How to Photograph the Milky Way

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Have you ever seen an amazing photo of the Milky Way and wondered what’s the secret behind it? Is there some magic formula that made it turn out so great? Well, there is a formula, but it’s not magic. It’s all about planning and then nailing the shot. And I’m going to help you master both. But first, I’d like to introduce myself. My name is Antoni Cladera, and I’m a professional photographer on the PhotoPills team. Today, I’m teaming up with B&H to help you imagine, plan, and shoot legendary photos of the Milky Way.

Let’s dive in!

When to Photograph the Milky Way

One of the first things you should know about photographing the Milky Way is that there is a Milky Way season—that is, an optimal time to shoot. In both the Northern and Southern Hemisphere, the Milky Way season begins at the end of January. That’s when the Galactic Center (the brightest area) starts to become visible again. The season runs toward the end of October, when the Galactic Center is no longer visible. It’s also worth noting that in the Northern Hemisphere, the Galactic Center can only be visible from latitudes between +55° and -90°. However, when scheduling your Milky Way shoot, it’s not just the season that’s important. You should also consider the phase of the Moon.

Shoot Around the New Moon

To get a bright and shiny Milky Way you need a dark sky: no moonlight and no light pollution. That’s why it’s best to shoot the Milky Way around the New Moon. If memorizing dates or having to refer back to a chart isn’t your thing, you can take advantage of the Moon Calendar in the PhotoPills app. A personal assistant for all my photographic matters, the PhotoPill app helps me plan any photo that I can imagine, including gorgeous shots of the Milky Way. Of course, before you start planning your shot, you need to have some idea of what it is you want to shoot. So, let’s start there.

Find Inspiration

When brainstorming ideas for photographs, I tend to look at compositions that include the Milky Way in three positions: horizontal (low), diagonal, and vertical.

Horizontal (Low) Milky Way

When the Milky Way is very low in the sky, you have the chance to create great panoramic images, like the one above. If you’re shooting in the Northern Hemisphere, the season for capturing low Milky Way images is between February and May. In the Southern Hemisphere, the season runs from February to October.

Nikon D4s | 18mm | f/2.8 | 25s | ISO 6400

Diagonal Milky Way

The majority of my compositions include the Milky Way as a diagonal in the sky, as seen above. Diagonal Milky Way season runs between May and July in the Northern Hemisphere, and from March to October in the Southern Hemisphere.

Nikon Z6 | 50mm | f/1.4 | 6s | ISO 6400

Vertical Milky Way

A completely vertical Milky Way is an incredible sight. It’s like a giant, shiny staircase to heaven! The season for capturing this breathtaking spectacle is between July and October in the Northern Hemisphere, and April to September in the Southern Hemisphere.

Nikon D4s | 35mm | f/1.4 | 13s | ISO 6400


Insta-piration

One of the best sources of inspiration comes from the photos of other photographers. Check out these Instagram accounts for some great inspirational content, including amazing shots of the Milky Way.

 
Check out the PhotoPills Instagram account for some inspirational Milky Way shots.

Finding the Right Location

Finding inspiration for your shoot is great, but having a powerful location is absolutely key. It’s the scenario for your composition. When scouting your location, you should look for a place that is free from light pollution (NASA's Blue Marble map is a great resource for scouting potential dark skies) and as a point of interest that will provide some action and emotion to the picture (e.g., a lighthouse, volcano, even people).

Nikon D4s | 14mm | f/2.8 | 15s | ISO 6400

Planning with PhotoPills

How you choose to go about planning your Milky Way shoot is up to you, but if you’re looking for a handy resource that will allow you to find a location, schedule your shoot, and prep all the planning details you need to take care of to get an incredible shot, check out the PhotoPills Planner.

Want to see it in action? Click here to watch a real example of Milky Way planning.

The Right Gear

When photographing the Milky Way, the quality of the gear has a deep impact on the quality of the final image. So invest in the best equipment you can afford, and enjoy taking amazing pictures for the rest of your life.

Camera

A full-frame camera is always the best choice for Milky Way photography. These sensors produce much less noise than the APS-C or Micro 4/3 ones. So you can recklessly crank up your ISO to collect more light! I shoot regularly with a Nikon Z6. The Canon 5D Mark IV and the Sony a7R III are also excellent cameras.

 
The Sony Alpha a7R III is an excellent camera for capturing stunning shots of the Milky Way.

Lens

You need a sharp lens so both the sky with the stars and the foreground are crystal clear. And it also needs to be a fast (large aperture, small f-number) wide angle lens to capture as much light as possible and a big portion of the sky. My favorite lens for capturing the Milky Way is the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8. But some good alternatives are the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L III, the Sony 16-35mm f/2.8 GM and the Rokinon/Samyang 14mm f/2.8.

Nikon's AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm is my favorite lens to capture the Milky Way

Tripod and Head

To capture the Milky Way, you need to shoot long exposures. So get a stable, sturdy, and reliable tripod to avoid vibrations. I use a Benro carbon fiber tripod with the Really Right Stuff BH-55 ball head.

Other Pieces of Gear

In addition to a camera, lens, and tripod, you’ll also need the following:

Shooting the Milky Way

Now that you’ve got all the tools and you’ve done all your planning, it’s time to shoot the Milky Way. To nail the shot, just follow these steps.

First of all, make sure you get to the planned shooting spot with the plenty of time to get set up to shoot. If you’re using the PhotoPills app, you can use the Night Augmented Reality mode to make sure you’re at the correct location and to get an idea of where the Milky Way will be, including the location of the Galactic Center. When shooting, be sure to use a short focal length (10mm, 14mm, etc.) to include as much sky as possible in the frame. You also want to use the widest aperture you can (f/1.4, f/2.8, etc.) to collect the maximum amount of light possible during the exposure.

Now it’s time to focus. You can focus on a star or the hyperfocal distance to make sure that everything is tack sharp. If you don’t know how to focus at the hyperfocal distance, check out this video for a step-by-step tutorial.

After you’re done focusing, it’s time to check your framing and composition. Right now noise is not an issue. You want to take the picture as quickly as possible. Use a fast shutter speed and crank up your ISO to the highest setting of your camera (25600, 12800, 6400).

Nailing your exposure time is the next key step. You want to collect as much light as possible to capture stars as big bright spots. But you don't want the stars to trail because of the Earth's rotation. So what you need to do is set your shutter speed to capture the Milky Way and avoid Star Trails. To calculate what your shutter speed should be, apply the NPF rule, which, if you’re unfamiliar, you can read about here.

Now, let’s set your ISO. Don’t be afraid to push the ISO up. Start with an ISO of 3200 or 6400 and take a test shot. Check the framing, the focus, and the exposure, and make the necessary adjustments.

And that’s it. You’re now ready to capture amazing shots of the Milky Way.

If you have any questions or need additional help, be sure to drop a Comment down below.

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