The Milky Way and How to Shoot It

First, in order to get your photo as devoid of light pollution as possible from city lights, you need to find a dark(ish) area.  I learned that there are certified dark areas and maps to assist you in finding them.  One site for this is called which shows the entire globe.  Even if you aren’t going to do astrophotography it is interesting to look at.  So now that you have a place you’d like to try that’s nice and dark, what next?

Next is when to go.  The Milky Way is only visible at certain times of the year depending on where you are on earth and it’s best to shoot on a new moon night because the moon is pretty darn bright and that will effect how well you will be able to see the Milky Way.  A great app (it costs around $10 but is so worth it) to help you in not only finding the Milky Way but when it will be visible in the sky, at what angle, when the moon rises and sets, how to plan for the shoot, hyperfocal distance calculator and more is Photopills.  That app helped me from the planning stages to the implementing of this shoot.

Once at your dark area where should you take your photos from?  In my case I knew it would be somewhere in the Capitol Reef National Park in a spot with hopefully some foreground interest and not where I could fall off a cliff or something like that.  It is very important that you look for where you want to do your night shooting in the day time and remember where it was for later.  In the dark you may, like we did, “misplace” that location.

You can use just about any camera – full or crop – but what’s important is the lens.  What will give you the best results are a wide and fast lens.  You need something around 24mm or smaller with an aperture of f 1.4 to 2.8 because what you are shooting is vast and you need a lens that will  let in as much light as possible since, well, you are shooting in the dark.   Also needed are a sturdy tripod, a shutter release (or set your camera to a 2 second delay) and flashlights because – it’s dark out there!  Filters are optional.  They make some to enhance the sky or to cut down light pollution if there is any.  I didn’t use any filters other than my UV filter by accident.  Should’ve taken it off but was so excited I forgot to for the first shoot.  Whoops!

Give your eyes a chance to adjust to the darkness, set up your equipment (wearing a headlamp is great for this and for getting around in the dark) find the Milky Way either by sight or by app, put your camera in full manual, turn off any image stabilization in the camera and/or lens, focus on the brightest star until it looks good and sharp or focus out to infinity (a photographer on YouTube suggested going out in the daytime and focusing on something far away in manual until it’s good and sharp and then putting some tape on the lens at that spot to keep that focal distance) and set your maximum exposure time and ISO – but to what?

There really isn’t anything hard and fast for either setting.  There is the 500 rule where you divide 500 by your lens for exposure time.  Some have suggested using 300 instead and in the Photopills app there is something called the NPF rule which takes into account not only the lens focal length but what camera you are using and its amount of megapixels.  I went with the NPF rule.  The goal is a long enough exposure time to capture the stars but not so long that they go from points of light to star trails.  Take some test shots with various settings until you get what you want.

Suggestions for what ISO setting to use have ranged from 800 to 6400.  Again, you adjust until things look good to you and then shoot away.  Once you have your photos uploaded and are staring at them on your computer editing is a personal taste and I have no suggestions for you other than one listed below.

This is the result (editing in LR and Nik ) of my first night’s attempt at astrophotography.  Could it have been better? Of course!  But I am pleased with it for a very first attempt.  That big bright star is the planet Jupiter and if you look to the left and slightly up from the planet you will see a straight line; that was a meteor!  And in the lower left corner is Chimney Rock with me shooting from the parking lot there.

(Sony A7RIII – 24 mm  f1.4 lens shot at f1.4 – ISO 3200 – 8 seconds exposure – 3 Legged Thing Brian the tripod – pro master shutter release)

I want to do this again and get better at it so it’s back to checking out the dark site finder and making plans for another new moon night.  Oh! I forgot to mention… the best laid plans can be laid to waste if the weather decides to muck with you.  The first night shooting the weather was perfect.  The next night it was cloudy, no stars.  And finally on the last try the sky had low clouds in it which I waited out until they drifted past the core of the Milky Way.  Phew!

Do you have any astrophotography photos or tips to share? Please do! Here are some tutorials that can assist you should you want to try this kind of photography:

When is Milky Way season?

How to plan, shoot and edit photos of the Milky Way

5 tips and tricks for photographing the Milky Way 

11 essential tips for shooting a night landscape 

Astrophotography gear guide 

Have fun – Teri  📷


About imagesbytdashfield

Fine art photographer who loves to see and capture the amazing things in this world. Owner of Images by TDashfield photography.
This entry was posted in Art, Nature, Photo Techniques, photography, Travel Photography and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to The Milky Way and How to Shoot It

  1. Ingrid says:

    Great first shot! Thanks for all the tidbits. I was really surprised your shutter wasn’t open longer. Hmm, maybe I’ll need to give it a try next time I’m camped in the back country. BUT then again, that would require me getting out of bed 😆

    • Thanks. Yes! You do have to get out of bed unless you are sleeping under the stars 😉 Many think you have to leave the shutter open for a long time but that’s not always true. It’s a formula that you have to work out.

  2. Timothy Price says:

    NorthernNew Mexico is very dark at night. It’s perfect for Milky Way photos. I’ve set my camera on top of the car for a tripod.

  3. buddy71 says:

    nice, very nice

  4. Pit says:

    Fantastic picture! 🙂 And thank for that detailed explanation. Looking forward to your next shots.

  5. Ggreybeard says:

    A good article.
    Also consider the so-called 500 rule: divide 500 by the lens mm focal length to get a rough approximation of the maximum exposure time in seconds.

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