Photographing The Milky Way At 50mm

Outdoor Photography

Milky Way Over Maine Mountains
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.

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 & Happy Shooting!

Adam Woodworth is the author of the new book Night Sky Photography: From First Principles to Professional Results, which teaches the techniques he uses for capturing night landscapes. You can learn about his editing techniques in his updated Milky Way Master Class video tutorials. See more of his work at adamwoodworth.com and follow him on Instagram as @awoodworthphoto.

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