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Everything you need to know for basic milky way photography

How to: Everything You Need to Know for Basic Milkyway Photography

Before we start too far, I want to notify you that this “How to” is only based on my own perspective for which I have applied to capture my own shot. The knowledges are pretty basic but for me, these are will be the most fundamental things. You also need to understand that software post-processing is so essential for this technique and that is the reason why I segregate this article into 2 volumes. Volume 1 will talk about the preparation & the concept before you press the shutter while Volume 2 will describe you the essential adjustments as you post-processed your image - on this case - is in Photoshop.


In my point of view, both processes own the same weight on importance hence it can’t be separated each other. And since this article is only based on my own observations from several sources and experiences, hence any feedback or comment will be appreciated.

Volume I: Press the Shutter

Astrophotography is considered difficult since you need to tackle several unusual challenges as below:

Place & Timing

To get a good view of milky way, certainly you need to be on a place that has a minimum light pollution & during a time when there is no interference from the moon lights. A decent and detailed milky way view will require no light at all around the location you take the shot or either from the sky itself. Totally dark environment will be the best possible choice for astrophotography. That means you need to schedule your trip during a dead moon phase, go remote, make camp & stay awake.

Papua Milky Way

Taken from several exposures - Milky way exposure: F2.8 ISO4000 20s

Above shot was captured when the moon is on its half shape. The available moonlight makes the milky way has lesser contrast but it gives more details on the foreground. You need a totally dark sky to see a full potential of milky way that you'll embrace.

Maratua Milky Way

Taken from single exposure: F2.8 ISO2500 25s

"Maratua Stars" above is the example of a capture which is shot during dead moon phase. You can see that the milky way has more details and contrasts. However this photo was not shot on a totally dark environment. The lights from the village behind me has reduced the amount of the stars which my lens can capture. Still, it is far more better condition for astrophotography rather than to have a moon standing by on the sky.


Even during a daylight, I often found my captures to be out of focus. How about at night, when there is no light at all to guide you to set up your focus ring? So is focusing matter for milky way shot? Of course, you will see the differences on below to see how important it is.

Bad-focused milky way

Bad-Focused Shot

Well-Focused Milky Way

Well-Focused Shot

Now you notice the difference right? Above images are an original one without any post-processed involved and are zoomed to 50%. Both were taken on a relatively same time while I was doing a trial & error to get a better focus. More about this will be explained on the next page. Basically the point is, don't underestimate the focusing process even though you take your shot during the night. Treat it as the most essential parameter as what you always do when you take your shot on daylight.


Same with a landscape's rules of thumb, you shall assign an interesting foreground on your milky way capture to impress the viewer. A solely milky way shot will be looked dull and un-attractive, at least for my point of view. That’s why generating a shot with an eye-catching foreground is another must-have aspect that need to be accomplished. In another words, obtaining a good-dark place is not sufficient.


I think you should change the mindset a little bit so you don't go outside 'to take a good milky way shot with a foreground', but it shall be 'to take a good landscape or view with a milky way on the background'. Somehow, I think the result will be better if you emphasize your image's story on the foreground rather than to merely depend on the milky way beauty.

Just A Milky Way

A Milky Way shot without any foreground is just a milky way. So dull! - F2.8 ISO3200 15s

The tricky part is, let’s say that you have foreseen a great remote place with a stunning foreground available for your milky way shot. Then when the night comes, you realise that the milky way appears on the side that you do not wish at all, messing up your desired composition. The place you stand, the foreground and the milky way itself is not in-line & can’t be put in one frame. You know what, this is depressing.


This is the true nemesis for night photography. Without a proper exposure or gears, your imagination of good milky way capture will be crushed by the amount of noises it produces. It damages the colours and the details and I bet you wouldn’t dare to zoom your image until 100%.

Noise at Night Photography

Look at that noises on the foreground! I simply have no idea how to fix it. I think the only remedy is to take another shot.

"To capture a captivating milky way shot, is it possible for me?" - as I asked myself  just in 2 years back.

When the first time I saw a cool milky way capture on the internet, I just thought that I would never be able to get such a shot. The image is just too beautiful to be true and I don’t have any idea at all how to acquire such technique. In other words, during that time, I said to myself that taking this kind of photography is just only a dream for me.


Then after some times, as I dug up more knowledges on photography, I challenged myself to try my first milky way shot on Dec 2014. Plenty of tutorials, videos and theory on how to capture a good milky way shot are studied and those have given me a sufficient confidence that I would create a great one. After several days spending my nights on the road, I opened my camera memory card only to find below results.

Canon 60D - 10-22mm Lens

F3.5 25s ISO4000

Original Capture - Not yet processed

Canon 60D - 10-22mm Lens

F3.5 25s ISO1250

Original Capture - Not yet processed

The stars are out of focus & its amount is not impressive, too much noises, the foreground is too dark & not captivating, damaged pixels are seen scattered around. Above captures are simply not representing a decent quality that I expected. A bit dissapointment but I really do not wish to succeed on the first try. The challenges are huge & it becomes much more exciting!

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