Basic Settings to Capture the Milky Way

Capturing the Milky Way is an astronomical experience and can produce some incredible photographs. However, it’s important to know the right camera settings to achieve the best results.

1. Manual Mode

The first step is to set your camera to manual mode. Shooting in manual mode will give you complete control over your camera settings and will allow you to adjust them to achieve the desired effect.

2. Shutter Speed

The next step is to set the shutter speed. The shutter speed determines the amount of time that the camera’s sensor is exposed to light. For shooting the Milky Way, you’ll want a long shutter speed to allow more light to enter the camera.

A good starting point is 20-30 seconds, but this can vary depending on the brightness of the Milky Way and the surrounding environment. Experiment with different shutter speeds to find the right balance between capturing enough light and avoiding too much noise.

3. Aperture

The aperture setting controls the size of the opening through which light enters the camera. A wider aperture allows more light to enter the camera, which is ideal for capturing the Milky Way.

A good starting point is an aperture of f/2.8 or wider. However, keep in mind that a wider aperture will result in a shallower depth of field, meaning that only a small portion of your image will be in focus. Consider using focus stacking techniques to achieve a sharp, detailed image.

4. ISO

The ISO setting controls the sensitivity of the camera’s sensor to light. A higher ISO will result in a brighter image, but it can also introduce noise or grain.

A good starting point is an ISO of 3200 or higher, but be careful not to go too high as it can result in excessive noise. Experiment with different ISO settings to find the right balance between brightness and noise.

5. White Balance

The final setting to consider is the white balance. This setting controls the color temperature of the image, and can have a significant impact on the final result.

For shooting the Milky Way, you’ll want to use a white balance setting that emphasizes the blue and purple tones of the night sky. A good starting point is the “Tungsten” or “Incandescent” white balance setting, which will give your image a cool, bluish tone.

Shooting the Milky Way requires careful consideration of your camera settings. By using manual mode, adjusting your shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and white balance, you’ll be able to capture stunning images of the night sky. Remember to experiment with different settings to find the right balance for your particular situation, and don’t be afraid to try new techniques to achieve the desired effect.

Click here for more information on upcoming workshops based on Astrolandscape techniques.


After the Richland Wilderness Waterfall Tour, some good friends and I decided to camp next to Falling Water Falls in order to catch the Milky Way rising over it. This shot is tricky and requires the perfect seasonal timing and water flow in order to line up the shot perfectly. We had the early Spring season (before leaf out) timing correct, however, the waters were raging from the recent rains making it impossible to stand in the creek. This kept all 3 of us sharing one rock for the same composition. Around 3:30 AM when the temp had dropped to around 34 degrees, the Milky Way finally made its appearance through the barren trees.

This image was captured using advanced techinques with the help of Low Level Lighting, stacking, and masking. I placed a LLL off-camera right, above us on the embankment. The light was initially too strong, even on it’s lowest setting, and was blowing out highlights on the tree trunk on the left side of the frame. I only had a gray wool beanie to use as a diffuser, so I carefully placed it over the left side of the light, directing it on the falls only. Once the Milky Way was in place, I took 25 images with the same settings back to back using higher ISOs and shorter shutter speeds than described above in the beginner settings. I then used stacking software to stack and align the stars to reduce noise, giving me a cleaner image since I was shooting at a higher ISO. The skinny limbs on the trees made stacking more difficult, so I also had to fine tune the masking process to include the branches.

Technical Settings: ISO 12800, f/3.2, 6″ – stack of 25 images using Starry Landscape Stacker for Mac. Edited in Lightroom and Photoshop.

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