Photographing the Milky Way

Hello from Udo Kieslich, founder and owner of the College of Digital Photography in Johannesburg |

Below is a short snippet on how to go about photographing the Milky Way using Manual exposure mode, a Nikon D850 and a Sigma 14mm f1.8 Art lens. Shoot in RAW and use a Daylight White Balance setting. I hope it will inspire you to hunt the stars!

To photograph the Milky Way, find a place with little light pollution on a moonless night and try the following settings: Manual Mode | f2.8 | 25” | 3200 ISO – keep Long Exposure Noise Reduction switched “On.” Also, make sure you’re focussed on the horizon and use a cable release or intervalometer to trigger the camera, to avoid camera shake.

The shorter the shutter speed, the more the stars appear as pin-points, so I personally use f2.8 | 10” | 6400 ISO which obviously results in a more noise. To counteract this, I take 10-15 shots in quick succession (Noise Reduction turned off) and then use Starry Landscape Stacker (Mac) to stack these images together and reduce the noise in the sky – a magical piece of software. For the Windows users you can use Sequator, which is very similar.

I prefer doing a separate exposure for the foreground, using the identical composition as I do for the sky. The two are then blended together in Photoshop. This allows you to use a smaller aperture (f11 or f16) to obtain a deeper Depth of Field. It also allows for more flexibility when it comes to composition and helps you obtain more detail, as you can take the foreground shot while there is still some ambient light around. For the foreground exposure it is important to turn the “Long Exposure Noise Reduction” feature to “On”, as it greatly helps reduce noise.

As a guideline for the foreground exposure I generally take this well after the sun has set, but before the ambient light has completely vanished. I set the camera to f11 and use the lowest native ISO, which is 64. Once the light meter indicates correct exposure using a shutter speed of 15”, I take my first shot for the foreground. Each time the ambient light diminishes by one f-stop I take another shot – in other words I’ll do a few more foreground exposures at 30”, 1 minute, 2 minutes and 4 minutes. During this time, the shaping and colour of light can change drastically, depending on the direction of the composition, in relation to where the Sun set. This allows for a few options to later blend with the star trails, to see which one works best for that specific image.

Milky Way

Nikon D850 | Sigma 14mm f1.8 Art
Sky: f4 | 30″ | 400 ISO
Foreground: f11 | 120″ | 64 ISO

This Milky Way shot was taken in the Cederberg in the Western Cape, South Africa. The foreground was photographed separately after sunset, to obtain a deeper depth of field and a torch was used to paint in the rocks for more detail. The sky images were first stacked in Starry Landscape Stacker to reduce the noise and the foreground was then blended with the sky using layers in Photoshop.

The two puffy clouds to the right of the Milky Way are the Large Magellanic Cloud and its neighbour and relative, the Small Magellanic Cloud.

This is a vast topic that requires lots of practise and experience, but the hardest part is being scared of making a mistake and never getting going in the first place. There are many useful resources on the internet and we offer a Night Sky photography course at our college as well, but for now I recommend you download an essential night sky App called PhotoPills, and visit their website for further information on this wondrous discipline.

Udo Kieslich, Sigma Ambassador