8 tips on shooting the Milky Way

I received questions about how I shot my milky way pictures and decided to make a blog post with my tips on how to shoot stars and the milky way.

  • Run away from light light pollution
    That's probably the most important tip: you will not be able to see the Milky Way (and even just the stars) if you are in an illuminated area. Avoid cities, houses, roads...any kind of light ! The picture at the top was taken in the Swiss Alps at an altitude of 2500 meters (8200 ft), away from any city, but you can still see that the sky is a bit lit by cities far away.

  • Check the lunar calendar
    There's no need to look for the Milky Way on a full moon evening: you won't find it. The best is to wait for new Moon (the instant when the Moon and the sun have the same ecliptical longitude, which means the Moon will not be visible): the sky will be dark and stars will bring out so much you'll be able to see the milky way with the naked eye. Check a lunar calendar to know when is the best night!

  • Look for the Milky Way and be sure ot include it on your picture. A sky without the Milky Way is pretty but way less spectacular! Note that the Milky Way may be more or less visible depending on the time of the year you're watching it; the best months to shoot it are between February and September).

The difference between a sky without the milky way (left) and with (right). Much better with it, isn't it ?

The difference between a sky without the milky way (left) and with (right). Much better with it, isn't it ?

  • Start from base settings and experiment. Mine are quite easy: f/2.8, ISO 3200, 20 seconds. If needed, play with aperture but don't expose longer than 20 seconds or the stars will be blurry. It actually depends on what focal you're shooting with, so be sure to check the 500 rule to avoid star trails. Be sure to shoot with high sensitivity: yes, it will be noisy but it's needed! And you can easily remove the noise when editing your shots.
    I know, lenses are not the sharpest when shooting wide open, but the goal here is to capture the highest amount of light possible and shooting wide open with high ISO is the only way to do it without exposing for a too long time and causing star trails.
    Regarding focus, just switch your camera to manual focus and turn the focus ring to infinite (be careful that on some lenses, infinite is not completely on the right or the left of the ring).
  • Use a stable tripod and a remote shutter. If you're camera moves while the shutter is open, even just a few millimeters, the shot will be blurry. Be sure to use a good tripod, to protect it from wind that could unbalance it and to use a remote shutter to avoid shaking the camera when triggering it: infrared, chord, radio...there are tons of different models. If you don't want to spend money in a remote shutter, just use your camera's timer!
  • Care about of the composition. Even though we're shooting the sky, you should include a piece of Earth in your shot: it will make a scale to your shot and could create a great ambiance: mountain, lake, ocean...
  • Embellish your shot with unusual events: get informed on astronomical phenomena that may make your shot more outstanding: meteor shower, shooting stars, satellites... You can subscribe to receive an SMS when the International Space Station will be visible from your place on NASA's website.
  • Take care of yourself, too ! spending a night (or even just a few hours) in the cold may be uncomfortable, so be sure to take important stuff like a blanket or a coffee Thermos! A flashlight may also be handy when packing your stuff before going back home.

Shooting the milky way is really fun and you'll be amazed how easy it is once you've experimented a bit! You'll quickly feel more comfortable and be able to play around with settings and composition. Have fun and don't hesitate to share your pictures with me !