The Basics of Photographing the Milky Way


In this article, we will introduce you and your camera to space. We will tell you what is needed for this and what makes up the perfect shot.

It is worth noting that this is not a complete guide, but only an introductory necessary theory, like a good synopsis of a large lecture. After all, working with space is a separate direction, in which there are a lot of subtleties and nuances.

Nevertheless, the presented material is enough to start photographing the stars and there is little more of it than “put the camera on a tripod and point it to the sky”.


Every photographer loves to chat about the lenses they have, but in the end, when you study someone’s work, you will add your impression by looking at the pictures. And here it is worth clarifying that the decisive role is still played by the person, but there are also minimum requirements for the equipment.


This is the foundation of your work. Please note that it is often necessary to mount the camera on an uneven surface and it must be stationary. To do this, you need a sturdy tripod with flexible settings and reliable assemblies.

If suddenly the camera deviates even by a millimeter, then your frame will no longer turn out to be clear, and looking ahead, the camera should stand still for a long time. Therefore, take a closer look at solutions with a sturdy ball head.


The minimum requirement for a “carcass” is the ability to manually adjust the aperture, shutter speed and ISO. Ideally, this should be a full-frame camera, which means full sensor size, and not stripped down like in your smartphone.

Among the SLR models, this is, for example, the Canon EOS 6D Mark II or Nikon D750 Body. If you are a fan of mirrorless models, then the Sony Alpha (any version) or Canon EOS RP will do.


If we talk about the minimum requirements, then a minimum aperture of 4 or less is required. This figure is responsible for the ability to capture more light, ideally you need to have a lens with f / 2.8 or less.

It’s even better if you’re working at a wide angle, say 14-24mm. Here the more the better. We get the perfect gear 24mm and f / 1.4.

Optional equipment

The first thing you may need is an intervalometer that connects to your camera and releases the shutter. This solution will allow you to make the exposure length longer than 30 seconds and will prevent you from the problem of jerking the camera when manually triggering.

An optional but necessary thing can be a star tracker. The device attaches to a tripod and holds the camera on it, moving it along the way. This is done to compensate for the movement of the stars. Due to this, you can set a huge exposure and not be afraid to get a blurry frame.


A good shot depends on the setting, the subject and the hands of the photographer. In our case, the first two points will have to be taken care of in advance.

The location is best viewed during the day. You must understand what kind of plan you want to get in the frame, so as not to run in vain with your camera and tripod in the dark.

What was the last word? Darkness! The city emits a lot of light noise. Did you see our cities from the plane at night? The more houses, the more light. If you have chosen a local park as a location, then you will have to knock out all the lights in the area, because at a long exposure all this light will rush towards you into the lens, and then into the frame.

Let me remind you that our goal is the Milky Way. It is worth taking care of its location in advance. You won’t be able to move it, but on the Internet you can find out about its position relative to the intended shooting location.

Don’t forget to check the weather. Through the clouds, the stars are poorly visible, including by the camera.

And remember that the moon is emitting too much light. It is best to get out for a photo hunt as close to the new moon as possible, somewhere within one week before and after.


Every celebrity photographer has a couple of ways to go. One is suitable for exposing the lens during the day (we are talking about long-term preparation during the daytime), the second approach will allow you to set focus right at night.

Method 1

To do this, you need to set the focal length in the daytime – the more, the better. Let’s say you set the maximum available 24mm. What’s next?

Now we aim at some distant object. We are not talking about a couple of meters, but rather about tens. You can use autofocus, the main thing is to take a shot and make sure that the result is sharp enough, for this you have to zoom in on the finished images at least twice.

Once you are done, you should fix the parameters and use them in your work. Note that if you change the focal length, the operation will have to be done again.

Method 2

If you come to work at night, then there is nothing left but to put the camera on a tripod. Now it’s time to find the brightest object near you. If it is any lamp, then you have chosen the wrong place, re-read the section “Preparation”.

So, we are looking for the moon in the sky or some very bright star. Find it with the viewfinder and now adjust the focusing ring until the point of light is as small as possible.

Once you’ve found the focal position where your luminous subject is minimal, you can lock in your settings and start shooting basic.

Setting up

If you are determined to get an image of the Milky Way, then you have to forget about auto-mode and start manually adjusting the camera. To get an image of the stars, we need to capture light from them, while leaving an acceptable quality to the image itself. It will not work just to overestimate the light sensitivity (ISO), the frame will be very noisy. But let’s start in order.


The shots themselves are best saved in RAW format. Then you will get a complete color picture, which can play into your hands during processing. And even without it, your pictures will look much more detailed.

Although the most often used technique is when several frames are processed and glued into one, so that all the details are visible in the final image, from the environment to the stars themselves, which most often have different brightness.


It’s worth starting with theory. Aperture values ​​start after the letter f, and as we found out earlier, we need f / 4.0 or less, ideally f / 1.4. It is worth remembering here – the smaller the aperture, the larger the aperture, that is, the ability to collect light. Roughly speaking, the lower this indicator, the more “eyes” you have, with which you capture the frame.

The f / 8.0 aperture is standard and is not very suitable for us. Our work starts at f / 4.0. Moreover, if you use a wide-angle lens, say 24 mm, and the aperture is f / 1.4, then you can make a couple more permutations at f / 1.6, then f / 1.8 and then f / 2.0.

This technique will allow you to capture an image of both very bright and dim objects. And when you mix, you get the same sharp image.

True, if the aperture on your lens stops at minimum f / 2.8 or f / 4.0, then you will rather be worried about the possibility of capturing anything at all.

Lens shutter

In an ideal world, you could leave the camera at midnight at a low ISO and get a cool shot. But our planet is spinning, and it turns out that the stars are moving, and there are traces in the pictures.

To avoid this, there is an easy way to calculate the maximum possible shutter opening time. For this, it is enough to apply the not cunning rule of five hundred.

To calculate, you need to know the set focal length. Let’s say you set it to 16 mm, now we just take and divide 500 by 16, we get 31.25 seconds. It turns out that for 16 mm the lens cannot be opened for longer than 31.25 seconds, otherwise the frame will be spoiled.

Let’s try to calculate for 24 mm. 500/24 ​​= 20.8 seconds. Simple and ingenious! And here it is worth clarifying that this is a practical observation, and not an exact rule. And if you want to keep the lens open longer, then you can use the star tracker.

A truncated matrix stands out as a separate case. Yes, at the beginning of the article it was said that it is advisable to use a full-frame camera, but not leave people in trouble? Nothing will be difficult here, do not be alarmed.

The standard sensor has a 35 mm area, you need to find out the size of your sensor in the specifications, for example 24 mm. Now we divide 35 by 24 = 1.46. That is, we found out that our matrix is ​​1.46 times smaller than the full frame.

Next, we recall the rule of five hundred, only we divide it like this 500 / (focus length × reduction factor). For a 16mm focus, we get: 500 / (16 × 1.46) = 21.4 seconds. Here’s a simple math.


In order to understand what kind of light sensitivity you need, you will have to take several test shots. Note that the higher the ISO, the more noise you run the risk of getting in your photo.

For f / 2.8, ISO 6400 becomes the optimal value. Of course, it is better to start at ISO 1600 and gradually raise the bar, because a lot depends on the shutter speed settings.

And extra noise can be easily corrected in modern photo editors. But this is a separate topic for conversation.

White balance

Remember we gave you a recommendation to shoot in RAW? So, in this case, this parameter does not matter to you. Since at any time you can independently edit the picture in the same Lightroom.

But if you prefer not to touch the photos, then feel free to expose 4000-5000K. This is optimal for very cool stars.


Now it’s time to send you hunting. This course does not contain a lot of details, but the acquired knowledge is quite enough to try yourself in photographing the Milky Way.

And whatever your equipment is, practice decides everything. Try and experiment. And no one will give you an exact recipe. Probably, this is one of the main features of photography, and art in general.

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