Tag Archives: milky way

The Elusive Milky Way – Capture an Image

Published: July 7, 2012
Last Updated: September 10, 2018

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, 16mm, 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. Just want a quick suggestion for settings:  Use these:

  • f/2.0; 24mm; ISO 6400; 15 seconds or
  • f/2.8; 24mm; ISO 3200; 25 seconds (or longer)
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 August 13, 2018, 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 first paragraph are the TOP performers. The next bracket list other cameras that “meet” our judgement of “good enough to photograph the Milky Way – with an appropriate lens. Note that the Cybershot DSC-RX1R ranks right after the Canon 1DX II – that’s quite a surprise –  it does have a fixed focal length of 35 mm, however.


Pentax: 645Z
Hasselblad: X1D-50c
Sony: A7 III, A7S, A7R III, A9, A7R II, (Cybershot DSC-RX1R II – 35mm f/2.0 lens, A7S II)
Nikon: Df, D3s
Canon: 1Dx II


Nikon: D4s, D600, D800E, D4, D750, D610, D800, D810, D850, D5, D700, D3, D3X, D3300, D5200, D7100, D5100, D7000, CoolPix A, D3200
Canon: 1DX II, 5D IV, 6D II, 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: K-1, 645D, K-5 II, K-5 IIS, K5, K-50, K-01, K-30
FujiFilm: FinePix X100

Not in contention: any cameras by: Casio, Konica Minolta, Mamiya, Nokia, Olympus, Panasonic, Ricoh, 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: Sony A7 III, Pentax K1, Nikon D610, Canon 6D II (or 6D).  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. Beware of all Sony models, however, as they have had a long standing problem with “Star Eater” noise reduction problems. As of August 13, 2018, it’s not clear if they’ve actually fixed this problem on all of their models.

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.

The Elusive Milky Way – How to Find It!

Last revised: July 5, 2018
Original Publish Date:  June 26, 2012

This is Part 1 of a multi-part series on finding and photographing the Milky Way.  From November through February it is impossible to spot the densest part of the Milky Way because the sun is hovering there. Read on for more information.

What IS the Milky Way?

Path of the Milky Way West-to-East

The Milky Way in Summer from Horizon to Horizon

We are located in a corner of the heavens of a galaxy we call “The Milky Way.” The Milky Way stretches all the way across the sky and some part of the Milky Way is present every night – indeed EVERY star you see in the sky is located within our Milky Way.   Most people, however, think of the Milky Way as the cloud-like stretch of stars from the constellation Scorpius (aka Scorpio) to the constellation Cygnus – particularly the part nearest to Sagittarius.  I’ll try not to be too poetic, but when you have clearly seen the Milky Way, it is hard to describe how awesome it is without breaking into song. In ideal conditions the diffuse light of the Milky Way can cast a shadow on the ground!  Unfortunately there is little chance that you will ever see that shadow because most accessible places in the world are mildly to HORRIBLY light polluted. Constellations that are found in the Milky Way include:  Perseus (off the bottom), Cassiopeia (near the bottom in the picture above-left), Lacerta, Cygnus (near the center), Aquila, Sagittarius, Ophiuchus and Scorpius (very top).  Those in the Southern Hemisphere will also find Norma, Circinus, Crux, and Carina.  There is a faint portion of the Milky Way visible in Puppis, Canis Major and the bow of Orion. Look carefully at the image above and you’ll see a bright “smudge” in the center of the bottom fourth of the image. That is one of our sister galaxies known as Andromeda. The galaxy gets its name from the constellation in which it is found.  With an unaided eye it is readily possible to spot Andromeda in a dark sky. With binoculars Andromeda is observable even in a suburban area. In the southern hemisphere two additional sister galaxies called the Large and Small Magellanic clouds are easily seen. On a dark clear night it is easy to observe the lack of stars in the broad band of wispiness that forms the Milky Way. But the dark void is not due to the absence of stars. The void is due to immense inky dust lanes that obscure the stars!

When to See the Milky Way

The sun is in the constellation Sagittarius in December so during November, December and January it is impossible to view the richest part of the Milky Way.  October and February are generally impossible, too. The optimum viewing time in the Northern Hemisphere is in the summer when the sun is on the opposite side of the sky. Unfortunately summer in the Northern Hemisphere is also when hot, stormy, cloudy weather is doing its worst and also when the nights are the shortest. Those in the Southern Hemisphere have an advantage – longer and cooler nights during winter mean the air is clearer. Using a simple tool called a planisphere it is easy to predict when and where to look for the dense part of the Milky Way. But what must also be factored in is the location and phase of the moon. The time of year and the direction of the least light pollution also frame the parameters for getting the best view of the Milky Way. Generally the dense part of the Milky Way is best viewed when it is as high as possible in the Southern sky. Facing south during April and May the pre-dawn hours are best. From June to early August the best time is near midnight, though the Milky Way will be visible almost all night. From Mid August through September the best time is soon after the sun has set and the sky has grown dark. Below is an illustration that may help you. It was created for 38 degrees North latitude, but will serve the middle of the United States, Southern Europe, Northern China, Japan, and any location at a similar latitude very closely.  The farther North you go, the lower in the southern sky the Milky Way will be.  If you live above 65 degrees north, you will never see the Milky Way core because it never rises above your local horizon. The circle in the image below indicates the star Alnasl in the constellation Sagittarius. Above Alnasl (the spout of the teapot) is the center of our Milky Way Galaxy.

The Milky Way as seen from Mid-Northern Latitudes

The Milky Way as seen from Mid-Northern Latitudes Facing South. Click for a larger illustration

Best Times To Spot the Milky Way

Month Best Time (Local Time) Moon Phase*
  February Difficult. Before sunrise (late February only) 3Q to New
  March Difficult. Before sunrise New to 1Q
  April 4 AM to Sunrise New to 1Q
  May 3 AM to 6 AM New to 1Q
  June 10 PM to 2 AM New
  July Sunset to Midnight 3Q to New
  August Sunset until 10 PM 3Q to New
  September Sunset until 9 PM 3Q to New
  October Difficult: Sunset (early October only) 3Q to New

*1Q means first quarter moon (half full). In its first quarter the moon rises around noon and sets near midnight. 2Q is a Full moon. Nearly full is called a Gibbous. It is nearly impossible to see the Milky Way when the moon is near full. 3Q is the third quarter (also half full) moon which rises near midnight and sets near noon. New means the moon rises and sets very near the sun. Includes a slender crescent phase, too.

Where to See the Milky Way

Central Nevada, Eastern Utah. Montana. In short, remote areas far from city light pollution afford the best view. But if you know what to look for and when and where to look you can spot the Milky Way from many places throughout the world. Or you can wait for a massive regional blackout. I have seen the Milky Way very clearly from the top of Mission Peak in Fremont, California – an area with over 8 million people in literally every direction. However that glimpse required that the entire Bay Area be blotted out by low, heavy fog. My perch was above the darkness blanket that the fog provided. Yosemite National Park is still mostly dark despite cities like Fresno that are doing their best to ruin the darkness. As Numerous at the Grains of Sand Anywhere along a remote area of the coast far from cities there is a chance to see the Milky Way. For example, I spotted a washed out Milky Way just 8 miles north of Santa Cruz, California.  A long exposure and some photo editing improved the view.  If you get farther away from civilization the results can be much more spectacular as you see here. Finding somewhere in the country where it is truly dark, like the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, or White Mountain in Central, Eastern California the Milky Way reaches its most inspiring awesomeness. If you live outside the United States, do not despair, you have a good chance of seeing the core of the galaxy from anywhere south of 55 degrees northern latitude. Above that latitude the core of the Milky Way will never rise above the horizon.

How do I See the Milky Way

Visor View [C_033780]I know what you’re thinking: don’t I just “look” in the right direction? The answer is no! It takes your eyes 15 to 20 minutes to see their best in the dark.  Any bright light source in the direction you look will diminish the view. Running out of a well-lit house, or jumping out of a car where you’ve spent the last 15 minute driving with the headlights on will make the Milky Way far less awesome.  Avoiding ALL light and shielding your eyes from anything you can’t avoid will help a lot.  Do you see the Milky Way in this photo from the top of Clouds Rest in Yosemite? I promise you it is there. It juts out above the Yosemite Valley near the center of the image. Here is a view from the wilderness in Yosemite.

Lost in Yosemite [C_033706]

Can You Help Me Find the Best Time Where I Live/Work/Travel?

In short, no. Please read through the comments for many such questions and answers. It’s impossible to cover information for everywhere on earth, but our notes here cover all the general concepts. Moreover, the moon phase is different – the moon doesn’t behave like the sun, so even though the Milky Way may be glorious this year on say August 8th, next year the moon may be full and obscure your view. Also, weather conditions may affect your view, so do not neglect that variable!

How Do I Photograph The Milky Way?

Cameras are getting better all the time, and there are some nifty tricks you can use to make a compelling photograph of the Milky Way even if your camera is not the top heavyweight performer in the gear smack down.  We’ll cover cameras and techniques in installment 2 of this series!

Famous III [C_035478]

Simple Astro Processing Technique to Conquer Noise

Published: Jun 20, 2012
Last Updated: March 5, 2017

Is one of these your scenario?

  • It’s really dark. The ISO is bumped up, the noise is screaming at you, but you REALLY want the shot.
  • The Milky Way looks SO gorgeous, you want to take it home with you like a trophy, but when you shoot short enough exposures to prevent smears, mostly what you get is noise.
  • You are surprised that you can faintly make out the Milky Way. You know your buddies will be jealous if you can show them a photo of the Milky Way that you took from IN TOWN. They won’t believe you!
  • You have a great star trail, but your foreground is not lit. The photo would sing if you could tease out that foreground – minus the noise, of course.

In the Star Circle Academy’s “Astrophotography 101: Getting Started without Getting Soaked” webinar we cover all the theory and equipment you need to take gorgeous photos of deep sky objects (nebula, galaxies):

Colorful Neighbor

But absent the fancy equipment, all you need is a wee bit of Photoshop skill to get a pretty compelling image. Less than 10 miles away from Palo Alto, California, with over 8 million households in a 50 mile radius I got the image you see below. I understand why you might not believe me.  Is it the most compelling Milky Way you’ll ever see – definitely not.

Urban Milky Way [C_036919-23PSavg]

Here is the best I could do with a single image from the same location:

Milky Skyline [5_006550]

After much processing it’s still noisy (grainy) and contrast poor.

We covered the processing technique in our Night Photography 150: Photo Manipulation I Webinar – among many other topics. Below is a 7 minute video describing how to do that simple astro photography processing.

If you think a webinar on photo processing would be of interest, join our Interest List for this or other topics and you’ll be notified when we schedule the next webinar. You can influence the topics we choose to cover by making your comments here.

Simple Astro Photo Processing in Photoshop CS5 from Steven Christenson on Vimeo.

NOTE: If the above says password required, enter scanp150 In the video, you’ll also learn how to constrain the healing tool, use curves, layers, and the history tool to undo inadvertant changes.

ALSO NOTE: Advanced StackerPLUS has a built in averaging operation. You just feed it the images. It does NOT do auto alignment, however.

In our next installment, we will talk about how to get the Milky Way shots in the first place. Camera considerations, settings, tradeoffs.

By the way, this image consists of a single sky shot and a multi-processed foreground using the technique described above. Click the image for further details.

South Side Truckin' [C_009842]


We have another video tutorial that uses some similar processing techniques:

12 Minute Star Trail using Advanced Stacker PLUS version14D from Steven Christenson on Vimeo.