Outdoor photographers, like you and me, can’t help but be fascinated by the stars in the night sky and the milky Way. By following this step by step guide to taking photographs of the Milky Way you are guaranteed to take impressive pictures of the starry sky.

Learn which settings to use for your camera and lenses when photographing stars as well as what equipment you need, where and when you have the best chance to capture the Milky Way and how to plan you next photo trip. Finally we show you how to edit your star images.

Content Guide Photographing Stars and the Milky Way

Click to jump directly to a chapter or scroll down to read the full guide:

  1. Taking pictures of the northern lights – Brief overview of camera settings
  2. Camera equipment – camera, lenses and other equipment used to photograph the starry sky
  3. Milky Way photography – planning and preparation
  4. Camera settings used to capture northern lights: aperture, focus, ISO, exposure time
  5. Image editing: tips for beautiful astrophotography and Milky Way panoramas
  6. Taking pictures of the starry sky with the smartphone (iOS, Android, Apps)
  7. summary of astrophotography and the Milky Way: The simple Step by Step Guide (Cheat Sheet)

taking pictures of the northern lights – BRIEF OVERVIEW OF camera settings

You want to know the basic settings for taking photos of stars quickly? Here are the most important basics:

  • Lens: Choose a wide-angle lens depending on your composition, with a full format camera approx. 14-55mm focal length.
  • File format: Photograph in raw format if possible.
  • Light sensitivity: ISO: 3200 – depending on the light situation you will move between ISO 1600-6400.
  • Aperture: Open aperture – ideally f2.8 or wider open.
  • Shutter speed: About 15 seconds – depending on your focal length and sensor size. For full format calculate 500/focal length and you will get the maximum time in seconds.
  • Focus: Focus manually to infinity (know the exact infinity value in advance).

You will need a camera with manual adjustment options and a tripod. Everything you need to know about this can be found in the next chapter.

Milky Way in the Alps high above Innsbruck (Tyrol, Austria). In the foreground, a moving person walked along the path with a headlamp. Settings: Iso 1600, shutter speed: 20 sec, aperture f2.8, 14mm full format sensor, manual focus to infinity). No multiple exposure, no composing, image processing in Lightroom (duration approx. 10 min).

camera equipment – camera, lenses and other equipment to photograph the starry sky

You don’t need to have professional equipment to photograph the stars. Nevertheless, a high quality camera equipment will of course help to create professional images of the Milky Way and star images.

Below are our recommendations of what you need to take fairly decent star pictures as well as the equipment we use ourselves.

Minimum equipment

Camera with manual setting option – A manual mode allows you to make the necessary camera settings independently: ISO, aperture and shutter speed. Basically, all you need is a smartphone with an app that offers these functions. A pre-release mode where the recording is delayed a couple of seconds should be considered in order to take blur-free pictures.
Tripod – You need a tripod that can keep your camera stable, or something that can do the job of a tripod. Your shutter speed will be about 5-30 seconds, during this time your camera must not move a millimeter.

Recommended equipment

As you can see, it does not take much to photograph stars. For professional results of stargazing and Milky Way photography we recommend a camera with a high quality sensor and a wide angle lens.

  • Full format camera (e.g. Nikon D610, D800, D810, Z6)
  • Wide angle lens e.g. 12-50 with large open aperture (small value) e.g. f2.8
  • Cable Remote Shutter Release
  • Headlamp

The equipment we use for star photography

We photograph landscapes and night shots with the Nikon D610, D800, D810 and Z6 cameras. Although the equipment is not cheap, the quality is excellent and you don’t have to sell your townhouse to be able to afford them. Of course you can also choose comparable models from other manufacturers.

We use different wide-angle lenses from different manufacturers, important aspects being the large open aperture (around f2.8) and the high quality coating of the lenses.

For panoramic Milky Way pictures we (and many other photographers) use the Samyang 14mm f2.8. The lens is relatively cheap (around 300-350 Euro), quite sharp, but has only manual focus as well as some weaknesses in the image edges and slight color distortions. The Samyang 14mm f2.8 is also sold under the name Rokinon and has not disappointed us for many years.

There are several similar lenses from Samyang, depending on sensor size and lens mount. Most of them are said to have similar good performance and thus a very good price-performance ratio.

Besides camera and lens you will also need a stable tripod.
Guideline: Your camera and lens should be half of the max. manufacturer’s specified weight recommendation.

We use a simple cable remote release. This is the cheapest solution that always works. If we forget the remote shutter release, we use the 10-second timer function of our camera.

We also recommend warm clothes, warm gloves, sturdy shoes and a warm cap. For panoramic Milky Way shots, we (and many other photographers) use the Samyang 14mm f2.8. The lens is relatively cheap (around 300-350 Euro), quite sharp, but has only manual focus, some weaknesses in the image edges and slight color distortions.

There are several similar lenses from Samyang, depending on sensor size and lens mount. Most of them are said to have similar good performance and thus a very good price-performance ratio.

We also recommend warm clothes warm gloves, sturdy shoes, a warm cap and a headlamp to light your way as well as a great prop if you are feeling artistic.

An introduction to professional equipment used for certain night images

There are some varieties of astrophotography that require additional equipment. We will only briefly touch on these in this guide.

The Milky Way photographed as a panorama in the Alps. One can clearly see on the horizon the bright light pollution in Germany (left) and Italy (right). Photographed at the main ridge of the Alps at about 3000m altitude.

For Milky Way panoramas you need a nodal point adapter. The adapter allows you to create a 360° panorama in different shapes. It manages to find the ideal point where you can rotate the camera around it without any offset.

Here, a flash was used to make the foreground visible with Biker. 360° Milky Way panoramas need a lot of practice and a lot of time for planning, on location and even more for post-processing (calculate 1-2 full working days post-processing for one panorama) – of course, we could have shown the photo in a perfected version, but we want to show you what the reality will look like during the first few attempts.

After exposing a series pictures you will need special geo-referencing software to render your panorama e.g. PT Gui or Hanui. This software stitches the single images together by geo-referencing the identical points in each corresponding image.

For both beginners and advanced users this can be a bit overwhelming. For a Milky Way panorama you have to plan from several hours up to a whole day with shooting and editing.

Further equipment that enthusiastic astrophotographers often find useful are sky trackers, camera-binocular combinations as well as photo stacking and startrail software.

milky way photography – planning and preparation

Finding the Milky Way is not so easy for us central Europeans. Europe is quite “bright” at night – the price of civilization with its street lights, city lights, car lights and much more. you therefore have to first find suitable places to see stars and the Milky Way.

To photograph the Milky Way, you also need to know when its visible in the night sky as well as when the weather plays along. Let’s concentrate on photography in this guide, some backgrounds can be found here.

Locations best suited to photographing stars

You have probably already noticed that you cannot see stars equally well everywhere in the world. A view from the city at night into the sky usually shows you no stars and certainly no Milky Way.

To see stars you need a cloudless, moonless sky and a dark environment during Summer.
To see the Milky Way, you need to know when your position on Earth allows you to look into the center of our galaxy – you remember the geography class: The Earth is a sphere, revolves around itself and is located quite at the edge of our galaxy (the Milky Way). We want to photograph the bright center of the galaxy and that’s why the exact position is different depending on the day and time and point of view.

High up in the Alps with a view of the Inn Valley, which is only slightly light-polluted. The mountain slopes shade the light of the lowlands – the Alps are therefore an option for motivated Milky Way photographers.

Where do stars have the best visibility?

You need a place that is ideally as completely dark as possible.

That is easier said than you think. Fortunately, there are maps that show you the general darkness or nightly light pollution: – The darker the map, the darker this place is at night (as long as there is no sun in the sky ;))

What you see: The Alps are a pretty good place to see stars and the Milky Way. Some valleys are pitch dark, so dark that not even a dog or cat would dare to come say good night.

Other dark regions in Europe are Iceland, Northern Scotland, Poland, the Balkans, the Pyrenees, Romania.

Where exactly is it best to view the Milky Way?

The Milky Way, or the bright center of the Milky Way, is something we humans in the northern hemisphere only see in the summer months from about April to October. In the southern hemisphere this is reversed accordingly.

In order to see the stars and the Milky Way, the moon should not shine on your point of view. We use this lunar calendar to shows us when the moon rises, when it sets, when twilight occurs (bad, because it’s too bright for long exposures) as well as when the sun rises or sets.

To determine the direction for sunrise and sunset we use the App: Photographers Ephemeris.

Where in the sky you can expect the Milky Way?

Ok, our earth moves around itself relatively fast. That means for our point of view the stars and the Milky Way seem to move fast in the sky.

Recommendation: The App Photo Pills is pretty efficient at showing you when and where exactly you can expect the Milky Way as well as other information you might need. There are plenty of apps to show you where and when you can expect the Milky Way.

In Europe you can find the Milky Way in the southern night sky with significant variations towards west and east. The easiest way to find the exact location is to use an app, or you can look up in the sky and see the silvery bright stripe on its own. The center (the brightest part) of the Milky Way will always be found on the horizon.

Recommended Apps:
Photo Pills (our recommendation), Photographers Ephemeris, Sky Guide, Stellarium, Skymap and Sky View

When you can see the Milky Way?

(Valid for Europe and similar geographical latitudes)

  • March to May: Only visible just before sunrise.
  • June to August: Visible almost all night.
  • September to October: Visible immediately and shortly after dusk.
  • For best visibilty there should be no moon.
  • The ideal time is around the new moon.

Will I have a cloudless night sky?

A satisfying answer can be supplied by any weather app. You can also get more precise data from local weather services or maps that predict cloud cover, e.g. at

A reasonably valid weather report will be able to predict the approximate weather 3 days in advance. In the mountains the weather is usually a bit more volatile and difficult to predict.

What you have to consider on site

Check the cloudiness forecast daily. Clouds are not your friend, but they can also conjure up exciting artistic surprises.

Mountain Moments Tip: Visit a possible location once before dusk. This way you can think of a nice composition of pictures in advance. In addition, you will already know the conditions on site and can avoid falling into a hole or be scared away by the areas inhabitants allowing you to concentrate solely on your photography.

Camera settings used to capture northern lights: aperture, focus, ISO, exposure time

Most beginner and amateur photographers struggle with camera settings when it comes to manual photography. And a starry sky with or without the Milky Way is photographed manually – whether with a professional camera or with a smartphone.

Here you can find all common camera settings for star images and Milky Way images (incl. table and 500 rule).

These are our recommended camera settings, please note that the ambient light can vary – therefore we give you a corridor in which you have a good chance to get a great picture.

  • File format: Shoot in raw format – you will edit your image anyway for great results, the raw format helps you get the most out of your sensor. Even cheap cameras and some smartphones can do this.
  • White balance: You are shooting in lossless raw format, so this does not affect you. You set the color value in the post-processing.
  • Light sensitivity: ISO 1600-6400 – Start from an ISO value of 3200 and see if you need to increase or decrease the sensitivity. As mentioned above, the brightness of the environment varies, so you need to adjust your camera accordingly.
  • Aperture: Open aperture – Use the most open aperture your lens can provide while still maintaining focus. Good lenses give you an open aperture of 2.8 and are already in focus. To avoid blur, all picture elements should be rather far away, at least 20-30 meters with a wide angle lens. It is important that you focus your lens on very distant objects.
  • Shutter speed: 5-40 seconds – The maximum shutter speed (the time during which light hits your sensor) determines the speed of the earth’s rotation and your equipment. With the suggested setup full-frame camera and wide-angle lens, you can set 20-30 seconds and the stars will be in focus.

For other focal lengths/lenses calculate: 500/focal length = maximum time in seconds (500 rule, valid for full format sensors)

Capture your Milky Way photograph sensor and lens settings in a table format for easier reference in the future.

  • Other camera settings: Manual adjustment, manual focus (control e.g. via Live-View or with the help of a test image and zoom, image stabilizer always off (!).
  • Focus: Correct focusing in the dark – The most difficult thing in night photography is to focus properly and sharply. Unfortunately, in the dark you can often forget the every adjusting automatic focus on. There are several ways to avoid this.
  • Method A: The easiest method is to focus on a bright light in automatic mode (e.g. street lamp, house) which is a distance of at least 100 meters away. Directly afterwards, switch your camera to manual focus. This way you use the automatic mode and do not have to focus yourself.
  • Method B: The second method requires some experience and preparation: Focus on a very distant object in daylight – use the central focus point and a central object at open aperture. If you are sure that this is the sharpest point of this focal length, mark both settings on the lens with a pen and/or a sticker with a painted arrow. For a zoom lens, it is best to use a marker for the longest focal length.

Table: Shooting stars sharply and without motion blur – depending on focal length and sensor size.

This is from our german site: Brennweite=focal length, Verschlusszeit=shutter speed

image editing: tips for beautiful astrophotography and Milky Way panoramas

Even if the starry night skies and Milky Way are a spectacle in themselves, as a budding top photographer you should of course not forget to create a beautiful picture.

In general, all the rules which apply to the art of landscape photography apply here as well – learn everything you need to know in our free guide to landscape photography.

Impressive landscapes are an additional element of image creation, especially for astrophotography, . Mountain silhouettes with snow, lakes and the sea lend themselves to this effect. In the foreground, silhouettes always look good: people, trees, houses give an impression of the surroundings and tell a bigger story.

It is important to make sure that your photo is well exposed and that there are no bright spots in the sky.

You can control the correct exposure in the histogram. A histogram shows you the distribution of brightness in the image. Deflections to the right mean the image is too bright, deflections to the far left mean it is too dark. Star images are typically not completely centered, but shifted slightly to the left and are rather dark.

When editing the image you should make sure that the color balance is correct (you have taken pictures in raw and can therefore do this without any loss). Mostly you can lighten dark areas like grass and bushes and trees a little bit afterwards.

With all the creative freedom you have, please take care not to overdo it with the colors of the Milky Way and other objects in the picture – this will soon look beginnerish.

Mountain Moments Tip: Enjoy the creative freedom and find your own way!

taking pictures of the starry sky with the smartphone (iOS, Android, Apps)

In this chapter you will learn quickly and easily how to photograph the Milky Way with your smartphone (iPhone, Android).

  1. Preparation: Get a photo app that allows manual settings and a timer function.
  2. Place and time: Choose a dark place, June to August, there should be no moon and no clouds!
  3. On site: set iso to 1600, aperture open to e.g. f2.2 or smaller, try 25 seconds exposure time.
  4. Find center of the milky way: Look where you can see a bright stripe in the night sky – at the horizon the milky way is brightest.
  5. …and click: Put your smartphone on a stable surface, it must not move for the 20-25 seconds! A tripod would be ideal. Eh voila.
    Take some pictures without moving the phone and find new locations and polish your image composition.

How to make a good star picture with your smartphone?

The honest answer? Probably not at all. The sensor of the smartphone camera is simply too small to give a good result in such dark light conditions. Better results are achieved with a large camera sensor (e.g. a full format camera) and high quality lenses (e.g. with open aperture 2.0). Our tip: Lean back and enjoy the starry sky as nature intended

summary of astrophotography and the Milky Way: The simple Step by Step Guide (Cheat Sheet)

The starry sky with the Milky Way is an impressive sight in the night sky, just by looking at it. Pay attention to the following points and I promise you, you will be able to capture great moments – if you are lucky.

  • Camera equipment: Sturdy tripod, camera with manual adjustment options. Ideally a full format camera, wide angle lens (e.g. 14mm) and large open aperture (e.g. f2.8).
  • Smartphone: A stable base for the Smartphone (tripod), an app that allows you to make manual adjustments.
  • Planning Milky Way photography: Ideal time (June-August), a suitable place with little light pollution (eg. Alps), no moon (new moon is ideal) visible and a cloudless sky. You have to know what to do on location – and be able to control everything in darkness and cold.
  • Camera settings Astrophotography: Light sensitivity (ISO) approx. 3200, exposure time approx. 20 seconds, open aperture on the lens (e.g. aperture 2.8), take photos in raw format.
  • Image composition: Try to exclude everything unimportant from the picture, concentrate on the essential. Use mountain silhouettes and trees, houses or people as size relation and for harmonious image composition, use lakes and water for reflection.
  • Image editing: Choose a suitable color temperature, bring out the bright colors in the sky. Lighten the foreground selectively. Naturalness for the win: Don’t overdo it with the color saturation. Sharpen the stars.
Depending on the position of the Milky Way, vertical images are also possible. A wide-angle lens makes this possible.
The best way to determine and predict the position of the Milky Way is to use a photo app for geo-location. At a different time of day on another summer day, the Milky Way might fit a composition when rotated by 90°.
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