What equipment do you need to photograph landscapes with the Milky Way? The equipment does not have to cost tons of cash. This handy gear guide will help!
This is more of a beginner’s guide. Therefore, I am not going to list star trackers. They are not necessary for creating beautiful Milky Way images or astro-landscapes. Also, this guide is written with single-exposure Milky Way photos in mind, although you certainly can apply most of the advice to tracked or stacked photos as well.
This is arguably the most important piece of equipment for taking photos of the Milky Way. After all, if you have a cheap lens on an expensive camera, it adversely affects the image going into your shiny expensive capture device.
To me, the most interesting Milky Way photographs are the ones that marry the earth and the sky. It’s the overall context that makes our mouths drop. You may be photographing the Milky Way, but it still is all about composition.
Therefore, an ultra wide-angle lens or wide-angle lens is probably the most useful (and hey, here’s an article about lens choices for night photography). You also want it to have a wide aperture to let in as much of that dim starlight as possible. The Irix 15mm f/2.4 lens or the Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 lens are relatively inexpensive, ultra wide-angle and have a wide aperture.
I use an Irix 15mm f/2.4 lens or Rokinon 12mm f/2.8 fisheye (I love fisheye lenses!) for my Nikon D750 and a 15-30mm f/2.8 lens for my Pentax K-1 when photographing the Milky Way. I have not used the Rokinon 14mm but have seen plenty of gorgeous images that use one.
Almost any reasonably modern DSLR or mirrorless with manual controls is capable of doing a great job of photographing the Milky Way. You also don’t need the latest and greatest expensive cameras. An older camera such as the ones I mentioned above are more than capable.
DSLR or mirrorless cameras that are, say, 2014 or newer are capable of excellent high-ISO performance. I’ve seen all sorts of great photos from a variety of cameras, including crop-sensor or full frame. I purchase cameras used since they cost so much, and it hasn’t stopped me from creating high-quality photos. I wouldn’t get too hung up on the camera, although obviously if you have deep pockets and can purchase a nice, new beautiful camera, don’t let me stop you.
Obviously, you want your camera to stay still while you have the shutter open for 15, 20, or 30 seconds — common exposure times for Milky Way photography. I use two carbon fiber tripods, a Feisol CT-3342 and a larger Feisol CT-3372, which I’ve had since 2013. These have gone up in price a bit but are still a great buy.
We Nightaxians use a heavy setup (Pentax K-1 and 15-30mm f/2.8 lens) out in the field when doing night photography. Check out this YouTube podcast for a fun, informative discussion about all things tripods!
While I personally prefer carbon fiber, I wouldn’t get too hung up on this unless you are going to do a lot of hiking. There’s nothing wrong with an aluminum tripod. The heavier weight can often work to your favor for creating stability.
If you want stability and feel like you are going to be using your tripod a fair amount, I would urge you not to buy a cheap flimsy tripod.
It really is an important piece of gear and can keep your camera safe and stable. After all, I’m not sure if it makes sense to have hundreds or even thousands of dollars invested in a camera and lens only to purchase it on top of a cheap flimsy tripod. But also, to give an example, since I purchased my tripods in 2013, I have owned numerous camera bodies. However, my tripods (and lenses) have remained the same. Hopefully, that gives you some perspective on how important lenses and tripods are compared to camera bodies.
If you cannot afford Feisol tripods, you could have a look at Manfrotto, Benro or Leofoto, who make inexpensive tripod models that seem like they would still be stable.
Regardless, make sure you use a tripod like a pro. This will help greatly with stability.
Great accessories to make your Milky Way photography experience better
Intervalometer or remote shutter release
A simple cheap remote shutter release fires the camera without you having to actually touch your shutter release button. This is great for reducing vibrations. By the way, speaking of vibrations, it’s generally regarded as good practice to turn off image stabilization. While it probably won’t do any harm, you don’t want the image stabilization motors whirring, trying to stabilize a camera that doesn’t need stabilization.
An intervalometer does more than a simple cheap remote shutter release. This allows you to fire multiple photos in succession and do time-lapses. This might be nice to get because you can either “stack” photos to reduce noise and bring out the stars a little more, or you can throw the photos you’ve taken in succession into GlueMotion or another app and create time-lapses of the Milky Way! Cool, huh?
And to learn how to use an intervalometer, make sure you check out this article. And check out this article for a really great, flexible intervalometer that can be used for different brands of cameras for under $20.
PhotoPills is great for planning where the Milky Way is going to appear, finding the Milky Way, or even determining your camera settings (hint: a starting point of 15-20 seconds at f/2.8 at ISO 3200 or 4000 is not bad if using the Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 lens or other lenses with a similar focal length and aperture).
I also wrote an article, “How to find the Milky Way,” that will give you more tips and apps.
What are other useful apps? Apps for light pollution, finding great landscapes, Google Maps for navigating and pinning locations, weather apps such as Clear Outside, and so forth can make your experience easier.
Get a good headlamp that produces red light. The red light is important so you don’t blow your eyes out. A great alternative to a headlamp, something that can clip onto your hat or just about anything else, is a Coast HX4 clip-on LED light. And yes, it has a red light and is inexpensive.
Post-processing a Milky Way image is largely about taste. It’s easy to try and extract as much detail as possible, only to make your Milky Way or sky look harsh or even garish. Using some sort of software, though, is essential for bringing out the beauty of the Milky Way, just as you would process film. Dodging, burning, sharpening, contrast and brightening are your friends. Just don’t overdo it.
There are many kinds of post-processing software that you could use and do a great job. In the past, I have used Adobe Lightroom Classic CC, Adobe, Photoshop CC, Skylum Luminar, and DxO Nik Collection to gently coax out the Milky Way more. For adjusting the color slightly, I’ve gotten great results from Radiant Photo as well.
Want more tips? Check out Five tips all night photographers should know.
And while being repetitive, I do want to mention again that composition still reigns supreme. Whether photographing the Milky Way, Comet NEOWISE or other celestial phenomena, incorporating it with a strong foreground subject often works best. All the guidelines for image composition still are in play: leading lines, Rule of Thirds, or otherwise pleasing compositions.
Also, since this is a beginner’s guide that links to a lot of other useful information about Milky Way photography, consider bookmarking this so you can return often.
And as always, please leave questions or comments below.
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BOOKS AND PRINTS:
Head on over to the Ken Lee Photography website to purchase books or look at night photography and long exposure prints and more. My books are available there and Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Target, Booktopia, Books A Million, IBS, and Aladin. If you enjoy the book, please leave a nice review, thanks!
NIGHTAXIANS VIDEO YOUTUBE PODCAST:
Night photographers Tim Little, Mike Cooper and I all use Pentax gear. We discuss this, gear, adventures, light painting, lenses, night photography, creativity, and more in this ongoing YouTube podcast. Subscribe and watch to the Nightaxians today!
Ken Lee Photography Facebook Page (poke your head in, say hi, and “like” the page if you would, uh, like)
Behind the Shot video podcast – interview February 2020
How We Got the Shots: Five Photographers, Five Stories – Night Photo Summit 2022
Ken Lee’s Abandoned Trains Planes and Automobiles with Tim Little of Cape Nights Photography
Conversation about night photography and my book with Lance Keimig of National Park At Night
A Photographer Captures Haunting Nighttime Images of Abandoned Buildings, Planes, and Cars in the American Southwest – Business Insider by Erin McDowell
A Photographer Explores Southern California’s Desert Ruins – Los Angeles Magazine article by Chris Nichols