Milky Way, Little Crater Lake, OR. 30" exposure, f2.8, ISO 1600, 20mm, Nikon D810.

Taking Photos of the Milky Way Is Easy

No, really, it is. Let me tell you how


While my wife and I are in the midst of deciding if we’re going camping for a year or two, we thought we should take a long weekend and go camp. So this last weekend, we packed up our car and drove to the woods.

The last night we were there, I went out to take some photos of the Milky Way — including the one you see above. It’s easily one of my favorite things to do in photography. What I didn’t know until a year or two ago is how easy it is to do. Really.

Let me give you the basics.

Gear

To take a photo of the Milky Way, you’ll need:

  1. A Camera with a Manual Control
    Any modern DSLR will do. Does it have a mode on the dial called M? That’s what you need. The nicer the camera, the nicer the photo. But don’t let not having a professional camera stop you.
  2. A Tripod
    Duh. Again, literally any tripod will do. Just as long as it keeps your camera steady for 30 seconds, you’re set.
  3. A Dark Place
    The further from the city, the better. Make a weekend out of it and go sleep in the woods. Oh, and bring a flashlight or a headlamp.
  4. A Fancy Lens (Optional)
    While a higher quality lens will allow you to take better photos, these photos can be accomplished with just about any lens. Having said that, the wider the better. 35mm is about as zoomed as you’d like to be. The above photo was shot with a 20mm f/2.8 lens.
  5. A Remote Trigger for Your Camera (Optional)
    Not needed at all for photos of the Milky Way, but it’s the only way to get star trail photos.
We were camping 70 miles by car outside of Portland, OR and even then, this was the light pollution from Portland. 30" exposure, f2.8, ISO 1600, 20mm, Nikon D810.

Taking the Shot

So you’ve made it out of the city, it’s late, you’ve got a tripod, a camera with manual controls, and you’re ready to go. Now what? How do you frame your shot, what settings do you use, what are the best practices for taking the photo?

Timing
Paying attention to the time of year that you’re going. The position of the Milky Way in the sky changes all the time. The best months to shoot the Milky Way — so you’ll have Galactic Center in the photos instead of just the tail — are March to October.

You’ll also want to pay attention to the phases of the moon. Around a new moon is the best time to shoot because the stars are brightest.

The Settings
Now is the time to get a baseline setting. Turn your camera to manual mode and turn off auto-focus.

Set your F-stop to the lowest number you have, whether that be f/1.4, f/2.8, or f/3.5. The lower the number, the more light that will be let in during the photo and the better it will turn out.

Set your focus to ∞. (Make sure that it’s correctly on ∞, and not past it, or you’ll get a blurry image and hate yourself. Not that I have any experience in with that sort of situation.)

You’ll want to shoot 30" exposures — Anything longer and you’ll start to see the movement of the stars. Which is pretty awesome if you think about it for a minute. But doesn’t make for great photos.

Framing the Shot
Manually set your ISO to the highest setting possible. Yes, the photos you’re about to take are going to be grainy, awful photos. That’s cool.

Once your settings are right, take a three to five second exposure and check how your shot is framed up.

See what I mean? Horrible. 3" exposure, f1.4, ISO 51200, 35mm, Nikon D810.

When you’re happy with the framing of the shot, set you ISO back down to a reasonable level for your camera. (I usually start at ISO 1600 and change as needed.)

Editing The Shot

Now that you’ve taken all sorts of photos, you need to edit them.

There are a lot of subtle things you can do to make sure your image is treated best. Instead of typing them all up, you should just watch this 9 minute YouTube video.

Now What?

I dunno, maybe show all your friends your photos? Take more of them? The world is your oyster. You could even write a Medium post about it promoting one of your projects.

These photos were taken for September’s edition of Wallpaper.Supply, a monthly 5k wallpaper club. $5/month, two new 5k wallpapers a month, delivered straight to your inbox. If you liked this article, please consider becoming a member.

Daniel Fitzgerald is a portrait photographer based in Portland, Oregon. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.


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