Photographing the Milky Way Stars in Seven Steps

Photographing the Milky Way is in complete contrast to photographing the moon.


The moon and city lights will drown the Milky Way out so plan accordingly. The Northern Hemisphere has its best viewing of the Millky Way between February and September. Look for the Milky Way to rise from the west. If in the Southern Hemisphere, it is visible overhead. A dry, cold night is preferred because humidity will lessen the little star light that reaches the Earth.

Use this site to find a dark location:


A modern digital camera with interchangeable lenses is required for good results.

A fast, modern lens (f/1.4 or better) is preferred. It is not necessary but the image will have less noise if a faster lens is used because a lower ISO will be selected. The lens should be at least 50mm but wider is better. A 50mm lens can only really be used vertically with the idea being to capture the string of stars that make up the Milky Way while still having something in the foreground (at the very bottom of the image). Much of the Milky Way will be out of the shot. The only good thing about a 50mm lens is that fast ones can be had for next to nothing. Go with a 24mm/1.4 or 20mm/1.4 if possible.

Obviously, a tripod is helpful because holding the camera is not possible.

Camera Settings

  1. Flash off.
  2. Set picture format to RAW.
  3. Use manual exposure mode and manual focus mode.
  4. Open the lens to the widest aperture (small f/number).
  5. Set shutter speed to 20 seconds.
  6. Focus the camera to inifity (∞) by using the lens or use the camera's Live View to focus on a bright star.
  7. Set the ISO according to this table:
    Aperture ISO Shutter
    f/.95 400 20 sec.
    f/1.0 400 20 sec.
    f/1.2 640 20 sec.
    f/1.4 800 20 sec.
    f/1.8 1250 20 sec.
    f/2.0 1600 20 sec.
    f/2.8 3200 20 sec.
    f/3.5 5000 20 sec.
    f/4.0 6400 20 sec.
    f/4.5 8000 20 sec.
    f/5.6 12800 20 sec.

Compose and take the shot.

Fine Tuning

If the exposure is too light then shoot at 15 seconds. If its too dark then make the ISO higher or even try a 25 sec. shutter speed. If getting star trails then use a wider lens, which reduces motion, or shorten the shutter speed, and maybe use a higher ISO but the values given above should allow for a shorter shutter speed without modfiying ISO.

The shutter speed calculator may be of help if needing to expose for greater times.

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