Milky Way Astrophotography Tutorial

Keep seeing those amazing Milky Way photos online and want to learn how to shoot and edit to get the same results? It's a lot easier than you think! Here's my step by step guide on shooting and editing astrophotography photos, from how to find the best skies, camera settings, and developing the photos. 

Shooting

Rule 1

Location, location, location. You need to find somewhere with dark skies. You're not going to get amazing Milky Way photos in the middle of New York City, it's just not going to happen. Light pollution is the biggest challenge you have to overcome to get great astrophotos. If you live in a large urban area, you may have to drive a good bit out of the city to find suitable skies.

How do you find dark skies? Easy, there are a lot of tools online that can show you light pollution maps and help you find dark skies. The one I use is Dark Sites Finder. Ideally, you want to find an area that is in the dark blue or better to fully show the Milky Way. 

What about finding the Milky Way in the sky? That's pretty easy, once you're in an area with little light pollution you will be able to see the "Dark River" with your naked eye (an incredible experience every time). If you're in an area with a little more light, you can use any number of smart phone apps that can show you an overlay of the sky with the location of constellations and stars. Look for Sagittarius and Scorpius if you're going by constellations. The free app I use on iOS is Star Chart.

Rule 2

Timing is also important, the best nights to shoot astrophotography are the nights right around the new moon period. New moons are the opposite of a full moon, so there will be less glow and haze from the moon in the sky. The time of the year also matters, as our orbit affects where the Milky Way appears in the sky. If you're in North America, the best time of the year to see the full center of the Milky Way is March through September.

Cloud coverage is another factor to consider. The above shot took 3 months of patience and planning to find a dark night with no clouds. Any decent weather app can tell you moon periods and cloud coverage. 

Rule 3

Equipment matters a lot for astrophotography. You need three main pieces of gear to get great Milky Way shots:

A camera with good to great high ISO performance. The above shot was taken at ISO 8000, yet remains mostly noise free.

A wide angle lens that's f/2.8 or faster. The wider the lens, the better, as you generally want to get the largest look at the Milky Way and landscape as possible. The faster the lens, the more light you will capture in each frame, bringing out more of that beautiful cosmic glow.

A good tripod. You will be shooting upwards of 15-30 second frames generally, so a steady tripod is a must. Be careful of any vibration from wind or unsteady ground, because even the slightest movement will make stars blurry. 

EXPOSURE

Exposure settings will vary depending on your camera, lens, location, and weather conditions, but generally you're going to be shooting at 10+ seconds with a wide aperture (2.8 or faster) and high ISO (3200+). For a good baseline, try shooting at 15 seconds, ISO 3200, and lowest f/stop your lens can do and adjust from there. 

A note on focusing

If you've tried to autofocus on the night sky, you've probably seen how poorly your camera performs when there are no large objects for it to focus on. The best trick I've found to solve this is to use manual focusing and live view on your LCD. Zoom in as far as you can to the center of the frame and focus until see the stars come into focus out of the blackness. Be careful, as the slightest adjustment will make them blurry again. 

Editing

Once you have your shots imported into Lightroom it's a very simple process to turn them from bland, hazy landscapes into the crystal clear photo you see above. 

The unedited DNG file

Basic Adjustments

Basic develop module adjustments seen on the right panel. The main adjustments will be increasing contrast and clarity then bringing up the shadows and blacks.

Basic develope module adjustments seen on the right panel.

The Secret Slider

The Dehaze tool brings out an amazing amount of detail. Find it at the bottom of the Effects panel and adjust it accordingly. 75+ will really bring out a lot of detail and contrast in the sky. 

The Dehaze tool brings out an amazing amount of detail. Find it at the bottom of the Effects panel.

Finished Product

A 15 frame panorama of the Milky Way as seen from Cedar Key, Florida. 15 sec f/1.8 ISO 8000.

Hopefully that will give you all the tools you need to get out and capture your own amazing photos of the Milky Way. If you have any questions please ask below and I would love to see some of your star photos!

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