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First-Time Milky Way and Star Photography

by Karen Ung
It was dark, the kids were finally asleep in the tent, and it was a clear, moonless, starry night. I wanted to capture what I was seeing, but had no idea where to start. Fortunately, we were camping within cell phone range (for once), so I started googling ‘how to take star photos’… at 11:30 pm at night. This is what I learned about milky way and star photography and a few of my first takes. Give it a try and let me know how it goes! Like anything worth doing, practice makes perfect!

What You Need

  • DSLR camera with manual mode
  • wide angle lens with f1.8 or f/2.8 aperture (14-24 mm f/2.8 recommended with full frame camera)
  • tripod
  • timer or remote
Dave Morrow goes into much more detail in his Milky Way & Star Photography Tutorial including which lenses you should use for full frame or crop sensor cameras.
I used a Nikon D600 full frame camera with Nikkor 24-85 mm f/3.5-4.5 lens. I have a lightweight Gitzo 1550T tripod and remote but forgot them at home, so I just used the camera’s timer and propped my camera on a stump. The lens cap under my lens helped angle upward to capture the stars a bit better.

Nikon D600, Nikkor 24-85 mm f/3.5-4.5 lens, & Gitzo 1550T Tripod

When to Go

For star photography, dark nights are your friend. Ideally, you should go within a few days of a new moon. This moon calendar provides dates for new and full moons as well as lunar eclipses.

At different phases of the moon, it rises late in the evening, so when the days are short, you can get star photos before the moon is up. timeanddate.com has moon rise and moon set times.

Of course, you also need to wait until it’s totally dark out. About 1.5 hours after sunset is a good time to start setting your camera up. See Environment Canada or The Weather Network for local sunrise and sunset times.

Starry Night

Where to Go

You need to go somewhere really dark to capture the Milky Way. If you live in a town or city, you’ll need to drive out of town a ways to escape light pollution. The larger the city, the further you’ll have to go.

Miquelon Lake Provincial Park, Jasper National Park, Beaver Hills, Cypress Hills Inter-Provincial Park, and Wood Buffalo National Park are well know dark-sky preserves in Alberta, but anywhere you are not near street lights or cities will work. Elbow Falls and Wedge Pond are two pretty spots for night photography near Calgary.

I played around at our campsite. Lakeside would have been better for a clearer skyline, but the tent (with a small lantern on inside) made for an interesting subject. Try to have something interesting in your image like a barn, mountains, person, or pet.

Fish Creek Campground, near Nordegg

Here are a few of Life In Alberta’s photos from Elbow Falls. That Canadian Girl also has some nice captures of stars and the northern lights.

How To (Camera Settings)

I used to think you had to be some kind of photography ninja to get Milky Way photos, but as it turns out, you just need the right camera settings, time, location, and a decent camera. 😉 Sounds overwhelming, but with a little trial and error, you can get decent photos on your first outing. The key? Take LOTS of photos and keep tweaking until you get the desired result. I found reducing ISO and increasing exposure time made for much cleaner images. Adjust the white balance for better color, but don’t stress about it; you can adjust color afterwards (post process). It’s most important to get a nice, sharp image with lots of stars.
The best night photography tutorial I’ve found is: Dave Morrow Photography – Milky Way & Star Photography Tutorial. Dave provides detailed instructions, that even a newb like me can understand, as well as the reason why you need to do what you’re doing. He also has tips at the end on how to post-process your images for that extra wow factor.

Settings I used on my Nikon D600 with Nikkor 24-85 mm f/3.5-4.5 lens:

  • Focal length: 24 mm
  • ISO: 2500
  • f /3.5
  • White balance: 4350 K
  • Exposure time: 20 seconds
  • Autofocus turned off, focused lens to infinity
  • Long exposure noise reduction turned off
  • High ISO noise reduction set to normal
  • I forgot to shoot in RAW, but you should (allows you to do more post processing)!

Be sure to save your settings so you can get the same great results next time! Many cameras allow you to save user settings (on Nikon D600, go to Setup Menu / Save User Settings / Select U1 or U2) so you don’t have to adjust ISO etc. the next time you want to take star photos. You’ll still have to flick the A/F (autofocus) switch to manual and focus your lens to infinity.

Post Processing

I did some really quick and dirty post-processing on my images: increased contrast, reduced shadows, made the image cooler to bring out blues, and increased saturation. **If you shoot in RAW and have Lightroom or Photoshop, you can do a lot more.** 



For inspiration, check out Monica’s photos at http://www.deviantoptiks.com/. This local photographer is truly talented!What are your favorite tips and tricks for star photography?


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