Updated: Oct 3, 2022
Nightscape photography, or taking widefield images while using the Milky Way or starry sky as your backdrop, is not as challenging as you may think.
All that you need is a DSLR or mirrorless camera body that accepts interchangeable lenses, a tripod, and a flashlight. You will inevitably collect more gear and equipment as the years go by and you refine your style, but it doesn't take much to get started.
The above photo of the San Francisco Peaks, just outside of Flagstaff, AZ, was taken with nothing more than my old Canon 5Dii, tripod, 24mm f/2.8 lens, and a sliver of a crescent moon.
20 second exposure, ISO 3200, f/2.8
I am by no means trying to downplay the complexities of nightscape photography or astrophotography for that matter, but emphasizing that most amateur or recreational photographers tend to already have the equipment that is needed to get your first milky way shots. And if not, the cost of entry is not overly extravagant.
If needing your first kit, you can easily get into the game for under $300 with used cameras and lenses. Going used can absolutely get you a better bang for your buck by purchasing previous generations of newer camera bodies and lenses.
What you will need:
-DSLR...I recommend Canon 5Dii for an older, affordable, full-frame camera body
-Lens...you will want the fastest wide-angle lens that is in your budget. 24mm f2.8 is the golden standard for nightscape photography, but kit lenses will work. You of course just won't collect as much light as a more expensive, faster lens.
-Tripod...doesn't have to be fancy, but you do need it to be sturdy. For the most part, any of the carbon fiber, "ball-head" mounts around $100 work great.
-Lighting/flash...pop-up flashes will not work for this, you will want to purchase a strong, adjustable flashlight or a mountable speedlite style flash to illuminate your foreground or subject.
Now what to set your camera to?
There are lots of different ways to accomplish the same or similar results, but I'll just keep it simple as I do for my astrophotography workshops.
We need our cameras to collect as much light and data as possible. In order to do that, we need to increase our exposure time, and ISO, while lowering our f/stop as much as possible (opening the aperture up).
This is a balancing act however, and we can't increase any one setting too much, or it will produce undesirable results such as too much noise, star trails, or just not enough light captured.
ISO can be described as your camera sensor's sensitivity to incoming light. In other words, the higher the ISO, the more sensitive to light the resulting image is. However the downside to high ISO is an inherent level or "noise", or graininess. More expensive, full frame cameras, can typically handle higher ISO more elegantly. I recommend starting around ISO 1500 and working your way up from there to see what works best on your particular camera.
This is always a topic for debate, but using what is called the rule of 500 will get you off to a great start. Divide 500 by the focal length you are shooting at. For example, if using a 24mm lens, you would set your shutter speed to 20 seconds.
Using a slower shutter speed than this will result in undesirable star trails...your stars will look like little blurry streaks rather than pinpoint dots of starlight.
Note that modern mirrorless cameras such as the Canon R6 (my current camera), must use a faster shutter speed as stars trail faster. Subtract 5 seconds from the rule of 500 if using a mirrorless, but you can confidently increase your ISO to 3200 as a starting point.
Aperture, often represented as a lowercase "f" over a number such as f/2.8. This represents the width of the aperture of your lens. Think of it as the pupil of your camera, but it is located in the lens. The wider it is, the more light is allowed to your camera sensor. To start out you will simply want this at the widest setting (lowest number) that your lens offers.
When you start getting into more advanced lighting and focus stacking techniques, you may want to adjust this for a longer depth of field. But for now, just set it to wide open.
Other tips and tricks that you'll need to know about is how to focus on the stars, how to keep your images crisp, and how to maintain your night vision.
We need to find what is called "infinity focus", which is the point that pretty much everything in your frame that is faraway is in acceptable focus.
The easiest way to do this is to take your camera out during the day, point it at a cloud or mountain, hit autofocus, and mark where that point is on your lens. Just be sure that you can find that point again!
If you are out already or forgot to do the above with a new lens before getting out, and need to focus your camera at night, you'll want to rack your lens to the furthest focal point. Then turn on your LCD screen, point your camera at the brightest object in the night sky that night (usually the moon, Sirius, or Jupiter if in the northern hemisphere). Once you can see a star on your LCD screen, you will want to use DIGITAL zoom to zoom in on the star (do not actually zoom in with your lens), and then manually focus your lens until the stars are as small and pinpoint as you can get them. Be sure to keep your lens in manual focus as not to lose your focus point when you press the shutter button.
Other Important Camera Settings
Keeping your camera as stable as possible is key to collecting the best quality images. A few settings that can help with this:
-Turn off any image stabilization features. IS uses tiny motors to help counter subtle movements when holding your camera. When on a tripod however, this feature adds small vibrations to your camera. Never use IS when utilizing a tripod.
-Use a 2-second timer to allow any vibrations when pressing the shutter button to stop by the time the shutter opens.
-Set your file type to RAW. This will give you the most data to edit later in post-processing.
And some final recommendations to keep you motivated and having a good time:
-Bring gloves, a warm coat, and extra layers
-Have a warm drink
-Bring a friend to learn with, and motivate one another to keep taking night photos
-Use a headlamp or flashlight with a red mode, this will help maintain your night vision while out in the dark.
Have fun, and once you get your first successful shot of the milky way, you will be hooked and continue your journey into one of the most rewarding and underutilized forms of photography!