Milky Way Photo Tips

In preparation for the upcoming UUACPC Milky Way outing, I suggest watching the video embedded below. It features lens selection, camera setup, planning and post processing. I recommend at least watching the just the first 8 minutes before our photo shoot. Also note, besides the hundreds of other YouTube videos, there are on-line classes and eBooks on night photography that include shooting the Milky Way. If you like what we do on July 22, then you may want to seek out more resources.

My comments on the video:

Use a tripod and cable release or intervalometer. If you don’t have a cable release, then use your 2-second timer, and practice with it before going to the field.

You will be shooting in manual mode and have to “focus at infinity”. The infinity focus mark on your camera lens is not usually accurate. Ahead of the actual Milky Way shoot, in daylight, focus on something very distant. Then note where on your lens’ focus indicator is, you can use a silver or white marking pen to put a mark on the lens barrel for your actual infinity point. Alternatively, after you focus on a far away object, take a cellphone picture to use as a reference in the field. I would not tape up the lens with duct tape as suggested, but you could use a small piece of tape as a marker on the lens barrel. For many mirror-less camera lens this does not apply, there is no infinity mark or the focus ring just keeps on turning. In this case you will have to rely on the unreliable focus gauge on the LCD.

You can use Auto White Balance and plan to adjust the color in post processing, or use a white balance setting of tungsten in the camera, this will make the image start with a bluer color cast. You will be shooting in RAW and have greater flexibility adjusting color during post processing.

You can skip over the planning portion of the video from the 8:00 minute to about the 19:00 minute mark. Hopefully, I did adequate planning for us. There is interesting stuff here and references to tools available on the web, so keep the video for a future reference. Many photographers use Photographer’s Ephemeris for planning; I prefer and used PhotoPils and its augmented reality feature (see second video below).

Lightroom processing tips start in the video at 19:00 minutes. This video shows some good starting points, but you will find many more tutorials for Milky Way/Night Sky processing on the web. You should note how this presenter takes a basically dark blah image and brings out the splendor of the Milky Way. Remember this, so you don’t get too discouraged in the field. This segment is not required before we go on our shoot, so watch the first 8 minutes again. Then come back to the 19:00 minute mark another time.


Key Points for our outing:

  • Use a tripod.
  • Use a cable release or 2-second timer to avoid camera vibration.
  • Use widest angle lens you have to get the most night sky.
  • Use Manual exposure and set shutter speed based on equivalent-focal-length divided into 500 (the “500 rule”). This will avoid star streaks an give crisp points for the stars.
  • Set the aperture to the widest f/stop (smallest f/stop number) to let in the most light.
  • You will use the ISO setting to boost the image brightness, start around 1600. You may have to go higher, but too high an ISO amplifies the noise.
  • Use Manual focus to focus at “infinity”. Turn off Auto Focus. Turn off the focus assist lamp.
  • Shoot RAW to bring out details in post processing.
  • Turn off image stabilization.
  • Turn off the “high ISO noise reduction” option. This only affects the camera’s JPEG; you are shooting RAW and will cleanup the noise in post processing.
  • If you leave on the “long exposure noise reduction”, you double the time the camera takes to save the image. Some like this on to remove hot pixels; warning on Sony cameras this “eats stars”, so turn it off.
  • Set as much up of this in the light before you go into the field. We will meet at the estate house earlier and prep before going down the hill.
  • Bring a headlamp and/or flash light. Use red light once all is setup to protect night vision.
  • The only equipment you really need is a tripod, a camera, your widest- fastest- lens and a cable release, so pack light and you will have less to loose in the dark.
  • Be willing to experiment.

Plan B:

OK so what if there are too many clouds and too much light pollution? Well, there probably will be hundreds of fireflies, so we will shoot them. And I’ll bet a certain someone cannot help but bring light-painting tools. We are going to meet at the estate house (first driveway) and not the pavilion parking lot. So we will have the spring house in front of the pond as our foreground feature.

Other Videos:

 I use PhotoPils for planning photo shoots, available for iOS and Android. Its augmented reality feature lets you preview the location of celestial bodies while scouting a particular place and time. PhotoPils article on shooting the Milky Way. Below is a video tutorial on planning for a Milk Way shoot. Note the presenter has an interesting accent that I don’t recognize, if you are not used to it, you may have to watch this a few times. I have watched almost all of the PhotoPils app tutorials, so I have grown accustom to his voice.


As I mentioned there are hundreds of related tutorials and videos on the internet on the subject; see Lonely Speck. I also subscribe to Nick Page’s YouTube channel so thought I would include three of his introductionary videos too.