Night Photography With The Milky Way (and what I learned)

A few weeks ago I posted about what I learned on my first night star photography shoot. Well, the day after I did that shoot, I got the chance to do another one.

Getting In To Bryce Canyon Late
I was meeting the group I was with at Bryce Canyon, Utah. They had already driven up earlier in the day and I came up later that evening when it was already dark. I got to the hotel room, and my buddy RC was already checked in. It was around 10pm and I was beat from getting up early and driving and shooting all day. But RC and a bunch of people from the group (the workshop he was teaching in) were heading out for a star trail shoot. Personally, I don’t like star trails, so I said I was going to stay back, edit some photos and get some rest for sunrise the next morning.

15 Minutes Later
About 15 minutes after they left, RC texts me and all it says is “Drive here…. now!!!”. I texted back and said “Really??? – I’m beat!”. He replied with “Get out here. Now!”. Knowing that RC and I share the same taste in night and star photos, I figured I better listen to him so I drove out. Luckily it was only about 15 minutes away from the hotel.

My First WOW Moment
Okay, so I arrive at the location. First off, it’s pitch black. I mean so dark you can’t see 2 feet in front of you. I knew the group was right there, and all I could do was follow voices since they were all taking photos, and I didn’t want to turn my flashlight on and screw things up. So I eventually set up my tripod and get settled. It was at that point where I first looked up. WOW! is the only thing that comes to mind. I’d never seen so many stars in my life. I grew up in New Jersey, fairly close to NYC so I definitely didn’t see them as a kid. And while I’ve been to many nice places before, I never really paid that much attention to the stars. But this was magnificent!

My Second WOW Moment
RC and I had just finished saying that we wished we were able to see the Milky Way better the night before, when we were shooting in Monument Valley. Well, that’s exactly why he called me out there, and insisted that I go. When I looked up to see all of the stars you saw this beautiful “milky” gas-like area right in the middle of the sky. While I may have exaggerated about never seeing so many stars, I’m not exaggerating about this. I had literally never seen this before (only in photos). And from the research I’ve done about photographing the Milky Way, everything I’ve read said that most people rarely see it with the naked eye because of light pollution. I’m sure if you live in an area that’s really dark and removed from cities, you may see something like it more, but most people don’t. And I have to say, it was breathtaking.

My First Shot – The Foreground Silhouetted
So I framed up my first photo, using the techniques I learned the night before. We shined a bright light on to the rocks in front of us to give a place for everyone’s camera to lock focus. I pretty much set my camera on Manual mode, 15-20 second exposure and jacked the ISO up to see what I got. After one or two shots I was dialed in and had the stars sharp and in focus. But the photo was lacking something. The silhouetted rocks and trees were nice, but it just seemed a little too, well, dark.

(click to see the image larger)

A Happy Accident – More Foreground Helps
Earlier, when I arrived, I parked my car and had my foot on the brake. The brakes lights cast some light on to the rocks in front of us and it turned out that it looked really cool in the photo during a long exposure. So what did we do? What every photographer would have done right? We put a guy in a car and light-painted with brake lights. First we had him simply aim the back of the car toward the rocks, but that didn’t work. So then we had him pull forward so the back of the car was facing toward the rocks. The front of the car eventually went off road and started going into a ditch. It almost worked because it cast the light upward more, not not enough. If he went any further he may have plunged to an ugly death on the rocks below. So we switched gears (figuratively and literally) and had him ride up and down the road (closer to the rocks) tapping his brakes every so often. Perfect!

(click to see the image larger)

How To Know Where The Milky Way Is?
There’s lots of night sky star apps out there. But not all of them show you where the Milky Way is. One of the apps I found works good is called Go Sky Watch. It’s a great looking app and it shows you where just about every possible thing you could want to see in the night sky is. One feature I really like is that it has a Red Light mode for night viewing. For $3.99, it’s definitely worth it.

Camera Settings
I wrote about setting up to shoot at night in the last post, and nothing really changed here (other than adding some light in the foreground). But here’s the settings:

Camera: Nikon D800
Lens: Nikon 16-35mm
Aperture: f/4
Shutter Speed: 15 seconds
ISO: 3200

Lessons Learned
Besides the lessons I learned the night before about shutter speeds, ISO and exposure, I learned a few more things this evening.

1. I’m not a big vertical shooting guy, but I find that vertical really works for Milky Way photos. I guess because of the angle of it from the location we’re at, it tends to run vertically in the sky.

2. Foreground helps. Silhouettes are good, but for me personally, seeing more foreground really helps. If you watch Dave Black’s new class on Kelby Training Online, about light painting landscapes, he goes over some lights you can get to shine on whatever happens to be in your foreground. If you’re into shooting at night, I’d suggest picking them up or something similar. It can totally transform a night star photo.

3. If you stay in bed, your hotel room or at home, then you can 100% guarantee you won’t get the shot. I owe a big thanks to RC for convincing me to get out there.

4. Dress warmer if you’re out there at night when it’s cold. Nothing can kill a photo shoot like being cold. It got to a point where I simply didn’t want to shoot anymore because I was so cold. It was almost impossible to be creative. I was dressed just fine for our sunrise and sunset shoots. But I hadn’t planned on being out there at night.

Post Processing
The post-processing work was pretty simple. One of the things I learned from the previous night’s shoot was that I could lower my ISO (to get less noise) and increase the Exposure in Lightroom/Camera Raw later, to get the photo bright enough. It works like a charm. You can get a full two-stops of added exposure (with my Nikon D800 files) with LR/ACR and not hurt the image whatsoever. Another change I made was to the white balance. I added a little blue on the Temperature and some magenta on the Tint slider. Finally, I added some Clarity. The Milky Way LOVES Clarity. But I used the Adjustment Brush to add it to the Milky Way only, not the rest of the stars. If you simply add clarity to the whole image it starts looking too noisy.

Well, that’s it for today. I’m really digging the star photography stuff and can’t wait to get out there and try again. Hope you enjoyed. Have a good one :)

  • Remy Hoehener


    Congrats on your shots and a big thanks on your tutoring. I’ve been watching your teachings (mainly on Lightroom and Photoshop) for quite some time. Then I found your great posts on landscape shooting. I’m delighted – following your “lessons” is straight forward and easy – and it works ;-)

    Just a few days after I read your post on nightsky shooting I was lucky enough to be in a location where I could try things out on my own and apply what I’ve learned from you. Here is the result (in case you’re interested in seeing how you influence others that is): . The mentioning of Top Photographers on Google + in my post is you and a couple other guys ;-) By the way: I’m following all you guys from PhotoshopUserTV and appreciate all the learning.

    Thanks much and continue your great work.


    • Matt Kloskowski

      Great shots Remy!

      • Remy Hoehener

        Thanks Matt. That means a lot to me coming from you!

  • Lynn Crow

    Breathtaking! I was privileged to see the Milky Way at the beach last month. Next time I’ll be prepared to shoot it!!!! Thanx for your wonderful post!

  • Doug Sundseth

    Red Canyon? Looks like Utah 12 a few minutes west of Bryce.

    One of my favorite places in the world.

  • Nikki

    Thanks for sharing your tips on how to do this kind of shooting, Matt. I love night photography but my results are usually hit and miss. Can’t wait to try this out.

  • Dennis Zito

    Matt, I have to say WOW also! What a fantastic opportunity you had and you came through!!! Those are some gorgeous photographs! Man, I’m learning so much from you on a lot of different topics! Thank you!


  • Jeb Buchman

    Hey Matt. Awesome picture of the Milky Way!! Every time I read your blog I learn something interesting that helps improve my photography. Have you ever been to Zion National Park (about 3 hours from Bryce in Utah)? It’s a landscape photographer’s paradise…especially the hike down into “The Subway”.

  • John Havord

    Wonderful Matt. Those images certainly deserve to be viewed at the larger size.

  • cathwp2007

    Matt – great post and love those photos! Next time – I’m there – I’ll be getting the Milky Way too – it was FREEZING cold out there – you are right about dressing warm – I want to get one of those hats that everyone else was wearing. Anyhow, just loved reading your posts about this great experience.

  • Dave

    Matt, great post. Thanks. One tip though, if you’re planning on doing more night photography, it might be worth the investment of getting a decent headlamp with a red light. Red light won’t mess up your night vision like white light does.

  • David Morrow

    Nice star shots man:) Got some great colors in there, jack that D800 ISO up to around 5000 next time and see what happens, it handles it like a beast!

  • Pingback: Photographing Stars at Monument Valley | Kit Frost

  • akphotograph

    You guys need to come up to Alaska for some Aurora shooting this winter. Could be the best season we have had in years…..Dress warm though!

    • Matt Kloskowski

      Would love to!!! Where to fly in to? When? Where to stay? Any details would be awesome.
      Thanks :)

      • akphotograph

        Matt, that would be a huge debate here in Alaska. Fairbanks would probably be a safer bet. It is more likely to be clear than Anchorage, however, Anchorage has a lot better scenery to shot. I shot a lot of time lapse so getting out where there are fewer people is important to me. Shot this time-lapse about 20 mins from my home in Wasilla.

  • Dwayne Schnell

    I love the light painting technique with the brake lights! Guy in car was probably happy to be a little warmer :)

    I’m starting to get more into landscape and night photos. I’ve taken one mostly successful shot of the Milky Way, but I need more practice (and more dark places to do the practicing from). I guess that means more trips without my family in the middle of the night… when the weather is clear. Hard to do as a hobby…

    Check out some of my work on NG’s YourShot: