The Elusive Milky Way – Capture an Image

I assume you already read part one of this article which describes a bit about what the Milky Way is and what times and seasons are best for photographing the cloud-like expanse of innumerable stars.  In this installment we describe the equipment and settings you will need.

Just Ahead: A Universe of Possibilities

f/2.8, ISO 3200, 30 seconds, post processed and combined with shots of the bridge that were lit with a spotlight.

Standard Capture

To get a passable or better image of the rather dim Milky Way you need:

  • A high performing low light camera (more on that in a moment)
  • A large aperture (f/2.8)
  • A wide angle lens. Ultra wide even.
  • A cool/cold night
  • As little city glow and moonlight* as possible – see below for an image taken in twilight
  • A solid tripod
  • Patience
  • To know where and when to look!

To get a recognizable Milky Way in a single frame, you’ll want to use somewhere between 2000 and 6400 ISO at f/2.8 or wider setting. That’s very high, and a wider aperture than many people have paid for.  You’ll also want to expose as long as you can before stars are streaking.  We recommend starting at 30 seconds, and reducing your exposure time if the streaking is objectionable. Below is an image taken when the rising moon was beginning to wash out the sky and this may be typical of attempting to capture the Milky Way in a less than ideally dark scenario.

Group Hug

Moonlight and Twilight begin to overwhelm the Milky Way in Alabama Hills, California; 30 seconds, ISO 3200, f/2.8, 17mm

Some image degradation is to expected. For example vignetting and coma are both more obvious at lower f/stops. Coma is a comma or “bird-wing” like appearance of stars near the corners of the image.  Both coma and vignetting can be overcome by stopping down the shot – but resist the temptation because stopping down means losing some or perhaps all of the wispy milky goodness that you are trying to capture. Exposing longer will only help if you have some special apparatus (see Tracked Capture below). Are you wondering why exposing longer does not solve the problem? We have tackled the issue in two different styles: a cheerful allegorical example, and a recent math savvy explication.

What will an image look like captured with 3200 ISO? It may look like the image on the left below which is “straight out of the camera” – but perhaps not for you as this image was taken in a VERY dark sky area in Nevada.  On the right is the same Milky Way with some simple processing we will describe in the next installment.

SOOTC (and not SOOTC) [C_039467]

What is a “High Performing” Camera?

I qualified my statement earlier by indicating a “high performing” camera is needed for a standard capture like those I’ve shown above.  Since it would be impossible to keep an up-to-date list of the current “high performing cameras,” let me instead point out a few characteristics common to all high performers:

  1. Recent generation (2 or 3 years since introduction) is preferable because technology has steadily improved.
  2. Large pixels (to collect more light).  A common measure of the pixel size is in microns. Generally this puts full frame cameras ahead of cropped cameras.
  3. High “ISO at Unity Gain” – this is a measurement of the efficiency of the sensor. There are two good sources for this information: the DxO Sensor Scores and ClarkVision’s (older) tables.
Don’t be fooled by the “highest ISO” setting advertised. That number is completely meaningless.
As of April 14, 2014, the highest performers are listed by manufacturer and in order of performance. E.g. the Nikon D3s is better than the D800 – though the difference is small. Indeed, the D800 excels in some categories over the D3s. Cropped cameras are shown in italics – note that there fewer of them and none of the crop cameras exceed their full frame siblings. The underlined Nikon cameras are literally the topmost performers over all cameras.

Nikon: Df, D3s, D4s, D600, D800E, D4, D610, D800, D700, D3, D3X, D3300, D5200, D7100, D5100, D7000, CoolPix A, D3200
Canon: 1Dx, 6D, 5D Mark III, 5D II, 1DS III, 1DS II, 5D, 1D III, 1D VI, 1D III, 1 D II
Sony: A7R, DSC-RX1R, RX1, A7, Alpha 99, Alpha 900, Alpha 850, A6000, Alpha 580, NEX-F3, NEX-C3, NEX-5N, NEX-3N, NEX-6, NEX-7
Leica: M Typ 240, X Vario
Phase One: P40 Plus, P65 Plus
Pentax: 645D, K-5 II, K-5 IIS, K5, K-50, K-01, K-30
FujiFilm: FinePix X100
Not in contention: any cameras by: Casio, Hasselblad, Konica Minolta, Mamiya, Nokia, Olympus, Panasonic, Ricoh, Samsung or Sigma.

The list above shows all cameras having a DxO Sports (low light) score of 1000 or higher.

Cameras like the Nikon D90, Canon 1D II N, Phase One IQ 180, Canon 1Ds, Nikon D3100 and Leica M9 fall just below this threshold and may also be suitable.  The first eight Nikon models outperform the Canon 1Dx, and after the 1DX is the Sony A7R. The Fujifilm just barely cracks the list in 43rd and last place.

If you want the camera to cost less than $2,000 USD your current top choices are: Nikon D610, Canon 6D, Sony A7, Sony Alpha 850 or the Nikon D3300.  If we were to make a recommendation, we’d recommend any of the full frame choices over the smaller sensor cameras.  Note that prices vary dramatically, and you may find used higher performing cameras for less than $2000.

Stacked Capture

A “stacked” capture is what you may need to resort to if your camera performance is not so spiffy.  The approach applies astrophotography techniques to create a lower-noise version of an image.  The technique requires MANY shots of the same view. However using this approach you will want to avoid having anything but sky in your photo. Terrestrial elements will make stacking the image tricky.

Urban Milky Way [C_036919-23PSavg]The image at the left is a stacked capture to illustrate the point, however it was done with a high performing camera and only 5 images.  A lower performing camera will require as many as 20 or so captures to combat the noise. The method is described in my a “Astrophotography 101” Webinar and details are walked through in Astrophotography 301.  On the other hand, this image was captured in a location where the Milky Way was quite faint – alongside 7 million people in the San Francisco Bay Area so there is hope even where the Milky Way can only faintly be seen.

Details about the stacking method appeared in an earlier column as well as in an an earlier webinar.

Tracked Capture

The last way to get a great shot of the Milky Way is to track the sky with an apparatus called an Equatorial Mount.  By tracking the sky at the rate of the earth’s rotation you can lengthen a 20 second capture to perhaps a 60 second one. You can also use several such captures to create a stunning “Stacked Capture”. Again, however, shots which include the land are a bit harder to pull off unless you resort to layering. What do you need to do a tracked capture? We cover that in detail in the Astrophotography 101 Webinar, but in short, you’ll want an Equatorial Mount of some sort – not an Altitude-Azimuth (aka Alt-Az) mount! A device that looks intriguing and not terribly expensive is the Polarie.

Once you get that image (or those images), you will no doubt want to tease the most pleasing photo you can out of your data. That is a topic we’ll cover in the next installment: Processing your Milky Way images.

32 thoughts on “The Elusive Milky Way – Capture an Image

  1. Pingback: The Elusive Milky Way – How to Find It! | Star Circle Academy

    1. Steven Christenson

      Steven: I have a page with overall recommendations: See here.

      In my Astrophotography 101 Webinar I provide further details and recommendations. Though I haven’t used one, it sounds like the Polarie is a good solution for what you want – but it depends what you want to spend and what you want to do. For a 16-35 on a full frame high performing camera you don’t need anything else to get great shots of the milky way.

  2. Pingback: Milky Way Post Processing: Color Correction | Star Circle Academy

  3. Michael

    I know this question is probably absolutely dim, but is it possible to see the milky way like this without the aid of anything? Just laying out somewhere really dark?

    I have never been able to get somewhere without a crapload of light pollution and have often looked at these photos and thought, “is that what our sky is supposed to look like?”

    1. Steven Christenson

      Good question, Michael.
      You’d be absolutely gobsmacked by what you CAN see in a dark environment – so my answer is yes. However as you are probably aware the human eye is not as good at detecting color at night, and it takes a trained eye to make out some of the details that a camera has no trouble recording. The camera has the big advantage that it can capture light for a lot longer. Put it on your bucketlist to travel somewhere where the sky is amazing and you’ll be rewarded.

  4. Andy Adams

    Nice pics by the way.
    Im looking to buy my first camera but dont have a big budget (£500 – £600 at a stretch) will i be able to catch similar images or will i have to spend more. If so what cameras do you recomend? or what should i look for? cheers

    1. Steven Christenson Post author

      Andy, there is a list of gear above – ranked by performance. You’ll need one of those cameras and you’ll need a decent lens to go with it. Unfortunately it’s very doubtful that you can get a high performing camera and a suitable lens in your price range, though you might look for a refurbished or used camera. A good quality *manual focus* lens, like a Rokinon will cost you about £280 new.

  5. Julie

    Hello, I saw the list of the best cameras to use. However I have Canon XSi (crop factor of 1.6), but the lens I am going to use is 11-16 f/2.8 Tokina AT-X Pro DS II. I will be in Death Valley during new moon phase at the end of May. Do you think I have a chance to capture decent image of Milky Way? will Sigma 8-16 f/4.5-5.6 DC HSM be better?

  6. Miguel

    on your topmost performers over all cameras i don’t see the Nikon D7100.
    could you make some considerations regarding this camera performance in the astrophoto area?

    1. Steven Christenson Post author

      We don’t try to keep up with every camera that is released. The D7100 appears to be a replacement for the D7000 (just as the D610 replaces the D600). Therefore the D7100 will fall in about the same spot as its predecessor. We added it to the list.

  7. Martin

    Hi, I really like your article and I have one question, according to your camera list, the Nikon D3300 outperforms much more expensive D7100? Is this correct?

  8. Tal

    First of all, thank you for the inspiration and tutorials.

    In your Star Trails tutorial, you mention the importance of turning OFF the Long Exposure and High ISO Noise Reduction. Would this be the case for galaxy photos as well?

    1. Steven Christenson Post author

      Tal, as in many cases, it really depends how you’re trying to get the image and how much effort you want to spend. Long exposure noise reduction and high ISO noise reduction are things you can do yourself and use all of your possible exposure time getting image data. This is a topic we cover in the Astrophotography 101 webinar in length.

  9. Victor

    Hi Steven,

    First of all, I want to thank you very much for all the knowledge you’re sharing with us in your tutorials.

    Following your advices, I’ve been able to try my first shots of the Milky Way during this summer: You can see a couple of examples in 500px.

    I know I still need to improve a lot my skills for the capture and postprocessing of these kind of pictures; but I’m very proud of them because, after all, they were taken with a modest EOS 1100D.

  10. Peter Jones

    This is all very good information, for which I thank you. I have a place that I KNOW from past experience is excellent for night sky photography. The area is within a bowl with practically NO light pollution. It is in the high desert of southern New Mexico where it is cold at night. I noticed last year when coming out of a cave nearby around midnight that the stars were absolutely brilliant, perhaps the best display I’ve ever seen. Were it not that we were really whipped from a full day of cave photography deep inside this cave and had to strip down to underwear and put on clean clothes to prevent contamination of our vehicle with White Nose Syndrome spores, I would have taken shots then and there. Heading back there again this year and plan on shooting the stars on a clear night when conditions are perfect.

    I noticed in your article that you comment that large, full frame sensors with lower resolution are better than higher resolution ones. I have both a Nikon D700 and D800. I had even thought before you mentioned it that the D700 would be better in that it counts more photons per pixel unit than the D800 would. However, you rate the D700 as being a step down in quality of capture from the D800. This seems counter-intuitive from what you said earlier. What is the reasoning? Is it empirical evidence? I will bring both cameras and try out each of them to compare. I have the Nikon 14- 24mm f 2.8 lens to work with, so that is going to be a real pleasure for start shots.

    Thanks in advance for your comments and appreciate your sharing of your extensive knowledge.

    1. Steven Christenson Post author

      There is not a great deal of difference between the two. (D700 and D800) My rankings reflect those of DXOmark who have actually done sensor testing. D810 is the current Nikon (and overall king), the D600/D610 outperform the D700 series. But the differences are not that large.

  11. Chris Backey

    First- Great work.
    Second- I am planning a trip to Mt Magazine in Arkansas in mid-July. The Milky Way should be at it’s best location around midnight. Astro. twilight ends around 22:00, and the moon (first quarter) rises around 24:00. Will I have a couple good hours to shoot before the moonlight affects my images, or will I be affected before the moon is even visible on the horizon? I’m thinking a little moonlight might be nice to paint the foreground with light. Thoughts?
    Thank you, Chris

    1. Steven Christenson Post author

      But Chris… there is an example above with STRONG moonlight and the Milky Way. It’s all about direction.

      In fact, I have a photo with the moon rising almost IN the Milky Way. E.g.

      The Rise and Fall
      #12 is Watching [C_073020]

      You’ll just have to work harder at processing.

  12. Andrew

    I know this is an old thread but I just got a Nikon d750 with a 24-120 f4. Do you think I would be able to capture the Milky Way at f4 or would I have better luck putting my DX lens that is capable of f2.8 (17-55m) on my d750 in cropped mode?

  13. kit

    Just wondering what your recommendation would be for a good land/nightscape lens.. i have been thinking of either the sigma 18-16mm or the nikkor 18-35.. maybe even the nikkor 16-35.. Cheers…

  14. B Bailey

    In Kansas, and as a young guy, my girlfriend and I would drive to a light free area and lie on the warm car hood in a blanket. After 30 minutes or so the sky would become so dense with stars that we would begin to actually get overwhelmed. At that point you could see a cloudy portion of the Milky Way. As time passed it would become fairly clear enough to discuss with a college professor. It was then that we began to star gaze in March – October. Although, the winter provided cleaner air.
    A local farmer who would also spend time stargazing said that the “overwhelmed” feeling was what he called “getting wrapped.”
    I’ve been a fan since.


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