Photographing the Milky Way at 50mm

Milky Way Over Mt. Katahdin
Nikon Z 6 with NIKKOR Z 50mm f/1.8 S lens @ f/1.8, ISO 6400. Star stack of 20 exposures at 4 seconds each for sharp stars and low noise.

By and large, ultra wide angle focal lengths like 14mm (on full frame) are the normal choice for photographing the Milky Way over a landscape. But if you can find a composition that works well with 50mm or so (around 35mm on APS-C crop sensors), the results can be truly stunning with the immense amount of detail visible in the Galactic Core of our galaxy at that focal length. Plus the core will look absolutely huge against the landscape, giving a dramatic perspective.

Milky Way Over Fishing Boats
Nikon Z 6, NIKKOR Z 58mm f/0.95 S Noct lens @ f/0.95, ISO 3200, 3 seconds. Single exposure.

One of the other nice things about shooting at 50mm is that you can use a prime lens which will often have a fast f-stop of f/1.8 or brighter, allowing a lot of light to hit the sensor, which is very much needed at the short shutter speeds required to keep the stars from trailing too much at 50mm. However not all lenses are sharp wide open, and there’s a good chance the stars in the corners would look much sharper and have fewer distortions if the lens were stopped down a bit. Test your lens and see what works for you.

The Milky Way and Venus in Big Bend National Park
Nikon Z 6, NIKKOR Z 50mm f/1.8 S lens. Star stacking and separate foreground exposure.

Shutter speeds should be limited to 10 seconds or less at 50mm on full frame, and as low as 3 seconds for very sharp pinpoint stars. If you’re star stacking you can use the shorter exposure times combined with many shots to average in software later for pinpoint stars and low noise, a technique known as star stacking and taught in this article.

For ISO you can generally use something between 1600 and 6400, depending on the darkness of the area you’re shooting and what f-stop you’re using. Don’t go too high or you’ll overexpose most of the stars to the point of losing all star color, something that is much more visible in photos at 50mm as opposed to 14mm. At the same time, you need to go high enough with the ISO to even see what you’re getting when shooting, so use what is needed to get the job done!

Autumn Milky Way in New Hampshire
Nikon D5 with Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art lens. I used f/2 for sharper stars. Star stack for the sky of 9 exposures at ISO 12,800 (probably higher than needed) and 3 seconds each, separate exposure for the trees at ISO 1600, f/1.4, 4 minutes.

As always, you can take a separate exposure for the foreground at a longer shutter speed and lower ISO if necessary for capturing low noise detail in the foreground. This exposure can then be blended with the sky exposure within Photoshop (or a similar program) to create a final image that has detail from the foreground to the stars.

Milky Way in Acadia National Park
Nikon D810A with Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art lens. Star stack of 10 exposures for the sky at f/1.4, ISO 12,800, 3 seconds each. Separate foreground exposure at f/2 for 4 minutes and ISO 1600.

Be sure to enjoy all the details visible in the Milky Way when shooting around 50mm! Many reddish/pink nebulae will be prominent, including the Lagoon Nebula, Trifid Nebula, Swan Nebula, and Eagle Nebula.

Good Luck and Happy Shooting!

To learn more about shooting the Milky Way check out my new book, Night Sky Photography: From First Principles to Professional Results. To learn about my editing techniques check out my Milky Way Master Class video tutorials.

This entry was posted in astrophotography, landscape astrophotography, Landscape Photography, Milky Way and tagged , , .

7 Comments

  1. Johnny LeBlanc April 8, 2021 at 6:32 pm #

    Hi Adam,
    Really enjoyed your photo of the Milky Way over the Homer Wilson ranch in Big Bend NP !!!!
    Regards,
    Johnny

  2. David Sivils April 26, 2021 at 8:53 pm #

    Hi Adam!
    Great article about using 5Omm for astrophotography. Enjoyed all of your images. I am just getting into this area of photography and I have read several articles about the difficulty of manually focusing Nikon’s Nikkor Z lenses. What are your thoughts and comments, or suggestions on this topic?
    Best,
    David

    • Adam Woodworth April 27, 2021 at 9:06 am #

      Hi David!

      Thanks! I don’t have any problem focusing the Z 14-24mm f/2.8 lens. However I find it can be tricky to get telephoto lenses of any brand into perfect star focus, especially with large f-stops. There’s a fine line between in perfect focus and out just enough to cause problems. You can use a bahtinov mask to check focus on the stars. You need one designed for wide angle lenses. The best one that I’m aware of on the market is FocusOnStars. There are cheaper ones but that one is made of very finely etched glass and works much better on wide angle lenses than the plastic SharpStar2 and similar bahtinov masks.

      Thanks,
      Adam

  3. Mary Smith April 27, 2021 at 10:01 am #

    Hi Adam,
    I’m fairly new at photography, with a dslr, anyway, but have always wanted to do landscape astrophotography. I came across your website a couple of months ago and was instantly mesmerized…bought your book, and now I’m hooked! I live down by Big Bend… have been out to practice a number of times and have now developed gear acquisition syndrome..lol. I’m using a crop sensor Nikon and Tokina 11-16mm that I decided on after reading your recommendations. Last week, I shot a panorama from the Mule Ears overlook that turned out beautifully. I’m doing most of my editing in Lightroom Classic and Sequator. Photoshop just makes me want to shoot my computer, so far, so I’ve not done any foreground blending…yet.

    I have to compliment your teaching style. You present your material in a way that is easy to follow and I really appreciate that. I have a sister up by you, in the Camden/Lincolnville area and I’ve been to a number of locations that I recognize in your pictures. Now I’m itching to make another trip! It would be very cool to attend one of your workshops. I’ll have to work on my hiking skills, first..lol

    • Adam Woodworth April 27, 2021 at 4:01 pm #

      Hi Mary,

      I love Big Bend! Thank you so much for the compliments! Note that the hiking required in the workshops is pretty minimal, at night it’s usually more like a half mile round trip at the most. One of the day hikes is a tad longer but are totally optional, they are mid-day just to see the area.

      Good luck!
      Adam

  4. charles goldberg July 30, 2021 at 10:39 pm #

    Hi Adam,
    I enjoy reading your articles and blogs. I have friends who have been on your workshops and loved them. I still have difficulty blending the sky stacked exposure with a separate foreground taken during the day or with longer exposure times. The foreground is always much lighter than the sky and looks too fake at the edges where the trees meet the stacked darker sky. Do you keep your camera in the exact same position when you take photos of both the foreground and the sky? Or do you point your camera at the sky for the milky way shots and then point your camera lower towards the foreground and then blend them?

    • Adam Woodworth July 31, 2021 at 8:32 am #

      Hi Charles,

      I always shoot my foregrounds at the same spot on the same night without moving the camera. I dislike daytime blends. You will usually need to balance the sky and foreground in the blending by darkening the foreground and brightening the sky. I brighten the sky substantially, much more than you might think, and then add contrast later. For night landscapes, the foreground should never be brighter than the sky unless there is artificial light in the foreground. The details of this and how I do blends in Photoshop are explained in my book and my Milky Way Master Class.

      Happy Shooting!
      Adam

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