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.