17 Tips on How to Photograph the Milky Way + Cheat Sheet

By November 5, 2019 June 29th, 2020 Photography

Milkyway Cheat Sheet

Milky Way Photography Cheatsheet

1. Find a Dark Sky

For remarkable images of the Milky Way, you are going to have to find a dark location. This should be a point where light pollution is not a problem.

You’ll also want to determine how the Milky Way is oriented at that time of the year beforehand. It won’t be a good idea to reach this location and start gazing cluelessly at the sky to locate where the Milky Way might be.

To help you find an ideal location with minimal light pollution, you can use websites and apps such as the dark sky finder, photographer’s ephemeris, or Stellarium.

Dark Sky Finder

Dark Sky Finder ExampleAs the name suggests, The Dark sky finder is a website that helps you locate the dark skies near you. The site displays all the areas around the world with the least amount of light pollution. From there, you can choose those perfect spots near your location.

You can also use apps such as The Photographer’s Ephemeris, Blue Marble Nights, and Stellarium to determine the orientation of the Milky Way. 

Photographers Ephemeris

The Photographers Ephemeris does have a free web version, but the tools you will need when shooting the Milkyway are only on the app. Be aware that although the web app is free, the mobile app will cost you around $9.99. 

The Photographers Ephemeris offers two great features for finding a dark sky. The first is the Milkyway 3D Visualization overlay. This allows you to preview the exact location of the Milkyway using an augmented reality view. 

The other tool is the light pollution overlay. This view will allow you to see the light pollution in specific areas and how it will affect the quality of your Milkyway shot. 

Using these tools will not only help you find the exact view of the Milky Way you want, but it will ensure that your image is not ruined by light pollution. 

Blue Marble Nightlights

Blue Marble Map Night View

Blue Marble is a great tool that uses NASA intelligence and Google Maps AI to document light pollution around the globe. This is a great tool to use to see how much light pollution will affect the areas you are shooting. 

Above is an example of what the map looks like. The two bright locations in this photo are Los Angeles and Las Vegas. You can see that anywhere near the main cities has lots of light pollution. 

In between the two cities, you’ll find that there are a lot of areas not affected by light pollution. Regions that are primarily dark and away from the light will produce the best results. 


Stellarium Map View w/o Pollution

Similar to The Photographers Ephemeris, Stellarium has both a mobile and web app. The mobile app is much easier to use and also has more features. But the dark sky finder can be found using both the web and mobile apps. 

Stellarium offers a virtual reality view of the effect that the atmosphere and light will have on the appearance on the Milkyway. 

Stellarium Map View With Pollution

This feature works very well for testing the visibility of the Milkyway in a specific location. For example, If I know where I will be shooting, I can determine in what direction the Milkyway will be located and how much of it will be visible. 

2. Find an Ideal Location

It’s always a good idea to have a foreground object to help with establishing depth within the image.

For this purpose, I’d suggest going for nice natural areas with features such as isolated trees, still lakes, lighthouses, or rock faces. I find rock faces and mountains to make for spectacular silhouettes in the foreground of the Milky Way shots.

Often, you’ll find wilderness areas and remote national parks to be good candidates for this purpose. They tend to have a crystal clear skies and just about zero ambient lights nearby.

3. Watch the Weather

Study the weather at the location you will be shooting. 

Cloud coverage disrupts the visibility of the Milky Way, so avoid scheduling your photo excursion during cloudy or rainy days.

Using the weather app on your smartphone will usually be sufficient. But, if you want a more thorough report, you can use weather apps made explicitly for photographers such as Photopills, YR Weather Forecast, and WeatherPro.

4. Keep the Moon Cycle in Mind 

The moon’s brightness alters how many stars will be visible in the sky. It will also affect how much of your scene will be lit by natural light. So, it’s critical to consider the different moon phases and how much ambient light each phase produces when planning your shoot. 

The moon’s brightness depends on how much of its surface is illuminated by the sun. Here are the primary phases that make a noticeable difference in illumination.

  1. New Moon: Zero Illumination
  2. First and Last Quarters (Half Moon): 50 percent illumination
  3. Full Moon: 100 percent illumination
  4. Crescent phases: 1 and 49 percent illumination. 
  5. Gibbous phases: 51 and 99 percent illuminated.

It’s important to note that the moon’s brightness does not change in proportion to the changes in how much of its surface is illuminated.

That is, the moon will not produce half as much light at Half Moon (50% illuminated) as it would at Full Moon (100% illuminated).

If the Moon were a flat object, this assumption would hold. Since the moon is spherical, the amount of reflected light from the Sun per unit area decreases towards the terminator, the dividing line between the bright and the dark regions on the moon.

A Half Moon holds only 8 percent of the brightness of Full Moon. So, when the moon transitions from 50% to 100% illuminated, its brightness increases by 2.7 magnitudes.

5. Decide if you Want the Moon in your Shot

In night photography, both shooting under some moonlight and in complete darkness have their relative advantages and disadvantages. 

Shooting Under Full Moon and New Moon

If your foreground is a vital part of your image, shooting under the full moon is a great option.

The full can illuminate your foreground well, bringing out its color and detail.

The ample light available under full moon also reduces the need to raise your ISO.

This can be particularly advantageous if you’re using a lens with a narrow aperture or if you have an older digital camera.

That said, out of all the moon phases, shooting under the full moon is the worst time to photograph stars.

This is because the moon’s brightness obscures the stars to the extent that only the brightest ones will remain visible in the sky.

In contrast, shooting during a new moon, when the moon is at its least bright, allows you to capture most stars in great detail. Shooting under the new moon is an excellent time to capture dramatic Milky Way shots if you’re shooting with camera gear that performs well under low light conditions. 

Keep in mind, however, that shooting under no moon means that less light will be entering your camera, forcing you to up your ISO and capture more noise in your photos. If this is something you want to avoid, consider shooting under some moonlight instead.

Shooting Under A Crescent Moon and Quarter Moon

Shooting under the waxing and waning crescent is one of my favorite ways to photograph the milky way. The faint moonlight doesn’t obscure the stars, but it is often enough to illuminate the scene, especially if you’re using a fast lens and a camera with a good sensor.

Shooting under quarter moons can also be ideal. The moon during this time is bright enough to illuminate the scene, without completely overshadowing the stars. It’s a great alternative to the full moon if you want to take a photo of a well-lit foreground while still keeping some stars in your shot.

Shooting at Twighlight

It is possible to get great shots of the night sky during the darker stages of twilight (Civil and Nautical Twilight), but at these times, the sky will not be as dark, meaning that you won’t see as many stars.

To capture better shots of the Milky Way, you’ll want to ensure you are under the darkest skies, which occurs at a minimum of 1-2 hours after the set or before the rise of a large celestial body (Sun & Moon).

6. Bring the Right Equipment

Your Milky Way images will often only be as good as the quality of the equipment you use. Bring your best equipment to ensure you are capturing the best shots possible.

I. Milky Way Photography Camera

It’s essential to have a camera that you can manually adjust the exposure settings. This will allow for the adjustment of settings such as ISO, shutter speed, and aperture. This typically means you will need to have a DSLR, mirrorless, or an advanced point and shoot. 

When shooting Milkyway photography, a full-frame camera is best because it will allow you to capture more of the Milky Way in your frame while also including some elements in your foreground. 

Model TypeMPBudgetPrice
Nikon D850DSLR45.7HighCheck Price
Nikon D750DSLR24.9MidCheck Price
Nikon D3500DSLR24.2LowCheck Price
Nikon Z7Mirrorless45.7HighCheck Price
Canon EOS RPMirrorless26.2MidCheck Price
Sony A6100Mirrorless24Low Check Price

II. Milky Way Photography Lens

When shooting the Milky Way, fast wide-angle lenses are typically the best types of lenses to use. Wide-angle lenses are the best because they allow you to capture more of the night sky and, therefore, more of the core of the Milkyway. 

Focal Length

The Focal length of your lens will determine how much of the Milky Way you will capture. The wider the focal length, the more of the Milkyway you will capture. 

Fisheye: Full Frame:8-14mm or Crop Frame: 5-10mm 

Best for easily capturing the entire Milkyway core and surrounding star formations. 

Full Frame: 14-17mm or Crop Frame: 8mm-11mm: 

Will easily capture the whole Mlikwayway core. 

Full Frame: 18-24mm or Crop Frame: 12-16mm 

Generally, the longest focal length you can use to capture the full Milkyway core. 

Full Frame: 35mm or Crop Frame: 24mm

Will capture a portion of the Milkway, and with the proper composition, you may be able to capture the core of the Milkyway. 

Maximum Aperture

A fast lens is also important because this will allow you to capture enough light while shooting at night. I recommend getting a lens with a maximum aperture of at least f/2.8, but if possible, try and get a higher max aperture such as f/2 or f/1.8. 

Here are some of the best lenses for Full Frame Cameras. If you need more Milky Way lens recommendations, check-out our Lens Radar.  

Best Full-Frame Zoom Lenses

When shooting Milkyway photography the best lens is a wide-angle lens with a zoom range. Ideally, a 14-24mm is the perfect range because it gives you the ability to shoot both wide and ultra wide-angle shots. 

Below is a table with 14-24mm lens options for the most popular cameras. 

Brand Focal Length
Maximum ApertureAF Motor Price
Nikon14-24mmf/2.8YesCheck Price
YesCheck Price
Canon11-24mmf/4YesCheck Price
YesCheck Price

Best Full-Frame Prime Lenses

Prime lenses are great because they offer optically sharp images with faster lenses. This is great for Milkyway photography because they allow more light to hit your camera sensor. 

Below is a table with some great Milkyway photography prime lenses. 

Brand Focal Length
Maximum ApertureTypePrice
Canon24mmf/1.4Wide-AngleCheck Price
Nikon50mmf/1.8StandardCheck Price
Sigma85mmf/1.4TelephotoCheck Price
Sony70-200mmf/2.8Zoom-TelephotoCheck Price

III. Bring a Sturdy Tripod 

Since you’re shooting in the dark, you’ll need to use a tripod. Using a tripod allows you to create brighter images using longer shutter speeds without camera shake.

For crisper images, you’ll also want to mount your camera on a heavy-duty tripod. This mitigates all the camera shake that results from environmental factors such as gusts of wind. 

You’ll also want to use a tripod head that allows for shooting different angles for more versatility when shooting the Milky Way.

If you are looking for a tripod that is perfect for Milkyway photography then Manfrotto offers two great options. The first is the Manfrotto Befree Tripod and the second is the Manfrotto with Horizontal Column

Both of these tripod offer great durability and stability as well as great flexibility to adjust the angle and perspective of your camera. The horizontal column truly gives you the greatest flexibility to adjust your camera angles. 

IV. Bring a Remote Shutter

Using a remote shutter eliminates any shake caused by pressing the shutter button. 

It also enables you to shoot pass bulb mode (30 sec), without having to hold down the shutter button physically. This can be especially helpful if you’re trying to photograph star trails, which typically requires you to start with a shutter speed of at least 30 seconds. 

Shutter speeds for shooting star trials can be anywhere from 30 seconds – 5 minutes, depending on the effect you are going for. Having a remote shutter makes using these longer exposures very easy. 

If you don’t have a remote shutter or prefer not to use one, consider using a self-timer. Similar to using a remote shutter, using a self-timer is a great way to minimize camera shake. 

Keep in mind, however, using a self-timer delay will not allow you to shoot past 30 seconds. If you plan on going past this shutter speed limit, using an external shutter release is the best way to go.  

Wireless Shutter Release: Pixel TW-283 E3 Wireless Shutter Release Cable

Wired Shutter Release: Pixel Remote Commander Shutter Release 

7. Arrive Early

Trying to find compositions in the dark can be difficult, so you’ll want to arrive before nightfall.

You’ll also want to arrive early enough to give yourself enough time to find several compositional ideas if one or two don’t produce the image you are looking for.

Since shooting at night is typically cumbersome, limiting the time spent deciding on your composition is ideal. By arriving early and scouting, you ensure most of your time is spent perfecting your shot rather than moving around.

8. Consider the Moon in Your Composition

The location of the moon relative to the direction you are shooting can have a significant impact on your scene. 

Most of the apps you use to find your dark sky can be used for tracking the moon. 

Consider using the Photographers Ephemeris or Photopills to track the moon. Both will give you detailed information about the moonrise, moonset, moon phases, and the moon’s location. 

If you prefer not to download an app, you can use the Photographers Ephemeris web app. The web app will give you all the information you need and does not require you to pay for the app. 

Unless you want to include the moon itself in your shot(s), it’s often ideal to compose with the moon positioned behind to help illuminate your foreground.

Additionally, consider having the moon low in the sky when shooting so that it does not produce harsh light as the sun does at midday. 

Keeping the moon low in the sky and behind you will primarily help keep the part of the sky you are photographing relatively darker with more stars visible to your camera.

9. Use the Right Shutter speed

Shutter speed is the length of time your camera’s sensor is exposed to light. 

When it comes to astrophotography, most photographers use the 500 Rule.

The rule posits that taking 500 and dividing it by your focal length should give you the maximum shutter speed you can use before you start experiencing star trails.

Star trail is that noticeable motion or streaking of stars in your images that happens as a result of leaving the shutter speed is too long, as shown below.

If the 500 Rule is not working for you, you can try the 600 Rule. Which operates exactly like the 500 Rule except you use 600. 

The 600 rule will results in faster shutter speeds and consider using it if there is still a bit of movement in your images at the 500 Rule. 

Shutter Speed For Crop Sensor

For photographers who are not using a full-frame camera, the smaller sensor is bound to magnify the scene more effectively by cropping it.

So, to get the same outcome (the right shutter speed to use) with these cameras, you’ll have to divide the resultant maximum shutter speed by your camera’s crop factor. If you are using a Canon APS-C sensor, you will use 1.6, and if you are using a Nikon APS-C, you will use 1.5. 

10. Set Your ISO to 3200

The ISO of your camera determines how much or how little your sensor will amplify the light it gathers. Increasing your ISO will result in a brighter image while decreasing your ISO will result in a darker image. Higher ISO will also increase the appearance of noise in your image. 

Since you’ll be shooting at night, with dark skies and dark surroundings, you want the camera’s sensor to be able to amplify as much light as possible. However, you also don’t want to up it increase it too much and introduce unnecessary noise in your image.

Typically, ISO 3200 is a good place to set your camera. Depending on how this setting plays out to the quality of your initial shots, you can choose to increase the ISO value or decrease it from that point.   

11. Use Your Camera’s Maximum Aperture

The smaller the ‘f’ number, the more light is let into your camera. Since the aim is to let in as much light as possible, use the smallest ‘f’ number that your lens will allow (maximum aperture). 

That said, some lenses can be softer at the maximum aperture, so it might be good to stop down one or two stops.

For instance, if your max aperture is f/1.4 increase it to f/2 or f/2.8. Doing so will increase the sharpness of your image while still capturing high levels of light. 

You shouldn’t experience any such softness problems if you’re using a high-quality wide-angle lens with ‘f’ values ranging between 1.4 and 2.8.

Ideally, you want to avoid using any aperture values above 2.8 because the lens will not collect as much light.

All said, remember that these settings are all dependent on one another. So finding the right balance is key, and will often take practice.

12. Manual Exposure

The first set of exposure settings won’t often produce the best exposure for your scene. It’s essential that you play around with different settings and take more shots to determine which settings work best. 

When shooting the milky way, I like adjusting my aperture first. 

Then I’ll adjust my shutter speed and finally my ISO.

13. Use Manual Focus

Start by focusing on the brightest star using autofocus. This should place your focus at infinity. Focusing on the brightest star will ensure that your Milkyway is exposed correctly and that it is not blurry. 

When shooting at night, it can be hard to see out of the viewfinder, making it difficult to focus. Switching to live view mode is a great way to prevent this. 

Using live view mode will also allow you to use the focus magnifier to help you focus on a star in the distance. Ensuring you are focused on one of the farthest and brightest stars will allow you to capture a high detail image. 

Once you have your lens is in focus, lock your focus by changing your settings from auto to manual focus.

You can do this by turning the AF/MF button on your camera or lens to MF.

This will prevent your camera from refocusing every time you press the shutter speed.

It will hold your focus to infinity while you recompose your shot and find the exact composition you want.

14. Shoot in RAW

I highly recommend shooting in RAW when shooting Milky Way

Compared to JPEGs,  RAW images possess a wider tonal range. This allows them to capture varying levels of brightness more accurately. 

They also offer increased color accuracy.

RAW images are arable to produce 281 colors, while JPEG images only produce 16 million colors. 

Finally, RAW images have far superior editing capabilities.

This enables you to edit your images’ white balance, saturation, exposure, and contrast, among others with greater accuracy. 

Shooting in RAW, you will be able to capture more accurate and precise Milky Way photos. Also, the editing flexibility will give you complete control over your photo’s appearance. 

15. White Balance

When shooting the Milky Way, the color of your photo can take it to the next level. Unfortunately, exposure or light pollution doesn’t always allow us to capture the most vibrant colors. 

Adjusting your white balance is a great way to enhance the colors of your image. 

If your scene has a significant amount of ambient light, then I recommend using the Tungsten Preset or setting your custom white balance between 3200K and 3900K. These white balance settings will add a cool tone to your image, removing the warm glob]w from the ambient light. 

For darker scenes with less ambient light, I recommend using the preset Flourescent or setting your custom white balance between 4000K and 4800K. 

Setting your white balance is not as important if your shooting in RAW. When shooting in RAW, you can easily adjust the white balance to your liking. The same does not apply to JPEGs. 

So if you are shooting in JPEG, be sure to carefully set your white balance to achieve the exact color balance you are looking for. 

16. Be Patient

Unlike your typical daytime shootings, taking pictures at night tends to be cold, tedious, and time-consuming. This can be frustrating, especially if you’re just starting. But don’t let this discourage you. Practice patience and the beautiful pictures you’ll get in the end will be well worth your effort.

17. Process Your Images

When you view your images for the first time on your computer, don’t be worried if they don’t look like the finished product you see online. A great part of night photography is done in post-processing.

Certain edits in visual components such as sharpness, white balance, and saturation need to be made to images of the night sky before they are complete.

This is especially true if you shoot with a RAW format. Raw files are untouched data gathered by the camera. Thus they tend to appear dull if left un-edited.

Take the time to do some post-processing work after your shoot and you should be able to create stunning images of the Milky Way without much problem.

If you are not too sure which post processing software to use, then Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom are a great place to start. 

Adobe offers the most comprehensive and and powerful software combinations available. Plus with the vast amount of resources to learn Photoshop and Lightroom you won’t have an issue achieving your desired image. 

Another great option if you are looking for an easier option is to use Luminar. Luminar is an easier more intuitive software that offers medium range editing tools.  

It does offer advanced AI capabilities that make editing a bit easier such as customized editing presets for landscapes. 

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