Shooting the Milky Way

Milky Way over the wind farm near Limon, CO
Milky Way over the wind farm near Limon, CO

How to Photograph the Milky Way Galaxy

Night photography is fun, especially shooting the magical Milky Way. Unfortunately, night photography is also hard unless you are prepared in advance. To photograph the Milky Way, you need to be somewhere dark. In the summer, when the nights are warm, it often isn’t truly dark until after 10pm. That means this time of year is perfect, as the nights are just starting to get longer but temperatures are still fairly warm. You also want to make sure there is no moon to spoil the starlight. I use The Photographer’s Ephemeris to determine when astronomical twilight ends (this is when it gets very dark), and for moon information.

Tech Specs

Nikon D810 with 14-24mm AFS G zoom Nikkor lens
30-second exposure at f/2.8, ISO 1600

Night photography tips after the jump…

Tips for night photography

Bring a spotlight to help you focus on the subject. When it’s dark outside, it’s incredibly hard to see through the viewfinder!

Use fast glass if you have it. I’m considering getting the new Nikon 20mm f/1.8 lens for this very reason. The faint “clouds” of the Milky Way will stand out when using a lens that’s f/2.8 or faster. Otherwise, you’ll need to really crank the ISO.

Don’t be afraid of high-ISOs. I even went to ISO 3200 for a few shots. They look good, albeit a little grainy in places (but that’s easily corrected). A faster lens will let you get a cleaner image by using a slightly lower ISO.

Avoid star trails. To avoid star trails, calculate your longest possible exposure by dividing 400 by your focal length. For example, with a 24mm lens, the longest exposure you could use before star trails appear is 400/24 = 16s. With a 14mm lens, you could theoretically shoot for 28s before seeing obvious trails. On a crop-sensor DSLRs, such as the Nikon D500, use 270 as your number, or multiply the focal length by your crop factor (for Nikon DX cameras this is 1.5x).

Want to master night sky photography? Download The Night Sky Photography Handbook here.

6 thoughts on “Shooting the Milky Way”

  1. Jason, on the calculations to avoid star trails, does that work with crop sensors, or do we have to take in account the crop factor when doing the calculations?

  2. Jason… If I recall, there are 2 commonly suggested “Rules” for astrophotography exposure duration. Assuming the “Rule of 400” and a 1.5x crop factor sensor then the suggested factor of 270 can be used. However if the “Rule of 500” is used with a 1.5x crop factor sensor then the 333 factor should be used. For Canon shooters using cropped sensors, a 1.6x crop factor would yield a factor of 250 assuming use of the “Rule of 400”, and a factor of 312 if the “Rule of 500” is assumed. Pls confirm this analysis. Thanks!

  3. G’day Jason – Tried to use the link to the Download the Night Sky shown above and all I get is 404 – Not found error message. Is there a problem or am I the problem?

  4. That would be correct. These days, the “rule of 500” is probably a better one to use, especially with high-res cameras!
    500/1.5 = 333

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