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  • Austin James Jackson

How to Get More Detail (And Less Noise) Out of Your Milky Way Photos

After dark, night photographers often find themselves shooting at very high ISO values, resulting in images with a high amount of noise. When shooting the Milky Way, you should do everything you can to avoid noise both in the sky and in the foreground. Lightroom and Photoshop have powerful noise reduction tools, but when you use them, you'll also reduce the detail in your scene.

In this blog post, I'm going to talk about ways to get more detail in your Milky Way photos in both the foreground in the sky. Consequently, I'll also be showing you how to get shots with less noise, which helps you achieve more detail.


Stack Exposures

Stacking multiple exposures taken with the same settings can help reduce the noise greatly. If you haven't yet, I highly recommend purchasing StarryLandscapeStacker to stack exposures. Even using the same settings on the camera, each exposure will be slightly different because of the way that the earth is turning. The stars will have slightly moved between each shot. StarryLandscapeStacker detects these stars and the foreground (which is not moving), aligns them, and stacks the frames to reduce noise.

When you're out shooting exposures, I generally recommend taking 4-10 "light frames". Light frames are basically just a way of saying a normal exposure where you'll have the Milky Way, and likely a foreground as well. Make sure you don't move the camera between frames, and also be sure to take the exposures one after another (rather than waiting between shots). Also, I recommend getting 2-5 "dark frames" after you shoot the light frames. Dark frames are just photos with the lens cap on. You'll want to shoot these at the same settings as you did your light frames, so I recommend shooting these right after you're done with the light frames.

Once in StarryLandscapeStacker, drag and drop all of your light and dark frames as .tiff files and the program will automatically sort and align them. When you export the composite photo, you'll have much less noise than you would have if you didn't stack the photos.

Check out the close up of a stacked Milky Way photo below. The photo on the left in a single exposure, before stacking. The photo on the right is after stacking multiple light and dark frames. Much less noise overall, and a better starting point for my image.

Using the Moon to Your Advantage

Most photographers try to avoid shooting the Milky Way when the moon is out because the moon can tend to make the Milky Way less visible. However, one of my favorite times to shoot the night sky is during a crescent moon around 10-25% full. This crescent moon isn't too bright that it ruins the Milky Way, and it can help bring a touch of light to your foreground. This can help tremendously with bringing detail to the foreground. Without a moon, you'll find that the foreground is too dark to maintain much detail at all without using a blending technique in blue hour.

Utilizing Blue Hour

One of my favorite things to do is to get to my scene right after sunset in order to set up early, while it's still light outside. By doing this, I can actually take exposures during the blue hour of my foreground and much lower ISO's, and then go back and blend these exposures in later with my Milky Way exposures. This does take some skill in Photoshop, as you'll need to know how to mask out the foreground and then match the foreground with the sky exposure, but this is by far the best technique to get highly detailed foregrounds.

One thing to note about shooting blue hour exposures is that it generally will not blend very well if you have a reflection. I only use this technique when not shooting around water with reflections.

milky way utah
The foreground of this photo was shot during the blue hour, which allowed me to retain all of the colors and details in the arch. If I waited until after dark to shoot this, my arch would have been mostly dark, with no details at all.

Purchase a Tracker

Star tracking is undoubtedly the best way to take highly detailed, low noise photos of the Milky Way. Using a star tracker, I'm able to take super long exposures (sometimes up to 15 minutes each) of the stars at very low ISO levels. This allows my photos to be noise free, highly detailed, with no star trails.

Star tracking may seem like a lot, but it's not as difficult as you think! Aligning the star tracker can be a pain, but this becomes easier over time. If you want a great exposure of the Milky Way, you have to be very precise with the tracker. I use a laser pointer to align my tracker with the North Star, and find that it takes me less than 5 minutes to get it all set up.

When you shoot exposures of the Milky Way on a tracker, it's important to note that the foreground will be blurry in your shots. This is due to the fact that the tracker is tracking the stars, so it is actually slowly turning the same speed as the stars. You'll need to have some knowledge in Photoshop in order to put a foreground exposure in front of the tracked Milky Way, which will require some masking. However, despite all of the extra steps you must take, you'll love the way your images look by doing this.

I use the Slik ECH-630 Astro Tracker. You can use the code "Jackson15" for 15% off if you purchase one!

star tracking mt hood
Using a star tracker allowed me to get a very highly detailed Milky Way photo at 55mm. The stars are tack sharp and not streaking, and this is a 4 minute exposure.

Creating highly detailed photos after dark can prove challenging, but by using just a few tools and a couple different tricks, you can create amazing shots after dark with very little noise, and high details. Utilize this guide as a starting point, and choose the method or methods that you'd like to try.

These are all methods that I teach at my various night photography workshops. If you'd like to take out the guesswork and hop on the fast track to taking amazing night images, consider joining me for one of my upcoming workshops!

Thanks for checking out this week's post!