How to Take Professional Milky Way Shots with Cheap Gear

Milky Way shots are deceptively easy to pull off. You don't need a professional-grade dslr, thousands of dollars of glass, or a fancy-shmancy star tracking system to get excellent quality star photographs.

A blended, night to day shot taken near San Luis Obispo, CA.

A blended, night to day shot taken near San Luis Obispo, CA.

 

Here's all you need to take photos like this:

  1. A camera : You'll need one with manual control. Basically, any DSLR and most mirrorless cameras will work just fine. 
  2. A tripod : You'll be using exposure times around 20–30 seconds, so a tripod is a must.
  3. A wide, fast lens : For the best results, you will want the widest angle lens you can find. I generally use a 14mm lens. Also, you want the “fastest” lens you can find, meaning something with a low F number. F2.8 and lower works best. If you are looking for a great, cheap lens for astrophotography, I would highly recommend the Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 manual focus lens. The Canon version is around $300, which is not bad at all for the performance you are getting. 

And that's it!! you may also consider buying a shutter release, which will help you release the shutter of your camera without touching it and jostling your composition. You can pick one up on Amazon for dirt cheap, so if astrophotography (or landscape photography in general) is something you're interested in, definitely pick one up.

Before I go into the specific steps of night time shooting, I should mention that this works best if you get as far away from cities as possible. There is a lot of light pollution from street lamps and whatnot that will hide the Milky Way. Also, I recommend trying to go out on a New Moon night when there is no moon in the sky, as the light from the moon can blow out the stars. 

To find the Milky Way, I recommend using an app called Photo Pills or a desktop application called Stellarium. They will both help you find where the Milky Way will be on a given night.

So let's get down to the steps for shooting the Milky Way:

  1. Aim your camera, mounted on the tripod, at the Milky Way. You'll want to put your camera into manual focus and focus to infinity, because in the dark your autofocus won't work very well. We focus to infinity because, well, the stars are really, really far away.
  2. Put your camera in manual (M) mode. In Manual mode, we can manually dial in our camera setings to achieve the brightest exposure. There are three main components to to exposure: F-stop, shutter speed, and ISO. Let's look at how to set these.
  3. Set your f-stop (f number) to the lowest it can go. The lower the number, the more light gets through your lens. We are trying to get the brightest picture we can, so this is a good place to start.
  4. Put your ISO around 3200 to start, but you'll have to mess with this a bit. The higher your ISO goes, the more “noise” or grain will be introduced into your photo. It's different for every camera, but 3200 should give you enough exposure without entirely destroying the image with noise. I would recommend searching your menu for "long exposure noise reduction” and turning it on as well. This option will follow up each shot with a "dark frame" of equal length. By comparing the sensor noise in the dark frame to your star photography, the camera will do its best to eliminate whatever noise it can.
  5. Here's where it gets kind of tricky. You want the longest exposure that you can achieve, without introducing star trails. Longer exposure means more light hitting the sensor, and brighter stars. Here's the problem: an exposure that long will cause the stars to appear as tiny streaks, because the earth is rotating. Use the rule of 500 to determine how long of an exposure you can do: divide 500 by your focal length (full frame equivalent), and that is your maximum shutter speed.. Mess around with it a bit, it can vary depending on if you have a cropped sensor or full frame camera.
  6. Trip the shutter. You should be able to see the Milky Way!

Astrophotography is obviously a very intricate art, so there are many things that I didn't mention here that you will have to learn along the way, like noise reduction, foreground blending, stacking, and much more. With luck, this will be enough to get you started with whatever gear you have available, and you'll be on your way to shooting the beauty that is our night sky!