Learn Milky Way & star photography with this definitive guide, from a full time landscape photographer.
Step-by-step, easy to follow instructions are 100% actionable for all skill levels.
Table of Contents
Jump to any step on this page with the following links or scroll down & read the entire tutorial.
- Camera Equipment for Star Photography
- Planning Your Night Photography Shoot
- Focusing Your Lens at Night
- Camera Settings for Milky Way & Star Photography
- Exposure Time / Shutter Speed Settings
- The 500 Rule Equation & Exposure Chart
- Example Photos – The 500 Rule & Star Trails
- ISO Settings for Milky Way Photography
- Photo Editing Tips for Lightroom & Photoshop
- Photograph the Night Sky eBook
Camera Equipment for Star Photography
Below I’ve provided the minimum equipment requirements and some of the best cameras, lenses and tripods for night photography.
For more information on the equipment / brands I use and recommend visit the Night Sky Photography Camera and Lens Recommendations & What’s In My Camera Bag pages on this website.
Tripod – For any type of night sky photography, a sturdy, well built tripod is one of the most important pieces of equipment.
A cheaply build tripod will shake / move slightly over the long exposure time required for night sky photography, causing blurry images. I currently use and recommend Really Right Stuff tripods, ball heads and L-brackets.
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 milky way photos but are not 100% necessary…
I’ve Listed them in the Order of Importance ( If You’re on a Budget 😉 )
Full Frame / 35 mm Camera: A full frame sensor provides a larger surface area to “capture” the light of the stars and Milky way. Using a full frame camera will help to reduce the amount of noise in high ISO images, in turn providing higher quality RAW files.
A Wide Angle Lens: I use and recommend an f/2.8 minimum aperture. In short, the smaller the number shown under the “f”, the wider the lens can open. This wide opening 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 ( widest focal length ) are recommended.
For crop sensor cameras, wide angle lenses between 10mm and 17mm ( widest focal length ) are recommended. Apertures of f/2.8 – f/4 are required.
I use and recommend the Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8 lens for night sky and landscape photography. It is the best wide angle lens currently made for landscape and night photography.
Camera Timer / Intervalometer: Most cameras will take up to a 30 second exposure without a timer. If you would like to capture long exposure images of the night sky, longer than 30 seconds, you’ll need a timer.
Amazon has a wide range of timers for all types of cameras. Click Here & Type “Camera Timer” and your camera model into the search bar.
Planning Your Night Photography Shoot
Free Video Tutorials Included
I created a free video series to walk you through the entire night photography planning process, step by step.
A brief overview of each topic is provided below, but even more detail can be found on the Scouting & Planning for Star, Milky Way & Night Sky Photography Page.
PS: You’ll always want to do the scouting & planning prior to arriving at your shooting destination. This is the best way to ensure great results!
Moon Phase, Dark Skies & Weather
Step 1 – Calculate the Moon Phase: Always 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.
Step 2 – Find Dark Skies: Blue Marble Light Pollution Map 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.
Step 3 – Find Clear Skies & Predict the Weather: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.
This following video covers steps 1-3.
Learn The Photographer’s Ephemeris & Google Earth
Step 4 – Learn The Photographers Ephemeris ( TPE ): The Photographer’s Ephemeris is a map-centric sun and moon calculator: see how the light will fall on the land, day or night, for any location on earth.
TPE also provides precise sunrise, sunset, and twilight times as well as moon rise and moonset times.
Step 5 – Learn to Use Google Earth / Maps: Google Earth is my preferred way to plan for any photography trip or shoot. It’s one of the best ways to pre-visualize the topographical layout of a location prior to arriving.
Out of all the tools on this page, Google Maps / Google Earth is where I spend the most time.
The following video covers step 4 & 5.
Locate the Milky Way – Stellarium
Step 6 – Locate the Milky Way w/ Stellarium: Using Stellarium makes it easy to find the location of the Milky Way in the sky.
If you don’t know when the Milky Way is visible, the following video tutorial will show you exactly when and how to find it in the night sky.
It shows a realistic sky in 3D, just like what you see with the naked eye, binoculars or a telescope.
This is perfect for visualizing and planning precise and effective night sky photo shoots.
The following video covers step 6.
Focusing Your Lens 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.
Basic Concepts to Apply While Learning the Section Below:
- Since the stars are very far away with respect to where we stand on Earth, focusing at or near infinity (∞) will provide perfectly sharp photos of the stars, Milky Way & 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.
|Learn The Exact Settings & Techniques Below|
Focusing Your Lens at Night – Camera Technique
There are 6 more night photography focusing techniques provided in my ebook, Photograph the Night Sky.
You can also reference my Sharp Focus Photography Guide & Videos for landscape & outdoor photography.
Method 1 – Preset Your Focus Point During the Day
It’s much easier to focus during the day than at night, for you and your camera’s autofocus software.
Step 1: 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.
Step 2: 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.
Step 3: 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.
Step 4: 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, until it is. This is your infinity focus point.
Step 5: Using a permanent marker ( silver sharpie is easy to see at night ), 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.
Step 6: You found your infinity focal point for a given focal length. Remember! If you change your focal length your focal point will change as well. I shoot all my night sky photos at 14mm to make things easy:)
Camera Settings for Milky Way & Star Photography
If you want to learn more about the photography fundamentals such as shutter speed, ISO, f-stop(controls aperture), the exposure triangle, and more, check out my Photography Fundamentals Tutorial Series.
To be clear and concise on the night photography settings I’ve provided a quick reference list below.
In the sections following this section, detailed explanations are provided for selecting Exposure Time ( using the 500 Rule ) and ISO Settings.
Here are the Best Camera Settings for Milky Way & Star Photography:
Camera Mode: Manual Mode – This mode allows you to independently and manually adjust the ISO, Aperture, and Exposure time by hand.
Image Format: RAW Image Format
Metering Mode: I find Center Weighted Average on my Nikon D800 to work the best for night photography.
White / Color Balance: For all night photography I use and recommend Kelvin Values between 4000K-5500K. More than average I find myself shooting at 4200-4500K. This works best under extremely dark skies with no light pollution.
Reference my White Balance Shooting Technique Video, for more info on using Kelvin mode for landscape & outdoor photography.
F-Stop / Aperture: I recommend f/2.8 or your widest aperture value. I do not recommend shooting at apertures wider ( number under f is smaller ) than f/2.8. Although wider apertures such as f/1.8 do pick up more light, they are also very hard to focus at night. You’ll see the best / sharpest image results using f/2.8.
Focal Length: Approximate focal lengths of 14-24 mm for full frame cameras and 10-20mm for crop sensor cameras. Reference the Selecting Exposure Time Section below for complete details on selecting the ideal focal length using the 500 Rule.
The larger your focal length, the shorter your exposure times will have to become per the 500 Rule (taught in next section of tutorial below), so wider is always better. Nearly all of my images are taken at 14mm using a Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8 lens and a Nikon D810 Camera.
In Camera Noise Reduction Settings: The following settings only apply to JPEG files. Since we always shoot in RAW, turn all of them off.
Reference my Simple & Powerful Noise Reduction for Star, Milky Way & Night Sky Photography Tutorial for complete details on why I choose each of the following settings.
- Long Exposure Noise Reduction Setting – Set to Off
- High ISO Noise Reduction Setting – Set to Off
Exposure Time / Shutter Speed Settings
The 500 Rule Explained – Night Photography Exposure Chart
Some photographers like to use the 600 rule.
I believe the 500 Rule is much more conservative and provides a sharper image for night photography long exposures. The reasoning for this has been provided below.
The 500 Rule is used to calculate the maximum time a photo can be exposed without exhibiting star trails behind each star in the photo.
In turn, you will be able to select an exposure time that will keep your Milky Way photos sharp, without creating star trails. We are only calculating exposure time here… nothing more, nothing less!
A Few Night Photography Tips to Keep in Mind:
- The 500 Rule calculated exposure time is only a function of ( depends on ) the lens focal length.
- ISO and Aperture do not effect the 500 Rule calculated exposure time or vice versa.
- The 500 Rule is a rule of thumb, not an exact science.
I will cover the aperture and ISO settings below, but first we need to calculate exposure time.
The 500 Rule Equation & Exposure Chart
READ ME! Reference / Download the 500 Rule Chart While Reading the Following Section
Step By Step – Calculating the 500 Rule Maximum Exposure Time
Calculate Camera Crop Factor
Technical Note: If you don’t know what your camera’s sensor size is (for the equation below), the instruction booklet that came with it will provide that information. In the case that you don’t have the booklet, “Google” your camera’s brand and model for more information.
Using the crop factor calculated above and the focal length you will be shooting with, calculate the maximum exposure time your camera can capture, prior to exhibiting star trails.
Step 2 – Calculate Exposure Time: To obtain the maximum exposure time you can shoot, without exhibiting “trails” behind the stars in your photo; take the number 500 and divide it by the focal length you will be shooting at.
You can reference the 500 Rule Chart provided above, and the 500 Rule Equation provided below to perform your calculation.
Calculate 500 Rule Maximum Exposure Time
500 Rule Maximum Exposure Time = 500/ ( Focal Length X Crop Factor )
Technical Note: First, Multiply focal length by the crop factor, then divide 500 by the result. This is the correct mathematical order of operations.
If you exceed the calculated maximum exposure time provided by the 500 Rule your picture will exhibit star trails.
Always remember, this is just a rule of thumb. Use the 500 Rule when you are starting out. After experimenting with different exposure times and ISO Settings per the section below you will no longer need to reference the 500 Rule every time you shoot.
Step 3 – Test & Find the Best Exposure Time: Per the 500 Rule, I should be able to shoot a 35 second exposure time maximum ( without seeing star trails ) at 14mm focal length using a D810 Camera ( full frame / 35 mm. ).
Although this is what the 500 Rule recommends, I tend to prefer shooting in the range of 20-30 seconds for much sharper images. I found these to be the best results from comparing images of different exposure times and ISO values to see which turned out the best.
Try this experiment yourself and see what works.
You’ll learn how to Select ISO Settings in the following section.
First let’s look at a few example photos all taken with the exact same camera settings, but different exposure times.
Example Photos – The 500 Rule & Star Trails
Provided below are a few example photos showing the correlation between night photography long exposure time and star trails in your pictures.
Keep in mind each wide angle lens handles distortion differently so it’s best to check for star trails near the center of your image where distortion is minimal. The more expensive your wide angle lens, the less distortion and sharp image it produces.
The following images were captured using a Nikon D800 and Nikkor 14-24mm lens @14mm.
Reference my Star Trail Photography Guide if you’d like to capture star trails.
20 Second Exposure Time – Sharp Stars / No Star Trails
50 Second Exposure Time – Short Star Trails
ISO Settings for Milky Way Photography
Now that we have narrowed down all of the other Milky Way Photography camera settings, the only one left is ISO.
ISO is the only destructive / noise inducing setting for long exposure, night photography. This is why we selected exposure time and aperture prior to selecting an ISO setting for our Milky Way photos.
There is no reason to degrade picture quality by increasing ISO ( to obtain a brighter image ) when you can keep the same picture quality and increase the brightness using a longer exposure or a wider aperture, given your photo is not exhibiting star trails.
Never increase your ISO to obtain a brighter photo prior to increasing your exposure time to the Tested Best Exposure Time found above.
Follow the next steps to select an acceptable ISO setting for your photo. All of your other settings should still be the same, as calculated above:
Step 1: Adjust your camera to ISO800 and take a practice shot. This practice shot will most likely be dark. If it is, move on to step 2.
Step 2: Increase your ISO one stop, or to the next larger value, such as ISO1200. Take another practice shot. Most likely this shot will still be very dark. If it is, move to step 3.
Step 3: Continue to increase your ISO until you start to see the Milky Way very visibly in your photos.
TIP: There is no need to over-expose your star photos. They can be fairly dark just like the night sky that surrounds you. The best method is to match the brightness of your photos to the landscape and stars you’re looking at. The camera picks up much more data than is actually displayed on the preview screen. This data can be brought out in post processing.
Step 4: Once the Milky Way is clearly visible in your photos, you have found an ISO setting that works well for the given composition and situation.
Depending on the camera make and model, you may notice a lot of noise in your photo. You may also notice that you have increased your ISO to the maximum setting and the photo is still not bright enough.
Other than adjustments in post processing, there is nothing else that can be done about maxing out your ISO prior to having a bright enough photo. This is where it truly helps to have a full frame camera.
There are many methods to combat this noise using Photoshop. I cover this in my Simple, Powerful Noise Reduction for Star, Milky Way & Night Sky Photography Video Tutorial.
Photo Editing Tips for Lightroom & Photoshop
I created a free 1 hour photo editing course for landscape & outdoor photographers.
You can apply the same skill sets taught in this course to night sky photography.
Provided below are a few of my favorite photography editing tips for Lightroom & Photoshop.
Post Processing Tip 1: Focus only on becoming great at the basics in both Lightroom and Photoshop. When you master the basics, everything else becomes easy. I only use a few basic adjustments along with an in-depth understanding of creating detailed luminance and hand painted masks in Photoshop. This is all I need, and would ever want to use.
Learn the exact attributes of each slider or adjustment tool within both LR and PS. When I say LEARN I mean being able to visualize and explain in detail exactly what each adjustment does to your picture, no matter what the picture. Stop guessing, start creating great images!
If you can write an overview such as the following for each slider or adjustment you use, then you most likely have LEARNED about it:
In Lightroom the “Blacks” slider controls the very lefthand / blacks portion of the histogram. When I increase ( slide right ) the “Blacks” slider it pulls all pixels in the blacks tonal range towards the mid-tones / grey tonal range. When I decrease ( slide left ) the “Blacks” slider it pulls all pixels in the blacks tonal range toward pure black.
The “Shadows” slider controls the portion of the histogram just to the right / slightly brighter than blacks. This controls the shadows tonal values of an image.
If I pull the shadows slider to the left ( decrease ), it in turn pulls all pixels in the shadows tonal range, towards the blacks tonal range in the far left of the histogram. In turn, if I pull this same slider directly the opposite way towards the right ( increase ), all pixels in the shadows tonal range are pulled towards the mid-tones or 50% grey tonal range portion of the histogram.
Post Processing Tip 2: You don’t need too many plugins. Photoshop and Lightroom plugins can be helpful, but they also hinder you from learning the actual programs. Don’t use plugins until you master the basics per TIP 1 and understand what the plugin is actually doing.
You can create the exact same looks as a plugin does with an in-depth understanding of the basic Lighroom and Photoshop Adjustments. The goal is to know the look / adjustment you’re going for ( visualization in your mind ), and know the adjustment settings used to create the look you just visualized.
Post Processing Tip 3: Stop and think about each adjustment you’re going to make, before you make it. You should always ask 1. What Part of the Photo Do I Want To Adjust ( Global or Selective Adjustment ), and 2. How Do I Want to Adjust It ( Actual Adjustment to Use ).
If you perform this simple process with each adjustment, it will eventually become second nature, and lead you to overall improved images.
Photograph the Night Sky eBook
My 170 page eBook, Photograph the Night Sky, teaches every skill, technique and workflow for Milky Way, Northern Lights, Moon, Star Trail and Night Sky Photography.
PDF format makes this eBook easy to take on your next shoot ( smart phone / tablet compatible ), and the step-by-step instructions guarantee great photos!