How to Photograph the Milky Way

Many travel and landscape photographers, including myself, try to avoid shooting scenery with a clear blue sky. As much as we like seeing puffy or stormy clouds to spice up our photographs, we have no control over what the nature provides each day. Sometimes we get lucky and capture beautiful sunrises and sunsets with blood red skies, and other times we are stuck with a clear, boring sky. When I find myself in such a situation and I know that the next morning will be clear, I sometimes explore opportunities to photograph the stars and the Milky Way at night. I am sure you have been in situations where you got out at night in a remote location and saw an incredibly beautiful night sky with millions of stars shining right at you, with patches of stars in a “cloudy” formation that are a part of the Milky Way. If you do not know how to photograph the night sky and the Milky Way, this guide might help you in understanding the basics.

Milky Way

Yes, we are here to just go over the basics, because astrophotography can get very complex, especially for capturing deep space photos of nebulas, constellations and star systems. Some photographers utilize telescopes, specialized robotic heads with ultra precision and cameras specifically created for astrophotography worth tens of thousands of dollars, to create amazingly beautiful photographs that are extremely hard or even impossible to capture with a regular DSLR. In this article, I will not be touching on such complex topics and rather focus on what you can capture with a camera you already own, whether it is a DSLR, a mirrorless camera or even an advanced point and shoot.

1) What You Will Need

Before we start talking about photographing the Milky Way, let me first go over what you will need in terms of gear and software:

  1. An Advanced Camera – you will need a camera that allows full manual exposure control of aperture, shutter speed and ISO. You also want the camera to be able to focus manually, since focusing at night will surely be a challenge for any autofocus system. Ideally, you need an advanced DSLR or a mirrorless camera that can handle noise well at high ISOs (more on this below). A dedicated astro-camera like the Canon 60Da is going to be the top choice for astrophotography, but that’s for those that want to explore astrophotography beyond the scope of this article. Some point and shoot cameras might be suitable for the job with manual controls, but the results will be obviously much inferior, especially on small sensor point and shoots.
  2. A Fast Lens – if you use an interchangeable lens camera, I would recommend to use a good, fast-aperture wide-angle lens (ideally in the f/1.4 – f/2.8 max aperture range). Top choices for photographing the stars are fast prime lenses that do very well wide open. My favorite lenses for night photography are the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 (see our review), the Nikon 24mm f/1.4G (see our review) and the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8G (see our review). All three are extremely sharp at their maximum apertures (wide open), so they are more than suitable for night photography. If you have a slow lens or you need to stop down your lens to get the maximum sharpness, you will have to crank up the ISO, which will result in grainy photos. That’s why a fast lens is the ideal choice. If you shoot Canon, you can get the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 for the Canon mount and Canon also has a 24mm f/1.4L in its arsenal. There is no 14-24mm equivalent, but you can use the excellent 16-35mm f/2.8L as well. Unfortunately, all these lenses are extremely expensive, so if you do not want to spend over a thousand dollars, the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 is going to be my top recommendation. If you are not planning to do astrophotography very often, budget f/1.8 lenses are also great alternatives. For example, Nikon’s 28mm f/1.8G or Canon’s 28mm f/1.8 are also great choices for astrophotography.
  3. A Sturdy Tripod – you will be shooting long exposures (10-15+ seconds), so a sturdy tripod is a must-have. You do not want a flimsy tripod that will shake like crazy during the exposure, especially if there is light wind.
  4. Sky Map App – this one is optional, but something I would highly recommend. A good sky map app such as Star Walk for iPhone or Google Sky Map for Android could show you exactly where the Milky Way is or will be, which can help a great deal with planning your shots.
  5. Post-Processing Software – you definitely want to process your shots in good software to get the best quality results and bring out the details. I would recommend either Adobe Photoshop or Elements for astrophotography. Lightroom can be used as well, but it is not flexible enough to do things like levels and advanced cloning / spot removal tools (to remove planes and other objects from the shots, etc). Post-processing is a big part of astrophotography, so I would highly recommend to get good software for the job if you do not already have it. In this article, I will show you how to take some simple steps in Photoshop/Elements to enhance your Milky Way photos.
  6. Flashlight – a good flashlight is not only useful to find a good spot at night, but can also be used for light painting at night, if you have interesting foreground elements.

There are other things you might need, such as a remote camera trigger (for 30+ second exposures), hand/leg warmers (if shooting in cold) and more, but those are optional or depend on conditions and what you are trying to achieve.

2) Location and Light Pollution Considerations

If you live in a big city, it will be extremely difficult to capture the night sky and the Milky Way. Big city lights can be a huge problem due to air and light pollution, so it is best to get out of town/city and find a good location that does not have such problems. Sometimes it means driving several hours away from where you live. You might not see the light pollution with your eyes, but the camera sure will!

National parks and wilderness areas are ideal for night photography, because the sky is crystal clear and there are no lights around.

3) Focusing

Before we talk about exposure settings, let’s first go over some important steps in ensuring that we end up with properly focused shots. Focusing at night can be a challenging and a frustrating experience, because the autofocus system on your camera will have very little contrast to be able to acquire proper focus. The best thing to do is to compose your shot, set one focal length (if using a zoom lens) and once you manually acquire perfect focus, do no touch the focus or zoom rings until you are completely done. Personally, I turn off autofocus right away and only rely on manual focusing using Live View – the goal is to set focus to infinity. Some people say that using the lens marker to set focus to infinity is a good practice, but in reality, unless you have an old manual focus lens with more or less precise infinity markings, I would not rely on it. Even a slight de-focus on a modern high resolution sensor will make the stars appear like circular blobs instead of defined stars, so your focus technique is critical here.

So what is the best way to get perfect focus? I often utilize a number of different techniques using camera’s Live View. Once you set your lens to Manual Focus and turn Live View on, zoom in to 100% and point your camera at the brightest source of light in the sky, which is usually the moon. Move the focus ring until you can clearly see the defined shape of the moon and simply turn off Live View – you are done. If the moon is not in the sky, try to find another source of light – perhaps some distant light. If you do not have either one of those, then another option is to turn your flashlight on and set it far enough away from you that it is at infinity, then focus on the flashlight using Live View. Some Live View modes in cameras are very good and will “boost” the night sky and reveal the stars. If you can see the stars in Live View, then you do not need to use any of the above techniques – just rotate the focus ring until the stars appear sharp. And lastly, if nothing works out, you can try using the infinity mark on top of the lens and take sample shots to see if focus is properly acquired or not. If you see blurry stars when zoomed in to 100%, then you know that you need to rotate the focus ring a tad to get better focus. It will take you some time to get it right, but it is definitely worth doing this right, than end up with blurry photos.

Now, if you have a foreground object in your shot, you obviously want both the foreground and the stars to be in perfect focus. Since you are shooting at wide open aperture, how do you achieve that? Well, the answer is in a technique called “focus stacking”. Basically, you take one picture focused on the sky, and another picture focused on your foreground. Then you use a blending technique in Photoshop to merge the two shots into a single composite, with perfect focus on both. I won’t go over the focus stacking technique in this article, but I do have plans to write about it in the future.

4) Camera Settings

While the sky might look magnificent to you at night, with millions of stars easily visible to your eyes, it does not mean that your camera will be easily able to capture it. Your eyes get adjusted to low light at night, which means that you are seeing everything at very high sensitivity levels, with the iris wide open, at its maximum size. So if you want your camera to be able to capture the night sky as you see it, and perhaps even better than that, you need to apply the same technique – use high ISO sensitivity levels and shoot at large apertures. This is where your camera and lens choices will play an important role on what you will be able to achieve. If you have a good lens that performs well at its maximum aperture, you do not have to use very high ISO levels on your camera, which means less grain to deal with in post-processing. If you have a fast lens and a camera that can handle high ISO well, then you will surely be able to capture the Milky Way in its full glory. For example, the first image in this article was captured using the Nikon D3s and 24mm f/1.4G lens at f/1.4, ISO 1600, 20 second long exposure. If I wanted to keep the length of the exposure the same and used a slower lens, say f/2.8 (two stops slower), I would have to increase my camera ISO from 1600 to 6400, which is pretty grainy for my taste.

So where do you start and what is the most important camera setting? What I would do first, is start out by determining the length of exposure. And this is where it gets tricky, because if you do it wrong, you will either end up with a black sky and a couple of stars, or the stars will look like lines instead of dots, commonly referred to as “star trails”. Those can look great in some shots, but star trail photography requires completely different techniques centered around the north star and obviously won’t work for Milky Way shots. Remember, earth constantly rotates and since we are shooting from a tripod that is fixed in one position, we really have to be careful about timing each exposure, as we need to keep stars as dots in our shots.

4.1) The 500 / 600 Rule

This one has a confusing name, because some people refer to this method as the “500 Rule”, while others call it the “600 Rule”. Basically, to determine the optical length of exposure, we take 500 / 600 and divide it by the focal length of the lens to get the optimal shutter speed. So if you are shooting with a 24mm lens, you take 500 and divide it by 24, which is 21 – that’s the longest shutter speed you should use before those stars start changing into trails. If you use the less strict / less conservative “600 Rule”, you end up with a 25 second exposure. So an exposure between 21 and 25 seconds should work best for a 24mm lens. Now what happens if you go really wide and use a 14mm lens? You could set your shutter speed to longer than 30 seconds (between 35 and 42 seconds) using the “BULB” mode and the stars will still be dots. At such long shutter speeds, you could either lower your ISO, or really bring out every single detail from the sky with much more to show than what your eyes can see. And what happens if you use a longer focal length like 50mm? Your exposure gets much shorter – in this case as low as 10 seconds, which might not be sufficient to capture enough details. So, longer focal lengths are going to be your enemy when photographing the Milky Way, since you will either end up with a lot of grain due to use of extremely high ISO, or you will get a very dark image with no visible details. Therefore, I would recommend to stay at 35mm or under in terms of focal length for full-frame cameras and 24mm or wider for cropped-sensor cameras.

4.2) JPEG or RAW?

If you are still shooting JPEG, slap yourself in the face – time to move to RAW and finally explore its benefits. You want to shoot RAW for astrophotography, because you will often find yourself playing with the white balance settings, which cannot be changed in JPEG images. There are many other benefits to shooting RAW, such as 14-bit RAW that gives the most amount of colors. See my RAW vs JPEG article for more details on why you should be shooting RAW.

4.3) Camera Mode

As I have already pointed out above, you must be shooting in full manual mode. This means that you need to turn off Auto ISO first, then set aperture to the maximum aperture like f/1.4, then the length of the exposure / shutter speed based on the 500 or 600 rule (typically between 20 to 30 seconds), followed by ISO (which I would set to 1600 as the base and move it up or down if needed). If you cannot clearly see the Milky Way in your shot after you take your first shot, you will need to raise ISO to a higher value like 3200 or more. Since you are shooting RAW, white balance does not matter.

5) Foreground Elements and Composition

While capturing a shot of the Milky Way as shown in the beginning of this article can be rewarding, it is often boring to just shoot the Milky Way by itself. The best thing to do for these types of shots is to incorporate interesting foreground elements into your shots. Whether it is a beautiful mountain, a surreal lake, a rock or some other interesting object, it will surely make the photo much more appealing to the viewer’s eye. These shots can be hard to plan and require some prior research to determine the location of the Milky Way but, if you get it all right, all that effort will surely pay off. If you are blessed with a beautiful moonlight that illuminates your subject(s), you might come back with killer pictures that will surely deserve a place on your wall. While I personally have not experimented a lot with night photography, I am definitely planning on doing it more going forward, because it gives a very different and refreshing look to images. Here is a picture that I captured a couple of years back of Maroon Bells, taken at night:

Maroon Bells at Night

While the Milky Way is not seen above the mountain tops, it is still pretty incredible that the shot was taken at night. The whole scene was illuminated just by moonlight! If you look closely, you will see that the stars are slightly trailed – that’s because I broke the 500 / 600 Rule with a 30 second exposure @ 29mm. I did that because I wanted a single shot that captured both the sky and the scenery and I wanted to shoot at lower ISO value (800) to get the best dynamic range, colors and least amount of noise. I also stopped down the 24-70mm f/2.8G lens that I used that day to f/3.2 to get a little sharper corners.

Here is a great shot by our very own Tom Redd, who spent a night at the Arches National Park in Moab, UT and captured the Milky Way with the window arch and other shapes as the foreground elements:

Arches Night Sky by Tom Redd

Tom had a good exposure of 15 seconds using the Nikon 28mm f/1.8G lens @ f/2, ISO 1600 and as you can see, the Milky Way is seen well after I brought out the details in Photoshop.

6) Post-Processing

Post-processing is a big part of astrophotography, because your camera will capture a low-contrast sky that needs some work. This means that you will need to play with different settings to bring out the details, increase contrast and colors. Take a quick look at the before and after shots of the first image above:

Before and After

The picture on the left is what the camera captured and the picture on the right is what I made it after some adjustments in Photoshop. Hard to believe that so much more detail can be brought out from images, but it actually did not take me long to do that. All I did was change white balance towards blues, then opened up the “Levels” tool in Photoshop and changed the sliders a bit to increase contrast and bring out the missing details:

Photoshop Levels

You can achieve similar results by playing with the Curves panel in Lightroom – just experiment a little and you can make some drastic changes to your images. Once you are done, resize the image to the resolution you want, sharpen it up a tad (but don’t overdo it) and you should be good to go!

Hope this article gives some guidance to those who want to experiment with photographing the stars and the Milky Way. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask below in the comments section and I will do my best to share more of what I know!

Comments

  1. 1
    ) Sören
    March 27, 2014 at 3:00 am

    The Samyang 14 mm is also a good idea for this. Just as a note as it wasn’t mentioned.
    Kind regards! Sören

    • March 27, 2014 at 8:07 am

      Soren, agreed. I have read and heard that the Samyang 14mm f/2.8 as well as the 24mm f/1.4 are both excellent for astrophotography. They’re manual focus lenses but are also a fraction of the cost of Nikon or Canon equivalents. I also understand that they handle coma better than many lenses. Lastly, DxO mark just did a review of the Samyang 24/1.4, the Nikon 24/1.4 and the Zeiss Distagon 25/2 and the results showed the Samyang held its own quite nicely against the big boys. The manual focus is a non issue for astrophotography.

      • 37
        ) Paul
        March 28, 2014 at 3:53 pm

        I own 14mm and 35mm Samyangs. I feel I got Patek Philippes at Seiko prices.

  2. 2
    ) Elijah
    March 27, 2014 at 3:24 am

    I’ve tried the google app but couldn’t seem to find milky way … which constellation should we be pointing at?

    • 22
      ) Ben
      March 27, 2014 at 3:16 pm

      I have the same question either :-) I just cannot finde the way to find the position of Milky Way.

      Thanks for posting this Nasim

      • March 28, 2014 at 3:39 pm

        Guys, just download this free software:

        http://www.stellarium.org

        Then:

        1 – Press F6 and set your location
        2 – Press F4 and change Milky way Brightness to a higher value.
        3 – Change time accordingly and you’ll be able to see where you have to point your camera.

        • 52
          ) Newman
          May 25, 2014 at 1:49 am

          Fantastic program!
          Thanks!

    • Avatar of buzzrk
      42
      ) buzzrk
      April 2, 2014 at 2:14 pm

      Try Scorpius or Saggitarius.

      Antares is at the right edge
      Shaula is right in the center.

    • 43
      ) SteveL
      April 2, 2014 at 7:13 pm

      If you have a smart phone, get the “Star Walk” App. Two versions, one for free, the other runs around $2.99 The free one does the job. Other Apps work in the same way. Show where stars, the Milky Way, planets, satellites are and when. Even allows you to go forward in time to a chosen day to see how things will be. Star Walk even has “red screen” mode to protect your night vision.

    • 69
      ) bob
      August 22, 2014 at 7:13 pm

      The Milky Way is easy to see if you’re in a relatively dark area on a summer night. It stretches from northeast to southeast. Just look up, you can’t miss it!

  3. March 27, 2014 at 3:34 am

    Thanks for posting this!

    It seems infinitely easier than when I was dragging my 17″ Newtonian and a generator around in the back of a pick-up truck out into the middle of God knows where. And most likely much more fun too!

  4. March 27, 2014 at 4:29 am

    Great article as usual Nasim.

    I have a unanswered question that’s been bothering me for a long time. What is it considered to be the 100% viewing of the LCD? Is it when we zoom in all the way trough?

    Best regards,
    Gabriel

    • 8
      ) Marieke
      March 27, 2014 at 5:21 am

      I believe it means to zoom in on the live view display, yes. On my Canon dslr I can use the zoom +/- buttons in live view to zoom in to the actual size (aka, 100% zoom). This way it’s very easy to see if you’re in focus.

      • March 27, 2014 at 6:10 am

        Thanks for the reply Marieke!

        Sorry if I seem dumb, but do I have to press the + zoom button to its limit? Cause when I do so the image is all “pixelated”.

        • 11
          ) AK
          March 27, 2014 at 7:00 am

          Not to the last level of zoom, Gabriel. In my Nikon D90, I’ll go all the way to the final stop and press ‘-’ four times and thats the 100% zoom. I don’t know if thats the same with all Nikon cameras. Pro bodies have one pinch to 100% option which the others don’t.

        • Avatar of ricardovaz
          12
          ) ricardovaz
          March 27, 2014 at 7:18 am

          When you are reviewing your images on the preview, if you hit 8x the + button you will get the 100%. For focusing purposes, use live view and then press + to the maximum level of zoom and focus manualy.

          • March 27, 2014 at 3:23 pm

            :)
            Thank you guys, I think I got it now.
            This weekend would be a great opportunity to try my first milky way shot, but weather isn’t my friend right now.

  5. Avatar of ricardovaz
    5
    ) ricardovaz
    March 27, 2014 at 4:30 am

    Indded, the samyang is one of the most used lenses for night photog (thats what most people say), but sample variations could be tricky. Great article Nassim, I’m still trying to get the courage to drive some hours to take a good milky way photo.

    • Avatar of ricardovaz
      6
      ) ricardovaz
      March 27, 2014 at 4:30 am

      Indeed*

  6. 7
    ) Sid
    March 27, 2014 at 4:42 am

    Much awaited article Nasim! I’m looking forward for more articles on astrophotography using DSLRs.

  7. 10
    ) craig
    March 27, 2014 at 6:57 am

    I havnt been able to get a milky way shot yet, but like to try night sky shots. Ill get one someday! Btw, for crop sensor folks, id recommend the tokina 11-16 f/2.8

    • 68
      ) Keith
      August 21, 2014 at 12:13 pm

      I second that.
      I got my first milky way shots last weekend and was blown away – using my Tokina 11-16 f/2.8 and Canon 70D.

  8. 13
    ) Mike B
    March 27, 2014 at 7:37 am

    This is a great article and timely for me as I have been getting into star shot photography over this winter , I am lucky in that light pollution problem which we all have to surmount is in my part of the country (England/Wales border) is about as good as it gets in the UK, but I do use some of the light pollution from a local town to my advantage, the residual light can be used to highlight as in my case the ridge and the trees on the skyline in the far distance, weather (especially over here this winter) and the moon being the other factors to consider.

    I have managed to get reasonable milky way photographs and also night shots using my Nikon D600 with a Nikon F4 16-35mm lens, I use 20 or 25 sec exposures and up to ISO 3200, I do have a Nikon 24mm F2.8 but prefer the wider angle 16-35mm, the processing after is critical and that is one area that this article will really help me. The photo’s feature on my website under New Works and Colorado 2014.

    On the subject of the D600, today it will arrive back after a second visit to Nikon for the dust issue, thanks to your earlier article I was alerted whilst out in Colorado that I could return it for another free cleanup, actually despite the 1200 miles covered on our ski and photo trip the dust issue was not so severe as the initial return 12 months previously. Dust/oil spots not a problem when it comes to star photography.

    PS Thanks to all those friendly locals that my wife and myself met on our travels around Colorado, if only we could come back more often.

    • March 27, 2014 at 7:59 am

      Mike, we’re glad you enjoyed your visit to Colorado and you are always welcome to return for another one!

  9. 16
    ) Victor Cheng
    March 27, 2014 at 9:11 am

    Great write-up Nasim. Looking forward to putting these tips to good use.
    It’ll be interesting to see how the X100s handles astrophotography compared to the D600.

  10. 17
    ) James Utter
    March 27, 2014 at 9:12 am

    Some of the astrophoto literature suggests using a red filter on your flashlight to help maintain night vision. Some small LED flashlight com with a red filter.

  11. 18
    ) Neil
    March 27, 2014 at 9:58 am

    There’s a whole world of astrophotography. Wide field is by far the easiest. Although wide field for photographers is very different from AP. Anything less than a 900mm focal length is essentially wide field in AP.

    If you really want to get quality shots of wide-wide field (such as with 14-28mm length lenses). You’ll want to get something like the Vixen Polarie and do image stacking. Then use a tool like PixInsight or Nebulosity. Capturing dark frames, bias frames, and light frames to handle vignetting and dust. Post processing is a bear to get a real good image. what you’re looking to do is stretch the histogram. It usually takes multiple passes of stretching to get it right plus some additional post processing.

    • 19
      ) Neil
      March 27, 2014 at 10:02 am

      Oh, a tip, a redhancer filter can bring out a bit of nebulosity and tone down a tiny bit of light pollution. LP is unfortunately a menace on society. People are too afraid of the dark and waste billions in lighting and energy. A Canon 60Da is a great camera to use for easy AP. The low pass filter doesn’t cut off as much Ha emissions which makes for a greater range of sensitivity. Although you can have other cameras modified.

      Like a said, a whole world of AP out there.

  12. 20
    ) Keith R. Starkey
    March 27, 2014 at 10:08 am

    Great article, Nasim. Thanks much!!

  13. March 27, 2014 at 3:01 pm

    great article!!!
    i found a really good light pollution map
    http://www.blue-marble.de/nightlights/2012

  14. March 27, 2014 at 6:29 pm

    I don’t think anyone mentioned this software before:

    http://www.stellarium.org/

    It’s free and you can simulate the nightsky. But I think there is no mobile version available so it’s only a good solution at home or if you bring your laptop with you. I love this software!

    Greetings from Bolivia (leaving to the Salar de Uyuni tomorrow :-) )

    Oliver

    • 31
      ) Neil
      March 28, 2014 at 1:40 pm

      Stellarium is a good package and there is a version for iOS. But it’s kinda clunky. Astrophotographers generally go with Sky Safari from Southern Stars to both view the ephemeris and guide/plan the scope movements.

  15. 25
    ) Vipul Kapadia
    March 27, 2014 at 6:47 pm

    Nasim,
    Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge with us. Your write-up is easy to follow and these are the steps that I needed. This is what I have been wishing to do for a long time but wasn’t able to do due lack of to technical knowledge on how to do this. This is perfect!

  16. 26
    ) John Taylor
    March 27, 2014 at 7:58 pm

    Thanks Nasim,
    Good timing with your article, as I am off with my camera club for a night shoot on Monday. Weather forecast is not good, but maybe we will get lucky. I am a keen follower of your site. Your article covers all the key points and certainly gives even a “raw” beginner enough info to get started. Regards, John

  17. 27
    ) Tom
    March 27, 2014 at 10:41 pm

    Nasim, a very nice article. Thanks!

    I’m very curious, though, about your Maroon Bells photo. With all due respect, Nasim, I have a hard time believing that this photo was taken at night. Looking at the photo ( which is very, very pretty by the way), that is just not physically possible. The illumination of the scene looks identical to mid-day light, especially with the hard shadows and reflections. If this was a long exposure, and it does not appear so, then the details in the reflections would be blurred from the smoothing effect of water on a long exposure. I just don’t see how moon light can give this type of illumination, especially the colors that we see here. I mean, those are daylight colors! Was this image made by Photoshopping a daylight photo to artificially include the star trails?

    • March 28, 2014 at 12:32 am

      Tom, I know it is hard to believe, but the image is real – it was taken in moonlight only. And I have an NEF file to prove it :) When a scene is lit with a full moon, you get very similar shadows as the ones you would get from the sun. The water is not blurred, because there was no wind. Actually, if you look closely, it is a little blurred, but not as much to make it look distracting. It was a 30 second exposure, a single frame. I obviously worked on the shot in post, saturated colors, sharpened up, etc. But it is 100% real, without any sort of exposure blending/image stacking. You can look at the image’s EXIF data and you will find all the relevant exposure information, along with the time the picture was taken (12:26:02 AM). Also, if you look at the reflection, you will find reflections of bright stars there too. Trust me, I don’t have that much skill in Photoshop to fake all that :)

    • 34
      ) SteveL
      March 28, 2014 at 2:12 pm

      Tom, it is indeed possible. Something like 35 years back I did it with color print film. I know it was Kodak, but I don’t recall the speed. I shot a scene of a Tipi (Teepee?) with a campfire illuminating it from the inside and a full moon lit scene in the Santa Cruz mountains of CA. Best negative was with a 12 minute long exposure, probably @ f16. Reciprocity failure caused red shift counteracted the blueish moonlight so it printed up looking like high noon with some faint star trails and some reddish discoloration from town lights at the horizon. Remember, moonlight is just reflected sunlight.

    • 39
      ) DavidB
      March 29, 2014 at 6:33 pm

      “…The illumination of the scene looks identical to mid-day light, especially with the hard shadows and reflections…

      Because moon light is reflected sunlight it has the same color balance — so with a long enough exposure a night shot will look just like a daytime shot — except there will be stars visible.

      DavidB

  18. 29
    ) Dyanko
    March 28, 2014 at 6:07 am

    Hi Nasim and thank you for the great article!
    I didn’t know about the 500/600 rule so as a M43 shooter I’d like to know if I have to take the crop factor in consideration. When I take for example a 12mm lens do I have to multiply this value with 2 before making the final exposure calculations?
    Thanks!

    • 47
      ) Aaron Priest
      April 29, 2014 at 11:18 pm

      Dyanko, yes, just divide 500 by your focal length, and then again by your crop factor, to get the exposure time in seconds. For a Nikon DSLR the crop factor is 1.5, with Canon DSLRs it is 1.6. I believe the 4/3 system has a crop factor of 2. So, for example, if you owned an Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 lens, then 500/12/2=20 seconds.

  19. 30
    ) Alex
    March 28, 2014 at 12:36 pm

    Hey Nasim great article!
    I would like know if you (or anyone else), could recommend a good E-mount lens for shooting the stars… I’ve been looking at the Sony 35mm f/1.8 Prime Lens. Would this be a good choice?
    Thanks

    • 32
      ) Neil
      March 28, 2014 at 1:43 pm

      It all depends on what you’re trying to accomplish? Star Trails? super wide field nebula? stars + landscape? stars/galaxy only? Rule of thumb: always stop the lens down one full stop no matter what you get. Rule #2: review this site: http://www.astropix.com/HTML/I_ASTROP/TOC_AP.HTM

      • 35
        ) Alex
        March 28, 2014 at 2:15 pm

        Thanks for the advice.

  20. 33
    ) Fabio
    March 28, 2014 at 1:48 pm

    One of the best tutorials I’ve read about the Milk Way. Fav’ed!

    Thanks for sharing, Nasim!

  21. 38
    ) Phil Smith
    March 29, 2014 at 11:13 am

    Excellent article, very informative! Thank you.

  22. 40
    ) Fatkhulla
    March 30, 2014 at 8:21 pm

    Nasim,
    An inspiring photo!
    One of my dreams is to photograph a distance galaxy, such as Andromeda. Do you think it would be possible to reproduce the below photograph, and if so, would you be able to comment what kind of gear would be required?

    http://jamescastelliphotography.blogspot.com/2005/10/andromeda-galaxy.html
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eqA8oaklH4c&feature=player_embedded
    Thanks!
    Fatkhulla

  23. 41
    ) Pedro Simoes
    April 1, 2014 at 7:27 am

    Hi Nasim,

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge on the matter, “non-serious”/amateur astrophotography can indeed be pretty fun! And the best part is pretty much anyone can do it without going into all the impressive – and intimidating – technical stuff of more serious AP.

    There is one aspect you didn’t mention though: we should always disable vibration reduction, right? Or is it irrelevant? I’ve read elsewhere that VR can cause blurring sometimes when using tripods, but never referring to AP so I’m not sure it’s an issue.

    Best regards,
    Pedro

  24. 44
    ) Ajith R
    April 8, 2014 at 12:02 am

    I shot MilkyWay @ Arches National Park.
    The photos are at
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/ajithraj/sets/72157635420231511/

    I used the Andriod App “Planets” to find the Galaxy
    https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=org.qcontinuum.planets

    ISO:3200
    Shutter : 30s
    Aperture : 2.8f
    Focal Length: 14-24 mm
    VR Off.
    Camera: D800E

    • 53
      ) Rich R
      June 19, 2014 at 7:48 am

      Nice pics! – Having the settings is a plus too. Bookmarked the pics.

  25. Avatar of Debopriyo
    45
    ) Debopriyo
    April 19, 2014 at 2:03 am

    hey nasim first of all love your blog and thanks for this beautiful article but there is just one request, could you give us a complete guide on how to shoot the aurora borealis..if you can it would be greatly appreciated and love from india..:)

    • 51
      ) Hei Lung
      May 23, 2014 at 1:47 pm

      The tough part is getting far enough North for the Borealis, or far enough South for the Aurealis. At 45 degrees north in Wisconsin we would get some good shows. On my trips above the Arctic Circle, and in the Beaufort Sea, the show is Spectacular. A good camera and a fast lens is all you really need, as the exposures do not have to be very long. My film shots with slow film were not great. Hei Lung

  26. 46
    ) John H
    April 21, 2014 at 8:34 pm

    A late addition for finding good night photo locations:
    http://www.jshine.net/astronomy/dark_sky/

  27. 48
    ) Aaron Priest
    April 29, 2014 at 11:41 pm

    Great article Nasim! I’d like to add a few tips that I share when teaching my night photography workshops:

    1. As others have mentioned, Rokinon/Samyang/Bower 14mm f/2.8 and 24mm f/1.4 manual focus lenses are great for night photography and relatively cheap. The coma of stars is very, very good with those two models. Nikon’s 14-24mm f/2.8 is still the overall best night photography lens in my opinion, in fact many Canon shooters buy adapters to use it for landscape astrophotography. Canon’s 16-35mm f/2.8 is also a fine lens. We recommend attendees rent one of those four lenses if possible for a workshop.

    2. John H’s comment about the light pollution map is a good one. http://www.jshine.net/astronomy/dark_sky/

    3. White balance doesn’t matter much if you shoot RAW, but it is still helpful to set a manual white balance of around 3450 – 3570°K for night photography to get accurate reviews on your LCD. Also, turning down the brightness of the LCD helps a lot when reviewing images.

    4. Taping the focus and zoom rings on the lens helps after you have found infinity focus if you aren’t planning on doing any focus stacking. It prevents you from bumping the focus or zoom while moving around and recomposing, or especially when attaching some hand warmers or a dew heater with rubber bands for longer timelapses. Be careful to use easy to remove tape like masking tape or frog tape so you don’t damage the finish of the lens.

    5. I disable high ISO noise reduction because it doesn’t get applied to RAW files anyway and Lightroom does a better job, as do other plugins. However long exposure noise reduction will help a lot with hot pixels and I highly recommend enabling it. It will double your exposure time of course as the photo gets taken again a second time with the shutter closed to calculate and remove hot pixels from the image. For panoramas and timelapses this does not work well and wastes a lot of time, as well as causes gaps in star trails if you stack later. Another way to deal with hot pixels is to shoot one dark frame at the same time of night and ambient temperature (very important, shooting a dark frame the next day in the afternoon won’t be as effective) by keeping the same ISO and shutter speed, but choosing an aperture of f/22 and putting your lens cap on to be sure you are shooting nothing but hot pixels. Then you can apply the dark frame to all the other RAW files with Pixel Fixer (www.pixelfixer.org) before importing into Lightroom or editing with another program. This will save you a great deal of time shooting in the field at night.

    6. Star trails don’t have to be pointed to the north star. You’ll get circles if you point directly at the north star, and you’ll get diagonal lines if you point perpendicular to it. Both achieve great results depending on your composition, particularly if you blend back in the Milky Way from a separate layer in Photoshop. Here is an example: http://galleries.aaronpriestphoto.com/Night/Bold-Coast-Cutler-Maine/i-Mtf9jzG/A

    7. You mentioned a future, separate article on star trails, but lots of people ask at workshops what is the easiest method to stack photos? I typically recommend StarStaX because it is free and easy to use for your first star trails image. I prefer Star Circle Academy’s Advanced Stacker Plus if you want to do more.

  28. 49
    ) Hei Lung
    May 23, 2014 at 1:36 pm

    A while ago I bolted my Nikon F with a 105mm lens, to my Newtonian telescope, to employ the clock drive, and aimed it at the Orion constellation for about a minute or so, and the Nebulas came through great. My daughter got an ‘A’ on her report. After reading these posts, now I’m going to try it with my D800 and 70-200 f1.4, if it clears up before Orion is gone.
    Hei Lung

  29. 50
    ) Hei Lung
    May 23, 2014 at 1:38 pm

    It’s an f2.8.
    Hei Lung

  30. 54
    ) Vee Nabs
    June 27, 2014 at 10:26 pm

    Thanks, Nasim ! This is such a great article! Now I have to scout for a location where there’s no light pollution.

  31. 55
    ) thierry
    July 3, 2014 at 3:08 pm

    i tried it and worked almost good, light pollution screwed it a bit.
    But how do you focus?
    i was on a moonless night, and when getting my live view to 100% i couldn’t see anything stars are too small to see if they are in focus or not, so i tried to hyperfocal, but didn’t get good results
    was using D600 and 24-70 at 24 and f2.8
    any better tips for focusing when the moon is not available?

    • 56
      ) Aaron Priest
      July 3, 2014 at 5:13 pm

      I look for a bright planet like Jupiter in the viewfinder and get it more or less centered, then switch to live view. You have to zoom in at least 5x or so to see any stars in live view. Once you pan around a bit in the center you’ll usually find Jupiter, Venus, Sirius, Vega, etc. and then you can zoom in again to 10x to adjust your focus. I rotate the focus ring back and forth until I get it as small a pixel as possible, then tape the focus ring down for the night, the zoom ring as well if it’s not a prime lens. Also, changing your focal length will often change your focus slightly on most lenses, so adjust for the focal length you’ll be shooting instead of zooming in to set focus. ;-)

  32. 57
    ) John H
    July 3, 2014 at 5:23 pm

    To extend Aaron’s advice, a related approach is to set your lens to infinity during the day and (as Aaron said), tape the lens focus in place (gaffers tape, etc.).

  33. 58
    ) thierry
    July 5, 2014 at 11:50 am

    thanks for the info, heading in the mountains next week, will try again!

  34. 59
    ) Hei Lung
    July 7, 2014 at 1:28 pm

    Use Your Telescope Clock Drive
    Some time ago I bought an extra ring for my 8″ Newtonian telescope. Then I bolted on my Nikon F with Kodachrome 64 film, and the 105 lens. My Daughter got an A+ for the stunning Orion Nebulas, and nearby stars for her Science Report. Thanks for a great article. Now I’ll try stuff with my D800.
    Hei Lung

  35. 60
    ) Seyed Ali Hoseinifar
    July 7, 2014 at 5:43 pm

    Hi my freind
    I am Seyed Ali From Iran
    Thank you very much, I always study photographylife’s new articles
    I have a Question :
    for long exposure (A bout 30 second – a few minute ) if noise reduction for long exposure in camera was turn On, after expose camera will take long time for doing Noise Reduction…what is your opinion about Turn Off camera Noise Reduction and do noise reduction in Lightroom?
    Thank you

    • 61
      ) Aaron Priest
      July 8, 2014 at 7:47 am

      High ISO noise reduction and long exposure noise reduction aren’t the same thing. High ISO noise reduction won’t apply to RAW files, only JPEGs, so that can be disabled and done with Lightroom. Long exposure noise reduction takes a second photo afterward at the same shutter speed with the shutter closed to capture just hot pixels, and then removes them from the first exposure. Some cameras need this more than others depending on the age of the sensor and the pixel density, as well as the length of your exposure. My D700 has taken over 214,500 photos, and many of them 30+ seconds of the night sky, so that sensor has a lot of hours on it! I get an insane amount of hot pixels, even with 4 second exposure! However, a friend’s brand new D610 has hardly any hot pixels with a 30 second exposure, so he doesn’t use long exposure noise reduction. When I’m shooting a timelapse or night panorama and I can’t afford the time for long exposure reduction (because of the gap in time between photos for star trails or stitching panos), I disable long exposure noise reduction and shoot a single dark frame at f/22 with the lens cap on for every ISO / shutter speed combination I shot that night. I’ll then apply this dark frame of only hot pixels to all my other photos with PixelFixer’s batch program on the RAW files (free program) before importing into Lightroom. It is almost as good as the built in long exposure noise reduction and saves me time shooting in the field when I’m taking more than a single photo for the night at a consistent ISO and shutter speed. It’s important to shoot the dark frame at the same ambient temperature as the rest of the shots for accurate hot pixels, taking it the next morning will probably get you too many hot pixels at a warmer temperature.

      • 62
        ) Seyed Ali Hoseinifar
        July 8, 2014 at 4:55 pm

        Mr Aaron Priest Thank you very much. your response to me was very very useful.

  36. Avatar of hyunwoo lee
    63
    ) hyunwoo lee
    July 23, 2014 at 10:31 pm

    Thanks for great lessons & skpmap app!

  37. 64
    ) Juan Garza
    August 11, 2014 at 10:11 pm

    I will be going on my first Milky Way shooting in a few weeks. I just purchased the 16-28mm tokina for my Nikon D600. I far away do I have to be away from light pollution? or can some light pollution be a good thing? Also, at what time of the night is it best to shoot the milyway? I am assuming it all depends where you are located, I am in MN, but is there an app that can help determine the best time of night? Any other helpful tips would be appreciated. The article was also very helpful. Thanks

    • 65
      ) Aaron Priest
      August 12, 2014 at 4:29 am

      For Milky Way shots, the less light pollution, the better. Also, best to shoot when there is a new moon or when it is at least 18° below horizon. If you have an iPhone, PhotoPills is one of the best apps for finding date, time, and direction to shoot the Milky Way, particularly the photogenic “galactic core”: http://www.photopills.com/tutorials/how-plan-milky-way-using-2d-map-centric-planner

  38. 66
    ) Rich Rosenbaum
    August 12, 2014 at 8:13 am

    try this site http://cleardarksky.com/csk/

    also, there are plenty of apps available…. for a desktop Stellarium, and I really like Ksy Safari for IOS

    • 67
      ) Rich Rosenbaum
      August 12, 2014 at 8:14 am

      whoops…. Sky Safari for IOS

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