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How to Photograph the Milky Way: The Preparation

Milky Way photos should first and foremost do one thing: fascinate. When the viewer’s gaze loses itself in the vastness of the motif and he begins to dream, the photographer has achieved his goal.

The Milky Way, our galaxy, is a special highlight for photographers, romantics, and scientists, and it has been for thousands of years. The word ‘galaxy’ itself points to a long history of stargazing. It is derived from the Greek word “gála”, which means milk. The ancient Greeks believed that there was a kind of divine milk flow in the sky.

In 1609, the polymath Galileo Galilei was the first to recognize that the Milky Way consists of countless stars. Astronomers estimate that about 100 to 300 billion stars twinkle in the glowing band in the sky.

Sony a7S + Zeiss Batis 18mm 2.8 | Tracking with Fornax Mounts LighTrack | f/3,5 15 X 90 Sec ISO 800.

In this tutorial, I’ll discuss how you can prepare to photograph the Milky Way.

A Location Without Light Pollution

The term “light pollution” is somewhat misleading because it is not pure light that is polluted, rather it is the light itself that pollutes the darkness of the night. Light pollution is a major obstacle to astrophotography. Thus, a sky without light pollution is the most important prerequisite for observing and impressively capturing the Milky Way.

The lights of a large city can be a big problem in this process. so, if you live in a large city, it will be extremely difficult to successfully expose the night sky and the Milky Way. Therefore, it is best to get out of the city and find a location where it is as dark as possible. To be able to determine the light pollution in your area, the online “Light Pollution Map” will help you.

This shows you in color the areas where light pollution is particularly low or high. Generally, there is little light pollution in large forests, in mountainous regions, or in a very sparsely populated area. Here you can take pictures of the Milky Way without problems. Use this map to find the best place in your region where you have the perfect view of the Milky Way.

Sony a7 III + ZEISS Batis 18mm f/2.8 | Fornax Mounts LighTrack | f/2.8, 25 Sec (Half Mode) ISO 2400 | Time, Moon Phases, Weather


The embossed part of the Milky Way, i.e. the Galactic Core, can be observed between March and September, and this is especially true for the northern celestial sphere. How long it is above the horizon depends on the respective longitude and latitude of the location. The best time to observe the Milky Way is in summer: then it stretches from north to south as usual. Accompanying the Milky Way band, the constellations Perseus, Cassiopeia, Swan, Eagle, and Sagittarius can also be observed during this season.

The Moon

The phase of the moon and its location in the night sky are of central importance. If the moon is close to the Milky Way, it is hardly recognizable because the moon brightens the surroundings too much. Optimal conditions are offered when the moon is not above the horizon or when it’s not a new moon.

Good conditions may also be offered if the moon is behind you when taking the picture, i.e. if it is exactly opposite the Milky Way in the firmament. In this case, you can use the moon to brighten up the surroundings. However, make sure that there is no full moon – that is usually too bright. When the moon stands where and which moon phase prevails at the moment can be found out easily with software/apps such as Stellarium, Planit for Photographers, and PhotoPills.


In addition to this very specific information, you should of course always keep a close eye on the weather – the best location is of no use to us if it is raining cats and dogs and the cloud cover appears as thick as concrete. As an astrophotographer, you only work when the sky is clear, known in the trade as “CS – Clear Sky”. Again, you get the latest data from the Internet, on Clear Outside and Meteoblue you get very good and reliable data, compactly presented.

Milky Way over Dersim | Sony a7 III + ZEISS Batis 18mm f/2.8 | Fornax Mounts LighTrack | The image consists of two layers. Foreground: f/8 15 sec ISO 200. Background: f/3.5 2 x 90 sec ISO 1200.
The Matterhorn. The Matterhorn is 4478 m above sea level and one of the highest mountains of the Alps. Because of its distinctive shape and its history of climbing, the Matterhorn is one of the most famous mountains in the world. Sony a7 III + ZEISS Batis 18mm f/2.8 | Fornax Mounts LighTrack | The image consists of two layers. Foreground: f/11 2.5 sec ISO 400. Background: f/3.5 4 x 60 sec ISO 800.



You will be working with high ISO values in this type of photography. Therefore, the camera should have acceptable noise performance. The rule is: the less noise, the more details will be preserved later. Optionally, you can also use an astro-modified camera.

DSLR and DSLM cameras in their normal delivery condition from the factory come with a disadvantage: At the H-alpha spectral line, which is important in astronomy, their sensitivity is very low. From the factory, these cameras are equipped with an infrared cut filter that suppresses the red spectral range. The light from the red hydrogen nebulae does not make it to the sensor because it is filtered out by a filter in the camera to get an efficient color balance in normal everyday photography.

By removing this internal IR cut filter, the sensitivity in the red H-Alpha range is significantly increased and the camera becomes an “astro camera”.

Ultra-Wide-Angle Lens

In order to capture the largest possible area of the night sky on the image sensor, you need a fast wide-angle lens. Due to the earth’s rotation, the stars “wander” across the night sky, and therefore — if you want to avoid star trails — the exposure time of the camera is limited.

A wide-angle lens also allows a comparatively long exposure in addition to a larger section of the Milky Way. The shorter the focal length, the longer you can expose. The same principle also applies to the aperture: The smaller the f-number, the more light can fall on the sensor, and thus you can keep the exposure time shorter.


To get the sharpest possible images of stars, a sturdy tripod — which will stand securely even in windy conditions and exposure times of 30 seconds or more — is essential. In addition, we recommend using a remote shutter release to avoid having to touch your camera when releasing the shutter and risking camera shake. However, this is not essential. Every camera has an integrated self-timer function that you can use as an alternative.


Ideally, we should know our way around our equipment for star photography “blind” and be able to make all the important settings even in the dark and with the brightness of the camera screen turned down. For the way to the location or for additional measures on site we need a headlamp, which can also be switched to red light mode if necessary. Red light hardly dazzles our eyes, if we have to switch on a standard flashlight every time, our eyes need up to 20 minutes to get back into “night vision mode”.

Cable, Self-Timer, or Remote Shutter Release

To take a blur-free long exposure of the night sky, you need a cable or remote shutter release. Alternatively — and for me much more practical — you can set the self-timer on the camera to 2 or 10 seconds.

Accessories and Clothing for Star Photography

Do not carry spare batteries in your photo backpack, especially on cold nights, but wear them close to your body to protect them from premature discharge and yourself from disappointment. Also remember to carry extra memory cards, cleaning supplies for your camera and lens, and warm, waterproof clothing.

Seceda Dolomiten. Sony a7 III + ZEISS Batis 18mm f/2.8 | Fornax Mounts LighTrack | The image consists of two layers: (Composing) Background: f/2.8 2 x 90 sec ISO 800

Apps and Software

To get a better picture or to orient yourself, you can use the Stellarium app, a popular planetarium app. Stellarium is a sky map that shows exactly what can be seen when you look up at the night sky. Identify stars, constellations, planets, comets, satellites (like the ISS), and other deep-sky objects in real-time in the sky in just a few seconds by pointing your phone at the sky. In addition to the extremely popular smartphone app, I also enjoy the desktop and web versions when planning my astrophotography at home.

Also recommended for Milky Way and night sky photography — and one of the best all-around photo planning apps on the market — is the PhotoPills app. The app has a wide range of features that allow you to capture any location on Earth at a specific date in the future and get all the important information, including the times of, for example, sunset and sunrise, moon phases, blue hour and golden hour, visibility of the galactic nucleus of the Milky Way and where it will be located in the sky.

Nova. Sony a7 III. ZEISS Batis 18mm f/3.5, 15 sec, ISO 3200

About the author: Delil Geyik is a German astrophotographer whose roots are in Mesopotamia, more precisely in the province of Dersim. He lives in Germany, Stuttgart, and organizes national and international workshops in the field of astrophotography. He also works with a handful of internationally recognized companies. These include Carl Zeiss AG, which specializes in photographic lenses, and the Hungarian company Fornax Mounts, which develops motorized mounts for heavy telescopes and trackers. Delil travels around the globe to capture landscapes under a splendid starry sky with his camera. The photographer, who lives in Germany, has already gained a lot of recognition in the international specialist press. Among others, three of his astrophotography were mentioned by NASA APOD. You can find more of Geyik’s work on his website, Facebook, and Instagram.

Photos of Samyang’s upcoming 12mm f/2.0 APS-C E Mount astrophotography lens have leaked

Well, we knew Samyang had two new astrophotography-focused lenses on the way. One of those lenses, for full-frame Sony E mount cameras, has already been announced. That’s the Samyang AF 24mm F1.8 FE, which features a dedicated custom function button that allows you to zip straight to infinity focus in an instant. The other lens, […]

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Photog Captures Footage of the ISS Traveling In Front of a ‘Mineral Moon’

At the end of March, photographer Alexandru Barbovschi photographed the split second it took for the International Space Station to pass in front of the moon. After perfectly capturing the rare passing, he spent a few more minutes taking additional images to create what is known as a “Mineral Moon.”

It should be noted that just capturing the International Space Station (ISS) passing in front of a full moon is incredibly challenging. In addition to planning and scouting a perfect location, a photographer would still have to perfectly time their camera to capture an event that takes less than a second to happen.

“I actually decided to try and capture it the evening before, when I saw a chance to get proper weather around the transit time,” Barbovschi tells PetaPixel. “I pinged my good friend and asked him to help me out. He agreed, so two hours before the transit, we hit the road!”

Barbovschi says that he was ready to capture the event just 20 seconds before it was set to take place, cutting it incredibly close. In his words, it was “very tight timing.”

Even with the pressure of time, Barbovschi managed to capture the event, which only occurs for just 0.7 seconds in real-time.

“To give better conditions to watch it, I slowed down the video by about four times,” he says, explaining that the video shown above was captured at 100 RAW frames per second using a monochrome astronomy camera.

Barbovschi used a Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer mount and a Sky-Watcher Evostar 72ED (72/420mm) along with a filter wheel with Baader LRGB filters set (for the transit, Barbovschi says that a UV/IR filter was used), a Barlow 2x, and a ZWO ASI174MM camera.

“To get the color shot RGB channels, I shot 3,000 frames for each channel (and 3000 more through UV/IR filter, which was used as L channel later on),” he explains. “As the moon doesn’t fit the field of view in this configuration, two panels were shot.”

Afterward, he recorded additional photos and videos using a set of color filters. The ISS was then cut out and stacked to increase the quality and sharpness and the additional RAW videos were processed and assembled into a color lunar disk.

The finished color moon image is what is known as a Mineral Moon. As described by Nasa, Mineral Moon images are recorded through specific spectral filters and combined to create an exaggerated false-color scheme that is used to explore the composition of the lunar surface as changes in mineral content produce subtle color differences in refracted light. In some cases, the method is used for the purpose of study, but in Barbovschi’s case the technique was employed for visual impact.

“The ISS was cropped out manually using Gimp, and then stacked and sharpened using cvAstroAlign (25 frames out of 70 went into stack). The moon was stacked using AutoStakkert! 3, and then I aligned the channels using PlanetarySystemLRGBAligner, and then combined them to obtain RGB using ImageMagick.

The assembled panorama was created using Hugin, with all post-processing done in RawTherapee. Finally, the ISS was added back into the image using Gimp.

Barbovschi says his final photo and video show the ISS on a color moon photo exactly into the position it was originally captured but superimposed on a more eye-catching, visually stunning backdrop. The amount of effort it took him to produce the images and video is staggering, but the quality of the work was no doubt worth the effort.

For more from Alexandru Barbovschi, make sure to check out his Flicker and follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Image credits: Photos by Alexandru Barbovschi and used with permission.

Sightron has announced five new Player One astrophotography cameras

Sightron Japan has announced five new Player One Astronomy astrophotography cameras, expected to be released next week, named after the planets in accordance with the size of each of their sensors. The Sony-made sensors inside each camera are either 1/2.8″ for the Mars variants and 1/1.8″ for the Neptune models and each is designed for […]

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NASA releases new and improved image of stunning Veil Nebula

NASA first released Hubble image of Veil Nebula in 2015. And now, six years later, the scientists have revisited it and re-edited it to make it look even more impressive. With a new set of filters applied, the photo now shows a more realistic and more detailed view of the Veil Nebula than before, and […]

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How to make a $30 DIY star tracker for astrophotography

If you want to do astrophotography, a star tracker is a must. Sadly, they’re far from being cheap, which is an obstacle for many of us. Thankfully, there are folks like Nico Carver of Nebula Photos who teach us how to make a DIY star tracker for only $30. In this video, he guides you […]

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Build Yourself a Rudimentary, Hand-Cranked Star Tracker for $30

Star trackers are important for capturing long exposures of star formations by slowly moving to compensate for the rotation of the Earth. Most modern star trackers use motors to do this, but in this 22.5-minute video, photographer Nico Carver shows how he built a hang-crank version for just $30.

Carver’s YouTube channel is dedicated to exploring astrophotography and teaching others the ins and outs of the process. He is particularly interested in looking at how to approach the hobby affordably, since it can be very easy to spend a lot of money.

“It’s easy to go down a gear buying rabbit hole, I’ve been guilty of it myself,” he says. “But I also enjoy getting the most out of budget gear and budget techniques.”

One such example of this is Carver’s DIY, $30 star tracker. The build that he shows in this video is based on a description by George Haig who described how to make it in the April 1975 edition of Sky and Telescope Magazine. It’s called a “barn door tracker” and modified versions of it have been published a couple of more times over the years: once in 1988 and again in 2007.

It’s also sometimes referred to as a “Scotch mount,” referencing Haig’s Scottish nationality.

“It’s been a popular DIY project for amateur astrophotographers ever since he published this in 1975,” Carver says. While he notes there are more recent iterations over the years, Carver shows how to make that original design in the video above to “keep the cost low” and because he is “fascinated by the simplicity of it.”

The full, detailed instructions including a complete parts list can be found on DIY Photography as well as in a PDF that Carver has uploaded here.

Once you’ve got it constructed, you need to polar align it. To do that, Carver chooses to sight Polaris, the last star in the handle of the Little Dipper constellation and centers it in the straw mounted to the side of the device.

“This is going to be just a ‘good enough’ polar alignment,” Carver says. “Not a great polar alignment since Polaris is about half a degree off from the pole but hopefully for a wide-angle lens this will work well enough.”

After you have polar aligned the device, the next step is to find the target by moving the camera around on the ball head until the camera is pointed at it. After that, focus on the stars to make sure they are sharp, and then set the camera to bulb mode. You can use a camera’s internal intervalometer if it has one, but Carver uses an external trigger to manage it in his example above. For his example shot, Carver uses a 2-minute exposure.

For his particular lens and camera setup, Carver can avoid star trails by moving the wheel on the barn door tracker counter-clockwise 15 degrees every 2.5 seconds. Doing that, he was able to capture the following:

The process is a bit tedious, and Carver details a few pros and cons from the setup in his video above, but for a device that costs just $30, it’s both a useful tool that’s also a neat DIY Project. For more from Nico Carver, make sure you subscribe to his YouTube channel and follow him on Instagram.

Photographer Spends 12 Years, 1250 Hours, Exposing Photo of Milky Way

Finnish astrophotographer J-P Metsavainio has released a Milky Way photo that took him nearly 12 years to create. The 1.7-gigapixel image has a cumulative exposure time of 1,250 hours.

Note: Click the photos in this article to see them at a larger resolution.

Metsavainio began shooting for the project back in 2009. For the next 12 years, he focused on different areas and objects in the Milky Way, shooting stitched mosaics of them as individual artworks. To complete the ultra-high-resolution view of the Milky Way as a whole, Metsavainio then set out to fill in the gaps that weren’t covered by his original artworks.

“I think this is a first image ever showing the Milky Way in this resolution and depth at all three color channels (H-a, S-II, and O-III),” Metsavainio tells PetaPixel.

The photo is 100,000 pixels wide and comprises 234 individual panels stitched together.

The photo spans 125 degrees of the sky, from Taurus to Cygnus, and shows about 20 million visible stars.

“My processing workflow is very constant so very little tweaking was needed between the mosaic frames,” Metsavainio writes. “Total exposure time is over 1250 hours. Some of the frames have more exposure time than others.”

Metsavainio’s equipment changed a bit over the years.

“Up to 2014 I was using an old Meade LX200 GPS 12″ scope, QHY9 astrocam, Canon EF 200mm f/1.8 camera optics and Baader narrowband filter set,” he writes. “After 2014, I have had 10-micron 1000 equatorial mount, Apogee Alta U16 astro camera, Tokina AT-X 200mm f/2.8 camera lens and the Astrodon 50mm square narrowband filter set.

“I have shot many details with a longer focal length, before 2014 by using Meade 12″ scope with reducer and after 2014 Celestron EDGE 11″ and reducer. Quider camera has been Lodestar and Lodestar II.”

All of the mosaic work is done in Photoshop. Metsavainio does the “straightforward work” of matching the separate panels using shared stars to align them.

“My processing has become so constant, that very little tweaking is needed between separate frames,” he writes, “just some minor levels, curves, and color balance.”

A look at individual artworks that went into the final gigapixel photo of the Milky Way.

Here are a few of the individual artworks that can be seen within very small areas of the completed photo:

The California Nebula, NGC 1499, can be seen at bottom left of the large mosaic image.
A closeup from the main image shows the Sharpless 124 at up and the Cocoon nebula with a dark gas stream at bottom.
The Tulip Nebula, Sh2-101, can be seen at center right, there is also a black hole Cygnus X-1

You can find more of Metsavainio’s work on his website and Facebook.

Image credits: Photographs by J-P Metsavainio and used with permission