Yes, you can photograph the milky way with a Nikon D3400 or any entry-level DSLR camera. Excellent astrophotography is entirely possible without spending thousands of dollars. The Nikon D3400 is an inexpensive camera capable of taking high-quality photographs of the milky way. I’ll be explaining in detail how each step you need to take to photograph the milky way on your Nikon D3400.
What will you need?
1. Your camera
Obviously, you’ll need a camera. We’ve chosen the Nikon D3400 for this post because it’s one of the best entry-level cameras you can get. It has high image quality and a great ISO range. They usually range from around 400-500 dollars and you can get them cheaper used.
2. Your lens
When choosing a lens for astrophotography you’re going to it to be wide-angle, fast aperture. Preferably f/3.5 and wider to absorb the most light possible from the milky way and distant stars. Manual focus on the lens is preferred but is not required. Most listings for the Nikon D3400 on Amazon come with the DX NIKKOR 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR lens. This lens is capable of astrophotography but a lens with an aperture of f/2.8 or wider would be even better.
3. A tripod
A tripod is required when it comes to astrophotography. When photographing the milky way you open the shutter for at least 25 seconds. Holding the camera without a tripod during such a long exposure can easily blur your photo. Nobody can hold there camera perfectly still for 25 seconds straight.
When photographing the milky way, you can’t just set the camera to auto and expect a great picture. The photo could come out pitch black or overexposed if you don’t choose the correct settings for your situation.
Aperture is how the lens controls how much light enters the camera. As I explained before f/3.5 and wider aperture (lower f/number is wider) will work for the milky way. Set your aperture the widest possible setting to capture the most light from the night sky.
Shutter speed is how long the lens opens, the longer the more light your camera takes in. The issue with this is the rotation of the earth makes the stars appear to move. The stars move in your photo and end up looking like short lines instead of dots. You can determine how much shutter speed you should use with the 500 rule. But I usually use 20-25 seconds for a Nikon D3400.
ISO is how sensitive your camera sensor is to light. You generally want a high ISO but the higher it is the more noise the image has. If you’re in a highly light-polluted area I use low ISO. If you’re in a dark not light-polluted area use a high ISO. The ISO in my photos range from 200-6400. But because we’re photographing the milky way were staying on the high range of iso 1600-6400.
How do I change Nikon D3400 camera settings?
On the Nikon D3400, the simplest way to change your settings is to switch to a priority mode. Switch the aperture priority mode and use the rear command dial to change the aperture, then change to shutter priority mode and to change the shutter speed, then change the ISO by switching off automatic ISO in the shooting menu in settings. Here’s a great video I found that explains another way to change your Nikon D3400 settings.
Where should I take the Photograph?
When attempting to focus your camera on the Milky way, you need to focus to infinity. If your lens has a manual focus it probably has an infinity indicator. Line up your focus with the infinity indicator and you’ve focused to infinity. You might not have an infinity indicator though, and if that’s the case, turn on autofocus and focus on the horizon before taking the photo and you should be focused on infinity or somewhere close.
Focusing to Infinity
Where you take the picture is extremely important. You can’t photograph the milky way in almost all urban and suburban. In general, you should take a photo of the milky way in a rural area with low light pollution. See this post for more detail.
Taking a test photo
When using the Nikon D3400 it takes a bit longer for the camera to process the photo and write it to its SD card even after the shutter closes. Combined with the long shutter speed required for milky way photography it can take almost a minute for each photo. This is why I like to take test photos before taking the real photo with the long shutter speed. To do this set your camera to aperture priority mode. Then set your camera to the widest aperture possible. The other camera settings will automatically set themselves. Using this method I can take photographs with some of the night sky visible and they only take about 2 seconds each rather than taking up to a minute for each photo.
Taking the photo
After you’ve got a good looking test photo, take the real photo with the camera settings mentioned earlier. Widest aperture, 20-30 second shutter speed, 1600-6400 ISO. Be sure to have focused to infinity. This may take around a minute. If you’re happy with the photo you got you can now start post-processing.
Post processing is editing a photo in programs like Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Lightroom. Is this cheating? No! It’s not cheating because you’re not adding things to the image that weren’t there before, your only enhancing the data already in the image. I generally try not to overdo the post processing. I usually edit the exposure if the photo is too bright or dark, tweak with the contrast and clarity, change the white balance a bit, and sometimes add some saturation. You can also change the light curves or stack multiple images. Here’s a detailed video I found on youtube that can help you out if you’re more advanced.
Congratulations, you’ve made it to the end. Now go out into the night and take some amazing photos!