How to Photograph the Milky Way with Long Exposure(DSLR) 2021

“The heart of Alabama” Full Milky Way panorama showing more than 180 degrees, over heart arch in the Alabama Hills of California.

In todays market of incredibly powerful consumer DSLR cameras, more and more people are capable of photographing the amazing details of the night sky. This is an exciting time for landscape and astro-landscape photographers as the technology we need to create quality images becomes cheaper and more available, and a very exciting time for enthusiasts and hobbyist astronomers.

The good news! Almost anyone with a DSLR camera can photograph the milky way! and in this article I will show you how.

You can also find my new article about the best cameras for astrophotography here: https://medium.com/@sturmanphoto/the-best-cameras-for-night-photography-2020-14873fd6347d

“Galactic” Full Milky Way Panorama arching over Half Dome in Yosemite National Park California

What you will need:

  • A DSLR Camera that can go to ISO 6,400 or higher
  • A Fast wide angle lens (50mm or wider, 14mm is recommended) that can stop down to F/4 or wider (F/2.8 is preferred)
  • A sturdy tripod or place to rest your camera
  • The ability to take long exposures 10 to 30 seconds long
  • A dark sky location as far away from any city light or light pollution as possible
  • a clear horizon with little obstruction

Recommended tools for professional images:

  • Shutter release remote
  • Extra sturdy tripod and ball head
  • star tracker
  • Full Frame camera that goes to ISO 8,000 or higher
  • Astro Modified wide field HA camera
  • Class 1 Dark sky on the Bortle Scale

Wether you’re new to Astrophotography or a seasoned camera pro, the primary goal will be to collect as much light as possible, with as little noise capable.

Because star light is faint and traveling from millions and billions of light years away in some cases, you will want set your camera settings to soak up as much of this delicate light as possible. As a good rule of thumb the typical camera settings for most astro images would be F2.8 ISO 10,000 30". However depending what focal length lens you are shooting with and your sensors resolution these settings may need to be adjusted.

I like to use wide angle lenses to photograph the milky way, because they allow me to capture longer exposure images without as much star trailing which we will talk about in a minute, and there is a lot to see in the night sky. Typically wide angle lenses are fast lenses too, meaning that they have apertures that open wide and let in lots of light.

As far as good lenses for astrophotography go, you will want a lens that produces very little coma and allows you stop down to F2.8, which is the golden standard for astrophotography.

Aperture Diagram showing the aperture blades and different F number values

Despite using such a wide aperture, most wide angle lenses do a good job of keeping the image sharp because they have and “infinity focus”. This is simply and focal point at which anything over a certain distance from the lens should be in focus.. IE stars.

Tamron 15–30 wide angle lens

In my personal experience I have come to love the Tamron 15–30 f2.8 for Nikon F. I use a Nikon D850 and have found this pair to be very effective for night photography. The longstanding king of wide angles, the Nikkor 14–24 is comparable to the 15–30 and I enjoy having that extra 4mm zoom at times.

You can find the Tamron 15–30 on Amazon here: https://amzn.to/36GVDRE

Recommended lenses for full frame cameras:

Recommended lenses for crop sensor cameras:

(I haven’t used any other crop lenses for astrophotography so I can’t recommend them)

“Astonish” The core of our galaxy glowing over this strange lonely tree found in Zion national park, southern Utah.

When can you photograph the Milky Way?

Sadly the milky way is not always visible in the night sky, at least not the most interesting parts of it. In the image above you can see the core of the milky may, our home galaxy. This is often the focal point of most milky way images and your ability to view it will depend on what part of the planet you live on.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia, The center of our galaxy is the core that appears in the images above and the other visible arm of the the milky way that stretches across the sky an arm of our galaxy.

Here in the lower northern hemisphere united states the core of the milky way appears low near the horizon and is most visible in the Summer months of June and July. The orientation and angle at which it appears depends on the time of year. If you live in the lower northern hemisphere for the most part the core will rise above the horizon during the months of March through October. Starting out low and arching from South East to north west (Full milky way arm)

I have yet to photograph the milky way from the southern hemisphere, and am dying to see this spectacular view where the core rises higher into the night sky.

image courtesy of wikipedia, showing the view of the milky way over some space observatories in the southern hemisphere.

The peak time to see the core of the milky way in the southern hemisphere is from June to July as well, and can be seen at different times from February to October. A good thing to keep in mind is though the viewing times are roughly the same for both hemispheres, however the seasons are opposing, and it would be winter in July in the southern Hemisphere.

Once you know what hemisphere you are in and what time of year you would like to shoot, you will need to check the moon phase and orientation of the milky way. You will want to pick a new moon night or a night when the moon will not rise or will set long before you plan to be shooting. As long as the moon is not in the night sky you will be able to photograph the milky way without it being washed out by moonlight.

I like to personally use the App Photopills to plan out moon phases and when to shoot. The app also gives you the ability to scroll through time with an augmented reality view that projects the milky way onto its location through your phones camera showing you where it will be at what time.

“Photopills” is a paid app available on the App Store for mobile devices.

Ensure that you have plenty of time when the core will be visible, you will want at least an hour after sunset and an hour before sunset. It takes a long time for the suns light to fade away and there is a long period after sunset and before sunrise known as astronomical twilight that will wash out the sky.

The darker the night conditions the better.

Milky Way core behind three trees in Zion National park, Utah.

Next you will need to pick a dark sky location with wide horizons to capture your images. Finding dark skies is critical to getting detail in your images. The darker the night sky the more visible the colors and details of the core will be. It is very important that you get as far away from any kind of light pollution from city lights or other sources of light.

Living on the west coast of the United States has been very fortunate for me, with so many dark sky locations accessible to me. I am always trying to get to the darkest areas I can find using light pollution maps to measure the level of darkness in those areas.

This light pollution map helps you see dark sky areas and areas that are over run with light pollution.

“Rift” The milky way arches over the strange formations of Goblin Valley Utah.

Once you have planned and prepare to photograph the milky way and arrive at your dark sky location, you will want to give yourself a little time before it becomes visible to set up your tripod and scout your compositions using photopills in the daylight.

Once you decide on a composition for your image you will want to set up your camera on a sturdy tripod that will not move when bumped.

If you are using a star tracker you will have to polar align and be sure not to bump your tripod once you have set the alignment and started the tracking.

Because we are using long exposures to soak up as much star light as possible, it is easy to blur the image with any motion. During the time your shutter is open and the camera is exposing, motion will blur. Making sure your tripod is sturdy will spare you a lot of frustration later.

Because earth is moving, and movement creates blur, we get a photographic event known as “Star trailing” this happens when stars appear to trail and draw lines across the sky during a long exposure. This of course is just the illusion that the stars are moving cause by earths rotation.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia shows star trailing

This trailing becomes more and more evident the higher the focal length and the longer the exposure. Because we want to use the longest exposure possible and use the lowest ISO possible to reduce noise, we will want to use a lens wider than 50mm. 14–20mm is a good starting range.

most DSLR cameras will allow you to set an exposure time of up to 30 seconds. 30 seconds is basically the maximum exposure time most cameras can capture star images at wide angle without trailing. However the higher the resolution of your sensor, the easier it will be to see star trailing.. more megapixels equals more star trailing. Depending on your sensors resolution and your lens focal length you may want to use shorter exposures around 10 to 25 seconds to keep sharp stars. This may require you to increase you ISO.

On the Nikon D850 I will typically do F2.8 ISO 10,000 20" at 15mm occasionally going up to 20mm at F2.8 ISO 12,800 13".

Star trackers, are devices that rotate the camera against earths rotation, appearing that they are tracking the stars. These devices rotate at the same speed as earth, but in the opposite direction, allowing photographers to capture longer exposure images without star trailing.

When it comes time to shoot, you should see the milky way as a faint grey cloud of dust that appears quite large in the night sky. Like we mentioned earlier the orientation and where it will be in the night sky depends on your location and the time of year. However if you are in a dark enough location you won’t be able to miss it!

  • First Preparing the camera

Set your camera up on your tripod and ensure it is steady. Set your camera to your desired settings and turn your autofocus off on both the camera and the lens. Because it is night time your camera’s autofocus will just sit and seek forever and if you get one image in focus, the next will shift and go right back out of focus.

set your white balance to Daylight, Auto WB or a custom WB. I tend to shift my manual white balance as I am shooting depending on the night sky conditions.

Place your camera in full manual mode, giving you control over the shutter speed, ISO and aperture. Other than aperture priority mode I would always recommend just using full manual mode when shooting the milky way. For the most part the settings never change once you get them right.

  • Second Focusing

Turn on your cameras Live view, on Nikon cameras there is a LV button that should display your viewfinder on your screen. Ensure that you have your aperture open as wide as it can go, and ISO set around 6,400 or higher.

With live view open, point your camera at one of the brightest stars, and click the zoom button. You should be able to zoom in to about 300 to 500% on that star, from here you can focus your lens on this star until the edges of the star and nice and sharp.

Now that you have found infinity focus, as long as the focus ring is not bumped and autofocus is turned off, you shouldn’t need to refocus again while shooting.

  • Third shooting

It’s always a good idea to take a test shot and zoom back in on playback to make sure there is no motion blur and the image is in focus.

I would also highly recommend getting a shutter remote or using a count down timer so you are not bumping the long exposure while pressing the shutter button.

Nikon Shutter release remote

Because you are shooting at night, and your eyes are adjusted to the dark, you may think the images you are taking appear too bright, however once in post it will appear the other way around. I like to adjust my screen brightness or shoot at predetermined settings to avoid shooting under exposed images.

Self Portrait in the dark skies of Utah

When post processing your milky way images one of the most common adjustments is noise reduction from using such a high ISO. Both Adobe photoshop and Adobe Lightroom have great noise reduction tools to help clean up your images a little.

If you would like to learn more about post processing the milky way I have a few tutorials available on my site, and host in field photography workshops teaching the techniques I use one on one to capture the milky way.

you can learn more about those here:

and here:

Hopefully this article was helpful to you and you are able to enjoy capturing some images of our incredible milky way galaxy! thanks for reading and happy shooting!

www.SturmanPhoto.com

Http://www.instagram.com/dereksturmanphotography

Fine art Landscape Photographer, Sturmanphoto.com