Elle Zhu
Dreams of a Mobile Life


Updates on life, photography, and the importance of being earnest.

A Guide to Astrophotography: How to Capture the Milky Way

Staking Out Your Spot 

What's the most important thing they say when you buy a house? Location, location, location!  As it turns out, the same thing applies to astrophotography or night photography.  When I'm on the hunt for the perfect Milky Way shot, I head to the desert or the mountains.  Some of the best spots I've found have also been out of sheer luck or just paying attention to the sky while I'm on the road.  The photo below was taken the night before the Great American Solar Eclipse in the middle of the Oregon high desert.  I was staking out a claim for the next day when I knew the influx of traffic would be at a peak in order to glimpse the total solar eclipse.  I looked out the window while driving down a long stretch of road and realized how bright the stars were.  It was a crisp summer night and the moon was hidden away.  There was minimal light pollution in this rural location.  Perfect conditions.

Oregon High Desert

Oregon High Desert


Finding the Milky Way

This may seem silly but there is actually a "season" for getting the best Milky Way shots.  This appears to be around the time of April through October where the galactic center is brightest and most prominent.  My favorite app for finding the Milky Way is PhotoPills although there are many others such as SkyView that allow you to perform many of the same functions.  Consult your starry night app to determine when the best time to view the Milky Way will be near you.  For those who are just starting out and don't want to spend money on an app- don't worry.  It's not essential to track it as long as you can spot it in the sky!

Points of Interest

Once you've got the Milky Way squared in your sights, start looking around you.  This might be Photography 101, but establishing a point of interest and foreground can be really hard in the face of distracting astrologic wonders.  However, to make your photo more interesting, composition is key.  Look for a rock formation or clearing of trees, maybe a lighthouse to establish a striking silhouette in the foreground.

Lover's Leap in Tahoe National Forest

Lover's Leap in Tahoe National Forest


You will need a decent DSLR camera and a wide angle lens to get the results you want.  Sorry iPhone users, Apple can't do it all.  I shoot with a Nikon D7100 camera body and a Tokina 11-16 mm f/2.8 on top of a Slik Sprint Pro II tripod.  (For more information on gear, please look for my upcoming gear post!)  This is by no means expensive as far as camera equipment goes but it's also no drop in the bucket.  Even if you don't have the best gear, don't be discouraged. Kit lenses can produce incredible images when used right and serve as a useful starting tool to astrophotography.

Taking the Shot

Once you have all your equipment set up, the fun begins.  First, begin by cranking up that ISO to 3200 or more.  Then choose the maximum aperture your camera will allow.  Generally I always use an f-stop of 2.8 on my lens and find that it's still able to take pretty sharp photos even wide open.  Then put your camera on manual focus and move the focusing ring to infinity.  Most lenses don't respond well to the absolute infinity mark so once you dial it all the way, turn it slightly in the opposite direction.  This tends to be more an art than anything.

From here take a few test shots and zoom in to see how the focus appears.  Generally a shutter speed between 15 to 30 seconds is appropriate, depending on how much light you want to capture.  Stars should be solid dots with no halo or bokeh.  Anything longer than 30 seconds and you start to see a phenomenon called "star trails."  While star trails are cool taken to their maximum effect, they tend to be messy when you're trying to capture discrete stars in the Milky Way.  I also like to delay my shutter action by 2 seconds so that there is no wobble from clicking the button.  This can make the difference between a crisp, clean image and a blurry disaster.

Finally, sit back and enjoy!  One of the brilliant aspects of night photography is that you can soak it all in while waiting for that shutter click to produce an image.  There is room for wonder and letting your imagination run wild.  Kick back, set up in a nice cozy camp chair, and wait for a whole new perspective of the cosmos to appear.