Simply seeing the Milky Way is already a good awe-inspiring experience, and photographing it is one of my favorite things in the world. Although I’ve currently written several articles about photographing the stars, today I wanted to specifically protect the gear needed to get excellent night sky photos.
This article is an extension of my recent article on the very best equipment for landscape digital photography . As such, I’ll be using the same rating scale to guage the usefulness of each kind of astrophotography gear:
- 1/4: Rarely worth getting
- 2/4: Can be useful
- 3/4: Very useful
- 4/4: Should buy!
However , this time I could not think of any “rarely really worth getting” equipment that is popular among astrophotographers, so there is nothing rated “1/4” in this article! Almost every typical accessory for Milky Way photography can be useful under a few circumstances, even if I don’t often use it for my own photography.
Without further ado, here’s my analysis of the necessary gear just for capturing great photos from the Milky Way at night.
Table of Contents
It should go without saying that you need a tripod for Milky Way picture taking. I’m sure there are some people out there who take handheld Milky Way shots just to say they can, but they’re losing a massive amount of image high quality that way.
1 time, I didn’t bring a tripod along because I was traveling with some friends and didn’t expect to do much photography. Our view of the Milky Way ended up becoming amazing. I tried to take some shots by placing my camera on the ground, directing toward the sky having a self-timer. I ended up with bad compositions, bad focus, plus blur from the camera slipping in the grass. My friends took much better Milky Way photos using their phones. It was humiliating. Provide a tripod!
Full-Frame Digital camera (3/4)
The usual advice for Milky Way photography is to get a camera with the best possible great ISO noise performance. And while that’s true, two strategies I’ll cover in a minute (star trackers and image averaging) mean that it’s not a necessity. You can theoretically take top-quality Milky Way photos with even a point-and-shoot so long as it has manual mode and shoots raw.
But boy does a good camera make things easier. Full frame is the way to go if you possibly could. They also tend to have better zoom lens options for shooting the Milky Way than aps-c digital cameras.
Wide-Angle Lens with f/2. 8 or Greater Maximum Aperture (3/4)
Wide lenses allow you to use longer shutter speeds with out blurring the stars. And large apertures allow you to capture more light – essential considering that a lack of light could be the biggest barrier to top quality Milky Way shots.
However , as with making use of lower-quality cameras, you can also make use of slower lenses or telephotos for Milky Way pictures these days without actually compromising image quality. You just need to become using a tracking head or even image hitting .
But wide-angle lenses with a good sized maximum aperture are still the ones to beat. That’s particularly true if you want to do some unique case photography like taking details in the Northern Lighting, which can’t readily end up being improved with star monitoring or image averaging.
Headlamp with Red Light Mode (4/4)
One of the most important pieces of gear you can bring along for Milky Way photography is a headlamp. Using a headlamp, you free your hands to set your camera plus adjust composition. Most headlamps also have a low-light mode, unlike a lot of flashlights.
Try to get one with a red light mode because it doesn’t strain your night time vision as much as white light. Just remember to turn off the headlamp before taking your photos, or even you’ll end up with a reddish colored foreground!
Shiny Flashlight (3/4)
Even though I usually navigate with a headlamp during the night, it’s always helpful to carry a bright flashlight too. One of the easiest ways to focus on the night skies is to shine a flashlight at some thing in the distance and focus on that instead, approximating infinity focus.
This is the one I use because it’s little, light, and has variable lighting. If you already have a good one, just use that.
Light Painting Equipment (2/4)
I’m not much of a lighting painter in my Milky Way photos. Some people love it and consider it a necessity. The best lighting painting gear varies through flashes to lightsticks in order to even drones with lights attached, depending on what you’re trying to accomplish.
In the rare case exactly where I’ve wanted some gentle painting, as in the bridge photo below, I’ve utilized my flashlight or headlamp to provide slight foreground lighting.
Focus Aid Filter (2/4)
Generally, lens filters aren’t carefully associated with Milky Way photography, but there are a couple varieties that photographers occasionally make use of. One of those is a focusing aid filter . It works by adding streaks towards the stars in your photo – streaks which are misaligned when the star is out of focus and aligned when it’s within focus. The idea is that you would attach the filter, focus, and then detach the filtration system.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with them (they will give you results well) but I see them no faster or easier than the various other focusing methods I tend to use during the night. Feel free to get one if the other methods cause you to strain your eyes, though.
Light Pollution Filtering (2/4)
The other somewhat common filter for Milky Way digital photography is a light pollution filtration system, designed to filter out some of the yellow hue colors of light that are common near cities and towns. While light pollution filters may seem like a good idea, they often cause enough colour shifts in the foreground (and blurry corners on the less expensive filters) that I tend not to suggest them. The situation where they’re the most helpful is for deep-sky astrophotography in polluted places, where you’re using a star tracking head (see below) to maximize image quality.
Star Monitoring Head (3/4)
One of my favorite add-ons for capturing high-quality pictures of the night sky is a star tracking head. To utilize it, you just point the head at the North Star – or equivalent area in the Southern Hemisphere – also it follows the rotation of the stars all night (technically the particular rotation of the Earth, yet we all know what I mean). You are able to attach an ordinary tripod mind and compose your photo however you want. Wherever you point, star trails will be eliminated.
However , the downside is that “earth trails” – i. e., the blurred foreground – will be inevitable when you use a star tracker. Some photographers choose to take a second, non-tracked picture of the foreground to combine the two together in Photoshop. Other photographers use star tracking heads for deep-sky astrophotography anyway and do not have a foreground to worry about in the first place.
Whatever you choose, star tracking heads can provide you with absurd levels of image quality at night. I took the particular photo below with a fourteen minute exposure (plus a separate shot for the foreground). You can view in the crop afterwards just how much detail is in those stars.
Tripod Leveling Base (2/4)
In order to take panoramas at night in order to capture the whole Milky Method, an useful tool is a tripod leveling base. Leveling bottoms go directly underneath the tripod head, and they have a few degrees of motion in each path to allow your tripod go to be completely level even if the tripod legs aren’t. In this way, you can rotate the tripod head to take multi-image panoramas without introducing a major lean to your shots.
There are certainly more advanced setups if you want to do complex nighttime panoramas (our friend Aaron Priest is known for that) but a leveling base is a good starting point if you’re after basic panoramas.
Remote Shutter Release (3/4)
It’s common in Milky Way photography to be shooting with unusual settings that are much easier with a remote shutter release. Whether you are trying to capture star trails with an hour-long exposure, the timelapse movie, a sequence of images to blend later, or anything else unusual, a remote release of some kind can be very useful. Although most cameras have built-in intervalometers, a different remote will usually have much more functionality.
Battery Management System (3/4)
If you’re shooting a timelapse or even sequence of images during the night, you should make sure you have enough batteries to last. Cold nights sap away battery life faster than you may be used to, as well as the same is true of constantly documenting images one after an additional.
Plenty of digital cameras these days have an option for continuous power over USB, in order to use a high-capacity external battery pack to keep your camera charged all night. If yours does not, you may want to look into a standard battery power grip that can at least dual the capacity on most cameras.
The easiest option, should you be not shooting a timelapse and don’t mind interrupting your camera for a moment, is just to bring a bunch of more batteries and swap all of them out when they reach a single bar.
It’s easy to obtain cold while you’re taking Milky Way photos, especially if you’re just standing about next to your tripod in the dead of night.
With no sunlight to keep you warm, even an apparently reasonable night around fifteen Celsius / 60 Fahrenheit can start to feel amazingly cold. Bring more outdoor jackets than you think you’d require, plus handwarmers, a head wear, gloves, and so on – even if it seems like overkill. Make matters cozier by bringing the camping chair, blanket, as well as a portable speaker to enjoy overnight time as your camera clicks aside.
Milky Way Tracking App (3/4)
The Milky Way is generally found out to the South, even if you’re within the Southern Hemisphere (though it is much more overhead to you if that’s the case). This starts the night in the Southeast and moves toward the particular Southwest.
Still, it changes quite a bit based on the time of year and where you are within the globe. Rather than simply intending to look South, a better idea is to have an app that may track the Milky Way and show you where it is going to be at any time plus date in the future.
There are plenty such apps available. I have no affiliation with them, but I like one called PhotoPills that has an augmented reality view of the Milky Way superimposed on the landscaping in front of you, with whatever time/date you select. I’m sure there are others that do something comparable, but either way, I recommend the Milky Way tracking application to make your life a bit easier.
Other Apps (3/4)
There are so many other potentially helpful apps for Milky Way photography that it can be difficult to keep track. You’ll want a great weather app that displays cloud cover details; I use a free one called Astrospheric. For deep-sky astrophotography, there are plenty of apps which show finding particular details in the sky. I can’t say I’m really impressed with any of the types I’ve tried, but I use two called Star Chart and Star Walk 2 that are passably good. Then I’d recommend PhotoPills another time because of its information about the moon and meteor showers, plus specific features designed for calculating star trails. It is a $10 app, even though, while the others are free.
Sequator or even Starry Landscape Stacker (3/4)
Just as much as I like using a star system to capture maximum picture quality at night, there’s a technique I like even more – image averaging . With the proper software, you are able to load multiple photos of the Milky Way to be averaged together, a process which significantly reduces noise and increases image quality.
The two best options are usually Sequator (Windows) and Starry Landscape Stacker (Mac), which align the stars just before averaging your photos. They will keep the foreground and all some other stationary objects in the picture untouched. It’s similar in image quality to using a star tracker, at least for many uses.
This kind of software is why I’m comfortable using an f/4 lens (the Nikon Z 14-30mm f/4) as my primary Milky Way photography lens these days. It’s also allowed myself to get dramatic improvements to my depth of field at night, as you can see in the photo beneath, where I was able to make use of f/8 and take thirty-three photos to average:
A single photo with the same level of field looks like this particular, completely unusable:
You can also use image averaging to take telephoto images very easily, either to enlarge the core of the Milky Way or to showcase other astronomical phenomena, like the comet Neowise that came along last year:
For exactly what it’s worth, you can also get image averaged photos associated with deep-sky objects (or use a combination of image averaging as well as a star tracker) to get very high levels of image quality. If you don’t have a foreground in your picture, the best software options are DeepSkyStacker (Windows) and Lynkeos (Mac), both of which are free. Again, I have simply no affiliation with any of these, plus there may be others out there that are similarly good – simply sharing what I’ve utilized.
Topaz Denoise or Similar (3/4)
The final step of Milky Method photography is the post-processing phase. There’s a lot of noise in most Milky Way photos, so a good noise reduction product is very helpful. I generally simply use Lightroom’s noise decrease, but not because it’s better than other software out there. It isn’t really; it’s just convenient. To get top quality, I recommend downloading Topaz Denoise or some comparable artificial intelligence noise reduction software.
I hope this article helped you figure out what gear you will need for Milky Way photography! If there’s anything I overlooked, let me know in the comments below. This is what I use meant for my own Milky Way photos, but there are so many advanced directions you can go if you’re interested in this genre – everything up to dedicated telescopes with regard to deep-sky astrophotography, or even customized cameras for photographing other planets in the Solar System. The sky is, very literally, the limit.