July 13th, 2020

Instagram is filled to the brim with Astrophotography photographs, and you want to bring something to the party.  However, there are many hidden challenges that are likely to stand between you and a successful night sky photograph.  Read this blog post to get yourself a couple steps closer to capturing the stunning beauty of the Milky Way .

Astrophotography is one of those things that has absolutely blown up in popularity in recent years. This is in large part due to social media, as well as the technological advances in camera sensors. Most DSLR’s and Mirrorless systems being made right now perform exceptionally well, even at really high ISO’s, making capturing the brilliance of the night sky more achievable than ever.

With that said, many people think it is just a matter of staying up late and that killer night sky shot is going to come with minimal effort or planning. In this blog post I will discuss some of the misunderstandings that I frequently see from photographers with lofty astrophotography ambitions, and how you can put yourself in the best position to come home with the goods.

The first and most common misunderstanding is when people think astrophotography is just like landscape photography during the day, just with different settings. It is true that you will need to use different settings, but the entire workflow is completely different than any daytime photography. For example, for all of the technological advances in modern cameras, they are still quite bad at autofocusing in the dark. Having to use manual focus in pitch-black conditions can be really difficult and requires a deep understanding of your lenses sweet spot for focusing on the infinity distance focal plane. It may just seem to be as simple as turning your focus ring all the way in one direction, but most lenses are much more fickle than that.

A good habit is to simply turn your autofocus on while it is still light out, select a far-away subject in your composition and then use single-point autofocus to get your lens dialed in on that subject. This should translate quite well to focusing on the stars, so long as you keep the lens at the same focal length. Since you will likely be shooting with your aperture wide open, having this critical focus locked in while it is still light out will save you lots of time when working in the dark.


Blacklock Point, Floras Lake State Natural Area, Oregon

The second thing that I hear most is “My shot looks great on my camera’s LCD/LED, I am sure I nailed it.” While relying on the playback image in your camera screen is often a good starting point in evaluating your night sky image, it really takes a perfectionist mindset to get a shot that will still look good as a large print or even when viewing on your computer. Even if your lens is set at the optimal focus for pinpoint stars, you need to know what the longest shutter speed you can use to take advantage of this critical focusing without getting any significant movement of the stars in your night sky. The rotation of the earth creates star trails in a long exposure photograph surprisingly quickly (especially with telephoto lenses). Most people use the 500 rule to calculate what shutter speed to use, but the NPF rule is actually much more accurate and relevant with modern technology. You can check out how to use these two rules and what the difference between them is here. When you think you have all of your settings sorted out, be sure to zoom quite a bit in to your playback images to make sure that your stars are sharp points in the sky and not lines. This pursuit of technical excellence may seem tedious because it most certainly is! Astrophotography is one of those things that looks really cool when done well, but takes a ridiculous amount of preparation and work in the field to get there.

Another thing that I hear photographers say quite often is “I woke up in the middle of the night to shoot the Milky Way and it wasn’t there.” Not only do you need incredibly dark skies to be able to see the Milky Way with your naked eye, but you also need a good understanding for how the Milky Way works and how different seasons, the earths rotation, and moon phase affect its viewing. The galactic core section of the Milky Way is only visible in the Northern Hemisphere from approximately March-October. As with any type of star, the cluster of stars that make the core of the Milky Way brightest are only really visible when there is no moon in the sky. That means you either need to shoot on or around a new moon, or plan your shoot in a window before or after the moon rises or sets. On top of those two limiting factors, you have the rotation and tilt of the earth which affects if the Milky Way is visible, and if it is, where you can see it. These factors determine whether the Milky Way will be stretched over the Eastern horizon in an arc-shaped fashion in the Spring, or if it will be oriented as more of a vertical line to the South in late-Summer. Lastly, you will need not only a very dark sky to effectively photograph the Milky Way, but you will also need a clear sky. This may sound obvious, but for example here in the Pacific Northwest, August is in the heart of peak Milky Way season, but it is also the start of wildfire season. That haze from wildfire smoke would definitely make it extremely difficult to get a clear night-sky image.

Carved Path

Metolius River, Deschutes National Forest, Oregon

By the Night

Black Crater, Deschutes National Forest, Oregon

Alright so you now have a perfectly clear night that is going exactly according to plan and you are putting together your composition… STOP. If you did not see the problem with that sentence, then you have much to learn about composing an astrophotography shot. Since you need the darkest nights to make these types of shots work, that also means you will not be able to see very well either. Sure, your headlamp can help you see what is directly in front of you, but it does not help you put together a full composition very well.

It is imperative to know your location well and know exactly what composition you want to shoot before it gets super dark. This will help you out in multiple ways. Primarily, you will be able to make sure your composition is free from any distracting tree branches, roads, city lights, etc. You can also use apps like Stellarium and Photo Pills to make sure that the Milky Way will be an effective part of your composition, with some sort of relationship to your foreground elements. With the plethora of cool astrophotography shots out there on the internet now, it is really your composition and a unique foreground that will set your mind-blowing shot apart from the thousands of other images that are simply “cool” to look at for a couple of seconds.

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In summary, Astrophotography requires heaps of detailed planning and preparation, so be sure to give it the attention and time it deserves to give yourself the best chance of success. Know your gear, know your location, and know what type of shot you want to get before you even step into the field. Dream of your shot, and then speak it into existence!

As always, I would love to hear what you think about this blog post and what your experiences with Astrophotography have been in the comments below!

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