Simple Tips For Shooting The Milky Way

Last year when visiting the Fuji Five Lakes area with my family I took some photos of the Milky Way over Mt Fuji, but having not prepared all that well, I did not end up getting any shots I liked. During my trip this year I was set on rectifying that mistake. Thankfully the weather worked out well and I was able to get some photos I’m pleased with. Along with sharing those photos in this post, I thought I’d share some simple tips to help you photograph the Milky Way. It’s a whole lot of fun to photograph and very rewarding as well, because it’s one of those things that you can’t really see clearly with your naked eye. Plus, people love to see this kinds of images, so they are fun to share!

Nikon D610 | 16-35mm Lens | 30mm | f/4 | 13 sec | ISO 6400

Photo of Milky Way and Mt Fuji

Tip #1: Prepare Your Shot

Some shots you can get with little preparation, but the Milky Way typically requires a little more forethought. It’s only visible at certain times of the year, and just all celestial objects, it rises and sets. Knowing its location and when it becomes visible is thus very important. There are many tools out there to help you with this, but my app of choice is called PhotoPills. This simple app will give you all the information you need to know, and has a lot of other great uses as well. However you do it, make sure your prepare and plan for what you want to shoot. Especially when shooting in the dark, the more you’re prepared, the better.

Tip #2: Shoot With A Wide Aperture

The wider your aperture can open when shooting the Milky Way, the better. You’re shooting in the emptiness of space after all, so the more light you can get to your sensor, the more clearly you will be able to see the celestial objects in your image. Of course, with a wider aperture comes the penalty of depth of field – it’s harder to get things in focus. However, since your subject is billions of miles away, focusing toward the infinity end of your lens should do the trick. If I can’t see anything to focus on, I will turn my lens all the way to infinity and then turn it back just slightly the other direction. Usually that is pretty close to where you want to be.

Nikon D610 | 50mm Lens | f/1.8 | 6 sec | ISO 5000

Milky Way Over Mt Fuji

Tip #3: Don’t Shoot Too Long

As I said before, since you’re shooting at night you need more light, and so along with a wider aperture you will also need to do a long exposure. However, remember that you’re standing on a planet that is spinning through space. If you shoot for too long, those objects in the heavens will begin to form lines we call “star trails.” Star trail photography can be stunning in its own right, but if you’re trying to shoot the Milky Way it will be a problem. You need to balance all the settings so you can get a clear image, and part of that balance is a shutter speed that is long enough to give the light you need while short enough to keep the objects still. A good formula to remember here is what is called the “500 rule.” Just divide 500 by your focal length, and that will give you a rough estimate of how long a shutter speed you can do. So for example, if you’re shooting at 16mm, that’s 500/16 = 31.5, so you can do a roughly 30 second exposure before things get blurry. This will change some if you’re shooting on a cropped sensor, but either way it gives you a helpful starting point.

Tip #4: Keep Your ISO As Low As Possible

In order to shoot into space you will have to pump up your ISO, but with that increased ISO comes increased noise, which can be troublesome especially with stars. On a small screen you might not notice it so much, but once you pull those images up on your computer you absolutely will. Ideally you want to keep your ISO below 4000, if possible. The lower the better, but again it’s a balancing act and you have to decide based upon the lens you’re using, your camera’s capabilities, etc.

Nikon D610 | 85mm Lens | f/1.8 | 6 sec | ISO 2500

Milky Way Rising Over Mountain

Tip #5: Focus Using Live View

In the dark of night it will be near impossible for your camera to auto focus. However, sometimes there might be a small point of light way off in the distance that you might be able to use to manually focus. This is best done through live view. You can zoom in and move the focusing ring to the right spot, and if the object is far enough away, it and the stars should be in focus as well. If you want to focus on multiple objects, you will likely need to do focus stacking, but in the case of Mt Fuji, that was not necessary.

Tip #6: Use A Red Flashlight

Since you’ll be shooting at night, you might want or need to see things in the dark, but if you use a normal flashlight it will mess with your night vision. Using a red flashlight (the light needs to be red, not the flashlight itself of course!) can help reduce this problem. It allows you to see what you need to without causing your eyes to adjust so much.

Those are my tips for you today for shooting the Milky Way! Especially during the summer months this can be a fun type of photography to try out, so get out there and give it a go! You might be surprised just how fun it is.

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