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How to Photograph the Milky Way

Have you ever tried to photograph the Milky Way with your DSLR camera?  It’s no secret that your digital camera can record much more light than our eyes can see.

The ability of modern cameras to produce stunning pictures of the Milky Way galaxy has resulted in a boom in amateur DSLR astrophotography.

Milky Way Processing in Photoshop

By combining dark skies and some basic image processing in Photoshop, you can create a stunning portrait of our home galaxy in the night sky.

For me, the most enjoyable part about these images is seeing the individual nebulae and star clusters throughout the galaxy.  The Lagoon Nebula, Trifid Nebula and more can all be seen in glowing pink in Sagittarius.

This photo was taken using a Canon EOS 7D DSLR Camera on a tripod:

How to photograph the Milky Way

Single 30 Second Exposure – DSLR Camera on Tripod

How to find it

It might sound like a silly question, as our own Solar System is located inside of the Milky Way galaxy.  However, certain areas of the Milky Way spiral are concentrated in the night sky at certain times of the year. The galactic core is the most interesting area of the galactic plane, and what most photographers are hoping to capture.

The galactic core is the most concentrated area of stars in the galactic plane, and what most photographers are hoping to capture.  Knowing where and when to look will help you to plan your photo session.

I use an app for my Android smartphone called Stellarium, which will tell you exactly where everything in the night sky will be on any given night.  Stellarium is a handy mobile planetarium that is easy to use.  Whether you are planning a Milky Way shot or a deep-sky imaging project, this app can save you time and frustration.

Stellarium for Android

Stellarium for iPhone

I regularly use Stellarium on my PC to plan an imaging session, but having the app on my phone at all times is a real life-saver.

Astrophotography Tips

For images of the night sky, the preview you see on your camera’s display is only beginning. The true color and beauty of the photo are yet to be brought forth.

Video Tutorial:

If you are lucky enough to visit a location on Earth with an unspoiled view of the Milky Way, the next step is to capture this view and share it with others. Unfortunately, without the adequate knowledge about astrophotography, the odds of replicating this experience are slim.

I have had the pleasure of basking in the glory of our home galaxy many times.

How to photograph the Milky Way

The Milky Way using a DSLR camera on a tripod

This is what the Milky Way looks like from a relatively dark sky location in Southern Ontario, Canada.  The green streaks at the bottom of the image are fireflies dancing in the night.

For the photo above, the DSLR camera sat securely on top of a carbon fiber tripod.  The drive mode was set to a 2-second delay, to avoid any camera shake caused when activating the shutter.

Here are the settings and equipment used for the photo above:

 Canon EF 17-40mm F/4Camera Gear

Camera: Canon EOS 7D
Lens: Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L
Tripod: Neewer Carbon Fiber Tripod

Camera Settings

Focal Length: 17mm
Focus: Manual
White Balance: Auto
Aperture: f/4
ISO: 3200
Exposure Length: 30 Seconds

Capture the Milky Way

A starry night sky

The Milky Way high overhead at the cottage

The basics of capturing a night sky image apply to Milky Way photography.  In general, you can expect to use a long exposure length and an increased ISO setting.

I’ve covered the details of taking your first astrophotography image using a DSLR camera and tripod before, and many of the same principals apply when shooting the core of our galaxy.

The biggest difference occurs during the image processing stage, which I will cover below.

Essential steps to a great image:

  • Focus using live view on a bright star at 10X magnification
  • Set your camera’s drive mode to a 2 or 10-second delay
  • Lock your DSLR camera securely into place on your tripod
  • Take multiple exposures to stack and improve SNR

Stacking in photoshop

By stacking several exposures together, you can increase the signal-to-noise ratio

You can manually stack your images together using photoshop, resulting in a smoother image with less noise.  This is especially effective when shooting Milky Way photos using a high ISO sensitivity.

Related: How to manually stack your astrophotos in Photoshop

Take a number of test shots to frame your image an interesting way. Use the natural landscape around the sky to help portray the feeling of actually being under a starry sky.

Milky Way Image Processing in Photoshop

The image below shows a single 30-second exposure taken at f/3.5 before and after processing in Photoshop.

This image was taken under very dark skies at the Cherry Springs Star Party of 2014.

Milky Way Processing in Photoshop

Adobe Camera Raw

By capturing your images in RAW format, crucial edits can be made to image during the post processing stage.  You never want to shoot astrophotography images in JPEG format, as you are losing detail in the image.

Because I shoot with a Canon DSLR camera, I use Adobe Camera Raw to pre-process my images coming into Photoshop.

Key areas to address in ACR:

  • Adjust white balance – less brown, more blue
  • Apply noise reduction filter (modest)
  • Increase Saturation
  • Reduce chromatic aberration
  • Correct vignetting issues
Adobe Photoshop Processing

Pre-processing in Adobe Camera Raw

The above list is a small sampling of the actions applied to the Milky Way images on this page.  For a really powerful image, try running third party action sets on your image, such as the Astronomy Tools Action Set.

Some of the most effective actions using the package listed above are “make stars smaller” and “local contrast adjustment”.

Related: Astrophotography Resources – Recommended Software

Travel to a Dark Sky Location

This means that you should plan your shot around the New Moon phase. Even a half-quarter moon creates enough light in the night sky to ruin your image. Having New Moon and clear skies coincide with each other can be a tall order.

This is one of the reasons Milky Way photography can be so challenging.

Light pollution can completely wash away the beautiful structure of the Milky Way galaxy.  For this reason, it is essential that you leave the glow of the city behind, and travel to a dark sky location.

A camping trip can offer a fantastic opportunity for night photography, as these areas are usually well away from the city. Use a planetarium software such as Stellarium to preview the position of the Milky Way core from your vantage point.

For example, to see the core of the Milky Way from Southern Ontario, it is best to have a clear view to the southeast in June.

Here’s a look at the night sky from Cherry Springs State Park in Pennsylvania:

DSLR astrophotography

The Milky Way as seen from Cherry Springs State Park

I hope that you have learned a few pointers to apply on your next night of photography.  I encourage you to set aside some time to observe the Milky Way under dark skies and feel the overwhelming connection to our universe.

Post your images of the Milky Way on the AstroBackyard Facebook Page.