Photographing the Milky Way

Sierra juniper and the Milky Way, Olmsted Point, Yosemite

Sierra juniper and the Milky Way, Olmsted Point, Yosemite

Gear Doesn’t Matter—Except When it Does

Regular readers know that I’m not much of an equipment geek. It’s not that I don’t think equipment is important—a photographer needs good tools. It’s just that I think light, composition, technique, vision, and imagination are more important. In other words, how you use the tools is more important than what tools you use.

But sometimes the right gear can make a difference. Two weeks ago I was recording video segments for some online courses I’m working on (more about that later!), and needed a digital SLR that could record video—something my trusty old Canon 1Ds Mark II can’t do—for some “through-the-lens” views. So I called up my friend Jim Goldstein. Many of you know Jim through his popular blog and social media streams. Jim also works for, and he set me up with a Canon 5D Mark III for my video shoot, and then asked, “Is there anything else you need?” Hmm… well I’ve been wanting to test the Canon 24mm f/1.4L lens for night photos, so yes, there was something else!

I needed the equipment in a hurry, but luckily the Borrowlenses online ordering system was easy to use, and with overnight shipping I had the camera and lens the next day. The rental period coincided with a new moon—the perfect time to photograph a star-filled sky and the Milky Way.

Night photography has been a specialty of mine for a long time. Since the early 1990s I’ve been photographing moonlit landscapes, star trails, comets, and making wild, brightly-colored light-painted images.

But I’d never captured the Milky Way before. With film the only way to photograph the Milky Way is to use a star-tracking system, which moves the camera in sync with the stars and allows you to make long exposures without the stars becoming streaks. This won’t work if you want to include, say, a tree in the foreground, because the camera’s movement will blur the tree.

Today you can push up the ISO on most modern digital SLRs high enough to record vivid images of the Milky Way with relatively short exposures—short enough to prevent apparent movement in the stars—and keep the camera stationary so you can include foreground objects.

But my Canon 1Ds Mark II, while great for daytime landscapes, and for most nighttime situations, has a maximum ISO of only 3200. The 5D Mark III I rented can go up to an amazing 102,400 ISO, and the 24mm lens’s maximum aperture of 1.4 is a full three stops faster than any of the lenses I own.

After testing the new camera, shooting some video at Tenaya Lake, and having dinner at the fabulous Whoa Nellie Deli in Lee Vining, Claudia and I drove back after dark to Olmsted Point, the land of beautiful, twisted, photogenic junipers. I quickly discovered that it’s fairly easy to make images of the Milky Way with the right equipment.

Sierra juniper and the Milky Way, Olmsted Point, Yosemite

Sierra juniper and the Milky Way, Olmsted Point, Yosemite

Focusing in the Dark

However, while modern DSLRs make photographing the Milky Way relatively easy, there are some pitfalls you have to watch out for. One of the thorniest issues with night photography is focusing in the dark. In the old days you could just focus the lens at infinity and be done. But most modern lenses actually focus past infinity, so finding the right focus can be tricky, and missing the focus even slightly with a wide aperture can give you blurred, unusable images.

Usually I solve this problem by focusing manually on a bright, distant object like the moon, car lights, or even a bright star. I also have a powerful, hand-held spotlight that can illuminate a foreground tree or rock enough to focus on it.

But with the 5D Mark III I found a better way. Using Live View, with Exposure Simulation on, I could zoom in on the live view image and focus manually on an individual star, or a tree lit by just my headlamp. This was both easier and more accurate than any other night-focusing method I’ve used. Very cool!

I don’t know if this technique will work with other cameras. With most cameras, once the light level drops below a certain point live view is useless—all you see is a black screen. The live view mode on the 5D Mark III is amazingly sensitive, and though the image is very grainy you can focus accurately in almost complete darkness. I’d be curious to hear if other cameras are sensitive enough to focus in the dark with live view, so if you’ve tried this with your model please leave a comment and let me know whether it worked.

Depth of Field

Even with the considerable depth of field afforded by the wide 24mm lens I found that I couldn’t get both foreground trees and distant stars in focus at f/1.4, so I had to stop down to f/2.8 or f/4. Having that super-wide maximum aperture sounds great in theory, but in practice it only helps if everything in the scene is distant.


The reason you need wide apertures and high ISOs to capture the milky way is because stars move. If you keep the shutter open too long the stars become streaks rather than pinpoints of light.

How long an exposure does it take to turn the stars into streaks? That depends. The north star doesn’t move at all—you can keep the shutter open for hours and it will still look like a pinpoint. So stars in the northern sky, close to the north star, move relatively slowly, while stars in the southern sky move relatively quickly. If your camera is pointed north you can use longer exposures than if the camera is pointed south.

Also, telephoto lenses magnify the movement, and require shorter exposure times than wide-angle lenses. With longer lenses (say 90mm or more) you need to keep shutter speeds down to 5 seconds or less; with wide-angle lenses (say 24mm or shorter) you can get away with a 30-second exposure. Over 30 seconds the stars will streak a bit, but this won’t be too noticeable unless you look closely. Exposures of 15 seconds or less are better if you want the stars to really look like pinpoints.

So within those time constraints the brightness of the Milky Way depends on the ISO and aperture. The wider the aperture, the more light comes through the lens to hit the sensor, and the brighter the image. The higher the ISO, the more that light signal gets amplified, and the brighter the image.

Since I needed apertures of f/2.8 or f/4 to get enough depth of field for most of these images, and the shutter speed couldn’t be more than 30 seconds (with a wide-angle lens), the shutter speed and aperture were predetermined. The only way to vary the exposure, and increase it enough to show lots of stars, was to push up the ISO. I found that an ISO of 6400 or 12,800 was enough to show the Milky Way. The 5D Mark III performed well at those high ISOs. There’s noise, to be sure, but it’s quite acceptable, and becomes even less apparent with a little noise reduction in Lightroom.

A (Relatively) Simple Procedure

Once you’ve figured out the parameters, the actual procedure for capturing a photograph of the Milky Way is pretty simple. First, focus. Then stop down the aperture to get enough depth of field (choosing the aperture is a matter of trial and error, or experience.) Push up the ISO, and then open the shutter for 30 seconds (assuming you’re using a wide-angle lens). Try different ISOs to see their effect on the exposure and Milky Way. You can also try to shorten the exposure to 15 seconds to get more truly pinpoint starts, but you’ll have to push the ISO up even higher.

Light painting a foreground object makes things more complicated. That part—the light painting—is more art than science, and this post is already too long, so maybe I’ll write about that another time!

For the image at the top of this post I actually used my 17-40mm f/4 lens at 19mm, because I needed something a little wider than 24mm to get the composition I wanted. I stopped this lens down to f/5.6 because I knew it wouldn’t be sharp enough at f/4, but even at f/5.6 and 30 seconds the Milky Way showed up well at 12,800 ISO.

I’m happy with the images I made, but more importantly I had a great time up at Olmsted Point. The night was warm, the stars were bright, and it was exciting seeing the Milky Way pop up brilliantly on the back of the camera after a 30 second exposure. And, I have to admit, it’s fun to play with new equipment from time to time. :) (Caution: renting gear may become habit forming.)

Thanks to Jim Goldstein and the folks at Borrowlenses for their help! And for more information about night photography techniques read this article about photographing lunar rainbows.

—Michael Frye

Related Posts: EclipseTips for Photographing Lunar RainbowsJuniper and Star Trails

Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author and photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to YosemiteYosemite Meditations, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters, plus the eBooks Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, and Exposure for Outdoor Photography. He has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.

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91 Responses to “Photographing the Milky Way”

  1. Enrico says:

    To be precise, you also have streaking with 30s shutter speed and 24mm wide angle lens when you look at the picture at 100%. It all comes down to math when you have streaking or not: focal length, pixel size, shutter speed and declination.
    But not many people look at the full size (100%) of a picture (or don’t care) and for web use, 30s with wide angle lenses is fine.

  2. Rich says:

    Just back from Jackson, WY where I shot the Milky Way with a 17-35 mm lens set at 20 mm on a Nikon D4 at ISO 12,800 for 10 sec at f/2.8 (wide open). Even at this short exposure the stars on the outer corners of the images are streaked a bit. Admittedly I was shooting to the south where the star movement is at its greatest however the stars in the center of the field were quire sharp. I also shot with a friend’s 10.5 mm fisheye lens and found the stars in the corners were even more streaked.. Thus it appears the streaking is most likely due to the wide angle lenses than due to star movement during the exposures.

    • Enrico says:

      As mentioned in my previous post it depends also on the declination. Shooting Milky Way South with 20mm and Nikon D4 you need to have the shutter speed set to 6 or 7s

      • Michael Frye says:

        Rich, there is likely to be some distortion and softness at the edges of the frame with a 17-35mm lens wide open at f/2.8, so that can account for some of the streaking you see.

        • Rich says:

          Michael and Enrico,
          I was so excited about just seeing the Milky Way on the back of the camera, after wanting to get this type of shot for the last 50 years, I did not even attempt closing the lens down. Maybe next time my friend invites me to his timeshare. I’m sure he will be reading this and he knows I never hint.

  3. I have the 5D II and pushing ISO high enough at about 15-20 sec. (16mm my widest focal length) to get round stars (I try for round not pinpoint to make things a bit more manageable) was giving me a lot of noise. All depends on the specific image though, how dark your sky is, whether your foreground is illuminated, how densely populated with stars you want the sky to be, etc. With an obvious Milky Way under very dark skies and a modestly illuminated foreground (say under a partial moon) it is a bit easier but still you need to push ISO. I think it comes down to whether or not you hace a 5D III, 1dX or Nikon D4. With anything lesser, you are basically hosed unless you track. Including a sharp foreground is pretty easy if you do a second exposure and composite in post. I would rather do a single exposure, but a composite like this is both easy and accurately represents what I saw, so I feel okay about it. I have a light-weight tracking mount now (Vixen Polarie), which is 1st generation and thus not without its flaws, but it basically works. You still need to limit exposure times to some degree, for two reasons. First, the polar alignment you do is never perfect (that”s why astrophotographers use a guide star). Second, the sensor heats up too much with longer exposure and there’s a point of diminishing returns vs. the noise you would get by raising ISO instead. I’ve tried the super wide apertures, but it doesn’t really work. This is, after all, a type of landscape photograph.

    • Michael Frye says:

      Michael, thanks for your comments, and the suggestions about tracking. Basically it all comes down to noise. There are many cameras that are capable of capturing the Milky Way without tracking equipment, but some cameras will be noisier than others.

      I sometimes think people are too concerned about noise. Looking at the image at 100% (or 1:1 – one pixel on the image = one pixel on the screen) gives an exaggerated view of the noise. With a high megapixel camera like the ones we’re talking about here, a 1:1 view is roughly (depending on screen resolution) the equivalent of looking closely at a 30×40 print. A 50% or 1:2 view is roughly the same as looking at a 16×20 or 20×24 print (again depending on the resolution of the camera and screen), and I think is often a more useful gauge of how the noise will translate to a print.

      Of course the best way to judge noise is to actually make a print. Here again I don’t expect or need to see a perfectly smooth and noise-free print of a nighttime photo of the Milky Way. As with all types of photography, some technical flaws are tolerable if the image’s content – the light, composition, and especially the overall feeling – is exceptional. Non-photographers don’t care about technical flaws, and photographers are willing to overlook them when they know the technical limitations – like the difficulty of capturing a night sky, or that it’s impossible to get great depth of field in a wildlife photograph made with a 400mm lens, etc.

      A story I’ve heard from a reliable source is that Ansel Adams would let buyers look at three different prints of the same image, but no more. If none of those three were acceptable to the buyer, Ansel said that they were looking for perfection, and he didn’t make perfect photographs.

      Photography is full of compromises, and to me esthetic considerations are always more important than technical perfection. So I’m willing to live with some noise, or some slightly-streaked stars, if that conveys the feeling of the scene better.

    • Enrico says:

      You can get a very low noise Milky Way with a DSLR the only problem is when you want to merge/blend that with the foreground. At some point the Milky Way moved too much so you have to do a difficult cut and paste (depending on foreground).
      I don’t know the Vixen camera tracking device but with AstroTrac you can easily do exposures of more than 5min with wide angle lens and up to 2min with 500mm telephoto lens without having any stars trailing/streaking.
      Here is an article/blog about capturing the MilkyWay which has additional technical information about cameras etc.:
      I hope posting this link here is okay.

      Btw. I do Astrophotography with telescope and DSLR.

      • Michael Frye says:

        Enrico, as I say to Werner below, posting links is great as long as they are relevant to the discussion and not blatant self promotion, and your link is certainly relevant and helpful to people who might be reading this.

        It’s certainly possible to blend an exposure of the stars made with a tracking device with and a separate exposure of a foreground element. I’ve done that many times in different contexts, though here I was trying to do it all in one frame. Blending two exposures can get tricky, as you point out, but may be the best way to get relatively noise-free images of stars with a foreground.

        • Enrico says:

          How long was the exposures as you blended MilkyWay with foreground? I think to get lower noise pictures you have to do multiple exposures and stack them or use low ISO and expose longer. Either way during that time some stars disappeared at the horizon and some stars appeared at the horizon making it harder to get a proper MilkyWay picture and bled that with the foreground.
          Of course that all depends as you already said with how much noise you can live with and what you want to do with the picture (only web use or large prints).

  4. Cool images and even better spending the night with photography AND the person you love most!
    You might also try a modified 1100 d to record the hydrogen-alpha nebulae along the MW; another fantastic piece of technology is the Vixen Polarie, a mount for tracking the stars; what´s special about is the ability of: “half speed of the celestial tracking rate…” – that means with a 10mm/2.8 fish-eye lens/1100d, you can expose the image for about 50-60 sec. without blurring the foreground; here is a link to one of the images I did recently: (I´m not sure if its okay for you to post the link – if not please delete it….) and here´s a link where I write something about the Polarie:

    Thanks, Werner

    • Michael Frye says:

      Werner, thanks for the kind words and ideas here. I don’t mind people posting links in the comments if they are relevant to the discussion and not blatant self promotion, and these links are certainly relevant and helpful for people to see what you’re talking about.

      Anyway, the half-speed tracking is an interesting idea – a compromise between movement in the foreground and in the stars. I might have to try that. Can you rent the Vixen Polarie anywhere?

  5. Michael,
    I’ve long admired your night photography and found your post both informative and inspiring. Sounds like you had a good experience with the Borrowed Lens folks. Were then rental prices reasonable? Thanks again for sharing your knowledge. Best Regards.

    • Michael Frye says:

      Thanks very much Michael. Yes, I think prices are reasonable, better than many other places I’ve looked at, and the service is excellent. I got this rental for free thanks to my connections, but I’ve rented from them in the past at full price and have been very happy with the service.

  6. Thanks for the insights. I’ll have to give them a try.

  7. Daniel Gayle says:

    Excellent post!!! thank you so much. I just went outside and learned quite a few new tricks with my 5d mark III thanks to you!

  8. Vivienne says:

    Hi Michael,

    Thank you for posting the technical aspects of shooting the stars at night – especially the Milky Way! My husband and I recently took a workshop with Jennifer Wu, who helped us with the focusing issue. Not only did we use Live View, but we also used our loops to get that focus right on those stars. Our 5DMIIs did fine.

    Isn’t BorrowLenses great? We used to live one town over from their offices. We miss being able to just drive over to pick up great we wanted to try out, but their shipping services work out well.

    • Enrico says:

      You don’t need to have the stars exactly focused (similar to the noise issue discussed above).
      But if you are picky you can buy a Bahtinov mask for your lens and focus very easy on bright stars (still need to use live view but its much easier to see with the mask if you are in focus or not).

      • Michael Frye says:

        Vivienne, thanks for letting me know that live view focusing with the 5D Mark II works in the dark. I think this is by far the easiest and most accurate method of focusing at night, so it’s good to know that it works on a variety of cameras. Someone else mentioned using a loupe, which seems like overkill if you’re zoomed in at 10x, since that magnification is plenty without the loupe. But whatever works!

        Yes, Borrowlenses is great!

  9. Paolo Nadeau says:

    Great post Michael.

    Wish I lived in an area of the Country that didn’t have so much light pollution, so I could try this.

    Guess I’ll have to wait till my next trip to Yosemite, or Arches.

    Happy to see a thumbs up to BorrowLenses.

    I have been renting from them for the past 2 years.

    They are the best!

    Jacksonville, FL

    • Michael Frye says:

      Paolo, light pollution is such a problem everywhere. And it would be easy to fix, or at least reduce, with just a slight modification to street lights – if there was any push from the public to do so.

      Glad you like Borrowlenses – me too. :)

  10. Michael, I bought mine right on spot. Over here in Germany they sell around 450 Euro, some 550-600 $ in the US; it opens up a whole new dimension on photography – and even better: you got a good reason for spending even more time out at nights;) …you might get some kind of addicted…


  11. fred mertz says:

    Hi Michael

    I appreciate your timely post and comments as I was thinking of getting a 24/1.4 lens for some night photography. Planning a trip to the southwest and have been thinking of doing more night shooting. My biggest concern with the lens is the depth of field issue when wide open. But after reading your experience I’m leaning to hold off and use the 2.8 wide angle lenses I already own.
    As to fixing the stars w/o streaks, a friend turned me on to a good starting point: divide the lens focal length into 500. That will yield the seconds needed, while using that particular lens, to prevent streaking and keep the stars as pinpoints. I’ve used this in the past as a good starting point and make adjustments as needed.
    Also helpful in reducing noise is switching on the cameras ‘long exposure noise reduction’. I find this helps immensely. The down side using this function, is it will double the time before one can make another exposure. Which is not a biggie if the original exposure is say 5 secs which means another 5 secs for nr processing before one can make another exposure, but if have a 30 sec exposure, will have to wait a full minute before can fire another image off. But, sure does save time in post processing computer time.
    Hope this helps a bit. I appreciate your photography and insights. All the best…Fred

  12. Michael Frye says:

    Thanks for your input here Fred. What camera are you using? I ask because long exposure noise reduction is sort of a mixed bag, and seems to work better on some cameras than others.

  13. Michael Frye says:

    Reader Sean sent me an email pointing out that you should turn off autofocus and image stabilization (or vibration reduction) for night images like this – both good points that I thought I should add to the comments here.

    While I did talk about using manual focus in this article, you do have to be sure that autofocus is off, otherwise the camera could refocus when you press the shutter. And it’s always a good idea to turn off image stabilization when using a tripod.

  14. [...] As you may have noticed, this blog tends to become more and more “nocturne-sided”. I cant help myself, but I´m somehow addicted to the stars and the universe itself. That´s the kind of stuff that fuels my soul, my inner motor, my vision. Since we are made out of that stuff, the so-called star-dust, I think it´s some kind of normal  being addicted to the cosmos. The digital area gives us so many new possibilities for capturing the stars in a way that wouldn´t have been possible some time ago. These days I even plan my journeys on the phases of the Moon, and the first images I process when I´m back home are the ones of the night sky. There is a saying that gear doesn´t matter, it’s the person behind the lens that matters. That´s right – except for one term – when you are shooting night-scenes. There is an interesting article by Michael Frye on his blog about gear – check it out: .  [...]

  15. Michael,

    I just got a Polarie and I’d be glad to arrange for you to borrow it, gratis. It would also provide me with an excuse to travel to Yosemite. (hint hint) :-)

    The half speed tracking seems like an interesting idea that I’m itching to try.

    We’re rapidly running out of the best time for photographing the dense part of the Milky Way, however.

    • Enrico says:

      Well done, Steven. I’d like to have a look too and to compare it with the Astrotrac.
      If you really want to capture the Milky Way in all its remaining beauty at the most dense part then you have to do it tonight or tomorrow night. After that the moon interferes with the Milky Way. By the time the moon does not interfere anymore (beginning November) the most dense part is almost gone.

      • Michael Frye says:

        Well Steven I might take you up on that! As Enrico points out it’s late in the year for the Milky Way, but there are always things to photograph.

        • Indeed. The Leonid Meteor shower is November 17th. Leo rises at about 1 AM and the moon will have long set. The device (should be) great for capturing meteors in relationship to the radiant point. I’m already imagining some great images! I also have two Equatorial mounts, so won’t mind at all your driving the Polarie. In fact, I’m hoping to try out Polarie for *this* weekend’s Orionid meteor shower.

          BTW the Andromeda and Trapezium Galaxies are high in the sky this time of year.

  16. Rick Creamer says:


    Thanks for the article! I just ordered one of your books – can’t wait to read/study it!

    I just got my first serious camera (D800) in Dec 2012, and took my first trip to Yosemite two weeks ago, Feb 23, 2013.

    I was out in the large meadow out in front of Yosemite Falls in a full moon and had some trouble focusing. I tried several different methods: 1) distant light bulbs both with my eye and Live View, 2) by eye on bright stars like Vega, and 3) the full moon itself. You can see the results in my Photos page on my informal, personal website.

    For me, the moon + camera auto-focus worked the best. But to get it to work, I had to make sure my camera and tripod were quite steady during when auto-focusing (after which I turned AF off). Also, I had to have one 45 degree edge of the moon in the center of my active auto-focus site.

    (The D800 Live View is not very useful, even in daylight. That is, using Live View, it is difficult to surpass the camera’s auto-focus algorithm or by-eye focusing.)

    I’m going to mark infinity on my lenses. The only problem is that my 28mm and 50mm lenses, while optically pretty good, have some slop in the focus ring. I’ve read that auto-focusing at infinity during sunset and then taping the lens is another approach. I may have to do that next time.

    • Michael Frye says:

      Thanks Rick for your comments, and for your insights into the problem of focusing at night. Someday I hope to be able to try using a D800 at night. You might think twice about marking infinity on your lenses. The reason that most modern lenses focus past infinity is because they’re designed to adapt to temperature changes. So what you mark as infinity at one temperature might not be accurate at another temperature.

  17. I have enjoyed reading this segment on shooting the Milky Way. I have not had any great success with the MW, but have done a lot of night shooting, mostly startrails and some moonlit nightscapes. I shoot with a D800 and I find the live view very useful for night time focusing. It is very easy to zoom into a star and focus manually even though the screen may be a bit noisy. I do find your settings to be a bit bright for this camera. If I shoot at ISO 6400 with my 14-24mm lens at 14 mm and use a 30 second exposure at f/4, the sky looks almost like daylight. f/4 at ISO 3200 and 15 seconds gives me a reasonably dark sky. I usually shoot this lens wide open at 2.8 and use ISO 1600 for most of my night shots. Hopefully, I will have some good dark skies later this month to get some practice with the MW. In the meantime, thank you for giving me a little more insight into shooting the Milky Way!

    • Michael Frye says:

      Thanks Ken. I’m surprised that your exposures don’t match mine. ISO and f-stops are supposed to be standardized, though I have noticed some variations at times. Another possibility is that there’s more light pollution where you’re attempting these photographs?

  18. Michael, I don’t think light pollution is that bad here in rural northeastern NC. I will have to wait until we have a good clear sky to give these ISO settings a good chance. When I shoot startrails I use ISO of 640 at f/2.8 and if I use higher ISO’s I get blue skies.

    • Michael Frye says:

      I suppose there could be a reciprocity effect, though that’s not supposed to happen with digital cameras. In other words, one camera could react differently to long exposures than another. Or there could be atmospheric differences, like more or less humidity. Otherwise I’m stumped!

  19. Just for grins, I am going to see how much difference there is between my D300s and the D800. I will try to set the two lenses I have to the same field of view and the same aperture. Since the D300s is a not full frame, I will use my 12-24 lens at 12mm and the 14-24 lens at 18mmm on the D800. We appear to have fairly clear skies to the southeast, so I will set up a couple hours after sunset and see how they compare at various ISO settings.

  20. Michael, I put up 4 images with just ISO changes. The title of each one describes the settings. I guess I should repeat this with the 14mm lens setting at f/2.8 since that is what I normally shoot the sky with. There didn’t seem to be any appreciable difference with the D300s. The first 4 images.

    • Michael Frye says:

      Ken, it really seems that there must be a difference in sky brightness where you are vs. 8,000 feet up in the Yosemite high country. That’s the only thing that could account for such a big difference. One thing that you might try – if you use Lightroom 4 or Adobe Camera Raw 7, drag the Exposure setting down to -1.00, which will take out the default boost in midtones that Adobe adds. But that in itself isn’t enough to account for the difference. However, if you can use lower ISOs or shorter shutter speeds, that’s a good thing, so although this is a bit of a mystery, it’s not a problem on your end.

  21. I always thought we had pretty dark skies. The nearest large city is Norfolk, 60 miles northeast, and Greenville, 60 miles south. These shots are shooting towards the West and the only town in that direction is Roanoke Rapids, population 15,000 and 25 miles away. I just put 4 more images up with the normal aperture and focal lengths I usually use, but shown with the same ISO range.

    • Michael Frye says:

      Ken, I guess the only way to know for sure is to take a D800 to Olmsted Point, or a 5D III to North Carolina…

    • Enrico says:

      Not sure what the problem is but the images look normal to me. 30s with f/2.8 and ISO6400 shows details even at night and the light pollution that is there.

      • Michael Frye says:

        It’s not a problem Enrico, just a mystery about why Ken’s exposures with equivalent exposures look brighter than mine.

        • Enrico says:

          more light pollution
          even though the cities are 15 or 60miles away they still create depending on size considerable light pollution. And a town with 15000 people is a very big light source even 50 miles away.
          On the East coast it is nearly impossible to find something that compares in darkness as Yosemite and Eastern Sierra (and that are not the darkest places in the US).

          • Enrico, we are in an area that is shaded blue/purple. Most of the shooting I have done at night has been to the north and the west. I was able to capture Pan-STARRS several of the nights it was around, and it was towards Roanoke Rapids, and only an hour or so after sunset. The next time I get over to the coast for an overnighter, I will have to see how it shows up. It will be my luck that the Moon will interfere.

      • Enrico, I am just trying to figure why I can’t seem to get detail in any of the Milky Way shots I have tried. I have never gotten any that showed the “clouds” in the MW.

        • Michael Frye says:

          Ken, can you see the MW clearly from your house on a dark summer night? And have you tried photographing it somewhere else?

          • Michael, yes, we can see it clearly on a good, clear summer night, and I have not tried shooting it anywhere else. We lived in Colorado for 20 years, and I never thought of trying tny night shots. You can bet I will be trying the next time we visit our daughter out there.

        • Enrico says:

          The most prominent and densest part of the Milky Way you can see at the moment only a few hours before sunrise try between 4-5am looking South this weekend. There is a village called Woodland, East of Roanoke Rapids, try it form there.

  22. Enrico, I live 3 miles north of Woodland. I did get up early this morning, but it was cloudy, so no luck.

    • Enrico says:

      Try Saturday/Sunday morning, looking South between 4-5am. As long it is not hazy/cloudy you should get something usable.

  23. Steven Christenson says:

    I have many Milky Way photos from Lake Gaston near Littleton. Have friends and family who live there. Light pollution maps do not tell the whole story. Clear conditions mitigate the effects of light pollution just as altitude does.

  24. Steven Christenson says:

    By the way, Ken, your photos are of Gemini and Orion. There is very little milky way there.

  25. John says:

    In the May issue of Sky & Telescope there is a feature article about the new iOptron Sky Tracker for DSLR cameras. iOptron is known to make quality light weight telescope mounts/tripods for both visual and astroimaging. The Sky Tracker has an illuminated reticle inside the supplied polar alignment scope and using a precision worm gear for accurate tracking. iOptron are known in astronomy circles for tracking accuracy and this device is no different. I can’t think of a better tool for taking extended night sky images without the problem of field rotation, star streaks and other issues when taking extended exposures. The tester in the article concluded its one of the best camera only tracking devices for astrophotography based on performance, ease of use and affordability. I know how iOptron products on the telescope side perform, so I would venture to say this new product is a must have for anyone wanting to improve their night sky photography or for those wanting a way to make night imaging no less difficult than taking a day time shot. For further info on this cool product check out the May issue of Sky and Telescope.

  26. John says:

    I forgot to thank you Michael for the informative article and the beautiful image of our galaxy set behind those weather beaten and old trees.

    • Michael Frye says:

      John, I’m glad you like the photo, and thanks for letting me know about the iOptron Sky Tracker. Your comments sound like an ad! Have you actually tried this device yourself?

  27. John says:

    Hello Michael,
    No, but I felt confident sticking my neck out on endorsing the product based on my experience researching various telescope mounts over the years. Actually, I wanted an iOptron mount for one of my telescopes but finances held me back. Accuracy as you know is a critical requirement in astro imaging and light weight means easier portability, especially when you need to travel to dark sky locations. I think if one wanted a device to take exposures beyond the dreaded star trail limit, this device seems ideal. Beyond that iOptron also makes equatorial mounts that are very easy to handle and affordable too. I have a buddy who does beta testing for them and his astro imaging model is minimalist. For his small refractor telescope he is using iOptron’s newer EQ Pro, it has a total combined weight of only 11.9 lbs and he is able to attach his DSLR for prime focus photography with it. But, for real portability, DSLR only, the Star Tracker sure looks like the way to go.

  28. Well, I own the Polarie, and was asked about the SkyTracker. It seems to compare favorably, but I’m skeptical. I’ve been able to get some good results with the Polarie because it can be used for more than just tracking the sky. I think the 1/2 speed mode is original with the Polarie and Sky Tracker ripped them off… but the Polarie does have solar and lunar tracking rates as well.

    Both systems have flaws, but since I don’t own the iOptron, I can’t really say more.

    Here is my review of the Polarie.

  29. John says:

    Nice review and to be honest, I vaguely remember the Polarie since my interest in astrophotography is recent, mulling for a couple years whether I should pursue it. But, its clear to me both devices reach the same result and thats good for the adventurist type who seeks out dark sky locations with light weight accessories being a premium. Beyond that, both enable one to step beyond the 30 second limitation and therefore make available other targets in the Milky Way. It all boils down to that one point because a tracker mount of any sort isn’t needed actually to take nice photos of the Milky Way, right? I personally have no plans of buying one, my interest lies in prime focus astrophotography using a light weight system. But, as my backyard is being closed in by neighbor’s trees I’m also considering the Hyperstar system on my CPC 1100 SCT 11″ aperture telescope. This will enable f/2 imaging and I can utilize the alt/az mount (to a point) so I can get away with shorter exposure times with either a DSLR or CCD camera and do so before the big tree or some other obstructions get in the way. But if I wanted to explore beyond the 20-30 second time limit and capture diffuse nebulae, etc, using nothing more than a DSLR and a lens, I think either the Polarie or iOptron is a great option. I didn’t even know the Polarie was made by Vixen until I looked into it, I have a Vixen 102 refractor and love it. I have it set up to accept my DSLR in piggy back mode with top and bottom dovetails mounted to a Celestron CGEM mount. This will be put to the test at the Golden State Star Party in July where I will be taking first time photos of the Milky Way. Hopefully I’ll have my astroimaging kit set up in time as well. Great place to learn and that is the main reason why I’m attending.

    You mentioned the Polarie has a solar tracking rate? Are their solar filters available for camera lenses on the market? Man, I wouldn’t want my camera pointed at the sun unless I was 100% assured no harm will come to it or me. Certainly, the mount doesn’t have the capacity to haul much weight around being limited to 7 pounds, so the effective weight for imaging would be half that. I enjoy solar observing through my dedicated Coronado solar scope, or Ha viewing. So far I have only taken eyepiece projection photos of the sun with some degree of success, but in order to achieve a higher level of quality a CCD camera is really the best option from what I have seen. The financial commitment is too much for me to even consider an upgrade at this time. I bought the Canon not just for astroimaging, but I developed an interest just using my point and shoot in daytime and other picture taking opportunities. The T4i is a temporary tool anyway, if astroimaging works out I’ll buy a modded camera or jump into CCD imaging. The photography bug kind of bit me after picking up the T4i and believe it or not I was considering a full frame then realized why? I’ve already bought three lenses for it in the last two weeks so things are looking up.

    • Enrico says:

      Look at Steven Christenson’s blog there are tips and advise for solar filter including for camera lenses. iOptron is not a big player like Celestron or Orion or Takahashi etc. when it comes to mounts. I have an iOtron EQ mounts they are great for the money but still a $1700 mount cannot compete with at $6000 mount. If you spend less then you also get less, that is how it usually is with everything. Because iOptron has a good EQ mount doesn’t mean they also have other great products. AP of DSO’s and solar imaging is certainly a different discussion. This discussion here it helps to know what the normal photographer can do to get the optimal result of Milky Way shot with their equipment or maybe with buying a camera tracking device (AstroTrac, Polarie StarTracker, SkyTracker, StarLapse).

    • John, I use the Orion solar filter with my 600mm l3ens on a Nikon D800 and it works great. I usually get exposures at around 1/500 second at f9 at ISO200. I do a daily sunspot shot when possible and put them on my FB page. The filter is kind of pricey for a 61/2 inch filter, but well worth it.

  30. NancyP says:

    60D and 6D Live View works fine for focusing on star, as long as your ISO is high enough to see an image at 30 sec or shorter.

  31. Richard Fry says:

    I am new to digital photography, and have just acquired a canon G-11. I would like to take some cool shots of the milky way. What settings do you recommend?

    • Michael Frye says:

      Richard, cameras like the G-11 are not the greatest for Milky Way photos. You can try the settings I talk about in this post, like around a 30-second exposure, at your lens’s widest aperture, with the ISO at 6400 if it will go that high. The image is likely to be extremely noisy.

  32. Ad says:


    Thanks for sharing your experience, I will defenitely use this in my next session to catch the Milky Way hopefully this week.

    For astrophotography, I started using the Nikon D800 with live view to manual focus on bright starts. Works like a charm. However, since it has full frame I am afraid it won’t match with a Hyperstar on my C11 EdgeHD. It will use only a part of the image sensor, but do you think it can produce usefull images (even after cropping the images afterwards) ?



    • Michael Frye says:

      You’re welcome Ad. Are you asking whether it’s okay to crop images from the D800? Sure, depending on your purpose. The D800 has a lot of resolution, so a cropped image could still have a lot of resolution, though obviously less than if it wasn’t cropped. Whether that smaller amount of resolution matters depends on how big a print you want to make, and how critical you are about sharpness.

      • Ad says:


        Yes, I found the cropping issue too and I know the consequenses of cropping. As a starter, I was just wondering if this is the only disadvantage using a Hyperstar with a DSLR, and that seems the case (so safe to buy a Hyperstar). For now, I will use the images for display usage only. In future, I will research a CCD camera that won’t crop and produce printable images in at least A4 format.

  33. Yes! Finally something about canon pro 1.

  34. I have a Canon 7D (crop sensor) and a Sigma 10-20mm F/4-5.6. I read an article that recommended the faster Tokina 11-16mm F/2.8, but I also read your comments which caution against shooting wide open because of depth of field problems if there is a closer foreground. Would I be wasting money if I tried to trade in the Sigma for the Tokina? I want nice crisp points of light, not star trails. Thanks.

    • Michael Frye says:

      Colleen, I don’t have any personal experience with either lens, nor have I read any reviews for them that speak about lens quality. All other things being equal, the Tokina lens would be better for capturing pinpoint stars since it has a wider maximum aperture. But I don’t know if all other things are equal – the Sigma may be sharper in general, or at f/4, which might make it a better choice. Unfortunately the 7D is not a great camera for Milky Way photos, as it’s rather noisy.

  35. Paul Phillips says:

    Great information! I didn’t realize you could get longer exposures towards the North. It explains things. One issue, of course, is that the Milky Way is towards the south. I may be wrong. I wish I had a flashlight attached to the camera for focusing. I end up needing three hands. Valuable information. Thanks.

  36. Paul Phillips says:

    Hyper focal distance? I just bought the 24mm 1.4. I realize it’s a wide angle but it looks as if the focus distance is still a factor and more so as I step it down. I was contemplating getting a range finder because I’m a bad judge of distance. Is it wise to get a range finder or can I use the meter/ft scale on the lens? Not to worry if you don’t answer

    • Michael Frye says:

      Paul, I don’t find hyperfocal charts very useful. They’re calibrated for 8×10 prints, and I make 30x40s. But if you do use one, a rangefinder might be helpful. For Milky Way photos you have to use really wide apertures, and there’s little depth of field, so hyperfocal focusing doesn’t help much. If you want to get both a foreground and the Milky Way in really sharp focus, the best bet is often to blend two different exposures, one focused on the foreground, the other on the stars. The best way to focus on either is zoomed in with live view.

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