Photographing the Milky Way: An Astrophotographer's Primer


Thinking back to my first time photographing the stars, let’s be real: I had no idea what I was doing. I spent the afternoon watching video after video, and after several hours felt confident enough to attempt it. Now keep in mind I had done the research on settings, but completely skipped over the planning phase. I didn’t run into one video that talked about things like the moon phase or dark skies, some pretty important information to know when getting into astrophotography. Nonetheless, a couple friends and I headed out at eleven o’ clock at night to Death Valley. My only experience at this point with location was Death Valley and, more specifically, Badwater Basin. While I didn’t know anything about light pollution or dark skies, I was lucky enough to have a location that was free of city lights.

We arrived at about one in the morning, pulled off to the side of the road, and start walking into the desert. After wandering around in the darkness, I quickly realized that there was no way I would be able to find my car again—it was that dark, like really, really dark. Needless to say I drove two hours from my house, walked fifty feet away from my car, and shot some blurry mess of definitely not the Milky Way (I was facing due west).

If you’ve never attempted to photograph the Milky Way, you might be wondering what all these specifics have to do with photographing the night sky. Many things affect our ability to even see the Milky Way—things like moon phase, light pollution, direction, time of year, etc. Let’s get into what to look for and how to plan your Milky Way shoot.

How Do You Find the Milky Way?

Find the Right Time of Year: There is such a thing as “Milky Way Season.” We can see the Milky Way throughout the entire year; however, most astrophotographers are chasing what is called the Galactic Core (or the Milky Way Core). To be able to find and photograph this, we first and foremost have to be in the months of March through October, within the northern hemisphere. This is when the Galactic Core is visible to us. Now keep in mind you can see the Core in earlier and later months, but only for a short period of time, therefore we focus our chase on the months with the most shooting opportunities.

Find the Right Moon Phase: The light at night also plays an important role in planning our shoot. Let’s talk about the moon first. As you may know, the moon goes through phases throughout the month. The best time of the month to photograph the Milky Way is during the new moon phase; this is when the moon is not visible to us. What this means is that the light of the moon will not wash out the view of the Milky Way Core.

Find a Dark Site: Now that you have the right month and the right time of the month, you need to find a dark sky. Light from cities can do the same as the light of the moon to your images—it will wash out the view of the stars. You’ll want to find a nice dark site from apps like Dark Site Finder. Depending on the size of the city you live in, you may have to travel an hour or more to escape the lights of the city. In more light-polluted areas, this might be difficult, but well worth the effort.

Jess Santos

Location, Location, Location

Look to the South: You’ve found a location away from light pollution, during a new moon in Milky Way season; it’s time now to focus on your foreground. The Milky Way position changes in the night sky as you move from spring to summer, starting in the southeast part of the sky and ending in the southwest. In general, you will be looking for an interesting foreground facing south. The image below includes the constellation of Scorpius. This constellation will appear first in the sky during the spring and almost seems to “pull up” the Milky Way. If you are having trouble finding the Milky Way, look for the semi-circle of the scorpion's claws and the bright orange star Antares. The Core will not be far behind. You may have to wait for it to rise into position; Scorpius will always be to the right of the Core throughout the season. Apps like Sky Guide will help you to find specific constellations as well as the Milky Way Core in real time.

Jess Santos

Take a Look Around in Daylight: I cannot stress enough how important it is to scout your location during the day. This will do a few things. Scouting ahead will allow you to find a unique composition and help you to determine what time of night you should photograph the Milky Way. The Night AR pill in an app called PhotoPills will overlay the Milky Way Core over your scene in real time using your phone on location. As shown below, you can also use this app to see future times and dates. Visiting your location during the day will also ensure you can get to and from your car during the night without getting lost. I highly recommend using a GPS app like GPS Tracks (for iPhone), or Gaia GPS (available for both iPhone and Android) so you don’t end up lost in the wilderness.

Bonus Tip: Try to tell a story with your composition. Pay careful attention to how the Milky Way is interacting with your foreground. The image below, shot out at the famous Sailing Stones in Death Valley, California, shows the trails from the stones coming directly from the base of the Milky Way Core. This helps tell the story of these magical stones, making them appear as if they are not of this world, as if they come from the stars.

Jess Santos

Bringing the Right Gear for the Job

When it comes to photographing during daylight hours, the best camera is the one you have in your hand, but when it comes to astrophotography, there are some specific choices that need to be made in terms of gear. First and foremost, you will need a camera with an interchangeable lens. This can be a crop sensor, full frame, DSLR, or mirrorless. Most cameras with a fixed lens cannot get to the correct aperture. This is where lens choice is one of the most important pieces of gear for astrophotography. It is vital that you choose a lens that can get to f/2.8 or lower, and it is preferable to find a wider lens. This will allow the most light into the sensor, and also allow you to capture a grand scene with lots of space for the sky. My favorite lens is my Sony 12-24mm GM f/2.8, but any lens 24mm or wider with a low aperture of f/2.8 will work perfectly.

The next most important piece of gear is a sturdy tripod. We will be shooting at longer shutter speeds (6 seconds or more); therefore, you will want to keep the camera as steady as possible to avoid a blurry image. A sturdy tripod is an absolute necessity, not only because you cannot hand-hold night images, but we also have to remember we are photographing in landscape that can be harsh in terms of weather and where strong winds may be a factor.

Since keeping the camera as still as possible while capturing the night sky is of upmost importance, a shutter release can be invaluable. This can be either wired or wireless. A shutter release will allow you to keep your hands off the camera while shooting to avoid any camera shake from simply pressing the shutter.

Jess Santos

Like many other genres of photography, shooting the night sky will take practice and trial and error, but armed with the knowledge gained from careful planning, the chance of successful attempts is greatly increased. If you are interested in learning more about settings and how to photograph Blue Hour Blends, check out my article on this subject and don’t forget to take a moment and enjoy the views of this galaxy we call home.

Ready for more astrophotography content? Turn to Explora’s Night Photography site!

And share your thoughts and tips on photographing the Milky Way in the Comments section, below.