Shooting the Milky Way

I receive lots of messages here and there about shooting the Milky Way (MW) and what my settings are and how I do it. Keep in mind that this is MY shooting style. Other photographers may shoot differently. So…. here ya go.

Location/Where to shoot/When to shoot?
First, get out of the city and away from lights! This is essential. You just cant see or photo the Milky Way near so much light noise. Second, It really depends on the time of year because the MW “rises” and is visible at different spots in the Eastern, Southern and Western sky. Heading out somewhere South and East of any noisy city light is best. You can shoot North (looking south) of any city light, you just have to be hundreds of miles away. Depending on the size, city light noise can be visible in your shot even at 150 to 200 miles (and maybe more) away. I live in the southwest and its pretty easy to get south of the city I live in to grab my shots. Also, shoot when there is little or no Moon. The Moon is so bright and depending on where its at in the sky it can wash out your view of the MW. For more info on finding a dark place to shoot, browse to: or
Another helpful resource/program is Stellarium. This free program will allow you to see where the MW and the Moon is and when both will “rise” by time and location.
The best time to shoot the Milky Way is in the summer months (If you’re in North America). Why? The Earth is in a position to see most of the MW. And when it “rises” and you can see it arch from South to North in the Eastern sky (early Summer). I always quote rise because the MW doesn’t really rise, it comes into view as the Earth makes it daily/monthly/yearly rotation around the sun. But you knew this – Right? 😉

Essential Equipment
A camera (DSLR) capable of high ISO capabilities
The best choice will be a full frame DSLR like a Canon 1D/5DMKIII/MKII/6D, a Nikon D4/D3s/D700/D600/D800/D4, etc, and other brands of full frame cameras. Full frame sensor cameras are the best choice for capturing the MW because of their stellar high ISO performance. But the MW would be easily captured as well with a crop sensor (APS-C size) like that of a Nikon D3100/3200/D5100/D5200/D7000/D7100/D90/D300(S), etc, or a Canon T2/T3/T4/T5/40D/50D/60D/7D, etc. As far as other cameras such as point n shoots or mirrorless are concerned, if they have the option to shoot in manual and set the exposure, aperture, and ISO, they should be able to grab something useable. But to be honest, I’m not sure as I don’t own one or used one.
A fast wide angle lens
Because the sky will be so dark, a fast (f/2.8 or faster) aperture lens would be preferable. The wider the view, the better because you will want to grab the biggest part of the sky possible – including the landscape to give the photo perspective. I use a Samyang 14mm f/2.8 lens. A wide zoom lens is fine too and with most of those the fastest aperture is f/3.5. You will also want to set your auto focus to OFF and then manually set the lens to the infinity focus setting. I use electrical tape to secure my focus ring so it doesn’t move if I accidentally touch it during the night.
A tripod
A good sturdy tripod is essential as you don’t want the camera moving during a long exposure. You will end up with nothing useful if you try shooting handheld.
A wired or wireless remote – Optional
When I’m out at night, I sometimes shoot startrails and/or timelapses. Some photographers prefer to use a wired intervalometer/remote. This device allows you program and setup an automated continuous cycle of 30 second exposures. This is really handy if you don’t want to stand by your camera for hours hitting the shutter button over and over every 30 seconds. Some of the newer Nikons and Canons (and others) have built in intervalometers. Most DSLR’s have the option to use a IR (wireless) Remote and you might be able to pick one up at a local camera retailer for $20 dollars. However, if you don’t have any of the above, its really not that much work to setup a chair by your camera and just hit the shutter button every 30 seconds. 😉 To lighten my load when I’m out shooting the Milky Way, I dont carry a remote of any type. I just hit the shutter. If the tripod is sturdy, its fine.
Example wired timer for Nikon: Amazon
Battery/Memory Card
Get a large memory card. Don’t forget to charge your batteries and maybe bring an extra because you might be shooting for hours. You can always pick up extras for most cameras at a local camera retailer.

How to shoot and settings
These are my settings and what I use. I cant speak to how your particular brand of camera settings are completed with regard to the below.
1. Get your cam on the tripod and lock it to your view (Eastern, Southern sky, etc).
2. Set your camera to manual (M) mode.
3. Set a 30 second exposure time (Shutter Speed). Why 30 seconds? If you shoot any longer you will start to end up with star trails. You will need to experiment here a bit. Occasionally I’ll shoot at slower speeds such as 15 seconds depending on the night sky, surrounding light, etc.
4. Set your lens to its fastest aperture – Mine is f/2.8. If you are using a lens with aperture of something slower than f/2.8 (I.E. f/3.5, F/4) you might have to shoot a bit longer. If this is the case most cameras have a Bulb mode. The shutter will stay open as long as you have your finger on the shutter button or you can use a wired remote. See “A wired or wireless remote” above.
5. If using a zoom lens, set it to its widest point. 18mm, etc. For APS-C size or crop sensor cameras my favorite lens is the Tokina 11-16 f/2.8.
6. Turn off auto focus and set the lens/camera to manual focus and then focus to the infinity mark.
7. Set your ISO to what you want to shoot at. On my Nikon D600, I usually shoot at ISO5000 (Yes 5000).
8. I TURN OFF long exposure noise reduction (NR) in my camera. Why? If you have this turned on, after a 30 second exposure, the camera will take an additional 30 seconds to apply the NR after EACH shot. If I’m out shooting the stars/MW I leave this off so I can quickly switch from shooting the MW to shooting startrails. If I leave NR on, I’ll end up with gaps in my startrail stack when I post process. You can apply NR in post process.
9. If you have the ability (photoshop or similar), shoot in and edit in RAW and not JPG. There is so much image quality you can pull out of a RAW file then a JPG when editing.

About ISO
Every camera is different and you will need to experiment. Because the sky will is so dark, my suggestions for full frame cameras are ISO5000 at 30 seconds and with an aperture of F/2.8. For crop sensors (APS-C size) a setting of ISO3200 or ISO4000 should yield some useful photos. Again, I suggest you experiment, take a few photos and look at the result on your cameras LCD screen. Too Dark? Increase the ISO. Too light or over exposed? Lower the ISO. In addition to the ISO setting, consider shooting longer or slower. I usually start off with a 30 second and adjust ISO and shutter speed to get what I want. If your fastest aperture is F/3.5 or F/4, etc., you will have to compensate with a higher ISO setting or maybe a longer shutter speed (See Bulb above). See your cameras manual for more info.

About Noise Reduction
Shooting at high ISO always results in noisy photos. Earlier I mentioned I shoot with no noise reduction because I like to reduce noise in post process using photoshop or photoshop plugins. If you dont have that ability to edit RAW files, are shooting in JPG and are just shooting the MW, turn the in camera noise reduction on.
Again. This is how I shoot. Other photographers have their way of shooting too. But this is the nice thing about photography, its an art form and you (and I) can shoot any way we wish.
Finally, if you don’t have a camera or don’t want to go through all of the above, just grab some chairs, your loved ones, and go sit and stare at the sky in a quiet remote place. There is so much to enjoy just looking straight up, deep thinking and enjoying the serenity. 🙂

Stacking Photos/Star Trails

Hi all! I received a message last week asking how I create my star trails. So instead of writing that person back and sharing my process with just her, I decided to share with everyone at once. As always, this is MY process, MY way of taking photos and MY way of stacking. There are a number of ways to do this and other photographers have their way too. Please keep in mind this is really kind of a basic tutorial and my target are those who have never attempted this. As always, please excuse my grammar. 🙂

Lets get down to business. I’m a huge fan of any photo made at night. This is hands down my favorite type of photography. Included is the Milky Way, star trails, a single snap of the scape with stars – Any photo made at night. I especially enjoy star trails because of the perspective it gives to the landscape from the Earths rotation. Some folks think the only way to make star trails are with a single 30 minute exposure. Shooting a single 30 minute plus exposure is totally fine but the photo will be super noisy. I prefer to take 70-90 exposures at 30 seconds each and stack them. Stacking photos results in a cleaner final image. Some photographers like to shoot hundreds of photos and stack those. I normally shoot for about 30 to 45 minutes. At 30 seconds a piece, you will get two images every minute.

The Moon and light
Unlike photographing the Milky Way (That Blog Post coming soon), I prefer to have a 3/4 (ish) Moon to illuminate the landscape. It balances the photo with light and exposure. On some lighter colored landscapes a full Moon may be a little bright and over power the stars. Bright lights from a city will work too if the lights are behind the camera and illuminating the landscape gently. Of course there have been times I’ve stacked photos with no illumination of the scape. But I will always prefer some light when I can get it.

I usually choose my location with something interesting in the foreground like mountains, an old building or a dead tree to give the entire photo perspective. I never photo just the stars alone. In addition, I always choose a Northern view with the North star in the frame to take advantage of the earths rotation and the view it creates when stacked. Finally, I always make sure there will be no extra lights like headlamps, automobile headlights, etc in my shot because a single exposure with extra light can ruin the entire stack. Always make sure you are shooting in a location with no light interruptions.

You can make star trails with most any camera that has the ability to make 30 second exposures at ISO200. When I photo the Milky Way I only use a Full Frame DSLR because of its high ISO performance. But with stacking photos, 30 seconds at ISO200 with a fast lens (f/2.8) and any DSLR is perfect. So I’ll use either my crop sensor or my Full Frame to make photos and then stack.
Camera – Any Full Frame DSLR like a Canon 1D/5DMKIII/MKII/6D, a Nikon D4/D3s/D700/D600/D800/D4, etc, and other brands of full frame cameras are perfect. Any crop sensor (APS-C size) like that of a Nikon D3100/3200/D5100/D5200/D7000/D7100/D90/D80/D300(S), etc, or a Canon T2/T3/T4/T5/40D/50D/60D/7D, etc. As far as other cameras such as point n shoots or mirrorless are concerned, if they have the option to shoot in manual and set the exposure, aperture, and ISO, they should be fine. The take away here is find a camera that can shoot in manual (M mode) at ISO200 for 30 seconds.
Lens – If using a DSLR, the best is a fast wide lens. My favorites are the Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 on my crop sensor (APS-C) and my Samyang 14mm F/2.8 on my Full Frame. I always shoot wide open at f/2.8 and at the widest angle of view. Now most people get their cameras with kit lenses (18-55mm) and most of those lenses have a maximum aperture of f/3.5 at 18mm. I’ve done stacks with F/4 lenses and raised my ISO to 320. So a kit lens like a 18-55mm should be fine.
Tripod – A must have. This is VERY important. You will need a very sturdy tripod to mount your camera on as you will be shooting for 30 or more minutes to make about 70 to 90 photos to stack. If your tripod moves even a little bit when shooting, your final product will result without the perfect curvature of the trail reflecting the Earths rotation.
Intervalometer – Some photographers prefer to use a wired intervalometer/remote. This device allows you program and setup an automated continuous cycle of 30 second exposures. This is really handy if you don’t want to stand by your camera for 30 or 45 minutes hitting the shutter button over and over every 30 seconds. Some of the newer Nikon and Canon models (and others) have built in intervalometers. However, if you don’t have any of the above, its really not that much work to setup a chair by your camera and just hit the shutter button every 30 seconds if you have a sturdy tripod. 😉 I use one like this. Or just search for Amazon or your favorite camera retailer for “Intervalometer”.

Don’t forget to have a fully charged battery and a memory card with enough room to store a few hundred files if you’re shooting for a couple of hours.

1. Find your spot and secure the camera to the tripod. Once you have your view, don’t move the camera when shooting.
2. Set your camera to M or Manual mode.
3. Set your aperture to its fastest f/2.8, f/3.5, etc.
4. If using a zoom lens, set it to the widest view. 18mm, etc.
5. Turn off Autofocus and set your lens to the infinity mark. Look at the lens focus ring and find the focus mark (line) and line that up with the infinity symbol (the sideways 8).
6. Set your exposure to 30 seconds if you are manually hitting the shutter button. You will hear the shutter open and then close after 30 seconds. Just hit the shutter button again and repeat 70-90 times. Or you can use and intervalometer to automate the process.
7. Set your NR (Long Exposure Noise Reduction) to OFF. This is VERY important. NR takes an additional 30 seconds after EVERY photo to reduce noise. If turned on, you will end up with gaps in the stack.
8. RAW vs. JPG – I shoot in RAW and process my RAW photos in Nikon Capture NX or Photoshop. But you will be fine to shoot and JPG and still get some amazing results.
9. Set your camera to ISO200 and turn off Auto ISO. Take a test photo and make sure the exposure looks good. Too dark? Adjust your ISO up to 320 and then take another photo. If the photo looks a bit dark, don’t worry. You can add light and contrast in your post process.

I stack my photos in Photoshop. But there are lots of other free pieces of software out there to do it. You can Google the process or find it on Youtube. I might be putting together another blog post about how I stack later on down the road. But for a free, quick and easy way, visit and download their stacker. Adjust contrast and brightness using another free photo editor such as Picasa from Google after you have completed the stack.

A 4th of July Wedding in October

Mikayla and Ben love the outdoors and had no second thoughts or reservations about getting married among the fall colors in beautiful 4th of July Canyon. This was indeed an off the grid wedding. It was simple and elegant with no modern conveniences. The focus was on the wedding and nothing else.
The canyon is located 7 miles west of Tajique, New Mexico. The day was perfect, the temperature was just right and the sky had just a few fluffly white clouds. The forest was colorful from the leaves turning in the cooler air, peaceful with no breeze.
A grass covered path, twisting and turning through the Aspen, Pine and Maple, decorated with white flowers and fallen leaves, guided guests to the “venue”.
As friends and family took their seats, an acoustic guitarist sat off to the side and played quietly waiting for the Bride. Escorted by her father, she completed her walk down the pine cone decorated isle to meet her future husband under the alter made from fallen branches, leaves and other foliage gathered from the surrounding scape. Friends and family sat quietly as they exchanged their vows.
.. and they both said I do in October in 4th of July Canyon.