This Guide is a 5-Part Series which will focus on how to capture and photograph stars and the Milky Way. I’ll do a deep-dive into camera gear, how to prepare and plan your shoot, setting up your camera and getting that shot, and lastly, how to post-process your results.
Part II: Prepare and Plan your Shoot
In Part II we’ll dive into how to research and prepare for your shoot before you get out in the field. We have online tools at our disposal as well as apps on our smartphones, and if you’re not using these tools, you are missing a key element in the process.
It’s one of the things I do when I teach photo workshop, I research the location thoroughly to make sure I’ve picked the best possible spot(s) to shoot.
Where to start?
I’m constantly looking at other peoples work on Instagram, Facebook as well as personal blogs and websites. There is endless inspiration to draw from today, so no excuses.
If I see an image on Instagram and the location is local to me —meaning within a few hours drive —I’ll make note of it, knowing there’s a good chance I’ll get there at some point. Other far-off international locations I’ll still jot down, but my chances are slimmer of actually ever getting there.
My favourite app to keep track of this information is called Evernote.
Location Scouting for Stars & Milky Way
My initial research and searching is done in good old Google. I start with a location name and go from there.
Another trick is to begin with the image and reverse engineer it. Pop the image into Google Images, and Google will try to find other similar results. If this spot is popular you’ll have no issue finding a hit.
Once I’ve settled on a location, my next step is to do a deep-dive and really explore. The tools we have today at our disposal are mind-blowing. For example, we take GPS technology for granted, but not that long ago it was military only technology.
Today tools such as Google Earth, and Google Maps – especially in the US – have incredible detail and image definition. With these tools, you get a really good sense of what to expect on location.
Finding Dark Skies
As a star photographer, finding dark skies and dealing with light pollution is a huge challenge. One of the first things you’ll want to determine is where to go. I live in a large metropolitan city and to have any chance of seeing dark skies I know I have to get outside the city limits. Some of us are lucky in that we live in rural areas and dark skies happen outside our front door. For myself, I don’t have that luxury.
Dark Sky Finder is an online tool to start your search for dark skies. Should give you an idea of just how far you’ll have to drive to see dark skies.
Finding the Milky Way
From early March right through October is when the Milky Way is most prominent in the night sky. Photographers call these months the “Milky Way season”. In the winter months (November – February) we can still see the Milky Way, technically, but the galactic center is not visible at all because it’s too close to the sun.
Location, meaning where you are physically in the world, plays an important part in this as well. In the northern hemisphere, the Milky Way is visible in the southern part of the sky.
As a general rule — but not always — star photographers tend to shoot on a night without moonlight illumination. We call this a new moon, and this new moon cycle repeats every 29.5 days. There are many websites out there that list the moon cycles throughout the year, but my favourite by far is the app called PhotoPills or the Photographer’s Ephemeris – more on these later. Best $9.99 you’ll ever spend.
Clouds are great if you’re taking dramatic sunset photos but for star photography, we want perfectly cloud-free skies.
For most of us, a weather forecast of partly cloudy just means you don’t need to bring an umbrella to work that day, but for the star photographer that description is much too vague. My favourite weather forecast app tool to use is called Clear Dark Sky. Don’t let the vintage 1990’s looking website fool you, the actual tool is very useful.
Originally developed for astronomers it serves the star photographer perfectly. What this app has done is plugged into the database from Weather Canada and the National Weather Service in the US. It’s perhaps the most accurate and the most usable forecasters of astronomical observing conditions for over 5300 observatories and observing sites in North America.
Included in the forecast are factors such as humidity which makes a huge difference when it comes to getting crisp and sharp images. If you’ve ever shot stars in humid conditions you know what I’m talking about — a hazy and fuzzy image. That’s humidity.
An example of an actual scout
Let’s take an example of a place I’ve been wanting to get to for years, Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, Utah. We’ve all seen images of this place.
My starting point is a Google Image search. This tells me a number of things:
- There’s variety in the shot possibilities: daytime, night-time, light-painting, Milky Way and star trails. Great spot in terms of variety.
- Next, I’ll jump into Google Maps. This gives me the lay of the land – the exact location of the park, accommodation options, restaurants etc. I’m now building out my itinerary.
I’ll continue on my quest and read, research other blogs and peoples experiences. I get a lot of detailed tips and information this way. Things you don’t necessarily read in the brochure.
Google Earth offers us an incredible viewpoint as well. This, in essence, becomes my initial scout and all that’s left for me to do is get there, set-up my tripod and trigger the shutter. A lot of the scouting and work can be done online and it takes a lot of the guesswork out of the equation. Best of all, Google Earth is embedded right in your browser now.
The Negative Effects
All this technology and access to technology is wonderful but not without its pitfalls. If I have access so does everyone else and the results can be catastrophic. We’ve all read stories of Instagram posts going viral resulting in thousands of people trampling over delicate terrain. I’ve seen this happen too often and to many of my favourite spots.
Some of the most popular National Parks, both in Canada and the US, are overrun with tourists. Not all of them, but many of these individuals have little to no disregard for rules, regulations and general courtesy. Many Parks are adopting policies to tackle this issue but many are struggling with exactly what to do with this influx.
Using Mobile Apps for Star Photography
We have in our pocket a highly sophisticated computer, one far more powerful than what was used to get to the moon in 1969. In fact, the iPhone has 100,000 times the processing power of the computer that landed man on the moon. Mind-boggling!
So if you’re not using your phone and mobile apps, you are truly missing out on an incredibly useful tool. There are too many to choose from in the app store so I’ve listed some of my favourites. If you have any favourites, please share in the comments!
If you are going to pick up a single app, get PhotoPills. It’s the Swiss-Army app for photographers. For the price, there is a tonne of functionality and many tools for both night photography and photography in general. There’s a bit of a learning curve but the online tutorials are — definitely one of my favourites. Some of its functionality is:
- Moon phases
- Sunset times
- Milky Way planning
- Depth of Field calculator
- Augmented Reality view
Very similar to PhotoPills in terms of functionality, so really either app works amazingly well. Photographer’s Ephemeris has a separate 3D app, similar to Google Maps. Another neat function is something they call Skyfire, a professional forecasting service that helps to predict where to find the most colourful sunrises and sunsets in the lower 48 states and southern Canada. This is an additional paid service, but if you’re frequently chasing the light during golden hour then it may be worthwhile to explore this function.
- Moon phases
- Sunset times
- Milky Way planning
- Planning for sunset and sunrise
Another fun app to play with. It helps identify stars, constellations and celestial objects. The interface needs a bit of a refresh, looks dated, but the functionally it good. I would use it mainly for Milky Way tracking and figuring out where it’s going to be in the future.
- Planning app
- Augmented reality view
- Locates celestial objects
- Fast forward to view the path of stars
There are a number of these Aurora forecast apps available for both iOS and Android. I have a feeling they are all pulling data from the same source at the NOAA.
Nevertheless, it’s an extremely useful app if you happen to live in the northern or southern latitudes and are lucky enough to see and experience northern lights. Most are free, some have a paid subscription if you want notifications of future aurora events. These are defined by a Kp-index, where anything greater than a 5 is considered a major solar event.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
The take away here is to use and take advantage of the tools we have at our disposal today. They make the process of finding new locations and exploring far off lands a much easier task.
But always be aware of your impact on the environment. “Take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints”
I teach photography workshops in Ontario as well as abroad. Please have a look at what I offer at Outdoor Photo Journey which of course includes star and night photography.