Definitive Guide for Photographing Milky Ways & Star Trails

Definitive Guide for Photographing Milky Ways & Star Trails

Have you been wondering about the amazing milky ways and how to capture them – like most of the photographers? Astrophotography in itself is one of the most difficult genres to master. There are technical as well as mental adjustments one needs to make to be able to achieve the result that you want as a photographer. Let’s first talk about the mental adjustments.

The Mental Makeup

Milky Way is observed clearly away from the cities, and usually areas of sparse population and lesser light population. What it means is that you could be standing in the midst of a desert or on an isolated mountain road at 2 AM at the night, or perhaps hiking to a mountain spot where you have to stay the night with bare minimums that you can only carry in your bag – along with camera and of course tripod.

The thought of such an experience makes sure that the competition in Milky Way Photography is much lesser. Also, it eliminates the photographers who depend on digital to help them out in times they mess up. It involves preparation of the highest level, because sometimes you won’t have access to electricity while taking those pictures, and you need to be well-versed with your equipment and how long it will last.

The Equipment

The most important part of shooting Milky Way is the equipment. Some of them are:

  • A Camera with High ISO Performance – Usually a full frame body. It is ideal to have full frame body because we do have shutter limitations in Milky Way, and ISO might go above 3200.
  • A Fast Lens – usually one with an f 2.8 or wider aperture when open to the full. It is again about maximizing the available light. In case the sharpness is an issue, an f1.2 lens can be stepped down to f 2.0 or f2.8, and yet have enough light. However, if we start from f3.5 and there’s not enough sharpness, the matters can go really out of hand.
  • A Tripod – An important component in other forms of photography, but an essential component in long-exposure photography, a tripod is a photographer’s best friend. Without a sturdy tripod, especially at high ISO and wide open aperture, there will be compromise in terms of sharpness. Shakiness might creep in, and tripod is among bare essentials.
  • Remote Shutter Release – another important equipment to avoid shake while hitting shutter, but also important to have exact shutter speeds. A camera usually have limited speeds as per the stops, but sometimes we need to go beyond those exact stops, and this is where a remote shutter release comes in handy. It’s not a necessity as yet, because the in-built timer can help avoid the shake due to shutter in Milky Way. For Star Trails, it’s a necessity though – to have an intervalometer – which is built-in in some modern day cameras.
Shooting Milky Way: The Settings, Dos, and Don’ts

Shooting Milky Way is comparatively straight forward. You just need to zero in on your composition, get a wide angle fast lens, compose, focus, and it’s done. In theory, at least, it’s a straight forward. The following steps will help you get through shooting the Milky Way the best way.

  • Find the right location with no light pollution. It is important to note that the best astrophotography happens on no moon nights because moon is also a source of light pollution – and the biggest one at that. It is important to eliminate all the lights so that only stars and Milky Way are visible.
  • Make your composition, ideally much before the night has set in. It will be hard to compose in dark night. Doing a recce of the spot and then making your perfect composition is important. Ideally, have more than one composition options handy, and then move fast when the time is ideal.
  • Use live mode, zoom in for focus assist using digital zoom, and then focus on the brightest start which will make it easier to focus. Focusing is important because if you are shooting at f 1.2, f 1.8, f 2, etc, the margin for error is really minimal. You can use the distance slider, and the infinity is almost the best spot to start. A slight variation may be needed, depending on lens calibration etc.
  • For shutter speed, follow the 500 rule. What it means is that the shutter speed should be faster than 500/focal length. So if you are using a 35mm, the shutter speed needs to be faster than 500/35= 14.28 seconds or roughly 14 seconds. This is to avoid the star trails – which are great when you are actually photographing star trails but will make the Milky Way image blurry.
  • For ISO, start with ISO 3200, and reduce or increase based on the exposure that comes out. Remember, the lower the ISO the better. Also switch off the auto noise removal features of the camera as they take a long time in processing and may spoil the shots. Post-processing has developed a lot now, and it is easier to edit your pictures for noise removal than ever before.
  • Keep the aperture as wide open as possible for optimum sharpness. If you think that at f 1.2, sharpness isn’t apt, try closing half or full stop. However, if the lens is an f 3.5 or f 4, it will be hard to close down any stop because the light will already be too less. Much also depends on the light conditions. Keeping shutter speed rule in mind, other two settings can be varied upon.
Exposure Calculator
This is a good starting point of the exposure. (based on 500 rule)
Camera Sensor Size Max ISO Lens Focal Length Lens Minimum F Number Ideal Starting Point
APS-C 3200 11mm 2.8 SS: 30 seconds f2.8 ISO 3200
APS-C 3200 35mm 2 SS: 10 seconds f2 ISO 3200
APS-C 3200 18mm 3.5 SS: 19 seconds f3.5 ISO 3200
Full Frame 3200 35mm 2 SS: 14 seconds f2 ISO 3200
Full Frame 3200 15mm 2.8 SS: 30 seconds f2.8 ISO 3200
Full Frame 3200 18mm 3.5 SS: 28 seconds f3.5 ISO 3200
4/3 Sensor 3200 18mm 3.5 SS: 14 seconds f3.5 ISO 3200
1 inch 3200 18mm 3.5 SS: 10 seconds f3.5 ISO 3200 – although unusable
Shooting Star Trails – Dos and Don’ts

Shooting star trails and Milky Way requires basically the same setup and almost the same settings. Here we will discuss how the settings are different from shooting Milky Way. Some of the differences are:

  • The need to break the 500 rule. Therefore, it’s important to have slower shutter speed. Star trails are something we are not avoiding but embracing. Usually, shutter speeds of half a minute or slightly over.
  • Intervalometer needs to be used to have about 60 or more shots in continuation, which can later be combined in stacking software to produce a continuous trail of shots.
  • ISO can be lower because there are extra stops of light available due to higher shutter speeds.
  • Rest of the instructions is same as that of Milky Way shooting.
Common Composition Guidelines
  • It is ideal to have some part of the foreground in composition, or have a wide screen for more pleasing compositions. Astronomers have already given us plenty of plain Milky Way and Star Trail images. What sets a photographer apart is the way he composes the shot around the location and the elements. Foregrounds can be immensely helpful for the same.
  • Having another image with the foreground in focus can be helpful for stacking them together later. At wide open apertures, it’s almost impossible to have both the foreground and the background in focus together. Stacking is the smarter way.
  • Not letting any form of light enter the lens is important, as flares are a nuisance, especially in astrophotography.
Editing Milky Way Photos

While there are different tools a photographer uses, Lightroom is one of the best software to manage pictures as well as do most of the editing. Here, we’ll be sharing process of editing Milky Way photos in Lightroom.

  • The first step is setting the correct exposure. This can be done by using the histogram and the image in itself – on what includes all the details and yet no important details are clipped. It’s important to consider highlights not being clipped.
Definitive Guide for Photographing Milky Ways & Star Trails

Definitive Guide for Photographing Milky Ways & Star Trails Exposure 

  • Next is to check the white balance. Ideally, the white balance of daylight should fix the white balance. However, it isn’t usually the case as some light pollution meddles with the white balance. Hence, starting from daylight and then going cooler is the best way to get the best white balance. You can increase vibrance and saturation to +100, and it will help you know if there’s any color cast. Reset them after the white balance is corrected.
Definitive Guide for Photographing Milky Ways & Star Trails

Definitive Guide for Photographing Milky Ways & Star Trails White Balance

  • Boosting contrast is a very important part of Milky Way photos as it can appear to be very dull when seen as it was shot. Boosting contrast can be done either by curves or by using the contrast slider.
Definitive Guide for Photographing Milky Ways & Star Trails

Definitive Guide for Photographing Milky Ways & Star Trails Contrast

  • Highlights and Shadows can be recovered for details after the exposure adjustment. If you find highlight clipping, lower the highlights. If you find shadows clipping, increase the shadows.
Definitive Guide for Photographing Milky Ways & Star Trails

Definitive Guide for Photographing Milky Ways & Star Trails Clipping

  • Clarity is the micro-contrast adjustment, and helps boost the image up to a certain level – after which it looks fake. Making a slight adjustment can help.
Definitive Guide for Photographing Milky Ways & Star Trails

Definitive Guide for Photographing Milky Ways & Star Trails clarity

  • Saturation and vibrance are the next steps, which need to be increased a little. Difference between vibrance and saturation lies in there that vibrance impacts the colors less saturated more than the others, while saturation impacts all colors equally. A bit of vibrance will level the colors, and then saturation will improve the look. People do love the colors of Milky Way, but they aren’t as prominent in SOOC, and it’s impossible to get them right in camera.
Definitive Guide for Photographing Milky Ways & Star Trails

Definitive Guide for Photographing Milky Ways & Star Trails Vibrance

  • Final tonal curve to improve contrast in case you just used sliders earlier can help make the image crisper.
Definitive Guide for Photographing Milky Ways & Star Trails

Definitive Guide for Photographing Milky Ways & Star Trails
Tonal Curves

  • Noise reduction is an important step, and with the Lightroom Noise Reduction sliders, you can choose to keep the details while removing some of the noise – and you won’t go overboard.
Definitive Guide for Photographing Milky Ways & Star Trails

Definitive Guide for Photographing Milky Ways & Star Trails Noise Reduction

Editing Star Trails Photos – Stacking and Adjustments

The two steps of editing Star Trail photos can be done either in Bridge and Photoshop, or in Lightroom and Photoshop, or more ideally in faster Stacking programs.

  • Follow the above steps to edit the first photo in Lightroom or Bridge.
  • Select all the photos and sync the settings.
  • Open as Layers in Photoshop.
  • Select each layer from the one below the bottom and change the blending mode to Lighten.
  • Keep doing the same till the top. In case there’s some light pollution from an airplane or something, fix it in the layer that has that pollution.
  • After all the layers are turned to lighten, group all of them and do minor masking to mask out the lighten mode off the foreground. Only the base layer’s exposure of foreground will thus remain.
Free Stock Photos of the Milky Way and Star Trails

The world has grown, and so has the availability of content. While for a photographer, it may be ideal to go out and shoot, sometimes some people have requirement for images and they can’t really shoot themselves. For example, travel companies, can instead, buy royalty free stock photos, or get free pictures. While stock photo business has been booming for a long time, there’s also been rise of the availability of absolutely free pictures – which however, aren’t the same quality as those of the paid ones – and also lower on availability. Content availability isn’t an issue at all, it is the budget and requirement that determine if you can manage to find what you are looking for – because almost every place in the world has been photographed.

Totally Free images Milky Way 

Also see our detailed Guide to Photographing the Moon

The Ultimate guide to taking the perfect picture of the moon

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