually you'll start getting more successes and ALWAYS remember to experiment! 

If you become wizard level if your photos of the Milky Way, you can begin to take elaborate time lapses like the videos below. What is really cool about taking photos of the Milky Way, at its core that is what the videos are below. These are two of my favorite videos on the internet really!