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astrophotographic landscapes of the Milky Way

plan ahead

  • if your aim is to get the most aesthetic imagery of the Milky Way, you need to not only have a clear sky with no moonlight or light pollution, but you need the Milky Way (in particular, the area around Sagittarius) to be in the part of the sky you will be shooting
  • in the Southern Hemisphere, you will find it best with the Southern Cross at around the 5 o'clock position in the sky (the Southern Cross circles around the South Celestial Pole in the sky each day - for example, just before dawn in the Australian winter when it will be near the south-west horizon and you can place the Southern Cross in the far left of your scene assuming you will be doing a panoramic stitch of the arching Milky Way

what you need

  • high quality f/1.4, f/2 or f/2.8 wide angle lens that gives sharp star images across the frame wide open
    • need f/2 or f/2.8 to avoid having to push ISO higher than 3200
    • wide angle lens not only gives more of the Milky Way but allows longer exposures without star trailing becoming evident when using untracked cameras on a tripod
      • to avoid noticeable star trailing, exposure length should be kept below 400/(effective full frame focal length)
      • even with a wide angle lens, many take vertical shots and stitch them as a panorama to capture the extent of the Milky Way
      • the Olympus mZD 8mm f/1.8 Pro fisheye lens is a very interesting lens to use to avoid need for stitching and given the 180deg field of view, but will cause considerable distortion
      • the Panasonic Leica DG 12mm f/1.4 Summilux ASPH lens is another option for Micro Four Thirds users but it is expensive
      • the Samyang / Rokinon 12mm f/2.0 is a good lens for mirrorless cameras
      • note that most Canon and Nikon brand wide angle lenses are poorly corrected for coma and astigmatism, and thus many recommend the Rokinon/Samyamg 14mm f/2.8 and Rokinon/Samyang 24mm f/1.4 lenses for these full frame cameras1) 2)
  • tripod
    • optionally with a panoramic head if doing stitched shots with foreground subjects in the image
  • exposure trigger
    • if doing exposures longing than 30 secs for the landscape component, you will need either:
      • shutter release mechanism to keep shutter depressed during BULB, or,
      • use an Olympus OMD camera which has Olympus Live Time mode (just press shutter to start and again to end when it looks bright enough - or just use the TIME mode if you don't wish to see the image developing)
        • can also use these cameras in Olympus Live Composite mode to do star trails without blowing out foreground subjects!
        • these cameras also allow Live Boost mode so you can readily see and focus on the stars in the EVF if using wide aperture lenses

Nice pano stitch of 10 images at f/2.8, ISO 3200, 15sec, but the Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 lens is showing awful image quality at the tops of each frame - lens choice is critical!

camera settings

  • manual white balance:
    • for Milky Way generally looks best at 3200-3900K to keep stars looking blue
  • manual exposure for the Milky Way:
    • many aim for an exposure value of -8EV for the Milky Way = 25sec, ISO 3200, f/2 to 2.8
    • preferably should look overly bright in camera (neutral or ETTR histogram) without blown highlights
    • to get the whole view of the Milky Way, you will need about 14 vertical images stitched if using a 14mm lens (on a 35mm full frame camera)
  • landscape exposures (moonless sky):
    • 20min, ISO 1600 at f/2.8 (may need a warmer on the lens to prevent dew forming)
    • 5min, ISO 1600 at f/2.8
    • 1-10min, ISO 400-1600 at f/8 with light painting of foreground - may need multiple shots with different focus points
  • RAW mode
  • long exposure NR ON or AUTO


  • in Lightroom, remember to:
    • set Sharpening Masking to a high value to avoid sharpening blank areas of the sky
    • add some Clarity to make stars pop (but too much gives a halo artefact)
    • apply some noise reduction
    • may need to remove vignetting if planning to stitch images
  • then in PS:
    • you need to blend in all the images:
      • Milky Way exposures
      • foreground landscape exposures
    • apply further noise reduction (can be done by 3rd party plugins such as Nik Dfine)
photo/astroscapes.txt · Last modified: 2017/03/20 07:27 by gary1