Shooting our home galaxy is incredibly rewarding. With a little patience and a few basic setting adjustments you literally have the ability to peer into space.
*This article is intended for users with a DSLR or Mirrorless camera. You need to be able to adjust basic settings (shutter speed etc.) to properly capture the stars.*
Milky Way Photography (Astrophotography) Basics
Grab your camera! Set it up on a tripod and set your timer delay to 2 or 5 seconds.
Set your Aperture as wide open as possible. This is decided by your lens. If it goes to f/4 great! If if goes to f/2.8 even better!
Set your ISO. Start somewhere between ISO1600 and ISO3200.
Set your shutter speed. You need a long shutter speed to compensate for the darkness. But you will quickly introduce star trails if it is to long. Set your shutter speed to 15 seconds as a starting point or calculate the exact number with the 500 method detailed below!
Switch to manual focus and focus on the brightest star. Move the focus dial back and forth until the star is as pinpoint as possible.
Wide open! If it goes to f/4 great! If if goes to f/2.8 even better!
ISO1600 - ISO 3200
15 Seconds (or calculate based on the rule of 500 below) Adjust until there are no star trails.
Manual focus on the brightest star! If unavailable, set focus to infinite.
OK... lets dive a litter deeper
A Complete Guide to Milky Way Photography
Shooting stars is all about capturing light and preventing movement. Movement can be caused by you or earth’s rotation. Every setting change should improve one of the two variables.
Table of Contents
1. Choose your location and day.
- Choose your location!
- Start by considering light pollution. You can use a dark sky map to plan ahead.
- The foreground does matter in Astrophotography! Consider your composition just as you would during the day.
- Check the moon cycle.
- The new moon is the best time for astrophotography.
- Check the weather! You will need clear skies.
2. Get your camera ready.
- Using a tripod is key! Any tripod will do the trick for basic astrophotography.
- Set your camera’s timer delay. (I recommend at-least 5 seconds) The camera moves every time you press the shutter button. Using a delay will allow the camera to stabilize before taking each photo.
- Switch lenses. There are two considerations:
- Aperture: The wider the better.
- Focal Length: Again, the wider the better.
3. Set your aperture.
Generally, in landscape photography you want to choose a mid range aperture to allow the whole scene to be in focus. But, in astrophotography your priority is light. The lower the “f stop” number, the wider the aperture. Simply set your aperture as low as possible and move to the next step! Simple!
PRO TIP: Lenses generally do not perform at their best at extremes. If your lens has a minimum f stop of 1.4 you may have better results at f2. Look up your lens or experiment!
4. Set your ISO.
Your ISO setting controls your camera sensor’s sensitivity to light. To find the perfect ISO setting you have to find a balance between sensitivity, noise, and dynamic range. There is no one size fits all for ISO. BUT there is a great resource:
Sony A7R3 example:
The graph is showing ISO (X axis) to Noise (Y axis). You can see that the read noise drops significantly at an ISO of 800 and stabilizes. Meaning you should shoot with a minimum ISO of 800 for the best image quality. For the best shot start at your minimum ISO and move upwards until you reach an acceptable exposure. As you increase ISO you decrease noise, but you also decrease dynamic range meaning it is all about finding a balance. (I usually shoot at ISO 1600-3200)
PRO TIP: Use a high ISO to quickly take test photos to hone in your composition.
5. Set your shutter speed.
You need a long shutter speed to compensate for the darkness. But you will quickly introduce star trails if it is set to long. You will be amazed how quickly the earth is rotating.
There is a simple rule to calculate the appropriate shutter speed. The 500 Rule:
Divide 500 by the focal length of your lens. For example, the maximum shutter speed for a 14mm lens is 500/14=35,7 and for a 20mm lens it’s 500/20=25.
PRO TIP: The 500 rule is a great starting point, but it isn’t perfect. There are multiple variables to this equation. For example, the stars a moving slower near Polaris (the north start) and faster near the Celestial Equator. Take a few test shots and dial in your shutter speed.
6. Find your focus.
It is easier to focus in a dark sky that you may think. Switch your camera to manual focus and find the brightest star in the sky. Simply turn the focus dial back and forth until the star is as pinpoint as possible.
PRO TIP: If you are having trouble finding a bright star consider increasing your ISO for this step. Most camera’s will magnify into the center of the frame to help you focus. To make things easier, leave your camera on the tripod and attempt to place the bright star in the center of the frame before turning the focus dial.
PRO TIP: Not sure when you have perfect focus? You will often see smaller stars appear in the background near your focus point.
7. Start Shooting!
Thats it! You can start shooting. I recommend shooting at different ISO levels and re-focusing at least once between images to ensure you go home with the perfect image.
I hope you enjoyed this article!
Feel free to message us with any questions! We will be adding new astrophotography articles soon. Here is a sneak peak at whats coming next:
Milky Way photography post processing
Image stacking for a sharp foreground
How to plan an astrophotography shot
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