Taking Milky Way Images Cheaply

I’ll admit this topic has been done to death over the years, but it’s still worth visiting because I still see so many people asking if it’s possible to take a good milky way picture without a tripod that also tracks the stars or expensive wide angle telescopes etc. It definitely is possible and I did it not too long ago.

Mounts can sometimes be overrated

Ok so maybe they aren’t overrated, but my point here still stands. They aren’t by any means necessary for a good milky way image. Will you get a much higher contrast image with less effort if you have a mount? Yes of course, they are good for something after all. As you can see above though, the picture I got is pretty good considering what I was using, a Fujifilm XT2 and the 16-50 kit lens. It’s not the widest aperture, it’s not particularly sharp, it’s cheap and it actually takes pretty decent pictures.

If you are looking for a good mount though, the main options are the Ioptron Skyguider and the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer. Both are very good, but people seem to like the star adventurer since it’s newer and has some extra features over the skyguider. Both are great though and will allow for about a max of three minute images unless you really dial them in.

It all starts with the lens

A bad lens will ruin your picture even if you have the nicest tracking mount available, so spend more on that for starters. Most milky way images are very wide angle, meaning your close up star quality isn’t as important as in deep sky astrophotography. A lot of chromatic aberration and coma will ruin your image every time.

In the picture I took, I was using a Fuji 16-50 F/3.5-5.6 so a fairly dark wide angle lens and certainly not an expensive high end one. Even still, I got decent color out of it and sharpness and chromatic aberration were definitely acceptable.

My advice to you would be to take a look at what is available on your camera system at the lower end of the market if you’re just getting into this. For Fuji systems, the floor for quality is pretty high compared to someone like Canon or Nikon in my experience so finding a good option is pretty easy. As a good all-rounder, the Rokinon 14mm F/2.8 or 12mm F/2.0 are fantastic options and well known for their astro capabilities. They are also produced under the Samyang brand so both are identical. I now have the Rokinon 14mm F/2.8 and it is fantastic, definitely living up to the hype around it. Every camera system will be different though, so you’ll have to look into what’s available on yours. For a good full milky way shot, try your best to stay under 20mm in focal length or you’ll start getting too zoomed in on it to capture the whole thing.

You don’t even need an intervalometer

A lot of people say to get an intervalometer so you can stand back and take your images without shaking your camera, but at least in the Fuji system I didn’t even need it. Fuji cameras have an intervalometer built right in so I just selected how long I wanted my frames to be and what the delay between frames I should be and it just went. A quick 10 second timer to start off the session allowed me to get out of the way as well. This may seem minor but if you’re really tight on your budget, the $20 or $30 you save by not getting an intervalometer can go towards a better lens.

My process

The picture above is about 10 minutes of exposure time taken across many 12 second frames. They were stacked in deep sky stacker since I don’t really have a full landscape here and processed entirely in photoshop. The nice thing about milky way shots, unlike deep sky images, is that the processing is so much quicker. It took me a whole 20 minutes to get that image above straight out of camera and finished. I was using a $40 tripod I got on Amazon as well so nothing fancy there. That bright looking star to the left of the milky way is actually Jupiter so a nice little bonus that I got during the capture.

It doesn’t have to be expensive to get great shots of the milky way and it’s something that is very rewarding since in my case, I couldn’t really see it standing there, but I could through my camera so it was cool to see it come out so well after only 12 second images. There’s obviously a lot of room for improvement in brightness and contrast, but it’s a great starting point and I’m sure I’ll do a lot better next time I go out.


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