Updated: Jun 7
Milky Way photography is typically the first step for most beginner astrophotographers. Finding the bright Milky Way band in the night sky is exhilarating and often the reason why a person eventually takes the leap into deep-sky astrophotography. For a Milky Way photograph to look its best, there are certain conditions that need to be met - such as the dark-sky quality, the time of year, and where you photograph from. Find information for your first session out on the field!
For more Milky Way-related guides, visit our Milky Way tutorials page.
The Milky Way
What is the Milky Way? And no, not the candy bar... the galaxy! The Milky Way is the galaxy we live in, a barred spiral galaxy that is vast but not as much as our closest neighbor - the Andromeda Galaxy. Many celestial objects can be found in it, but the most important to us is the Solar System. The Milky Way Galaxy is our home and place in the universe.
The Milky Way received its name because of the way it looked in the evening sky. The Greeks and Romans had their versions, but one commonality was describing it as a milky band stretching across the sky.
What we're looking at when we stare at the Milky Way band in the night sky is the bright core of our own galaxy, located just towards Sagittarius.
If you've never seen this marvel, you will be in awe of how bright it is in the sky and how many stars there are speckled within the band when you are in dark skies! Just think about how humans long before your great, great, great grandparents looked up to the sky and saw this natural splendor untouched by light pollution.
However, that has changed dramatically in the last 150 years, and although it may not be visible within a city when it's in the sky - it's still there.
Why Dark-Sky Quality Matters
If you stepped outside of your home to take a photo of the sky, chances are you won't see much except a couple of stars. This is due to external factors that affect the quality of the sky. Known as "dark-sky" quality, it is a measurement of how much light pollution, atmospheric haze, and other factors impact the clarity and brightness of the sky. The reason this is important is that the Milky Way is a relatively dim object and is hard to see when you are not in the right conditions.
Milky Way photography involves long exposures to get the best visual of the object. If you can't find clear and dark enough skies, the resulting image will likely be washed out by the bright lights of your surroundings. So, don't expect to see details or any of the thousands of hidden stars.
Hazards Impacting Sky Quality
General light pollution from large cities is the biggest, growing issue for nighttime photography and stargazing across the globe. The world is getting brighter at night, and this has consequences for ecosystems in nature but also for humanity as we may eventually lose sight of the stars. Potential discoveries and scientific observations are affected by bad sky quality. However, there is a metaphorical light at the end of the tunnel, as there are organizations fighting to preserve dark skies and even communities designated as dark-sky cities.
Several factors that impact sky quality include:
Bright reflections on bodies of water
Smog and clouds (reflecting light)
How to Measure Dark-Sky Quality
The way that astrophotographers measure dark-sky quality is with a Sky Quality Meter (SQM). These are handheld devices that measure the brightness of the sky directly overhead. SQMs provide a measure of the sky's brightness in magnitudes per square arcsecond, which can be used to calculate the level of light pollution.
We can then use this information and place a location in the Bortle Scale. This is a nine-level number system that quickly gauges how dark the sky is. Depending on your location, the scale number might be high at the center of your hometown and go down as you leave the city. The Bortle Scale also has colors associated with the numbers that help with color-coded maps.
Below is a graphic demonstrating the difference between the levels and dark-sky quality.
For more in-depth information about how to escape light pollution, read our full blog post about finding a dark site for astrophotography.
Bortle Scale levels and associated colors:
Bortle 8/9 - White
Bortle 7 - Red
Bortle 6 - Orange
Bortle 5 - Yellow
Bortle 4 - Green
Bortle 3 - Blue
Bortle 2 - Gray
Bortle 1 - Black
In short, the lower the Bortle Scale level you are, the darker your skies are and the better the quality of your images will be. This applies to nighttime photography in general, but this is especially important for Milky Way photography and broadband deep space imaging.
You can find dark sites near you with online resources like Dark Site Finder. To the left is a map of what you can expect to see from this resource.
You can zoom in and out of your area to find the darkest zones near you - keep in mind that the darkest locations might be a blue or green zone. Work with what you got!
The Western United States is darker than the East Coast by a landslide. However, even densely populated areas tend to make nighttime photography difficult, which is why most photographers travel to remote locations. See more about this in the scouting section further below.
How dark is dark enough for Milky Way Photography?
Unfortunately, there is no right answer. Of course, the Bortle 1 skies are the best of all if you can manage it, but this may not be possible for everyone. A good base rule is to photograph skies that are no brighter than Bortle 4 class. Bortle 4 skies are usually available within 1-2 hours of most cities.
This image was taken in an area outside of Las Vegas in Bortle 3 skies. The image was also taken facing away from the heavy light pollution created by the bright lights to the south.
The darkest sky possible is what to aim for and will yield higher-quality results.
It may not be surprising that most photographers that take photos of the Milky Way will often travel to lonely places with minimal light pollution and optimal sky conditions.
What kind of locations do they go to? In the next section, we go over how to scout for a dark site and considerations for choosing a spot.
How to Find the Best Location for Milky Way Photography
Scouting for a Dark Site
What you've learned so far is that dark-sky quality has the biggest effect on Milky Way photography. Therefore, a dark site away from light pollution is the solution but it means putting in some effort mentally and physically. Great locations are usually far from highly populated areas, and may even require hiking, camping, or off-roading to access.
Why do you need to scout for a dark site? If you head out in the darkness and set your gear up, you might be lucky and have an uneventful evening - but chances are you could run into trouble. Whether it's with the law or wildlife, you have to be careful. Learn what to consider when scouting for a dark site to ensure your safety and get the best results for your photographs.
If you are local or travel to Las Vegas often, we wrote a book that reveals our favorite dark sky locations near the city. You'll find tips and maps to find the location easily.
This is a great guide to have just in case you plan on visiting and want to try stargazing or astrophotography while in town!
You can find it on Amazon for under $10.
1. Orientation - Face Away from Light Pollution
The most difficult part of Milky Way photography is light pollution. Before you choose a spot, keep this in mind as part of that process - what does it look like at night?
We went over how dark is dark enough for this type of photography, but let's say you are out on the field and point your camera to the rising Milky Way which is coming up over a city in the distance.
You found a Bortle 4 sky, so it is dark enough to capture the Milky Way. However, the light pollution coming from that eastward city (where the Milky Way rises) is also going to be captured in your image.
The image to the right is an example of a shot taken from the desert facing Las Vegas to the southeast. Can you see the yellow blob of light at the bottom? That means this location is not optimal for a good image of the Milky Way. Try your hardest to avoid facing light-polluted areas in your search for a spot.
Remember, Milky Way photography involves long exposures and it's dark out there! Your camera will capture all light even if it's out of frame. Light pollution domes like the one above can make photography difficult. Before you solidify a location, consider the orientation of the object and what you might capture in the viewfinder as well. Recall that the object rises in the east/southeast.
2. Choose a Safe Location & Visit in the Daytime
It is obvious but still needs to be said - safety is key! Do not go to a new location for the first time without research and expect to be safe. If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.
First, use the Dark Site Finder map to help you find potential areas of interest, then cross reference those areas with a regular map. You might find a campground, hiking trail, state or federal park, or perhaps a desolate area that is safe (and legal) to take photos at. It's highly likely that you'll be alone and far from civilization meaning you won't come across anyone, but on the other side of the coin, you're on your own. Be sure to tell someone where you're going before going off the grid!
Once you've got a place in mind, do your research (some places may require permits) and learn about the area. Go walk around during the daytime, check your cell service, and scope out the area. Ensure there are no surprises before making it a designated photography spot.
Other Safety Considerations
Last but not least, the most unpredictable factor and top concern that could pose a threat, aside from humans and getting lost, is wildlife.
Our experience in the desert has taught us to be wary of our surroundings. Coyotes, snakes, spiders... it's just good to know what to expect in general. You can never be too careful.
Our research confirmed that much of the desert in Nevada is an open range, so there is potential to come across herds of cows and wild horses if we ventured far enough. You may even come across domesticated animals. Sadly, this is how we found our (now spoiled rotten) dog Stella.
Be prepared and know your surroundings!
3. Find the Perfect Foreground
Another reason to scout the area beforehand is to find a good foreground. When you visit during the daytime get a look at what's around. Milky Way photos are spectacular as is, however, the thing that makes people the most excited is the composition of an image.
To complement the Milky Way and truly make a photograph your own, you need an interesting foreground. What that is, is up to you!
The photo to the right is a great example of using a foreground to enhance a Milky Way photo. A quick search online will reveal more examples, and you'll see a lot of photos with interesting foregrounds.
After all, the subject is mostly the same for everyone - it's the locations and foregrounds that change.
Ideas for Milky Way Photography Foregrounds
Consider natural formations like large rocks, peculiar trees, or spooky animal bones; perhaps change perspective from within a canyon-like area to highlight the subject.
Other fun ideas include old or forgotten objects such as dilapidated buildings and rusted vehicles. A scene of nature taking back items with ivy or moss, or even desolate foregrounds around like a cabin in the woods or a farm surrounded by wheat. We have also seen people take photos of lighthouses and other manmade objects. Put your spin on it!
4. Prepare for the Evening
Last but not least, have all of your gear with you and, most importantly, know how to handle your gear. We started by just going out on the field and fiddling around with the settings, took a few photos, and called it a night. We didn't have an article like this to help! Confident as we were, that went away as soon as we saw the blurry, out-of-focus image on our computer.
We couldn't have been so tired that we didn't manage to catch this, could we? Granted, everything on a 2-inch screen in the dark looks okay even if it is out of focus.
Get familiar with your setup and know what it takes to get a good photo. Read about our gear and see our attempts at Milky Way photography.
Aside from your gear (like star trackers and batteries), bring what you need to be comfortable out on the field. Consider your next meal, water, seasonal attire, red forehead lamps, and maybe a chair. It could be a long evening so prepare for it! If you are planning to camp overnight, you should be ready to set up.
Speaking of seasons - when is the best time of year to photograph the Milky Way?
The Best Time to Photograph the Milky Way
The Milky Way is a single object that is present all year long, and the arm that we see is divided into two bands: the summer band and the winter band.
It's still somewhat visible in the autumn and spring, but it may be out during the day when you can't see it or rises very late in the evening. For that reason, the best time of the year to see the Milky Way is during the summer months for those in the northern hemisphere. This also makes summertime the optimal time of year for Milky Way photography (or winter for southern hemisphere viewers).
Other Conditions to Consider
Milky Way Arch
The Milky Way rises hours after sunset in the summer and stays high and visible in the sky most of the evening. As it rises, the angle of the Milky Way has the form of a deep arch that straightens out over the course of the evening. If your intention is to capture the Milky Way band at its most dramatic curve, you'll need to be ready to go before sunset.
Take Photos Near the New Moon
Photographers will often wait until the new moon, or near the new moon, to take photos of the Milky Way because there is little to no moonlight. The moon can be so bright in dark locations that it washes out the Milky Way band and impacts the quality of an image. If you can help it, wait it out instead of wasting time and effort. Check out our moon phases article for more information about the different phases.
If you are excited about Milky Way photography, you first need to understand dark-sky quality and how to scout for a dark site. For the highest quality images, you must find a dark enough and safe location to take photos from. Visit the area during the daytime and scout the area to ensure your safety and search for an interesting foreground to complement your picture of the Milky Way and make it your own.
Remember, the best time of the year to take a photo is during the summer for northern hemisphere photographers. Be sure to check the weather and the current moon phase (the new moon is optimal) for the right conditions. Last but not least, prepare your gear - don't forget to pack food, water, and comfort items - and enjoy taking a photo in the optimal conditions for the Milky Way!
If you need tips on Milky Way photography, check out our other posts to get familiar with this hobby and learn how to take the best photos.
You can also join our premium Milky Way photography online course which will teach you all you need to know to capture the Milky Way.