From start to finish: How to capture the Milky Way

Photographer and long-time Unsplash contributor, Nathan Anderson, shares advice on getting started with astro-photography.

When I first googled “how to photograph the milky way” I found a lot of articles that didn't help me. Especially considering I know how to take my fair share of regular landscape photos. It seemed like everything out there was made for someone who's never touched a camera before. 

So that’s who this article is for, the photographers that want to try shooting some stars. These are the things that have helped me so much in the last year. 

Focus on the minimum to start shooting 💥

It’s the obvious first step, isn’t it? You need to go take some photos to get moving with any of it. There are a few things you have to make sure you keep in mind but at the end of the day, it’s just a regular long exposure. 

When I go out to shoot photos of the milky way, getting those stars in focus isn’t the most complicated part. There’s much more that goes into a photo and it’s much simpler than it sounds.

This is what I do every time I go out to shoot to milky way: 

  • Make sure I’m not right next to a city - the shots above are in an ‘orange’ zones
  • Setup on my tripod 
  • Use my remote shutter 
  • Take a shot at 15sec / 1250iso / 1.8 (aka, turn your Aperture to its min)

That’s all. From there, I adjust my focus, the position of the camera, and anything else that looks wrong in the sample Image I get. And that’s all it takes to take the above photos. There’s nothing different. No crazy setup. Walk outside, look at the milky way, and take a photo of it. 

For reference, here are the raw shots for the above: 

Shot settings for each: 15sec / 1250iso / 1.8 / 20mm lens with a Nikon D75

You’re going to mess up, that’s part of it. It’s no big deal. Odds are you’ll have a lot of time to stand out there in the dark and take some photos so use your time and take a lot. An app like PhotoPills (my iOS favourite) or Sun Surveyor (my Android favourite) will help a lot. See if the moon will block your view and know exactly how much time you have to see the milky way that night so you're aware.


Start over with your editing process

With most of my landscape photos, if I want to make the mountains bolder, I increase the contrast and/or clarity.  It’s usually pretty straight forward on what controls do what. It’s a new set of rules for the stars. 

Go back to go forwards

When I want deep clarity in on the milky way I start by reversing the clarity slider as far as it can go. Counter-productive right? Then I increase the contrast and bring up the exposure (a little or a lot, depending on the photo).

Stop thinking presets will help

I love presets, they’re amazing! But I’ve tried this so many times. Every time I save a new one and think “this is going to be perfect for milky way shots from now on” I’m wrong. Every. Single. Time. So let me save you some time: They’re all unique photos. Edit them separately. 

Stop focusing on the milky way  

What? Stop focusing on the main thing you’re taking a photo of? Absolutely. Milky way photos are about so much more than just the stars. They’re about the foreground and shadows that make up that landscape. Other elements can add super important information about where the photo is.

Still not convinced somehow? Check out this amazing Unsplash collection of very good proof.

Take your time and have fun

I have a lot of fun flying through my edits sometimes. Trying this preset and that one. Getting starting points from one and moving quickly into finishing it up. It’s not quite that simple with the milky way. Take your time, go slow. This also applies when you’re actually out shooting. Whether you’ve driven somewhere hiked out, or walked from where you’re staying, you’ve got time. 

You don’t need to rush. Seems obvious, but every other time I shoot I am running short on time. The sunrise and sunset are always too short. Animals run away from you too quick. Even clouds can change incredibly quick on you. 

Those stars aren’t going anywhere. You’ve got time to think.