Basic Tips for Night Photography: How to Easily Capture the Milky Way and Stars

How to Capture the Milky Way & Stars

Ever wanted to take your own photos of the Milky Way or those beautiful twinkling stars? No need to pin those pretty pictures on Pinterest because you can take them yourself. I’ve simplified the steps for you to make capturing the Milky Way a breeze!

There are just 7 simple steps to capturing ‘jaw-dropping good' night photos.

The first one starts with gathering the right equipment.

Tip 1: Use the Proper Equipment for Night Photography

Before we get into night photography techniques, we need to talk about the right gear for the job. Whenever you shoot at night, you need to ensure your equipment is up to the task .

Here is a list of recommended equipment to get you started. 

A DSLR or Mirrorless Camera: 

Sorry folks, but you gotta put the iPhones away for this one. To take amazing Milky Way photography and star photography, you’ll need a camera that allows you to fully control its aperture, shutter speed, and ISO settings. You also want to make sure your camera lets you focus manually.

A Fast Lens:

Lenses for Milky Way photography need to have a large maximum aperture (remember, the bigger the aperture, the faster your lens will be) to allow a lot of light to reach your camera’s sensor. The aperture is identified by the small letter ‘f’ followed by a number like f/1.8. A sweet zone would be a lens in the f/1.4 – f/2.8 range. 

A Stable Tripod:

I normally say tripods are optional when shooting, but not when it comes to night photography. You’ll be shooting long exposure, with 15 seconds as your minimum shutter speed, so you’ll need a tripod that’s sturdy and stable.

Star Map App:

Okay, this is optional, but you’ll thank your lucky stars you had this! A star map shows you exactly where the Milky Way, moon, and certain constellations are, taking the guesswork out of planning your shots. My favorites include Star Walk, which shows you where the Milky Way is (or plots where it will be), and PhotoPills. The latter has a cool Night AR feature that lets you line up your phone with the sky and shows you which celestial bodies are there.

Post-Processing Software:

 Great night photography doesn’t end after taking your photos. To bring out the details in your night photos during the editing process, I recommend you pick up the Adobe Photography Plan bundle, which includes both Photoshop and Lightroom Classic.  

Optional Equipment:

I recommend a remote camera trigger (to avoid disturbing your tripod and for long exposures). In a pinch, you can use the self-timer on your camera. 

Tip #2 : Finding the Perfect Location for Night Photography

To capture the Milky Way and Star Trails, you’ll want to be in an area that’s as dark as possible.

Sadly, big cities aren’t the best locations for this because of air and light pollution, so it’s best to pack your bags and head to the great outdoors to get that perfect shot! Be prepared to drive a few hours to get to that prime location though. Even if it may seem too dark, the camera will still be able to pick up light that your eyes may not see.

National parks that are far away from the city and wilderness areas are great locations for night photography because the skies are clear and free from light pollution. The Dark Site Finder is a great website that helps you find places that are perfect for night photography.

Tip #3: How to Focus in the Dark

A big challenge photographers often face with night photography is dealing with the autofocus function on most cameras.

With little to no contrast occurring in front of your lens at night, your camera’s lens has nothing to focus on, making it close to impossible to focus on anything!

The best thing to do is to turn off the autofocus setting and just rely on manual focusing using the Live View function.

From there, set the focus to infinity (whoa, right?). You could also set your lens to Manual Focus and turn the Live View on, zoom in to 100% and direct your camera at the brightest source of light in the sky. This could be the moon or the north star.

Move the focus ring until the moon or star is clearly defined and then turn off Live View.

Tip #4: Milky Way Photography Settings

When you're capturing night skies, be sure to shoot in RAW file format for the most flexibility in editing options. JPG mode doesn't give you near the control when it comes to post-processing. 

Switch to shooting in full manual mode because there isn’t enough light around for your camera’s meter to calculate the right exposure.

You also need to switch off the Auto ISO, then set the aperture to the maximum aperture setting (such as f/1.4).

 I recommend setting your ISO to 1600 to start and moving it up as needed.

Remember that your ISO is basically what brightens or darkens your photos, so the higher the ISO, the brighter your images will be. Be careful, though, because higher ISO also creates more “noise” or grain in your images, so don’t go overboard! 

The sky may be full of twinkling stars at night, but it doesn’t mean your camera can capture it.

This is because your eyes adjust more easily and more quickly to the low light at night. When your eyes detect the change in light, your pupils dilate (or widen), making it more sensitive to light and allowing you to see things even with very little light around you.

Tip 6: Exposure Settings for Astrophotography

Figuring out the correct length for your exposure is a touchy subject.

Too short and you’ll just end up with a black sky; too long and you veer into star trail photography territory. 

Carefully time your shot to make sure the stars remain as clear as possible, since the Earth is constantly moving and you’re shooting from a fixed location.

Exposure and the '500 Rule'

Experts in astrophotography (the fancy term for night photography) like to use the “500 Rule” to figure out their exposure lengths.

Basically, to find out the length of exposure, you need to take one of the two numbers and divide it by the focal length of the lens to determine the best shutter speed.

Let’s say you have a 20mm lens, using the 500 Rule, take 500 and divide it by 20, you get 25 seconds – this is the longest shutter speed you can get away with before the stars turn into star trails.

Once you’ve got everything set up, start shooting!

Note: If you like the look of star trails as in the photo above, try an exposure from 30-60 seconds. 

Don’t feel disheartened if your photos don’t look like any of the Milky Way photos you see on the Internet, you’ll get to fix those up in post-processing.

The important thing to focus on now is the composition of your photos.

Tip #7 : Night Photography Post-Processing

Night photography isn’t complete without post-processing. No matter how well you set up your camera and adjust the settings, you still need to adjust the contrast and colors to bring out the details in the photo. Don’t worry, I promise it won’t take much work! 

Join me for a FREE editing training session where I’ll show you a quick and easy way to edit your photos in a single click.

Just click the image below to register for the training: 

8 thoughts on “Basic Tips for Night Photography: How to Easily Capture the Milky Way and Stars”

    1. David Molnar - Your Photography Mentor

      You are so right! I guess I got ahead of myself! You are the first person to notice. Ha!

  1. Christy Ledlow

    So I have a Nikon Coolpix B500 and I love to try and get night shots. I am assuming I won’t be able to get them with this camera correct? This was a gift from my wonderful boyfriend who doesn’t know anything about cameras . It is an upgrade from the camera I had. I want to learn so much about taking good photos and I am a beginner

    1. David Molnar - Your Photography Mentor

      Christy, your Nikon Coolpix B500 is more of a point and shoot camera. You can’t change lenses out. You would need different equipment to capture the Milky Way and Stars. Super kind gesture on your boyfriend’s part, however. It shows he knows that you’re interested in photography.

    1. David Molnar - Your Photography Mentor

      Hi Gigi! The best time to try to capture the Milky Way best is right before or right after a full moon.

    1. David Molnar - Your Photography Mentor

      Hello Sandy, typically I would say that compact cameras, in general, are not recommended for shooting astrophotography, but the COOLPIX P900 is an exception. The zoom range offers incredible versatility, giving you the ability to shoot the sky effectively. Best of luck!

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