The first question I am often asked is “How did you take that photo?”. The real question is “Why do I take those photos?”. It’s more of feeling and emotion rather than a list of reasons. On my first night after moving to Flagstaff Arizona I looked up and froze in amazement. Awestruck is an understatement on how I felt at the sight of the stars. I had never seen such a clear sky. This inspired me to buy my first DSLR and start shooting the night skies. In fact, my first shot with a DSLR was of the night sky, not a path that I recommend!
It really is a different world out there at night, even areas and places that you know well take on a whole new dimension at night. It’s hard to explain to some who have never seen a dark sky, and not believing its real is a common statement. As you might have guessed I enjoy the experience as much or more than the photography aspects. Since those first sights of the stars I have been inspired to explore Northern Arizona photographing landscapes and night skies.
Back to how do you take those photos, the darker the sky the better the shots of the Milky Way/Stars will turn out. Even a small towns lights will mask the stars or cause light domes in the photo. A great resource is Dark Sky Finder. Some of the information is dated but it will give you a general idea of the skies. But don’t be too hung up on finding the darkest sky, some great night photos can be made relatively close to town. A lesson I have learned is to embrace the bright lights when they happen.
To get a general idea of where the Milky Way and Stars will be in the night sky use Stellarium. It is a great tool to check out the position of the Milky Way and stars in the night sky. It can be ran on computer or even tablet without an internet connection.
Next is scouting out the locations you have in mind during daylight for interesting foregrounds, foregrounds make or break the shot. I would recommend using a compass to verify your physical position and field of vision. I have missed more than one shot because my dead reckoning of directions was off. The foreground does not have to be the most interesting object in the world, even simple items take on another dimension at night. One of my favorite photographs has a simple corral gate as a foreground.
At this point I would like to say a word about safety. As much as I like being out in the night under the stars, it does present additional problems. The terrain becomes much more treacherous even with flashlights. If you cannot stay in the location for the whole night, part of your daytime scouting should be on how to enter and exit safely. Stay safe, we want to see your photos!
Gear and Settings
There are so many variations in equipment, technique, and conditions that I would need to write a book (someone has, will mention it later). For the sake of a short article here are the basic Gear and settings that I use.
- Cullman tripod
- Level base
- Canon 6D
- Rokinon 14mm
- Sigma 35mm
- CamRanger (intervalometer works very well and can preview shots in the field)
- Android Tablet
- ISO 6400
- F 2.0 on the Sigma lens and F 2.8 on the Rokinon
- Sigma 35 mm for 15 seconds
- Rokinon 14mm for 30 seconds
- Various flashlights (old ones without LED have a better light, garage sales are a good source!)
- Studio l
I have heard this advice before but it is also true at night, turn around and see what the night has for you. I spend a lot of time focusing on the Milky Way but there is so much more. The photo below is an iconic view at White Pocket during the day but I had never thought about it at night. Was chasing Milky Way shots when I looked back and was treated to this view.
Best advice, to keep it simple. (Also see David Kingham section below) Night sky photos need processing, so of course I use Lightroom and Photoshop. But don’t chase the ever escalating WOW factor on some of the photo sites. I enjoy the Milky Way rising over a Neon-lit Ferris wheel with a fire-breathing unicorn descending from a blood red moon as much as anyone but isn’t the night sky enough? Some general ideas are listed in the captions of the photos.
Most of all enjoy the night and the experience. It is easy to get involved in all the details and the pursuit of the perfect shot and miss out on the fun. There is nothing like the solitude and beauty of the night sky, so take the time to enjoy!
I hope to have shared a little useful information and I am always willing to answer any questions that I can, but if you want to really dive deep into night sky you should look at the information David Kingham has on his website. It is full of information and his ebook Nightscape should be on your required reading list. I highly recommend his website, ebook and workshops.
Inspired by the night skies of Northern Arizona I have dived into the digital photography world. Photography allows me to somewhat share the night sky that I enjoy so much with others. Along with all the night work, who could not be inspired by the beauty of the landscapes of the Western US. With so many choices night and day it makes for some sleepless adventures. I spend my time in a Jeep, hiking in, scouting and photographing landscapes/nightscapes in Northern Arizona and Southern Utah.