Thanks for all the visits that made this the Number 1 Milky Way, Star Trails, Northern Lights & Night Sky Photography Tutorial on the web:) From scouting, planning, and shooting, to editing your photos in Lightroom and Photoshop, this tutorial covers all the skills you will need to get started right away.
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|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|
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Star & Night Sky Photography Tutorial Directory
Read Me First!
My Milky Way, Northern Lights, Star Trails & night sky photography tutorials are contained on multiple pages. You are on page one containing my Milky Way Photography Tutorial. Use the links below to navigate to the other tutorials once you’re done here:)
Learn all of the skill sets taught in the tutorials below & you’ll be a master of the night skies!
Milky Way Photography Tutorial
- Milky Way Photography Tutorial – Shooting ( You’re on this page now. )
- Learn How to Edit Your Milky Way Photos in Lightroom & Photoshop »
Star Trails Photography Tutorial
- Star Trails Photography Tutorial – Shooting »
- Learn How to Create Star Trails the Easy Way in Lightroom & Photoshop »
Northern Lights Photography Tutorial
- Learn How to Photograph the Northern Lights Tutorial – Shooting »
- Learn How to Edit Your Northern Lights Photos Using Lightroom & Photoshop »
Additional Night Photography Resources & Tools
- Scouting & Planning for Star, Milky Way and Night Sky Photography Video Series »
- Simple & Powerful Noise Reduction for Star, Milky Way & Night Sky Photography »
- Star & Night Sky Photography Camera and Lens Recommendations »
What You Need
Scouting & Planning:
You’ll always want to do scouting & planning first. Prior to meeting the following 3 scouting and planning criteria it will be hard to capture a nice image of the Milky Way. Doing this first will save you a lot of time and effort in the long run:)
- A Dark Night – Check the Moon Phase first! Milky Way Photography is best on or near the night of the New Moon. In most cases you can shoot approximately 1 week before, 1 week after, and on the night of the New Moon. This will change slightly depending on where you live on earth and the time of year. Check out my Free Scouting & Planning for Night Photography Video Tutorial Series for step by step instructions on everything you need to get started!
- A Dark Location – Blue Marble Light Pollution Map – 2014 Edition works very well for this. Black areas on the map are great for shooting the night sky, while white areas on the map are light polluted and should be avoided.
- Clear Skies – Aiming for nights with 0-50% cloud cover will yield the best results for Milky Way photos. There are many different methods I use to plan for this. These are thoroughly discussed in the Free Scouting & Planning for Night Photography Video Tutorial Series. You can also reference the Star Photography Apps & Computer Programs Section below for some great tools.
|The Milky Way Rising Over Mount Hood, Oregon || Nikon D800 @ 14mm, ISO3200, f/2.8, 33 Seconds|
Minimum Equipment Requirements:
To start taking some nice photos of the Milky Way you’ll need the following equipment. Check out the Recommended Star Photography Camera & Lens Section below for complete details on brands I’ve used and approve.
You can also reference the What’s In My Camera Bag Page on this website to see exactly what I currently shoot with.
- Tripod – Tripod, the sturdier & taller the better. I also highly recommend an L-Bracket, but it isn’t 100% necessary.
- Camera with Manual Mode Functionality – Manual Mode means you can independently and manually adjust the ISO, Aperture, and Exposure time by hand.
The next few items will extremely improve your star shots but are not 100% necessary…
- A timer / intervalometer, especially if you do not have a full frame camera (35mm sensor). This is key for taking exposures longer than 30 seconds. Most DSLR cameras will take up to a 30 second exposure without a timer. You can also set your camera on “B” or Bulb Mode and hold down the shutter button manually ( for longer than 30 seconds ).
- A wide angle lens with a very “wide / fast” aperture – A “wide / fast” aperture means the number under the “f” is small. The smaller the number shown under the “f”, the wider the lens can open. This will allow your camera’s sensor to pick up as much light as possible in the shortest amount of time. For full frame cameras, wide angle lenses between 14mm and 20mm are recommended. For crop sensor cameras, wide angle lenses between 10mm and 17mm are recommended. Apertures of f/2.8 – f/4 are required. I highly recommend an f/2.8 lens!
- A full frame camera ( 35mm or larger sensor size ) with high ISO shooting capabilities – A full frame sensor provides a larger surface area to “capture” the light of the stars. Using a full frame camera will help to reduce the amount of noise in high ISO images in turn providing higher quality RAW files.
Star & Night Photography Camera / Lens Recommendations
Below I’ve provided a list of gear I’ve used, tested in the field and approve of for star, Milky Way, and night sky photography.
|Learn to edit / post process shots like this using my Star Photography Video Tutorials » || Nikon D800 » @ 14mm, ISO4000, f/2.8, 35 Seconds|
Star Photography Apps & Computer Programs
Here are a few great apps & computer programs which can be used at home or in the field.
Download the first 70 pages of my new eBook, Photography the Night Sky, for FREE & access an in-depth list of Apps, Computer programs, weather websites, and much much more!
- 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. Learn to Use The Photographers Ephemeris with My Free Video Tutorial.
- Stellarium ( 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, butwell worth the effort. Plus you learn a lot about our Universe in the process. Learn to use Stellarium with my Free Video Tutorial.
- 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, Milky Way, and Night Sky Photography
Three Part Video Series
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.
Focusing at Night
Prior to correctly focusing your lens it will be impossible to effectively perform any type of night photography. Due to this fact, this section has been placed first. Upon learning these skills you will be able to move forward and learn all of the other material provided below.
|The Pacific Coast of Washington State|
Since the stars are very far away in respect to where we stand on Earth, we can focus at infinity or very close to it, and capture perfectly sharp photos of the night sky.
Most lenses have an “∞” symbol on them which is used to mark the approximate infinity focus point. Just because you focus your lens to this infinity symbol doesn’t mean it will take a perfectly sharp photo. This proves true for all types of photography. Most lenses need to be adjusted slightly more to ensure sharp focus, but “∞” is a great place to start.
I have 6 different methods which I currently use to focus at night depending on the situation which I’m shooting. You can learn each of these by downloading the free eBook provided at the end of this section.
It’s great to have a “bag of tricks” for each of your photography skill sets, this way if you ever run into trouble, you can pull out one of these tricks without ever skipping a beat.
Learning to do this comes from spending many nights under the stars!
Experimentation and practice are key to finding out what works and what doesn’t for your specific lens / camera setup!
There are a few different options for focusing at night. Each of these methods work well for any type of night photography and some also work for landscape photography.
Method 1: Preset Your Focus Point During the Day
It’s much easier to focus during the day than at night, for both you and your camera’s autofocus software. Since focusing is one of the hardest parts of night / low light photography, getting this step out of the way during the daytime is always best practice.
Follow these easy steps to get started...
- Set up your camera during the day with the lens you will be using to take your night / low light photos. You can do this at your house, or anywhere else that’s easy, it doesn’t have to be at the location where you plan on taking your night photos. You’ll want to open the lens to the widest focal length possible. For example, this would be 14mm on a 14-24mm lens.
- Adjust your lens to focus at infinity, or at a far away horizon. I always like to use my camera’s Live View Mode, zoomed in, and focus on the furthest horizon in my composition. This will ensure that you’ve focused at infinity. You can also focus by looking through your camera’s view finder. This works very well too.
- Next manually make the final adjustments if / as required using the focus ring. I find that Auto Focus usually does very well during the day, but sometimes needs manual input to nail down the final focus in low light.
- Take some more practice shots at an aperture of f/8 – f/11 and make sure the entire photo is in focus. If it isn’t focused, repeat Step 2 and Step 3.
- Now your lens is focused at infinity.
- Using a permanent marker, mark both the focus ring, and the barrel of the lens (non-rotating part of lens). Tape works as well, but may fall off over time.
This is a reference point that you will be able to use when returning to shoot at night or in low light. I’ve personally marked my lens using a silver Sharpie, allowing me to see the mark at night without using a headlamp or light.
Methods 2 – 5
I’ve provided 4 more of my favorite focusing methods in my eBook, Photograph the Night Sky. You can get the first 70 pages of this book, including my favorite focusing methods, for free using the link below.
|The Milky Way Rising Over the Pacific Ocean || f/2.8, ISO5000, 30 Seconds|
The 500 Rule for Milky Way Photography
Selecting Exposure Time
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.
The Tutorial Continues Below…
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The 500 Rule Chart
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.
|A Beautiful Dark Night @ Mount Rainier National Park, Washington – f/2.8, ISO3200, 30 Seconds|
This chart provides the maximum time you can exposure your image for prior to seeing star trails. Just remember this is a “Rule of Thumb”. Reference the 500 Rule Section above for more details.
|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
Click On Any of the Titles Below If You’re Not Sure What They Mean.
Camera Mode: Manual
Image Format: RAW
Metering Mode: I 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. Shooting in the range of 3000-4000 K usually works very well. Just remember when you’re shooting in RAW format you can always change this once you get back home!
Focal Length: Anywhere from 14-24 mm ( out of 35 mm / full frame ). The larger your focal length, the shorter your exposure times will have to become per the 500 Rule, so wider is always better. You can try other focal lengths, but the above noted values seem to provide the best results! Usually I shoot at 14mm on the Nikon D800.
- TIP: Shooting with a high resolution / high megapixel camera allows you to shoot at a wide focal length and crop your photo as necessary in editing. I usually shoot at 14mm, and crop my photo at home if the composition is too wide.
Aperture: f/2.8, or whatever your lowest / widest 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. The goal is to allow the most amount of light hit your camera’s sensor in the least amount of time. Wider aperture = better!
- TIP: Shooting with apertures smaller / wider than f/2.8 at night can prove very hard to focus. I usually shoot at f/2.8 and no wider. If you want to try shooting at f/1.4 or f/1.2 go ahead, but it can be much harder to focus:)
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.
- TIP: Always remember your exposure time is controlled by the 500 Rule. If you take a 50 second exposure most likely there will be star trails in your photo. Sometimes it’s necessary to take (2) photos of the same composition, but with different settings. Often I’ll take a photo for the sky & stars at a higher ISO and lower exposure time. Next I’ll take another photo ( same composition ) for the foreground at a lower ISO and longer exposure time. Now I can blend these photos together for a sharp sky, and less noise in the foreground. These more advanced topics are thoroughly covered in my 170 page ebook, Photograph the Night Sky.
ISO: Anywhere from 2000-5000. 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.
Noise Reduction Settings: All cameras handle noise differently and some have built in noise reduction settings. Most cameras have both High ISO and Long Exposure Noise Reduction. You can reference the tutorial linked directly below where I cover the entire topic of noise reduction, in-depth. This includes a free video tutorial and step by step workflow.
Noise Reduction for Star, Milky Way & Night Sky Photography
This was an extremely highly requested topic so I wrote an in-depth tutorial and recorded a free post processing video to go along.
Click Here & Access the Tutorial
Final Words of Advice for Milky Way Photography
|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.
Here are a few more tips to keep in mind!
- 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.
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 my latest video tutorials, Photoshop Actions & Lightroom Presets.
Star Trails Photography Tutorial
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.