What You Need to Get Started with Milky Way Photography

When it comes to astrophotography subjects like the ever-popular Milky Way, being prepared is key to getting those gorgeous snaps.

The Milky Way is one of the most popular subjects for night photography and astrophotography for obvious reasons. However, it’s not as simple as pointing your camera up to the night sky when the mood strikes; you have to show up 100% prepared. As such, behind every stunning Milky Way photo is some careful planning by the photographer in order to make it happen. Fortunately, there are lots of resources and tutorials to help us prepare for it. Today’s featured video, for example, gives us a quick rundown of what we need to get started.

Travel and landscape photographer Kamil Pekala covers the basic tools and requirements of the shoot for the first part of his Milky Way photography tutorial. Without further ado, let’s watch his video and dissect the chapters.

For astrophotography in general, you’ll need an actual camera: your smartphone, no matter how good it takes photos, simply won’t do. This is because smartphones have really tiny sensors compared to Mirrorless and DSLR cameras. The sensor size is crucial to how a camera performs in low light; it’s one of those things where bigger is better. So, if you already have an interchangeable lens camera, whether it’s a Mirrorless or entry-level DSLR, you’re good to go.

As for the lens, you can already give Milky Way photography a go with your kit lens, or the lens bundled with your camera. But, if you find later that you want to upgrade, what you have to look for is the aperture. Lenses with wide apertures — also called fast lenses — are your best bet because they let more light in. Kamil recommends Samyang (Europe) or Rokinon (US) for APS-C cameras, or Sigma (especially the “Art” series lenses) for Full Frame cameras.

You’ll also need a sturdy and reliable tripod because shooting the night sky requires slow shutter speeds or long exposures. The tripod will keep your camera steady during the exposure. You don’t need a super expensive one right away, but make sure it can support the full weight of your lens and camera combo. Later on, if you decide that you want to advance your astrophotography to shooting Deep Sky objects, you’ll need more advanced equipment which also tends to be heavier. That will warrant a more specialized and more professional tripod option.

Next comes two things of great importance to a Milky Way shoot: where to go and when to go. For the first, you need to go as far away from the city to avoid light pollution: it has to be completely dark. For this, Kamil recommends using an app called PlanIt for Photographers. Among its features is a Dark Sky map, which shows spots in your area where you can go for completely dark skies. PlanIt also has a feature that tells you the time of the year (month) when the Milky Way’s center will be visible in the night sky, whether you’re in the Northern or Southern Hemisphere. You can even scroll through the days to see how the Milky Way’s position in the sky changes from day to day. Once you have chosen a month, you also have to account for the lunar cycle so you can determine when the New Moon is — the best part of the month to shoot. PlanIt also has a Moon phase feature, but you can also use this cheat sheet for a quick reference.

Lastly, don’t forget to check weather forecasts for the dates you plan to shoot. You don’t want cloudy night skies or rain to ruin your shoot!

Check out Kamil Pekala’s YouTube channel for more of his photography tips and tricks.

Cover photo by Andrea Securo. Used with Creative Commons permission.