Capturing the Milky Way

January 30, 2019  •  3 Comments

DSC_6596DSC_6596 So you would like to capture the Milky Way in a nightscape shot.


It’s not as hard as you may think. You will need a camera with a good response to high ISO (pretty much all new DSLRs). A wide angle lens that’s quite fast. f3.5 seems to be the standard now but if you can get an f2.8 or even an f1.4, that would be better. A good tripod and a remote release for the camera are also necessary.  Next you need to find a fairly good dark sky, if you can easily see the Milky Way from your shooting location when the moon is not up you will be in the right place.  For most people that will require a drive of between 30 minutes to several hours. Some are lucky enough to be able to shoot from their own back yard but not many.


The first step is to become familiar with your camera without the need to turn on the lights. You will need your dark adaption to make sure you centre the Milky Way in your field of view. If you must use a light try to make it a red one as that won’t affect the dark adaption as much. You will probably want to change the camera to M manual, that way you’re in control of everything. Then select a fairly high ISO on the camera say 1600 to start with then put the wide angle lens on the camera body. Turn off the Auto Focus then set the aperture as low as it can go.  Set the exposure time to 30 seconds to start with. Next you need to focus the lens. If you have Live View, turn it on and focus on a distant light, if you’re in suburbia look around the horizon for a street light. If you’re in the country and away from lights look up and find the brightest star you can see. Use the zoom function on the display while in live view until you can see the light easily. Rotate the focus ring till the light is crisp, your now ready. If you don’t have live view on your camera you can set the camera to infinity and take a shot of the star or distant light. Once the image comes up on the display, zoom in and see if the light is in focus. If not slightly rotate the focus ring and try again. It may take a few minutes to get the focus right but once done you’re ready to start shooting.

Connect the remote release and try your first shot by centring on a bright part of the Milky Way.  Presto you have taken your first shot of the Milky Way.


Now you have a few questions about things I bet. I will try to answer them now for you.


How long do I expose my image for?

That will depend on the look you want to achieve. Since this is capture the Milky Way I will assume you’re not taking a star trail shot. you’re looking for the effect of the Milky Way looking like a NASA shot with some tree’s or a hill in the foreground like the shot displayed at the top of the post. The best way to estimate the exposure time is to use the rule of 500. The rule is divide the focal  length of the lens into 500. For a full frame camera the calculation is simple. Say you’re shooting with a 20mm lens, the exposure time will be 500 divided by 20. The Answer is 25 which is the number of seconds you can expose the image before the stars start to trail. A shot taken longer than 25 seconds with a 20mm  lens will show the stars as little lines, any time shorter than 25 seconds the stars will appear as points on the image. Most DSLRs on the market are a crop sensor, Nikon is 1.5x and Canon is 1.6x. To make the calculation correct you must also account for the crop factor. The example about is for a 20mm lens so the calculation will be 20mm x1.5(crop sensor factor for a Nikon) =30.  The final part of the calculation is 500 / 30 creates an exposure time of 16.7 seconds. If your a Nikon User the Crop factor is 1.5 and for Canon the factor is1.6.


How do get the foreground to be illuminated?

It’s called light painting and can be done in a variety of ways. I have used an iPhone to illuminate the image shown above. Whatever light you use try to make sure it’s not a cool blue style light source like an LED. Halogen globes are excellent so a small Maglite is great or a dolphin torch. Once you start the exposure make sure you constantly move the light. It’s like painting the light across the foreground interest. It does look better if you evenly illuminate the entire foreground but you may have your own idea.

i have also discovered the advantages of a very fast lens. The Sigma 20mm f1.4 Art is amazing t capturing both the sky and foreground. 


Why does the Milky Way look faint on my photo?

You haven’t processed it yet. The best advice I can give you how to process your Milky Way shots is to tell you to watch this video. This is an easy to follow step by step introduction to making your Milky Way images POP.


When do I know it’s ok to go out and shoot the Milky Way?

Most people don’t know the night sky very well and so working out when to go out to shoot can be difficult. This item can be a big help to you it’s a Planisphere and can tell you when the Milky Way is rising, overhead or setting for every day of the year. They are easy to use and quite economical to purchase.  For the Southern hemisphere the Milky Way rises in the early evening during Autumn, is Overhead during winter and is setting during Spring.


Can I take shots with a larger lens like a 50mm or a 200mm?

Yes you can but you still need to apply the rule of 500. A good 50mm lens like an f1.4 will have an exposure time of 12 seconds before trailing occurs. With the wider aperture at f1.4 you are 2 stops wider than a f2.8 lens so the shorter exposure time still works out. Images with this set up can look truly amazing. The second image shows the effect you can achieve with a 50mm lens.  When you take a telephoto lens like a 200mm f2.8 lens your exposure time is down to 3 seconds. having said that you can get results by taking your ISO up to 3200 for instance. Camera shake can become an issue it that magnification so make sure your tripod is very sturdy, use the timer setting on the camera and use the Mirror up function if you have it. The movement of the mirror can add a vibration to the camera which will be visible in a 200mm lens. The 3rd image shows the effect of a 200mm lens centred on a bright patch of the Milky Way near the Southern Cross.


Will this work for other parts of the sky?

Yes you can use the details described here to capture any part of the night sky. Some great areas to capture away from the bright Milky Way would be the Large and Small Magellanic clouds, the constellation of Orion and the area around Pegasus and Andromeda. you can also try to capture a distant storm with the stars surrounding the clouds.


If you have any other questions about how to capture the Milky Way please send me a message.

Until next time Clear Skies.



Ridoy Ahmad(non-registered)
I like your article Internet marketing very much. Thank you for sharing this work. Can I keep my blog site link on your blog site?
Muzza .......(non-registered)
Great information Andrew and should certainly give the best results.
Ian at Killarney Vale(non-registered)
Great article Andrew. Thank you for sharing your expertise.
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