The Milky Way rises over Grand Teton National Park
First, you need to know when and where the Milky Way will be in the sky. For those of us in the northern hemisphere, the core of the Milky Way is always in the southern sky. Keep in mind, "Milky Way Season" runs from April - October in most cases. In the winter months (November - February) the core is not visible. In Spring, the Milky Way will be in the Southeastern sky very early in the morning (3-5am). In the Summer, the Milky Way will be due South and will be up all night. In the Fall, the Milky Way will be in the Southwest portion of the sky early at night (8-12am).
I highly recommend using Stellarium, a free Desktop application. It is also available on the App Store and Google Play for $2.50. Stellarium allows you to select any location on Earth and see what the night sky will look like. I've been using Stellarium to plan all of my night photos for over a year now. The smartphone app has everything you will need when shooting out in the field.
Don't forget, you can also look North for a different take on the Milky Way. I've found that some of my favorite Milky Way photos taken recently have actually be facing North, not South.
Next, you need to find a location with dark enough skies. If you are anywhere near a major source of light pollution the Milky Way will probably not be visible. I highly recommend using this Dark Sky Map as a guide to finding dark locations near you. Remember, the core of the Milky Way will be in the southern sky, so it's best to find locations that don't have any orange or red locations south of your position. Living in Northeast Ohio, it is very hard to find suitable locations for photographing the Milky Way. In my experience, even a Yellow area can be dark enough to get some good shots. If you are lucky enough to live near a dark sky with no light pollution, you will have a much easier time taking and editing your Milky Way photos.
To understand the role light pollution will play in your Milky Way photos, take a look at the 2 images below. The first image was taken in Joshua Tree National Park looking southwest. The second image was taken at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park looking south. Use the Dark Sky Map to see the difference in Light Pollution at each National Park.
Light Polluted skies in Joshua Tree National Park
Dark Sky at Black Canyon of the Gunnison
I recommend using Clear Dark Sky forecasts. These are a bit tricky to understand at first. Basically, you want as many rows as possible on the chart to be dark blue. The darker the blue, the better the conditions will be. This forecast is specialized for Astronomers and Astrophotographers with telescopes, so it may be a bit overkill for normal photographers. I've found it's more accurate than a standard forecast though. Another important thing to keep in mind is the moon. In order to get great Milky Way photos, the moon can not be out. Therefore, it's best to wait until the new moon each month, or use Stellarium to see if the moon will be below the horizon when you are out.
Any modern DSLR can take decent photos of the Milky Way. The major problem you will have with any camera is noise / grain. Noise is produced when there is only a faint amount of light reaching the sensor. The camera amplifies this weak signal and grain becomes visible. Many entry level Crop-Sensor cameras will start to see heavy noise around IS0 800. A Full-Frame camera can shoot at much higher ISO's with better noise control. Full-Frame cameras also allow you to capture a wider view of the sky, provided you use a wide-angle lens; this also allows you to take longer exposures without any star movement. A Wide Angle lens can also help with Milky Way compositions, as you will have room for the Milky Way and foreground.
While High ISO noise is a major nuisance, there are workarounds. I recommend shooting multiple exposures in order to reduce noise. This process is called Median Stacking. This blog by Pat David does an excellent job of explaining the process in detail. Basically, Photoshop can detect noise and remove it without affecting sharpness. You will need 10+ images to effectively remove noise. The main problem with this method is that the stars will move pretty substantially over the course of 10+ long exposures, especially when using a wide angle lens. I've had great success with Photo Stacking using a 35mm lens. I've had no luck aligning photos at 14mm, due to the distortion of the lens and the length of the Shutter Speed. Stacking can be a big pain, I'd only recommend trying it once you're comfortable shooting the Milky Way and Post-Processing. Check out my Noise Reduction Tutorial on Youtube.
A lens that has bad Coma can ruin your Milky Way images. This article explains exactly what Coma is. Many lenses produce awful coma, or star distortion. This causes the stars to lose their sharp, spherical look. The example below was taken with the Sigma 35mm Art lens at f/1.4. I cropped in heavily to the upper-right corner of the image. If you stop the lens down to f/2.8, the distortion will be much less noticeable. Some lenses have bad coma that affect stars across the entire image. Therefore, it is recommended to use a lens with minimal coma for your Milky Way photos.
Sigma 35mm f/1.4 coma
The lens you choose is arguably the most important factor in capturing good Milky Way photos. You can have the best camera body available, but a bad lens choice will ruin your star photos. I've spent many hours researching the best lenses for night photography. The clear winner, for the price, is the Rokinon / Samyang brand. They make good, cheap, manual focus lenses. Oddly enough, many Nikon and Canon lenses are awful for taking Milky Way photos. Below is a list of the top Astrophotography lenses:
I recently had the opportunity to test the Tamron 15-30, Nikon 14-24mm, and Rokinon 14mm against one another at Cherry Springs State Park. This review should give you a very clear look at the differences between each lens, and help you decide which option might work best for you. Click here to read the review.
First up is the acclaimed Nikon 14-24mm. This lens is quite expensive at $1,900, especially compared to the $350 Rokinon 14mm. If you have the budget though, it's a great option! The Nikon has fairly minimal vignetting, distortion, and coma at f/2.8. This lens doubles as a fantastic lens for landscapes and waterfall photography as well. It is also very large and heavy, especially when compared next to the Rokinon.
The Tamron 15-30mm is one of the best Milky Way lenses on the market right now, and it costs over $600 less than the Nikon! While it may capture slightly less light than the Nikon, it performs at a high level. The Tamron also has Vibration Control built in. It is roughly the same size and weight of the Nikon 14-24mm (big and bulky). If you don't want to spend over $1,000, but you want a high-quality astrophotography lens, this might be your best bet!
If you don't want to spend over $500 on a lens, then I recommend purchasing the Rokinon 14mm. If you are looking for this lens, you may see it under different names: Samyang, Rokinon, or Bower. They are all the same lens, just for different geographic markets. I'd recommend this lens for beginners and professionals alike. It is a cheap lens, yet the image quality is quite good, even better than some lenses that costs thousands of dollars. The Rokinon 14mm has no coma and is sharp from corner to corner. Another thing I love about this lens is its massive focus ring. Most lenses have a very small focus ring, (if you move the focus ring a millimeter past "Infinity" it won't be sharp). The Rokinon allows you to rotate the focus ring substantially without losing sharp focus. I should also mention that this lens is Manual Focus only, no autofocus. However, this is irrelevant when doing Milky Way photography, as Auto-Focus wouldn't work anyway.
There are 2 bad things about this lens. First is the awful vignetting. When compared against the Nikon 14-24mm, you can see that the Rokinon loses a substantial amount of light due to its vignetting. Personally, I find this to be a big problem. The images taken with the Rokinon are significantly darker than the Nikon or Tamron. The second problem is the mustache distortion, but it's not very noticeable unless you have a straight horizon in the center of the frame. To be clear, almost all of the Milky Way photos in my Nightscapes Gallery were taken with this lens. It can definitely get the job done, but it will take more editing in post-processing to get the images up to an acceptable level.
The Rokinon 14mm is a great Milky Way lens
Another lens I like is the Sigma 35mm Art. It produces very sharp images, but it does suffer from pretty severe coma in the corners at f/1.4. I created this blog post detailing the coma on the Sigma; at f/2.8 the coma is gone! However, the ability to shoot at f/1.4 means that you can drastically reduce your ISO, leading to cleaner images. The 35mm focal length also changes how you compose your Milky Way photos. I like how it makes the Milky Way seem more "3D". I also love how well Photo Stacking works with this lens. Photo Stacking is a technique where you take multiple photos and combine them to reduce noise. This technique does not work well with wide angle lenses, but seems to work great with the Sigma 35mm. This means you can get even cleaner Milky Way photos. For more information on Photo Stacking, check out my video tutorial.
In order to capture a nice foreground and the Milky Way with a 35mm or 50mm lens, you will likely have to create a Panorama. Check out this fantastic guide by LonelySpeck Photography to learn how. They have tons of informative guides and information on their site, be sure to look around!
Sigma 35mm Art
If you have a Sony, Pentax, Fuji, or Olympus camera, head over to Lonely Speck website for even more lens recommendations and details! Ian has compiled a large list of lenses for every camera brand and sensor size that work best for Astrophotography. This article should help you find the best lens!
The lens you choose will drastically alter how your Milky Way images look. I love using a 14mm lens because I have plenty of room for the foreground and the Milky Way. Anything over 35mm is too tight to capture a foreground element, unless you create a panorama.
When it comes to Milky Way photography, it is crucial to capture as much light as possible. T-Stops measure the transmission of light through the lens. Ideally, the f-stop and T-stop would be the same. For example, an f/2.8 lens would transmit 2.8 T-stops of light. This is usually not the case.
Be sure to visit DXO Mark and see what the T-stop rating is for your lens. You may be surprised how much light you are "losing". You can also compare most of the Astrophotography lenses I listed above, and get an idea of which lenses will let the most light in. Remember, the more light that you let in, the cleaner your images will be.
Now we can finally get down to photographing the Milky Way. Using a Nikon D750 and Rokinon 14mm, I usually set my camera to the following settings:
If I am using my Nikon D750 with the Sigma 35mm lens, my settings are normally:
ISO is a very important camera setting to understand for Milky Way photography. There are a lot of misconceptions about ISO, and what exactly it does. Generally, it is said that "increasing the ISO increases the camera's sensitivity to light". This is not really the case. Increasing the ISO simply amplifies whatever light was captured. This amplification increases the brightness of the image. It also makes image grain more noticeable.
For the more experienced photographers, I recommend reading this ISO Tutorial by Lonely Speck. It covers ISO very well, especially in context with Astrophotography.
Click here to see the difference between the ISO Stops, from 100 to 6400. The only setting I changed between each photo was the ISO.
Remember, there are only two ways to capture more light: a longer Shutter Speed or a wider Aperture. We want to gather as much light as possible through Shutter Speed and Aperture so the camera doesn't have to amplify the signal as much. This amplification normally causes the image to become more grainy. Since we can only shoot for a certain length of time (before the stars become blurred), we are limited by the Shutter Speed. The lens aperture only opens up so wide. Most Wide Angle lenses are limited to f/2.8, although some can open up to f/1.8 or even f/1.4.
It is generally better to use a higher ISO in-camera, as increasing the Exposure in Post-Processing tends to ruin image quality. Oddly enough, some cameras are ISO Invariant. This means you can use any ISO and brighten the photo in Post-Processing without any loss in image quality. Read my blog post on ISO Invariance to learn more. To understand how to use an ISO Invariant camera to it's fullest potential, check out this article by Daniel Laan.
The only way to reduce noise / grain in your images is to capture more light. That means a longer shutter speed or wider aperture. Increasing the ISO does not capture any more light! Watch the video below for more information, as well as some tips to reduce noise in Adobe Camera RAW and Photoshop.
When photographing faint stars, it's imperative to use the widest Aperture possible. Ideally you have a lens that opens up to at least f/2.8. If not, you should seriously consider buying a new lens for astrophotography. There are only 2 ways to increase the amount of light: a longer Shutter Speed and/or a wider Aperture. Remember, a f/2 lens can get double the amount of light of a f/2.8 lens. A f/1.4 lens can get four times the amount of light of a f/2.8 lens! That's a huge difference!
If you use a wide-open aperture, like f/1.4, you will likely notice vignette in the corners and significant coma. If you stop-down to f/2 or f/2.8 these problems tend to disappear. This is another advantage to buying a lens that can open up to f/1.4 or f/1.8. For example, you have the Nikon 14-24mm (an f/2.8 lens) and you stop down to f/4. The vignette will be reduced, but you would now be getting half the amount of light. Not good for Milky Way photography. If the starting point is f/1.4 though, you can stop down to f/2.8 and still capture a lot of light and not have to deal with heavy vignette or bad coma.
At the end of the day, I usually shoot wide-open. This allows me to capture as much light as possible.
When I am photographing the Milky Way, I want to have as neutral a White Balance as possible. Light Pollution, Air Glow, and environmental conditions can all change the colors in the night sky.
I normally set my White Balance between 3000-4000 K for the best results. This tends to make the sky more blue / grey / green. Most of the photos in this tutorial were taken in that White Balance range.
To get realistic colors, use the preset 'Daylight' White Balance. Read Roger Clark's blog post on Night Sky Colors for more information. The image below was taken on a dark night in the Great Sand Dunes of Colorado. This photo is a (roughly) accurate representation of the true night sky colors. The green color is called Air Glow, which is similar to the aurora. The predominate yellow color is because most stars in the night sky are yellow/orange/red.
More accurate night colors
If you begin taking your Milky Way photos at Nautical Twilight, the sky will have a blue cast to it. If you begin taking photos at twilight, you may need to re-adjust your White Balance once Astronomical Twilight arrives. Watch the first half of the video below to see how the sky changes color from Nautical Twilight to Astronomical Twilight. It takes about 1 hour for the sky to transition from Nautical to Astronomical Twilight. I recommend using The Photographer's Ephemeris App to see what time these occur.
Again, the real colors of the night sky tend to be quite warm. Using the Daylight White Balance may be scientifically accurate, but it doesn't always make for a pleasing photo. As the artist, it's your decision to make. What White Balance looks best to you?
Daylight White Balance - 5500 K
Custom White Balance - 4000K
Fluorescent White Balance - 3800 K
Tungsten White Balance - 2850 K
Focusing at night should be easy. Just set your lens to Infinity and shoot. Most lenses don't work that well unfortunately. If the focus ring is even slightly off, your stars will no longer be sharp. Manual focus lenses are much easier to focus with at night, as they have a lot of distance in the focusing ring. This is why I love using the Rokinon. I can move the focus ring quite a bit and still have sharp stars. When using most Auto-Focus lenses, the slightest movement on the focus ring will ruin the sharp focus. There are a few different ways to focus at night.
Sometimes you can't see anything through Live View. It may be that the lens is too out of focus, double check that the Focus Ring is on / near infinity. You should also be using a lens with an aperture of at least f/2.8. If you are using a kit lens that doesn't have the capability to open up to f/2.8, it will probably be too dark on Live View to see any stars.
Keep in mind, using Live View will quickly heat up the camera sensor. This sensor heat will cause unwanted side effects in your final images; these problems are covered further down on the page. Therefore, try to be as quick as possible when using Live View, especially on warm nights. Then again, having sharp stars is critical. Make sure that your stars are 100% sharp before continuing on.
Another problem you will encounter when shooting at night is star trails. While these can make for excellent photos, we generally want our stars to be tack-sharp. Therefore, we need to limit our exposure length so that the stars don't appear to move. This is another great reason to use a very wide lens (24mm and lower), you can have much longer exposure times without any visible star movement. If you are interested in learning how to create a Star Trails image, check out my Star Trails Tutorial.
Most photographers recommend the 500 Rule when taking Milky Way photos. The 500 Rule states: to prevent star trails, take 500 divided by your lens' focal length.
In my experience, the 500 Rule is just a bit too long. You will likely see the stars moving.
Another problem you will have is that the camera may not give you the exact shutter speed. For example, you can't take a 21 or 14 second photo. Anything longer than 30 seconds has to be manually timed on Bulb Mode.
Below you will see 4 heavily cropped images, each taken with a different "Rule" (500, 400, 300, 200). If you look closely, even the 300 Rule has a small amount of movement. Below are some quick Shutter Speeds for reference:
500 / 14mm = 35 seconds
400 / 14mm = 28 seconds
300 / 14mm = 21 seconds
200 / 14mm = 14 seconds
**Note: all these numbers are for Full Frame Cameras. If you use a Crop Sensor camera you must multiply your focal length by 1.5 to get the proper shutter speed. 500 / (14mm * 1.5) = 24 seconds
Another thing to consider when choosing your 'Rule' is the amount of light captured. Remember, it's crucial to capture as much light as possible at night; the more light you capture, the less grainy the photos will be. Even though the stars will show movement with the 500 Rule, you will capture substantially more light.
I personally use the 300 Rule. I find it to be the best compromise between sharp stars and capturing enough light. You can decide for yourself which Rule looks best. If you are using a Crop Sensor camera, you may want to stick with the 500 Rule so that you can have less grain in your images.
Working with a crop sensor makes shooting Milky Way photos more difficult. Because of the 1.5x Crop Factor, you will need shorter exposures to account for star trails, and therefore a higher ISO. Crop-Sensors are already bad at high ISO's so this just compounds that problem. With all that said, you can still take some great Milky Way photos with Crop-Sensor cameras.
If you are confused on DX vs FX lenses (on Nikon) or the crop factor, visit Nikon's page on this for more information.
The image below was actually my first ever Milky Way photo, taken back in July 2014 at Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado. This area has some incredible dark skies, making it an ideal place for stargazers. If you look closely you can see how distorted the stars in the corner are, mainly due to the Tokina 11-16's coma. I should note I did heavy noise reduction for this image, mainly in the clouded areas.
Nikon D7100, Tokina 11-16mm, ISO 3200, 20 seconds, f/2.8
Amp Glow is an ugly purple noise that can ruin an otherwise good photo. Every camera has different amounts of Amp Glow; some newer cameras have very effective sensor designs that can entirely remove this problem at a hardware level. For more information, read this article by Roger Clark.
Amp Glow is mainly caused by sensor heat. Therefore, you will likely notice Amp Glow in your photos on warm nights. Using Live View will increase the sensor temperature the most. Therefore, it's best to minimize Live View usage, if possible. The ambient air temperature will also have an affect on the sensor's temperature. If it's a warm night, the sensor will take longer to cool down. The amount of light captured will also have an effect on the level of amp glow in your photos. One of the best ways to reduce amp glow is to gather more light, either by a wider aperture or longer shutter speed.
My preferred way to eliminate Amp Glow is to take Dark Frames. Click here to learn more about this process.
Basically, a Dark Frame is just a photo where no light reaches the sensor. Dark Frames should be taken while you are out shooting, so you capture the same temperature that will be in the normal photos. On warm nights it is critical to take at least one Dark Frame to reduce Amp Glow. If it's a cold, winter night though this may not be necessary.
To create a Dark Frame, put the lens cap on and use the same settings you've been using. When you are Post-Processing your images, do the exact same edits to the Dark Frame that you do to the normal photo. You can then bring the Dark Frame and normal photo into Photoshop. Make sure the Dark Frame is on its own, separate layer. Change the Blend Mode to Subtract. This should greatly reduce the Amp Glow.
Watch the video below for more information on removing Amp Glow.
Enabling LENR is critical to removing Hot Pixels and potentially reducing Amp Glow. After shooting Milky Way photos for 2 years now, Amp Glow and Hot Pixels are some of the most annoying problems I've encountered. By enabling LENR, the camera will take two exposures. After your normal photo is done, the camera will become unusable while it takes the second photo. This photo is simply a Dark Frame, no light is reaching the sensor. After both exposures are taken, the camera is able to find the hot pixels that don't belong. The camera eliminates them and produces one final RAW image. If you are shooting in a cold environment LENR may not be needed, as the sensor will be cooled by the cold air. If you are in a warm environment though, LENR may be essential.
I highly recommend using Long Exposure Noise Reduction on warm nights. It will completely remove 99% of the hot pixels in your photo, and it may reduce the Amp Glow. The image above shows a comparison of two Dark Frames. One was taken with LENR turned on, the other was taken with LENR off. I then used the Luminance Noise Reduction slider in Adobe Camera RAW to remove all the grain from the photo, allowing the hot pixels to become more visible. This should give you a clear look at just how effective LENR can be.
Hot Pixels will look like bright, multi-colored dots in your image. The warmer it is outside, the more hot pixels you will see in your image. Long Exposure Noise Reduction should completely eliminate the hot pixels in your image. If you forget to enable Long Exposure Noise Reduction, and have an awesome image plagued by hot pixels, there are ways to fix it.
If you remembered to take a Dark Frame while you were out shooting, you can try the Photoshop Subtract method, detailed in the video below. The best way to remove hot pixels in post-processing is the Dust and Scratches Filter in Photoshop. This works wonders on hot pixels, but it can be tricky to get right. The video below covers the process in detail.
In my experience, Long Exposure Noise Reduction is the easiest and best method to removing Hot Pixels. However, it does not seem to do much for Amp Glow; so be sure to take a Dark Frame while you are shooting and use the Photoshop Subtract method to reduce Amp Glow.
For more information on removing Hot Pixels, watch the video below.
In order to reduce noise and increase detail in your Milky Way images, it is essential to do Photo Stacking. This process enables you to take multiple photos and have Photoshop find and remove grain. This is my favorite method for creating noise-free Milky Way photos. If you are familiar with taking star trail photos, it's the same process. You need to capture 10+ images, one after the other, and blend them together. This process can be complicated when using a wide angle lens however.
Since the stars are moving in each frame, Photoshop will have a tough time aligning images taken with a wide angle lens (14mm). Photoshop can never properly align images taken with my Rokinon 14mm due to the wide angle distortion. I've had the best alignment success when using my Sigma 35mm lens. With that being said, you can always do Photo Stacking with a wide angle lens to remove the foreground noise; the foreground should be static between photos. Once you have the grain removed from the foreground, you can blend in the sky using Photoshop.
You will need Photoshop CC or CS6 Extended, RAW capabilities, and an Intervalometer.
With those settings dialed in, take a test shot and verify everything is sharp. Now, use your camera's built in intervalometer (or use external device) and set it for anywhere between 10 to 50+ exposures. The more images you have, the less grainy the final image will be. Set the Interval to 2 seconds longer than your shutter speed. (8 Second interval for 6 second shutter speed) If you've done Star Trails before, using the Intervalometer, it's the same process.
The camera should now take the exposures, one after the other. You are now ready to take these images into Post-Processing.
20 photos stacked to reduce High ISO Noise
I recently created a video tutorial that will cover this Photo Stacking Process. You can watch it below:
This method takes a bit more work, but it can be very beneficial for noise reduction. At the very least, you can use this method to remove the noise from your foreground. Combine this with a Dark Frame subtraction and your images will be looking good! No Amp Glow, no hot pixels, and minimal noise!
To see just how powerful Photo Stacking can be, look at the comparison below. The original camera settings were: 4 Sec, f/2.8, ISO 12,800. I stacked 50 photos together to remove the horrible grain. The results are incredible!!
Milky Way photos straight out of the camera are very boring, in my opinion. To fully bring out the detail and color takes an extensive knowledge of Adobe Camera RAW and Photoshop.
Take a look at these before-and-after images to see how a little Photoshop knowledge can enhance your images. You can edit your Milky Way photos any way you like.
A Very In-Depth and Scientific Guide for Astrophotography by Roger Clark
Head over to my Nightscapes Gallery to see even more Milky Way photos!