How to Shoot the Milky Way…On Easter Island

A little over a week ago, I left National Geographic’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. on the Society’s Around the World by Private Jet expedition. Before I took off, my good friends at Intelligent Travel asked a favor: As an amateur photographer (at best), would I test Nat Geo photographer Jim Richardson’s purportedly can’t-miss formula for shooting the Milky Way?

After all, I would be visiting the world’s most remote inhabited island — Rapa Nui, a.k.a. Easter Island — so light pollution wouldn’t be an issue. Plus, it seemed like a fitting tribute to the Polynesian wayfarers who used the stars to get there in the first place.

The back of Massimo's camera is the only light in the darkness. (Photograph by Ford Cochran)

And so on a piercingly clear Pacific night (after a cocktail reception, a traditional dance performance, a briefing from archaeological experts, and a fabulous dinner) I found myself lumbering down the road from the island’s main town of Hanga Roa to Ahu Tangariki, the raised platform where 15 of the island’s iconic moai can be found. The site’s a magnet for photographers and filmmakers and, whether you know it or not, you’ve almost certainly seen it before.

About ten of my fellow travelers came along, as did National Geographic photographer Massimo Bassano who planned to coach us and get in a few shots of his own.

With Jim Richardson’s recipe for capturing the Milky Way — ISO 6400 at F2.8 for 60 seconds — in hand, I got out my small-but-mighty point and shoot and pocket-sized bendable tripod, earning a few raised eyebrows from my DSLR-toting colleagues.

Now that's dark! (Photograph by Ford Cochran)

My camera’s aperture bottoms out at F3.3, the exposure timer at 30 seconds, and the ISO at 3200, but I figured that if this was the closest I could get to Jim’s magic formula, I should at least give it a try.

The result blew me away. Did I really take this photo with my tiny camera?

Others had similar success. We gawked at each other’s photos, shared high-fives, then took a few more to home in on a more perfect outcome.

Once we got the hang of that, we hiked to a spot that put the row of moai between us and the Milky Way and planted our tripods. This yielded a view of the heavens that must have been familiar to the people who carved these statues: stoic monoliths silhouetted against a celestial quilt.

Fellow traveler Roberta Duke-Jennings shares her spectacular results. (Photograph by Ford Cochran)

Our goal now was to capture the lit-up moai without losing the stars. This requires a long, long exposure, time enough for stars to trace spinning courses across the sky. Folks prepped their shots, then Massimo counted down: 3, 2, 1. Shutters opened. Someone ran from statue to statue, illuminating each from head to belly before extinguishing the light.

For 40 minutes we waited. Anthropologist and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis stretched out on the ground and propped up his camera on a rock, settling in to tell stories about the Rapa Nui and his endless adventures in the field as the stars danced overhead. When Massimo announced that enough time had passed, shutters snapped shut.

Had it worked?

A sea of camera backs lit up the darkness as we inspected our results. And there stood the mighty moai, ancestors of those who built them, against a backdrop of whirling stars. It was a night to remember to be sure.

Something tells me I won’t be getting a call from National Geographic magazine’s photo editor with an assignment anytime soon, but still — not bad for an amateur with a basic point-and-shoot camera, right?

Ta da! (Photograph by Ford Cochran)


  1. Michael Huckaby
    Tucson AZ
    March 13, 2014, 3:47 pm

    Thanks for posting Ford, I going to try this with hoodoos in Bryce, (instead of moai unfortunately).

  2. Angela
    March 13, 2014, 12:01 pm

    What an adventure! Wish I was there. Someday.

  3. Ziad
    December 30, 2013, 9:18 pm

    Nice post… A lot of tells and try to persuade me that we can’t get good photographies at ISO 6400 F3.5 to 5.0…
    I get a result (a nice one) with a beginning of rendering of the Milky way and in front me was the public lighting at 30m front-right…

  4. roy gumpel
    United States
    December 21, 2013, 9:55 pm

    Am I missing something here? Who needs to get some magical formula to shoot Anything today. If you can afford a digital camera, all you have to do is shoot a bunch of pictures til you see the one that looks good enough! Anyone can do this stuff today…obviously. Mainly, you have to be wealthy enough to get yourself to these types of places that have already been shot to death pretty much! I realize though, that no one wants to hear this. Now, going to a place…anyplace, and shooting photos that are uniquely Yours, that’s a different story. Not too many camera clubsters can do that.

  5. arifmalik awan
    August 31, 2013, 1:20 pm

    Wonderful Very nice Picture….

  6. arifmalik awan
    August 31, 2013, 1:18 pm

    Wonderful, thanks for sharing will try it tonight if sky is clean and hopefully in Malta later this year. Thanks again.

  7. Jacques Willemen
    tilburG, Netherlands
    May 23, 2013, 7:15 am

    @@DA desousa,USA,May 22, 10:46 am
    the trails have gaps because propably there was several seconds, some considerate amount, of time between two and more foto’s and in this not photograhed time the stars move on
    and when one stacks more photo’s in photoshop etc. these gaps appear

  8. Jacques Willemen
    tilburG, Netherlands
    May 23, 2013, 6:25 am

    see here the timelapse of the MilkyWay I made in France last year

  9. Rana Priya
    Negombo, Sri Lanka
    May 22, 2013, 11:27 pm

    Can someone enlighten us on philosophy behind & link between “then inhabitants, moai and the stars”, it may add more value to this great article and effort.

  10. Carl Wilson
    May 22, 2013, 8:58 pm

    Nice results, but I;m disapointed in the details. I use a Nikon camera with various lenses and I have a Kodak digital. The title of the article led me to believe that I was going to be given pointers on How to shoot the Milky Way.

  11. Chris Howard
    May 22, 2013, 8:03 pm

    Great shots. My favourite is actually the last one with the statues silhouetted.

    A tip for all: If you want to put the blue tone that you see with your naked eye back into the night sky, switch your white balance to tungsten.

  12. jacques willemen
    May 22, 2013, 5:41 pm

    Ik ben helemaalverslingerd geraakt aan timelapse-fotografie
    zie hier voor een resultaat:
    I got addicted to timelapse-photography, see above link for the result

  13. Amy Schoeman
    May 22, 2013, 1:39 pm

    Fabulous, thank you

  14. DA desousa
    May 22, 2013, 10:46 am

    Why do the star trails in the first photograph appear to be broken arc segments?

    How in the world did the act of taking or making a photograph become “shooting?” Is it an attempt to seem cool to use this nonsensical jargon when it is really idiotic?

  15. Victor Carmelo Sciberras
    Lyme Regis, U.K.
    May 17, 2013, 11:53 am

    Wonderful, thanks for sharing will try it tonight if sky is clean and hopefully in Malta later this year. Thanks again.

  16. Eips Carandang
    April 15, 2013, 1:25 pm

    Thanks to this article I got my first Milky Way shot! Try this. It really works!

  17. Tiny
    April 13, 2013, 1:54 pm

    Nice photo, feeling the ancient power. Wayting time 40 minutes and still the stars are dots. How did you do this?

  18. elijah felipe
    March 16, 2013, 2:43 am

    this is awesome

  19. Florence Robinson
    March 1, 2013, 3:21 am

    Great Milky Way shot! In 1950 the famous Scottish photographer PAUL SHILLABEER used this technique in an ancient cathedral. He opened the shutter of his Hasselblad, then crawled around in the pitch dark, doing a timed flash behind each huge stone column.His work appeared often in THE SCOTSMAN.

  20. Brian
    January 3, 2013, 5:26 pm

    After reading this post I put it into practice an a trip to Zimbabwe in the Chimanimani National park, I however remembered it as iso 6400, F4 30 secs, I should have paid more attention. Still I liked the result

    • Leslie Trew Magraw
      January 3, 2013, 6:27 pm

      Very cool! I like it, too. Thanks for sharing, Brian.

  21. Christian Rene Friborg
    November 25, 2012, 11:08 pm

    Wow. Those photos are beyond! Really amazing shots you got there. :) Will definitely keep in mind those techniques and hopefully use it when we finally visit Easter Island.

  22. Hans Rudolf Wellinger
    Perth, Western australia
    November 20, 2012, 10:32 pm

    Reply to Amir from Shiraz:
    My guess is that you have your camera set on some sort of Auto noise reduction mode. This means that for any long exposure, say from around 15 seconds onwards, the camera automatically produces a black exposure of equal length right after the initial exposure is completed. So if your exposure is 11/2 hours, the camera will commence a black exposure of 1 1/2 hours immediately after the original exposure is completed. There is no way you can stop the camera from doing this once it has started. The only way to avoid this is to disable the noise reduction option before you start shooting.
    Ta Hans

  23. Rob Gipman
    November 16, 2012, 6:31 pm

    Nice one, i did the same in France between tree tops on a full camping while all were asleep was the result :)

  24. excellent resultant
    November 15, 2012, 3:18 am

    nice shot nice theory

  25. Katherine
    Quebec, Canada
    November 14, 2012, 10:53 pm

    There’s a photo circulating of Pinterest with the caption “There is a place in Ireland where every two years on June 10-18 the stars line up with this bridge. It’s called heavens trail.” Some redirect to a tumblr with a caption naming the German Sylt Island in the North Sea, dated November. This blog,, research showed that this couldn’t be “Brú na Bóinne” because “the place in the picture would have to be close to the Equator for the galaxy to appear vertical on the dates given”. I’d like to know what Milky Way photographers think!

  26. gabriel
    buenos aires ,argentina
    November 14, 2012, 7:58 am

    Gracias por compartir la tecnica, intentare hacerla y espero la puedan ver por aqui!!!!.

  27. amir
    November 14, 2012, 4:45 am

    when i open shutter about 1:30 hour my camera prepossessing the pic 1:30 and camera is busy,what should i do ??is it normal???

  28. Behnoud
    November 13, 2012, 1:01 pm

    I love photographing the stars and I enjoyed reading this text..I felt like I was there !
    Thanks :)

  29. Ripley
    November 13, 2012, 12:58 pm

    Hey, thanks for the Easter Island eclipse photo. It is now my current wallpaper on my computer.I have always been fascinated with Easter Island and this is a great photo.

  30. Ignacio Galvez
    November 13, 2012, 10:08 am

    if you guys like easter island, you’ve got to see this one from the eclipse a couple years ago

  31. Kamil Tamiola
    November 7, 2012, 6:55 pm

    If these are good tips, we have probably created an encyclopedia on long exposure photography :)

  32. EILEEN
    Rocky Mount, NC
    November 5, 2012, 10:31 pm

    Great job!!!! Thanks for sharing!!!

  33. Gamma Hans
    November 2, 2012, 1:25 am

    Ich bin überwältigt vom Kosmos. Diese Bilder sind mir zu unscheinbar. Ich wünsche allen einen wunderbaren Tag.

  34. Wayne Parris
    Sylva, NC
    November 1, 2012, 9:29 pm

    What an incredible experience! Question for you: How did you get to do this NatGeo trip? What was the cost, duration, etc. You can send me a private message through Wayne Parris Photography on Facebook.


  35. Kamil Tamiola
    Groningen, The Netherlands
    November 1, 2012, 8:39 pm

    Dear National Geographic,

    You have shared and used numerous photographs from my portfolio. Please let me share my tips with readers! I dare say I have slightly more to say in that respect! We have even made a documentary about that! EDITOR: check my facebook page… Do you recognize few cover photos? :)

  36. Richard Iverson
    October 29, 2012, 2:10 pm

    I’m new to photography and i’m looking for new ideas to become inspried with my camra. I had a D200 given to me and I love it. Thanks

  37. Richard Iverson
    October 29, 2012, 1:36 pm

    Thank-you for you story. I think it will help inspire me with my to try anything new.

  38. Easter Island Travel
    October 27, 2012, 1:45 pm

    Wonderful work! I’m also in love with shooting photos at Easter Island! Check out some Easter Island photos over at

  39. Linda
    October 23, 2012, 4:13 pm

    Pictures are beautiful, but I want to hear the stories!

  40. Alejandro
    30,000 feet
    October 22, 2012, 7:04 am

    Thank you soooo much for this…I will let you know how it works out for me!

  41. Apratim Saha
    October 22, 2012, 4:04 am

    Nice work. Like the image and the detailed descriptions !

  42. Coco Marie at
    Paris, France
    October 20, 2012, 7:36 am

    Loved the post! Hope I can travel there some day and shoot some pictures!

  43. Amy
    October 19, 2012, 4:08 pm

    Amazing results!! Thanks for sharing the technique. Will try it here at home until I’ve saved enough for that incredible trip!