Updated: Jan 3, 2021
I've been chasing the Milky Way for the last five years around the state of Florida. I've been fortunate to discover some incredible landscapes under very dark skies. It's also been one of the most challenging subjects to photograph. Camera equipment and settings do play a part, but only a tiny amount. You can capture most night skies these days with three things a camera, a decent lens, and a tripod. You don't need to spend a fortune to take great photos. In most of this type of photography, the details are revealed in post-production.
Over the past five years, I've learned a lot about photographing the Milky Way. I've also made many mistakes. Sharing this experience of chasing the Milky Way with my son has been an unexpected bonus. He has been on many trips with me over these past five years, and I hope to share many more with him.
I decided to create a series about my planning for the upcoming 2021 Milky Way Season. It's what I do as I look ahead to the possibilities to capture the Milky Way. Keep in mind these are excursions designed around my workflow and my son's school schedule. Some of the adventures plotted on paper may have to be modified as the year unfolds. Hopefully, it will inspire or provide assistance to other Milky Way chasers and remind each other how fragile life is on this pale blue dot.
As I mentioned before, equipment is essential, but only is a small part of creating great Milky Way captures. I'd recommend the following - a fast wide-angle lens, at least with f/2.8. The wider the field of view (FOV), the more you of the Milky Way you can fit. Also, shorter focal lengths can use longer shutter speeds without creating star trails. Remember, different sensors have different measurements for the FOV. As a guideline, the photo industry uses Full-Frame sensors as the standard when measuring the FOV.
If you are looking for lens options, check my list below that fits the qualifications for capturing amazing Milky Way images. I've used some of these lenses, but not all. These are also known as "fast" lenses, which let in more light, speeding up the shutter. When it comes to creating a budget for equipment, always place the most on the lens.
Sony Full-Frame Mirrorless
Sony FE 12–24 mm F2.8 GM
Sony FE 24mm F1.4 GM
Sony FE 24-70 mm F2.8 GM
Canon DSLR Full-Frame*
Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM
Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM
Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM
Canon R Mirrorless Full-Frame
Canon R RF 15-35mm F2.8 L IS USM - Mirrorless
Canon R RF 24-70mm F2.8 L IS USM - Mirrorless
Canon R RF 28-70mm F2 L USM - Mirrorless
Nikon DSLR Full-Frame*
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm F2.8G ED
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 24mm f/1.8G ED
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR
Nikon Z Mirrorless Full-Frame
Nikon Z Nikkor Z 14-24mm f/2.8 S - Mirrorless
Nikon Z Nikkor Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S - Mirrorless
Sigma and Tamron alternatives For DSLR systems and Sony Mirrorless Full-Frame
Tamron SP 15-30mm f2.8 Di VC USD G2 - Canon EF or Nikon FX only*
Sigma 24mm F1.4 DG HSM | A - Canon EF or Nikon FX only*
Sigma 24-70mm F2.8 DG OS HSM | A - Canon EF or Nikon FX only*
Sigma 14mm F1.8 DG HSM | A - Canon EF, Nikon FX or Sony FE*
Tamron 20mm F/2.8 Di III OSD - Sony FE only
Tamron 17-28mm F/2.8 Di III RXD - Sony FE only
Sigma 24-70mm F2.8 DG DN | A - Sony FE only
*You can adapt lenses with Canon EF and Nikon FX mounts to their respective Mirrorless systems.
Lenses for Crop sensor
Sony E 16 mm F2.8
Canon EF-S 17-55 f/2.8 IS USM
Canon EF-S 24mm f/2.8 STM
Nikon AF DX Fisheye-Nikkor 10.5mm f/2.8G ED
Tamron 17-70mm F/2.8 Di III-A2 VC RXD - Sony E Only
Micro 4/3 sensor
Olympus M.Zuiko ED 7-14mm f2.8 PRO
Olympus M.Zuiko ED 12-40mm f2.8
Olympus M.Zuiko ED 17mm f1.2 PRO
Olympus M.Zuiko 12mm f2.0
This is not a complete list of every lens out there that meets the criteria. However, these are ones I would use with the appropriate camera system. In reality, you can use almost any lens to capture the Milky Way. Just remember the lens quality will affect the "light data" during the capture. If you don't have a "fast" lens, be sure to use the one with the widest FOV.
The basic equipment formula is the widest-angle lens that lets in a lot of light, plus a camera with manual settings plus a steady tripod. The lens is the most critical tool for capturing the Milky Way. If I were creating a budget to purchase camera gear to photograph the Milky Way, I'd put 50% to 60% towards the lens, about 20% to a tripos, and the rest to a camera.
About Star Trackers - Star Trackers are useful tools you can use to track the night sky. I don't use them. The reason I don't use them is they just don't fit within my current workflow. It has nothing to do with their ability or function. I move around quite a bit at night trying various locations and setups. Also, I become impatient and want to start right away. Nothing is quicker than flipping open a tripod and plopping a camera on it. One day I'll figure out a workflow to include one. However, for now, I'm not planning on using one.
The benefits of using one can help reduce the noise generated in the digital capture. Once the focus is locked down, the stars should appear to be sharp and well defined. The landscape is another matter. You'd have to photograph the landscape separately and create a compositional composite in post. It isn't tricky to do; it just requires time and some help with Photoshop.
I recommend star trackers to those who are trying to capture deep-sky objects and intricate time-lapse movies. They are dead useful for those wanting to create those types of captures.