- THE DAWN OF NIGHT –
Photographing Star Trails/Milky Way Galaxy
Written by Kevin
Few things capture ones imagination and wonder like a clear moonless night
sky. With all its grandeur, beauty and incredible vastness, learning how to photograph
it properly will amaze all who view the photos. This article is written for not
only those who have never tried this type of photography and may be intimidated
by the process but also for anyone who just loves to be out under the enormity of
the night sky with camera in hand.
My first experience trying this type of photography occurred about three years ago
when I was finding myself needing to be challenged with new types of photography
and night photography was high on this list of ‘to do’s’. I was going all out on
this new photographic concept (for me) and was not going to settle on just setting
up in the back yard…no, it had to be a location just a short 2 hours drive away
and in the middle of the night amongst the bears and wolves in the Banff National
Park of the Canadian Rockies. With not a clue of what I was doing I grabbed my camera
gear in one hand and with the other I browsed the internet looking for “how to photograph
the Milky Way”.
Surfing the information highway I thought was going to be 10 minutes to find, read
and jot down some notes instead turned into 2 hours of grueling frustration as no
article written on the subject addressed all I needed to know, specifically, what
camera settings is required.
It is my intention and hope to make this process as painless as possible leaving
no questions unanswered. You will be able to read this article, take some notes
and head out to some exotic location, set up and take your own amazing photos of
the Milky Way Galaxy or make your own star trail photographs.
My first shot of star trails was done with the Canon 20d, with the 17 – 85mm 4 –
Church, Alberta, Canada
Church, Alberta, Canada
In my night photography workshop, I instruct my students prior to going
out that what is required for the best images of the Milky Way is use a fast, wide
angle 2.8 lens. If your going to take the time of several hours out in the field
and spend your money to either have someone teach you or use up your gas driving
to location then be prepared with the best equipment you can get your hands on.
There are several camera stores in each city that rent this equipment for very reasonable
rates. For instance, The Camera Store in Calgary, Alberta, Canada will rent you
a 15mm 2.8 fisheye lens for $25/weekday or just $25 for the whole weekend! That’s
nothing if you consider buying one for around $800!
Now that you have your lens and a digital dslr, you need a good tripod with a remote
cable. If you don’t have a cable then your down to using the timer on your camera
which eats up valuable battery life.
As far as settings on the camera go, lets talk briefly on aperture and ISO’s. Having
these two set properly will be the difference between the stars either showing dim
or nice and bright when looking at your images later, on your monitor.
Set the aperture of your lens to it widest point either at 2.8 or at 3.5/4 for most
other lenses. That will allow the most light possible to enter the lens and onto
the sensor. Now with regard to ISO’s, there is much opinion on what setting is best
and again what your wanting to do is bring out the “highlights” being the stars
by boosting the ISO levels.
If your dealing with amateur bodies such as the Canon 20/30/40/50d line or the Nikon
d40/90 etc…then I have found ISO 1600 is the max you will want to use.
If your using pro bodies such as the Canon 5d Mark II or the Nikon d700 etc, then
pushing the ISO’s even further up to 4000 is recommended. There are two lines of
thought here when photographing stars, the first thought is shoot with ISO’s no
higher than 800 as noise is too much an issue to deal with so shoot low enough not
to cause a noise problem and the second is shoot high ISO’s and clean the noise
up with a anti-noise program like Noise Ninja or Noiseware Pro later at home on
The question I would ask when faced with these two thoughts is “do I want lots of
stars to show in my shot or not”? If you use low ISO’s then you’ve just eliminated
all the dim level stars and have turned down the brightest stars to ones you can
barely see and what is the point in that?
Crowsnest Pass in Southern Alberta, Canada
Moving on to the next setting. Shoot in RAW. When processing later in Camera
RAW/Photoshop or other, your final image will need all the pixel information it
can get for the best quality.
Also, most dslr’s have a long exposure noise removal program ‘in-camera’, go to
it and turn it off. The reason for this is that it eats up too much battery life.
For every second the shutter is open for the shot, the noise program will require
another second to process out the noise. So if your out in the middle of nowhere
with your one battery and your shot is going to be 40 minutes long (for star trails)
then your camera will not be able to take another shot for another 40 minutes while
it’s processing. So now you’ve just eaten up 80 minutes of life out of your battery
and it’s pretty much done and so are you cause it’s now 1am and you can’t keep your
eyes open. Cross your fingers and hope the 4 hour drive to and from location was
worth the one shot you managed to do!
So now that we have figured out:
- Aperture – WIDE OPEN
- ISO’s – HIGH 1600 Amateur Bodies, up to 4000 Pro Bodies
- Shooting RAW
- Shooting RAW
What’s next is how long should you have your shutter open for. The answer to that
is a maximum of 30 seconds for sharp Milky Way shots. If your wanting to show nice
long star trails then there are two ways of doing this.
(1) Lock your remote cable on and set your camera to burst mode and just fill up
your memory card with 30 second shots.
- When you get home put all those images in a folder on your computer.
- Open up Photoshop cs3/4 – FILE>SCRIPTS>LOAD FILES INTO STACK
- Click down arrow and choose FOLDER>BROWSE>find the folder and click ok.
- Photoshop will then take all those images, lets say you have 100, and will
make 100 layers.
- At the top right, click the layers tab to view all 100 layers in a list.
- Click on the first layer then click on the down arrow just above that and
- Then click on the second layer, click down arrow, choose “lighten” and do
that for every single layer.
As you go along, you will notice your star trail forming at 30 seconds each time.
If for some reason, lets say 20 minutes into your shot a car with it’s headlights
on drives up and wrecks your shot, don’t worry!! You will see that shot when you
click on the layer that that occurred. All you do is pass over that layer or delete
it and go onto the next! It’s that simple.
(2) The other option is to take one looooooooong shot. Lets say your going to make
it 40 minutes long and that CAR drives up 20 minutes into the shot. You're DONE.
Shot IS WRECKED and battery is well used up. I would recommend trying #1 above and
be safe than sorry.
United Church in Morley, Alberta, Canada
Dorothy, Alberta, Canada
That’s about it. From here on in the only thing to worry about is composition.
Framing your Milky Way shot with a foreground subject to make it interesting. Shine
it up with a flashlight and just have fun with it.
I do hope you found this informative and that if you haven’t tried this type of
photography that you will feel confident enough to try it out!
Poetry of Motion Photography
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