fbpx Skip to main content
This is an old tutorial

Follow the link below to get to the newest tutorial on how to photograph the Milky Way

Sensors and gear has improved over the years!

The New TutorialThe New Tutorial

How to shoot the stars and the Milky Way – 500 rule.

After my recent release of my milky way shot at Marken, I got several questions on how I did it and what settings I used to get the photo.
For this photo I had planned a lot. I scouted the location (using google earth and other photo’s on 500px) and checked when the milky way was in the right place for the look that I wanted.
Next thing I needed was a clear night.
Last week we had 1 clear night, so I headed of to the location (which includes a 35 min walk towards the lighthouse) and took the photos.

Here I will give you some tips on how to photograph the night sky.
Getting the right exposure is all dependent on the combination of your lens (max aperture) and the camera sensor (how well does it perform in low light).
Most important, you will have to shoot in manual mode!

Here are the things to consider:

Dark surroundings

The darker, the better.
Where I live we don’t have a lot of dark sky around us. And as you can see you will still be able to take a decent photo of the stars, but if it was pitch black……
Try to go somewhere where the light pollution is minimal or at least low on the horizon.

How to get sharp star photos?

Due to the rotation of the Earth, it appears as though the stars are moving through the sky in long exposures. Star trails can be a desired effect when done for much longer exposures or stacked exposures, but in other cases we want points of light to represent how we see the stars with our eyes. To achieve crisp stars you can use a simple rule that’s often called the “500 Rule”.

500 Divided By the Focal Length of Your Lens = The Longest Exposure (in Seconds) 

And this is for full frame camera’s. For the crop sensor camera’s, take into account the crop factor.
An example:

I used 16mm as my focal length and I’m on a full frame camera.
So the longest exposure time I could use is: 500/16=31 seconds
If you are on a crop sensor camera from NIKON you divide this by 1.5 and for CANON you divide this by 1.6.
So if you are shooting with a Nikon D3300 for example your max exposure time is: 500/16=32 /1.5=21 seconds
If you where shooting with a Canon 7D: 500/16=32 /1.6=20 seconds.

When you go over the maximum exposure time, you will start to get star trails.


Stable shooting platform

Next thing to consider is a really sturdy tripod and a remote release.
You don’t want any vibrations when you take your pictures, because that will blur the frame.
To reduce vibrations, use a really sturdy tripod.
Furthermore use mirror lock up or use live view. When you take the photo your mirror will flick up and the exposure starts.
By flipping up, the mirror causes the body to vibrate. When you select mirror lock up, the mirror flips up first and then you press the shutter again for the start of the exposure.
But when pressing the button, you introduce vibration once again.
The solution to that is to use a remote control (cable release). I personally prefer the combination of the amazing app and the cable release of Triggertrap.
I can  highly recommend Triggertrap. I’ve been using it for 2 years now, and wouldn’t be without one anymore.
You can have a look here: Triggertrap (if you use this link, you will help me and the site as well – would be awesome! )

Perseids meteors


Focusing at night can be a pain.
First thing to do is to turn off auto focus, because it will be unable to focus correctly.
When you have live view on your camera, use that to focus on a bright star. Zoom in on the star and focus.
You could also use the infinity symbol on your lens to focus to infinity.
In my example, I focussed on the light in the lighthouse.



When taking astro photos a fast wide angle lens is the best, so you can get as much of the sky in one shot. An other possibility is to take a panorama and stitch them together in photoshop.
Anything below 24 mm will do.
With a fast lens I mean a lens with an aperture of f/4.0 or below. Normally f/2.8 is recommended because it will let more light hit your sensor than f/4.0.
But I only have an max aperture of f/4.0 and it will definitely do!


Here comes the big question on what is correct. This all depends on your camera.
There are some low light monsters out there that won’t produce a lot of noise on high ISO’s, but for the most a good starting point is ISO 3200. 

Take a test shot with the wides aperture (lowest f number) and set the shutter speed according the 500 rule. Then set the ISO to 3200 and take the shot.
Have a look at your photo. Too dark? You can add 2 seconds to your exposure or select a higher ISO. Also take a look at your histogram. If the photo looks dark but there are no shadows clipping in the histogram, it’s ok. You can get more out of the photo during post processing.
Especially if your camera is producing a lot of digital noise on your photo with an ISO of 3200 or higher.


To sum up:

  • dark surroundings (it can be done elsewhere but you will have to do a lot in post processing)
  • fast wide angle lens (preferably f/2.8 but f/4.0 will do)
  • focus using live view or the infinity mark on your lens
  • maximum exposure according the 500 rule
  • ISO 3200



Happy shooting and please share your photos in the comments!
If you need feedback on your photos or want to know how to improve them, please leave a reply.



Author Martijn.Kort

Fine art photographer focusing on architecture and cityscapes as well as capturing unique moments from the cockpit. Writing about photography techniques and sharing reviews. Ambassador for both ZEISS Netherlands and Nisi Filters. If you like my work, consider following me on Instagram!

More posts by Martijn.Kort

Join the discussion 7 Comments

  • Wow! Super bedankt voor de nuttige info! Ik zal het zeker nog eens proberen en hier posten dan.

  • Chester schreef:

    Hey Marijn,

    Great guide and it’s awesome to see mention of the 500 rule, it’s super important to avoid star trails and something that I still see many people forget.

  • Steph Fenimore schreef:

    Hi there! I have a Nikon D3300. I bought a 70mm-300mm lens recently. I have been wanting to shoot the Milky Way for a while now, but hadn’t tried until tonight. I want to capture a really great photo of Neowise. Tonight I had big problems trying to get my camera to take photos in the dark using Manual settings. I set my camera like another photographer that was working next to me, and his photos were great. I only got a few shots and they were horrible with tons of noise. I feel like I’m at a loss.

    • Martijn.Kort schreef:

      Hi Steph, I have an article about NEOWISE but need to translate in into English. Will do that in an hour or so. But basically you need a camera which can handle the noise levels at iso 3200 and the D3300 had quite some noise at that point!

      You could try iso 1600 and shoot wide open at f/2.8 for 15-20 seconds. But probably your lens has f/4 as maximum?

      Don’t compare settings with other combinations. You have to figure your setting out. Try different iso and shutterspeeds at your maximum aperture.

      I can help you with your base settings. Just use the chat option here on my website and send me the max aperture of your lens and the mm setting which you would like to use in the 70-300. I’ll calculate a starting point.

      Best regards,


Leave a Reply