What are the best camera settings for Milky Way photography?

What are the best camera settings for Milky Way and “astrophotography”? We offer this and some tips to make it easy for you.

Arches National Park, Utah Milky Way
Double Arch in Arches National Park in Utah. Camera settings are 20 seconds f/2.8 ISO 4000.

Is offering camera settings meaningless?

Some night photographers argue that offering camera settings for Milky Way photography is useless. In a way, they’re right. There are so many variables. For instance, it depends on what kind of lens. The larger the aperture the lens has, the more light it lights in. The wider the focal length, the longer the amount of time you can set your camera’s exposure length. Then there are atmospheric variables, light pollution and more that affect the settings.

A discussion about settings could take up quite a lot of space in a book. However, I’ll try and give you starting points.

Assumptions before giving camera settings

To stop the variables from spinning out of control, we are going to assume that you have a relatively modern digital camera and an ultra wide angle lens with a focal length of about 14mm or 15mm since that seems to be the most commonly used. We will also assume that you are not using a star tracker, and that your camera is simply mounted on a tripod.

Starting camera settings for Milky Way photographs

I like to begin with a 20-second exposure, an aperture of f/2.8 at ISO 3200 or 4000. 


20-second exposures are typically long enough to gather light, but short enough that your stars register as relative pinpoints of light. If you can reduce this further, great. If not, this should be a good starting point for a lens with a focal length of 14mm or 15mm.


If your lens has a larger aperture than f/2.8, such as f/2.0 or f/2.4, try to use it. However, some lenses have distortion in the corners if you photograph “wide open” (at the largest aperture). Look for things such as “angel wings” or “UFO”-looking stars in the corners. If there are none, great. If there are, reduce the aperture back to f/2.8 or until that stops.


Boosting the ISO to 3200 or 4000 should be bright enough to adequately capture the Milky Way without blowing out the highlights.

Arch, Mojave Desert, Southwest Milky Way
A hidden arch in Mojave Desert, Southwest US. This is admittedly “stacked”. However, the settings for the sky are 15 seconds f/2.5 ISO 4000. I was able to drop the exposure down to 15 seconds because my lens could be opened up to f/2.5.

Adjusting from the beginning camera settings

Just like you would with a day photograph, all your camera adjustments are the same. 

“My image is too dark!”

This is the most common thing people encounter. If your image is too dark, you can make it brighter by lengthening the exposure, opening the aperture (if that’s possible), and/or increasing the ISO. 

Each has trade-offs, of course. Sometimes, lengthening the exposure might turn your stars as pinpoints into elongated trails. Or increasing the ISO might introduce more noise into your image, although you could address that in post-processing by using Topaz Labs Denoise AI or other noise reduction software. I’ve had good luck using this software for Milky Way photos without decreasing the sharpness and detail of the Milky Way.

“My image is too bright!”

This is less common with Milky Way photos, but can occur more frequently when doing star trails or photographing near a full moon. 

You can decrease the exposure time, make the aperture smaller, and/or decrease the ISO.

Further information

I write a lot about night photography here. When you see a night photo, you can click on the image and see what the camera settings were. You can learn a lot from these by looking at the image, trying to figure out what the ambient light was, and figure out why that setting was chosen. After seeing a number of photos, you can also begin to see patterns emerging and begin to figure out why certain settings are chosen over others.


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!


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



Featured Photo: Rock and Tree

Rock and Tree, Joshua Tree

Joshua Tree is otherworldly, and sometimes looks to me like a planet Captain Kirk and Spock might have beamed down on.  But I think this is rather captivating even by Joshua Tree standards. I shot this with a fairly small aperture to make certain both the narrow balancing rock and the lone tree, which is considerably closer to the camera, were both in focus.

Yes, this is another photo from my 28 April 2012 photographic trip to the desert, a 24-hour excursion for taking photos during both the day and night. This month we’ll be featuring many of these photos, and on June 1st, will discuss in detail the process of how the star trails photo from a couple of posts ago was created.
Equipment:  Nikon D90, 18-200mm VR Nikkor lens

You can see more of these photos here  on my Ken Lee Photography Facebook Page (poke your head in, say hi, and “like” the page if you would, uh, like).

And you can go to the Ken Lee Photography website, which has more photos from Ken Lee.  Thank you very much for visiting!

Featured Photo: My Eyes Have Seen You, Let Them Photograph Your Soul

"Jim Morrison" with Break On Through, 17 December 2011

“Jim Morrison” with Break On Through, an amazing Doors tribute band, 17 December 2011. Nikon D90 with a 50mm Nikkor f1.8 lens, 1/100, f/2, 1250 ISO.

Break On Through to the Faster Side
There’s nothing like a nice fast lens.  I like shooting concert photos with natural light most of the time, and a fast lens always helps.  I’m using the Nikkor 50mm f/1.4, which at $300, is a pretty good bargain.  There’s another 50mm lens, the f/1.8, for scarcely more than $100, which is a steal.  Dark light?  With a big aperture, I can still shoot at 1/100 and “freeze” the action without getting too much noise (grain).

I like to wander.  I took the above photo of “Jim Morrison”, singer of the Doors tribute band Break On Through”, while standing next to the drummer on stage.  I really like the look of someone who is backlit.

The Legendary Pharoah Sanders

Who is the Pharoah Of Them All? The legendary Pharoah Sanders at the Catalina, this one taken with the same Nikon D90, but with a much slower lens, an 18-200mm VR, shot with a rather “low tech” method of minimizing camera shake! 😀

Take It As It Comes
Sometimes, you don’t always have what you need.  Here at this gig with the legendary Pharoah Sanders at the Catalina, I didn’t own the faster lens, and had considerably slower 18-200mm VR Nikkor zoom lens.  I got away with less movement by using the VR (Vibration Reduction) technology AND by squeezing the camera tight against one of the posts to minimize camera shake while shooting.  I still picked up a bunch of noise from having to bump my ISO quite high, so I had to spend a little time in Photoshop cleaning that up.  But my philosophy is that I’d rather get the shot with a little noise than not get the shot at all.  And this photo has been one of my most popular concert photos, and something I personally treasure.

Equipment:  Nikon D90,  50mm f1/4 (first photo); 18-200mm VR Nikkor lens (2nd photo)