If you haven’t seen the Milky Way with your own eyes before, I thought it would be interesting and hopefully useful to try and show roughly how the Milky Way looks to the naked eye compared to what can be captured with a digital camera.
Disclaimer: This is just my rough representation of how the Milky Way would look to the naked eye from an average dark sky location. This comparison image may also look brighter or darker than I intended based on the screen brightness of the particular device you’re using. Night sky conditions at your chosen viewing location will also impact how well the Milky Way appears – these are discussed further below.
With our own eyes, the Milky Way looks nowhere near as detailed or colourful as some of the photos I share. The reason for this is our eyes are not as sensitive as a digital camera sensor and they collect less light, meaning we see less detail in the Milky Way.
Also, our eyes don’t do a good job of resolving colour in the dark, so the Milky Way instead appears as pale/milky patches, instead of a colourful object in the night sky.
The “naked eye” image in this article aims to roughly represent how the Milky Way would look with your own eyes in a dark sky location.
With a digital camera, it’s possible to capture long exposure images, where the camera is collecting light for long durations.
In the “digital camera” image in this article I captured a single 10-second photo (camera settings are below, for those interested). No edits were made to this image apart from correcting the white balance.
Night sky conditions
This comparison does assume you are at a dark sky location, and the core of the Milky Way is above the horizon at the current time of year. To check whether the Milky Way core (the brightest part of the Milky Way) is visible at the time of year, this article at Dark Site Finder offers some tips.
There are also mobile apps that can help you to plan when to see the Milky Way, and at what position in the night sky it will be at a given date, time and location. I personally use the PhotoPills app.
The Milky way cannot be viewed from in or near cities and large towns, as the light pollution drowns out the much fainter Milky Way. You can use a light pollution map for checking how dark your night sky is – I tend to use the map at lightpollutionmap.info. Clicking a point on the map shows a window containing a “Bortle class”. This measurement indicates the estimated amount of light pollution in that location, on a scale from 1 to 9, with 1 offering the best night sky conditions, and 9 the worst.
In order to have a good chance of seeing or photographing the Milky Way, you want to be somewhere that is a Bortle class of 1 to 4.
There are other factors that also affect how well you can see the Milky Way – including, but not limited to, elevation, atmospheric conditions, whether it is a new moon or full moon (too much moonlight will hamper your attempts to see the Milky Way), and how much light pollution is on the horizon (if there are lots of city lights towards the direction of the Milky Way, this will also wash out some of the detail).
Hopefully this comparison was useful and helps set expectations for when you see the Milky Way with your own eyes!
Technical details of this comparison
The two comparison images in this article were captured from a Bortle class 3 location (just outside of Bishop, California), with a Sony a7 III camera and Sony 24mm f/1.4 GM lens.
“Naked eye” image: 3.2 seconds, ISO 800, f/1.4.
The image was edited in Lightroom – the sky was desaturated to remove most of the colour, and contrast was added to make the sky darker. This offers a more realistic representation of how the Milky Way looks to the naked eye.
“Digital camera” image: 10 seconds, ISO 3200, f/1.4.
The image was edited in Lightroom by altering the White Balance. No other edits were made to the image.
10 thoughts on “Seeing the Milky Way: naked eye vs. digital camera”
An excellent article. I’ve had several people ask me the same question about “what you see vs. what you post.” I don’t think I explained it as well as you did. Thank you for sharing it.
Thanks for the feedback! Glad it was useful.
I have always wondered about this. I have Joshua Tree Natl Park in my bucket list to checkout the Milky way. I have always thought I would see the way it is in the Google images and Social media post. Now I know that its not the case and what should i expect to see with my naked eye. Thank you for such a great explanation. Appreciate it.
As a child, I could see the Milky Way from my front yard. I wanted to remember how it looked, and very much appreciate you posting that picture.
I didn’t understand that there would come a time where I wouldn’t be able to see it without going somewhere special. Kinda sad.
It’s very sad. I also was lucky enough to see the milky way but then I started having doubts if it was true. I’ve looked for it ever since. I know that our skies are being taken away from us due to pollution. It hurts me to know our future children won’t have the privilege to see and enjoy such a beautiful sight.
Thanks so much for posting the camera settings! I’ve been trying to get an image in a Bortle 4 area. Not much luck…cuz my settings were way off!
In the 3 second or 10 second exposure, did you have the camera mounted on a tracking device for earth rotation, or just locked tripod? Curious as I’d like to try this but have only a standard tripod.
I didn’t use a tracking device for either of those photos. Generally, for wide-angle photos of the night sky (e.g. with a 24mm lens), you shouldn’t have any noticeable trailing of the stars for exposures shorter than ~20 seconds.
I grew up in a place where the milky way is clearly visible whereas where I live in California it is hardly visible but there is one spot I was driving by once where there is very little artificial light and the skies are clear from anything that would block the view of the milky way and I was, for the first time in 30 years able to see it again and show my kids what it looks like.
With a tracking device, would an SLR film camera loaded with 800 ISO film do a good job of capturing the Milky Way (and/or other galaxies)?