How to Photograph the Milky Way
The Milky Way is the galaxy that contains our Solar System. From our vantage point on Earth, we see it as a noticeable band of light stretching across the night sky.
From my latitude in the Northern Hemisphere, the Milky Way core is only observable between the months of April to September. To photograph it in its full glory, I also need to travel to a dark sky location during the New Moon phase.
In the following post, I’ll describe my experiences photographing the Milky Way with a DSLR camera. I’ll share the camera settings used, and specific astrophotography tips to help you capture your own image of this natural wonder.
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. For this reason, amateur photographers can create incredibly detailed portraits of the Milky Way Galaxy using modest equipment.
All you need is a DSLR camera capable of shooting in manual mode, and a entry-level camera lens. The image of the Milky Way above was captured using a Canon EOS Rebel T3i camera, with a Rokinon 14mm F/12.8 Camera lens.
The Rokinon 14mm F/2.8 is an Excellent Camera Lens for Milky Way Photography
Before I go any further, I want to properly set your expectations. My first images of the Milky Way did not look like this, largely because I was shooting in heavily light polluted skies. The photo above uses 3 strategies to create an impressive photo of the Milky Way:
- A tracking camera mount (iOptron SkyTracker Pro)
- A “fast” camera lens (Rokinon 14mm F/2.8)
- Image stacking to improve SNR (DeepSkyStacker)
I’ll cover each of these aspects in the post below. A tracking camera mount like the SkyTracker Pro that compensates for Earth’s rotation is not necessary for success, but it can certainly help pull in more light in a single exposure.
The iOptron SkyTracker Pro Camera Mount
The biggest advantage a tracking camera mount like the SkyTracker has over a stationary tripod is the ability shoot exposures well past 30-seconds. When the mount has been properly polar-aligned, images of 2-minutes or more in length are possible.
For me, the most enjoyable part about these images is being able to identify the individual nebulae and star clusters inside the galaxy. The Lagoon Nebula, Trifid Nebula and more can all be seen in glowing pink in Sagittarius.
The Milky Way doesn’t just mean the Core of our galaxy, it extends beyond Saggittarius towards the constellation Cygnus the swan. This area of the Milky Way is less dense, but contains some of my favorite deep sky objects within it. The photo below showcases the Milky Way in the direction of Cygnus.
The Cygnus area of the Milky Way from a dark sky location
The image above was captured during another memorable trip to the Cherry Springs Star Party. Several images were captured using a DSLR camera on a SkyTracker Pro camera mount.
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.
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. Once you know where it is, it’s important to remember some specific camera settings to set yourself up for success.
4 Things to remember when photographing the Milky Way
- Choose an ISO setting based on your shooting environment. The ISO will need to be much higher than you would normally use during a daytime photo. For moderate light pollution use 1600 to 3200. Pay attention to the histogram, and expose to the right. It’s a balancing act between noise and the amount of light collected. However, with enough image frames, even a noisy image can be smoothed out after stacking.
- Use your camera’s widest aperture, or close to it. Generally, you’ll want to let in as much light as possible, in the shortest amount of time. Fast camera lenses of f2.8 or below may need to stop down a bit for better star quality.
- Set your camera’s drive mode to a 2, or 10-second delay. Better yet, use a remote shutter release cable. Even the slightest movement created by pressing the shutter button can be enough to shake the stars up in your image. Also, make sure your tripod head is locked securely. A sliding tripod head in any direction will show itself immediately in the form of elongated stars.
- Shoot 30-second exposures. This will maximize the light collected in each individual frame. Yes, the stars may begin to trail (depending on your focal length), but this will only be evident when zoomed into 100%.
The Milky Way using the Rokinon 14mm F/2.8 Lens
The photo above uses 60 x 120-second (2-minute) exposures at ISO 1600 with my Canon EOS Rebel T3i. The lens was at it’s native focal length of 14mm, and the aperture was set to F/3.2 for a sharper image.
Stopping down the f-ratio of your camera lens is a commonly used astrophotography tip used to create images with sharper stars. This technique sacrifices some light-gathering ability for a improved calrity and smaller stars. This is one of the many reasons a star tracker provides more options than a stationary mount. You are able to offest the slower f-ratio with longer subs.
With 2 hours of total integration time, I was able produced a final high-resolution photo of the Milky Way with reduced noise and much more detail. Here are the exact camera settings used for the photo above:
Milky Way Camera Settings
- Exposure: 120 seconds
- ISO: 1600
- F-Stop: F/3.2
- White Balance: Auto
- Number of Frames: 60
If you are not using a tracking mount, similar camera settings will still work – but you may need to increase the overall exposure time to produce similar results. Using a lower f-ratio (such as 2.8 or below) can help produce a brighter image in a shorter period of time.
The white balance settings on your camera are not as important as you may think. The key is to shoot in RAW file format so that you’re able to adjust individual parameters such as white balance during post-processing.
The stacking process in DeepSkyStacker registers each image so that the stars align with each other. The stacking process reduces noise and improves detail by improving the signal-to-noise ratio.
Image Processing 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. When you shoot RAW images using your DSLR, you open the door to powerful image processing capabilities. Adobe Camera RAW (ACR) is one of my favorite tools for processing astro images.
Powerful Processing Steps in ACR:
- Adjusting white balance
- Reducing Noise and Chromatic Aberration
- Setting a Lens Profile Correction
In this situation, stacking the frames manually in Photoshop can do a better job the DeepSkyStacker. This is because the foreground objects in the image will throw the registration process off in DSS. However, an image of the Milky Way with no foreground landscape will stack just fine in Deep Sky Stacker.
Video Tutorial (Stacking in Photoshop)
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
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.
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
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
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”. Below, you’ll find an updated image processing video where I process the data from a stacked image in Photoshop.
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:
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.