Nearly every time I post a nightscape to social media, I’m asked “Where was that taken?” It is an understandable reaction to the beauty of the night sky, an experience city dwellers rarely have. But although a nightscape might appear as the result of a night spent outside the city, what most people don’t see is the hours spent planning and preparing for a chance to capture the Milky Way. In this article, I’m going to cover how to plan a successful astrophotography excursion, including what you need to watch for and how to find the darkest skies in your area.
Location, Location, Location
As any photographer who lives in an urban area knows, the first step is to get far away from the bright lights of the city. Sure, you can jump in your car and drive away from the city lights as fast as possible, but if you are anything like me, you don’t have any time to waste and want to make the most of your weekend.
This is exactly why the Bortle Dark Sky Scale was developed, to allow a way to quantify the light pollution in an area. The scale is numbered 1 through 9, with 9 representing a region with heavy light pollution and 1 representing pristine darkness. A quick google search of Bortle Scale will direct you to a number of sites with a map, however, my favorite is DarkSiteFinder.com.
Even if you have been to a specific location before, it is always good to run it by the Bortle Scale. Joshua Tree National Park is not as dark as most would think. From the images we can see that the light pollution from Palm Springs overwhelms Joshua Tree’s skies. Fortunately, Death Valley, only a couple hours from Joshua Tree, boasts some of the country’s darkest skies.
Dark Side of the Moon
Even the darkest skies can’t escape the bright glow of a full moon, so as you are planning your excursion, make sure you plan around the moon phases. New moon weekend is the best for nightscape photography. However, waning or waxing crescent phases also have little affect on nightscape images.
Is the Milky Way Visible?
The Milky Way is typically visible between March and October. Early in the year it rises in the little hours of the morning, making a brief appearance before sunrise. As the summer progresses, the Milky Way continues to rise earlier in the evening, eventually becoming visible shortly after sunset in mid-August. By November, the Milky Way rises in the Northern Hemisphere during the daytime, making it impossible to see.
What’s the Weather up to?
Now the frustrating question: “Will the weather cooperate?” I have found over the years, the places with the best skies have the most unpredictable weather. It’s difficult enough to find a weekend to shoot once you have considered the time of year, moon phase and location, finding the time that fits with your schedule and weather can be downright impossible. Photographers living in arid and dry climates have a distinct advantage in this area over those living in humid climates.
What to bring
Once you have a date figured out and you are obsessively checking the 10-day weather forecast, it is time to pack your bags. When you are contending with elements such as weather, moonlight and light pollution, it is best to keep your setup light so you can leave on a moments notice. My grab-and-go astrophotography bag includes my DSLR paired with a Zeiss 28mm Distagon f/2, the Canon TC-80N3 Intervalometer timer and a tripod outfitted with Sky-Watcher’s Star Adventurer and an Acratech Nomad ball head.
Astrophotography isn’t just about setting your lens to f/2.8 and firing off a 15 second shot, which is why I pack a Star Adventurer. The Star Adventurer has changed my astrophotography by allowing me to use longer exposures while capturing pin point stars. This tracking platform turns my standard Bogen tripod into a powerful astrophotography mount. As the Milky Way moves through the sky, the Star Adventurer pans along with it, allowing me to capture a longer exposure.
The Star Adventurer is fantastic for this type of shooting, because its easy alignment can have you up and running in minutes. Four AA batteries will give you over 72 hours of power, usually lasting through several camping trips and imaging sessions, before batteries need to be swapped. When combined with Acratech’s Nomad head and my Manfrotto tripod legs, the entire tripod setup weighs around 7 lbs, which is one of the most lightweight options when compared to other telescope equatorial mounts.
Photographing the Milky Way has brought me great joy and is a fantastic souvenir to bring back to the bright city lights. Going from shooting short 15-second exposures to multi-minute exposures has changed the way I photograph in so many ways. The Star Adventurer, in conjunction with my Zeiss 25mm and Acratech ball head, keeps my gear setup lightweight and agile enough for me to travel with it stowed in a carry-on bag, but powerful enough to produce stunning, detailed images.