Photographing The Milky Way: What I Learned After a Week in The Sierras

Photographing the Milky Way - Learn How with Night Photography Week

It has taken me years of practice, traveling, and mistakes to be able to photograph the Milky Way. For me, being able to capture our galactic center in an interesting way has forever felt like a crowning achievement of night photography. To many photographers though, it is a skill that feels somewhat out of reach (out of this world, one might say). It seems complicated, overly-technical, and requires crazy expensive gear. But that’s really not the case.

This is why I am so genuinely excited that CreativeLive is having Night Photography Week, because nowhere on the internet has all of this information been so readily available, all in one place. Nowhere have all of the techniques of photographing the Milky Way been presented in such a clear, relatable, and detailed manner in video form. Until now.

At the end of July, I spent a week traveling through the state of California, finding spectacular places to take pictures of the Milky Way. I drove many hundreds of miles, accompanied the CreativeLive film crew while we filmed one of the courses for Night Photography Week, and I backpacked through Yosemite National park. This is that photo story.

Learn How To Photograph The Milky Way

Let’s pause for a minute. This article is not going to be a step-by-step instructional guide for how to photograph the Milky Way. Instead, it documents the week that I spent chasing the Milky Way through the Eastern Sierra mountain range, capturing as many images and time-lapses that I possibly could. Sure, I’ll throw some tips in here, but really, the point is to get you excited for this week-long event, because it is while watching those classes that you will learn EVERYTHING about how to photograph the Milky Way (as well as everything else at night), from the experts.

All the pro tips, all the gear needed, all the techniques, all the post-processing, all of it. So Sign up now so you can watch it FREE while live. Seriously, no excuses.

With that being said, here are some of the most important factors to consider when planning a Milky Way shoot:

Location, Location, Location

Alabama Hills Sunset during the Night Photography Week Pre-scout
Waiting for the sun to set over the Sierras during night two of filming Night Photography Week, in the Alabama Hills, California.

Being able to photograph the Milky Way is largely dependent on where you are. This is why I traveled far and wide to locations like the Alabama Hills, and Yosemite National Park to capture these shots.

When it comes to finding a place to shoot, there are a few major considerations. First and foremost, will you be able to actually view the Milky Way? You have to determine if our galactic center will be visible in the night sky from where you are in the world, and during what time of year. For us here in California, the “Milky Way season” is in the summer months.

A major factor you need to consider when looking for a location is light pollution –  the enemy of star photography. To be able to see the Milky Way clearly, it is critical that you find a location that has minimal light pollution from nearby cities and population centers. Sites like Dark Site Finder are great resources for this.

Once on location, you also have to be able to know which direction to look, depending on where you will be shooting. You will also have to know at what exact time it will rise and move through the sky. There are a number of really helpful apps that can assist with this. I personally use Sky Safari and The Photographer’s Ephemeris to plan out my shoots weeks or even months in advance.

It’s All About The Foreground

With all that considered, you still have to do what is arguably the most challenging part, making a photograph of the Milky Way stand out. In this day and age, taking a compelling, artistic Milky Way photograph requires more than just getting your settings right, you have to very deliberately find an interesting/compelling place to shoot. In my opinion, the foreground is a huge component of what makes the shot.

What does it take to make this happen? Lots and lots of location scouting!

We spent a lot of time driving through the Alabama Hills pre-sunset, determining the best possible angle and position to set up for the evening. Here is what it looked like before the sun went down to the West over Mount Whitney:

Photographing the Milky Way - Pre-Scout

Therefore, in addition to all the visibility factors that you have to consider, you also have to think through what will yield the most awe-inspiring foregrounds to your images. Because context is everything, and to make your Milky Way photo stand out in the crowd, you have to go the extra mile.

How to Photograph the Milky Way - Part of Night Photography Week

The Journey Begins

I have found that there is a direct correlation between how far you travel, and how great the viewing experience of the Milky Way is. Light pollution, other people, distracting man-made elements – they all go away the further out you travel into the wilderness. Not to mention, the scenery gets more dramatic the further you go off the beaten path. So here’s an account of how my week of chasing the Milky Way unfolded.

First stop: Lake Tahoe, California

I began my Sierra journey in one of my favorite places on earth, Lake Tahoe. What was only really intended to be a pit stop on the way down the the Alabama Hills, ended up being a fantastic opportunity to dial in my gear, and practice taking some great photos at night.

Milky Way Photography in Take Tahoe
I was actually very surprised at how clearly you can clearly see the Milky Way from the North Shore in Lake Tahoe, despite the ambient light pollution from Tahoe City and South Lake Tahoe in the foreground.

Up next: Alabama Hills, California

A stunningly beautiful 4.5 hour drive south down Highway 395, took me to one of the prime locations of this whole week, and the location where we filmed one of the courses for Night Photography Week: The Alabama Hills (yes, it’s where they filmed the movie Tremors, with Kevin Bacon).

Matt McMonagle, one our incredible camera operators, on the phone with Chase Jarvis, CEO of CreativeLive. They’re discussing the fireball that we captured on video the night before in this exact location.
Milky Way Camera Setup
Setting up for a time-lapse of the setting sun over Mount Whitney to the West. It looks precarious, but I’ve learned to trust my gear.
A cool behind-the-scenes moment while we filmed the first course of Night Photography Week. Instructor Lance Keimig is in the middle of teaching his segment on focusing in the dark. We had special guest, Ian Norman come by (in the middle of the desert by the way) to discuss his focusing device that he invented, SharpStar2.
Another cool behind-the-scenes shot. I managed to capture the CreativeLive crew while they were filming the the course, AND still see the Milky Way behind them.

Next up: heading straight to Yosemite National Park, California

Traveling between the Alabama Hills and Yosemite on Highway 295.
Entering Yosemite National Park to Photograph the Milky Way
On the windy road prior to entering Yosemite through the eastern gate, Tioga Pass. Truly spectacular.
My first spot that I camped, was May Lake. I drove and hiked in by myself, and met up with my crew who had been in the backcountry already for the past three days. I made it just in time to watch the alpenglow on the peak across the lake.
May Lake, once the stars came out.
Panorama of the Milky Way
Up the hill behind our campsite, we had an unobstructed view of the entire Yosemite Valley, and the span of the Milky Way end to end. This was my firs time ever attempting a Milky Way panorama. Lance Keimig teaches how to do this during his course in Night Photography Week.
A new day, a new trail, a new set of incredibly scenic remote lakes in the Yosemite Wilderness.
For the last night of the trip, we camped in Sunrise Meadow, another spectacular location to take your boots off and cook an incredible meal while you wait for the stars to come out. This was the view I chose for a Milky Way time-lapse.
Camera set up
This was my camera setup for the Milky Way that would rise over the meadow. Spent many hours patiently waiting for the stars to start populating the sky.
Milky Way Photograph over Sunrise Meadow
The same view, but with a more interesting sky. (3)
Once I captured the stills I wanted, I set my camera to continuous and let it take about 200 photos in order to create this time-lapse of the Milky Way over Sunrise Meadow.
Hiking in to Sunrise Meadow to Photograph the Milky Way
Woke up on the last morning and realized why they call it “Sunrise Meadow.” Only 9 miles up and over various peaks to complete the journey.

One week, a few blisters, and just under ten thousand RAW images to sort through.

Take it from me, learning how to photograph the Milky Way is incredibly rewarding. Sign up now for Night Photography Week, and learn not just Milky Way photography, but every technique about using your camera at night that you could possibly think of.




Justin Katz

Content Marketer at CreativeLive, and outdoor and landscape photographer. I work with great people to create awesome photography content and education.