Thanks for all the visits that made this the Number 1 Milky Way, Star Trails, and Night Photography Tutorial on the web:) From planning and shooting to post processing (editing), this tutorial covers all the skills you will need to get started right away.
Download Your Free 40 Page eBook provided below and become a master of the night skies!
|My shot of Mount Rainier & The Milky Way is the winner of Smithsonian Photography Contest. We will be shooting from this exact location during this summer’s workshops! Complete Details & Reservations on the Star Photography Workshops Page|
Welcome Star Photographers
As goes for all of my tutorials, this one is dynamic and will continue to change & grow over time as I learn new skills, tips, tricks and other pertinent information. This being said, feel free to stop back in from time to time, or join my mailing list provided below & get a free eBook.
Download Your Free 40 Page eBook
Below I’ve provided a free 40 page, Night Sky Exploration & Adventure eBook Bundle, which will be sent directly to your email address as a PDF file. Included in the eBook is everything you will need to get started in Milky Way, Night Sky & Star Trail Photography + some great night sky hikes as well!
Included in the free eBook bundle are the following 5 eBooks
3 Tricks for Focusing at Night
5 Simple Steps to View & Photograph the Night Sky
Dave’s Top 10 Planning Tools for Photography & Hiking
Star / Night Photography Camera & Lens Recommendations
3 Great Hikes for Exploring the Night
Dave’s Free Star Photography Tutorial
Star photography seems like a daunting task, but trust me it’s much easier than you think. When I first picked up a camera and decided to capture some shots of the night sky I could barely see a light at the end of the tunnel.
Now, many years and thousands of shots later, that light is shining bright and I’m here to share with you the information and experiences I’ve learned along the way. But wait, there is one problem, from your vantage point there may be a million and one factors keeping you from seeing the mesmerizing beauty of space or the Milky Way.
|The Milky Way Rising Over Mount Hood, Oregon || Nikon D800 @ 14mm, ISO3200, f/2.8, 33 Seconds|
Most of us live in locations where cloud cover, smog and light pollution are the number one enemy of the night sky photographer. That’s where I come in, armed with my tutorials, presets, and simple tricks you will have all the ammunition necessary to defeat the odds and capture the beauty of space and the galaxy that lies beyond.
I do have a few small errands for everyone to run prior to departing on our trip, so grab a sturdy tripod, wide angle lens, a camera with manual mode functionality and your imagination, let’s head for the stars.
All of my other photography tutorials can be found at the link below:
Read Me First!
My free Star Photography Tutorial is contained on 2 pages. This first page contains the Milky Way Photography Tutorial ( you’re on this page now ) and the 2nd page contains the Star Trails Photography Tutorial & Star Photography Resources plus my Free Star Trails Post Processing Video Tutorial.
I would highly suggest starting on the first page ( this page ) and reading everything before moving on to the 2nd page.
I’ve also just released a Free Scouting and Planning for Night Photography Video Series which you may enjoy! These skills are crucial for getting great shots of the night sky.
There are tips and tricks through out all the tutorials that I think are imperative to capturing nice star photos. You can also upload star photos of your own to my Student Uploads Gallery! Enjoy.
Milky Way Photography Tutorial
I’ll start out by answering the most frequently asked question of all, “How do I find the Milky Way in the sky?”. Well unfortunately it is a very easy answer, if you can’t see the Milky Way with your naked eye, it will be very hard to capture any better on camera. That being said let’s get started!
|A Clear Night on Washington State’s Pacific Coast – USA || Nikon D800 @ 14mm, ISO5000, f/2.8, 30 Seconds|
What You Need
- A very dark night. I always check the moon phase prior to shooting ( see Star Photography & Camera Apps List below ). If the moon is out you are not going to capture the Milky Way very well. I’ll show you how to research this in the Scouting & Planning Section below.
- A VERY Dark Location. I always use Blue Marble Navigator’s Dark Skies Map which is a Google & NASA collaboration that’s quite useful.
- Tripod, the sturdier & taller the better. I have a 72” tripod by Really Right Stuff which is great for shooting stars due to the fact that I can look up at my camera while shooting.
- A Camera with Manual Mode functionality. ( If you’re interested in all the equipment I use head on over to the What’s in My Camera Bag section of the website. )
The next few items will extremely improve your star shots but are not necessary.
- A timer / intervalometer, especially if you do not have a 35mm sensor. This is key for taking exposures longer than 30 seconds.
- A wide angle lens with a very “fast” aperture. Meaning the number under the “f” is small. This will help you to pick up as much light as possible in the shortest amount of time.
- I shoot with my Nikkor14-24mm f/2.8G or Nikkor 16mm f/2.8 Fisheye lens for all my star shots. At f/2.8 they are both VERY fast lenses. Keep in mind there are other lens set ups that will work great as well. I provide some recommendations on cameras and lenses of different price points and brands in the Camera Equipment Section below.
|Mount Rainier National Park Star Photography Workshops
1 Night Star Photography Workshops »
2 Night / 3 Day Star Photography Workshop & Post Processing Class »
Star Photography & Camera Apps
Here are a few great apps & computer programs that I like to use prior to going out for a star shoot as well as in the field. I’ll teach you how to use a few of these in the Scouting and Planning Section below.
- PhotoPills ( iPhone Only ) – If you want one amazing app that does it all for photography, THIS IS IT! I have been using it for the past few weeks and fell in love.Click on the link above for full functionality, there is a lot of it, packaged in a really nice & user friendly app.
- Star Walk Astronomy Guide ( Android & iPhone ) Recently this is my go to for finding where the Milky Way will rise on the horizon. Using this app and holding it up to the sky you will be able to see, in real time, where all the constellations & other planetary bodies lie within the sky.
- The Photographers Ephemeris ( iPhone, Android & Desktop )- I use this program nearly every time I shoot for sunrise and sunset. For star photography it is always good to know when the moons rises and sets and how bright/big it will be on any given night, this program also provides that functionality. I have used both iPhone and Android versions, both are great.
- Stellarium Mobile ( Desktop, iPhone & Android ) – You can get this program for free on your desktop and for a few extra $$ on your iPhone or Android. I use it on both platforms and and find it to work great. The learning curve is a bit steep at first, but
well worth the effort. Plus you learn a lot about our Universe in the
- Google Sky Map ( FREE – Android ) – Google does a really great job with this app. It provides all of the planetary / star locations that Star Walk does but it’s just not quite as interactive. Then again it’s free! I still use / recommend this app as well.
Scouting & Planning for Star and Milky Way Photography
Ready to take your night sky photography to the next level? Provided below is my free three part video series on scouting and planning for Milky Way, star & night sky photography.
In these videos I’ll show you all of the programs and tricks I use to scout for my photography shoots.
You can use many of these tips & tricks for landscape photography as well.
The 500 Rule for Milky Way Photography
Selecting Exposure Time for Milky Way Photography
|Learn to edit / post process shots like this using my Star Photography Video Tutorials » || Nikon D800 » @ 14mm, ISO4000, f/2.8, 35 Seconds|
Some people call this the 600 rule, but 500 is much more conservative for a sharper image which makes a great baseline to start with & is key to getting clear star or Milky Way shots. To obtain the maximum exposure time you can shoot, without getting visible “trails” behind your stars, take the number 500 and divide it by the focal length you will be shooting at.
If you exceed the noted maximum exposure time the picture will exhibit “star trails”. Keep in mind that this max exposure time is just a baseline ( rule of thumb ), feel free to move up or down from it depending on your camera setup and how your photos are turning out.
If you take a picture and see that your stars have “trails” behind them, decrease the exposure time a few seconds. If you take a picture and see that the stars are not bright enough, and don’t have trails behind them, increase your exposure time just a few seconds.
It’s all about taking multiple shots and practicing until you get to know how your camera / lens setup operates in accordance with the 500 Rule. Once you have this down it becomes second nature. Experimentation is once again key.
|Night Skies of the Pacific Northwest || 5 Night / 6 Day Star Photography Workshop & Tour »|
For those of you that are not shooting with full frame cameras make sure to take this into account. I have provided a chart that gives a few common sensor sizes and their maximum exposure times. This will also help you understand how the rule works.
Feel free to print out this chart and keep it in your camera bag when going out to shoot the night sky
|Enjoying this Tutorial? Once You’re Done, Check Out
Dave’s How to Photograph & Post Process the Northern Lights Tutorial »
Provided below are the camera settings and equipment that I shoot with, this doesn’t mean there is a correct or incorrect way to shoot, these just work best for me. Different cameras work better/worse in different situations, so experimentation is key. I have provided some camera gear that I have tested out and also recommend.
|One of the locations where we shoot during my Night Skies of the Pacific Northwest Workshop & Tour »
This photo comes from a 4 Shot Pano and Exposure Blend. Click on photo for technique and details
What I Use
See all the other gear I use on the What’s in My Camera Bag? section of this website
Recommended Star Photography Cameras & Lenses
Feel free to click on any of the titles ( below the next photo ) if you’re not exactly sure what they are:)
|The Milky Way Rising – Lake Tahoe, Nevada || Nikon D800 » @ 14mm, ISO3200, f/2.8, 36 Seconds|
Camera Mode: Manual
Image Format: RAW
Metering Mode: I personally use what is known as Matrix Metering on my Nikon D800. Canon calls this same function Evaluative Metering. As an experiment, when shooting star photography, I tried all the different metering modes my camera has to offer and Matrix clearly won.
White Balance: This is all up to you. I like to select the “K” or Kelvin setting and obtain a nice and natural looking night sky color. The best way to do this is trial and error.
Focal Length: Anywhere from 14-24 mm but usually wide open at 14mm unless I am shooting with the Fisheye lens then my only choice is 16mm.
Focus: I usually focus at infinity, take a practice shot to see how it looks then adjust focus from there. Usually infinity works just fine. If you really like something in the foreground then take two shots. One to get the stars then a second for the foreground. These can be manually blended together in Photoshop for a sharp image. I cover these techniques in my Star Photography Post Processing Video Tutorials.
Aperture: f/2.8, or whatever your lowest aperture value is will best capture the Milky Way. I prefer to play in the range of f/2.8 through f/4 for star photography.
Exposure Time: 30 seconds is my standard. Sometimes I will shoot anywhere to 50 seconds in order to catch more of the “Far away” light in my shots. Just
remember a longer exposure picks up more light, which in turn means you will see stars that are farther and farther away from our planet. On the other hand light sources closer to our planet will appear brighter at longer exposure times.
ISO: Anywhere from 2000-5000, my sweet spot seems to be 5000. Keep in mind depending on your camera these high settings may increase the noise exponentially. Play around and see what you get, starting at ISO1000 and working your way up is never a bad idea. Remember only compensate with ISO after your exposure is at it’s 500 Rule maximum.
|Online Star Photography Post Processing Group Workshops »|
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Final Words of Advice for Milky Way Photos
|Taken at Crater Lake National Park, Oregon || Nikon D800 » @ 14mm, ISO3200, f/2.8, 28 Seconds|
Play around with your BIG THREE, aperture, exposure and ISO until you are getting the shots you like. Each of them directly reflect on each other and the amount of light that hits your sensor so a slight change could make all the difference in the stars you can see.
- If you take a practice shot and the stars are not bright enough, adjust your exposure time to the maximum without exceeding 500 Rule as denoted above. If you hit this maximum exposure time and your stars are still not bright enough, start to increase your ISO. Keep in mind that there is no reason to “degrade” picture quality by increasing ISO when you can keep the same picture quality and increase the brightness using a longer exposure. You may even try increasing the 500 Rule to the 600 Rule. THERE ARE NO REAL RULES in Photography, just good & bad results.
- If you have a built in camera level, by all means turn it on. A level horizon never hurt anyone!
- Stop, put your camera down for a minute, and look around and find something truly awesome to take a picture of. 100 decent shots will never top that one amazing composition.
- The GOLDEN RATIO, learn it, use it, love it!
Post Processing / Editing Your Star Photos
Now that you know exactly how to take photos of the night sky you’re all ready to post process / edit them in Lightroom & Photoshop. If you would like to learn exactly how I process all of these star shots in Lightroom and Photoshop ( at your own pace ), then pick up a copy of Michael Shainblum’s and My Star Photography Post Processing Video Tutorials » & Under the Stars Lightroom 4 Presets
|Star Photography Post Processing Video Tutorials »|
Star Trails Photography Tutorial &
Free Star Photography Resources
You are currently on Page 1 of my Free Star Photography Tutorial which contains the Milky Way Photography Tutorial. Head on over to Page 2 for the Star Trails Photography Tutorial, and some other star photography resources.