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Night Sky Photography

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Photographing the night sky can be highly rewarding, especially the Milky Way. There is a little bit of a learning curve, but I have been amazed at how much I have learned within a few months and then even more after the last couple years.

Milky Way near Rush Valley Barn
April 11, 2021
Milky Way over Silver Lake Flat Reservoir
June 14, 2021


Practice Night Photography

I highly recommend experimenting in your backyard or somewhere nearby so you can practice before going somewhere more remote.

Backyard Milky Way
June 2, 2021


Star Trails

Some cameras will allow you set an interval timer in the menu. If your doesn’t, I recommend getting an intervalometer. Make sure your camera has a bulb setting shutter speed (most do). This allows you to set your camera up to take shots, so I’ll do 15-30 second intervals with one second in between. When I do this in the backyard I can start it at 11:00 pm, then go inside and go to bed (after making sure the sprinklers are off). Then I just come back out in the morning and get my camera. The battery usually lasts around four hours, so I can get shots from much later. I can also stack them easily with the free program StarStax to create star trails. These were from my backyard.

There are a lot more stars out of the city. This image below has much fewer images, but you can see hoe many more stars are visible.


Reflected Milky Way

After a little more practice I can get better photos of the Milky Way. I like the stars reflected in the water of Tibble Fork Reservoir, Silver Lake Flat, or Silver Lake.

Tibble Fork Milky Way
Milky Way above Tibble Fork Reservoir
June 13, 2021
Milky Way Silver Lake
Milky Way over Silver Lake
July 5, 2021

I also tried to get the Perseid Meteor Shower.

Planning and Set Up for Star Photos

My original explanations about how to take star photos are still great, so I’ll include them below. I’m keeping the original photos, because it’s helpful to see how much improvement can happen with a little practice.

There is special equipment available for astrophotography, like star trackers, but I just used my DSLR camera with the widest angle lens I have (I started with 18 mm, but recently upgraded to 10 mm) and a sturdy tripod. You will want to capture your photos in RAW format to preserve the most data. You will also have the best luck on a clear night without a moon or very close to the new moon. You can check the moon rise and set times here or with this Moon app.

One of the trickiest parts is focusing the camera in the dark. Some lenses have an infinity symbol

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If your lens has it, you can put it there and then just fine tune it. If your lens doesn’t have it, I recommend picking up some gaffers tape. Painters tape could work too. You just want to focus the lens on something far away during the day, like a mountain. Then tape the lens down so it can’t rotate and flip automatic focus (AF) to manual focus (MF). The above tapes won’t leave residue on your lens when removed later. (If you need to focus on a pinch when it’s dark, you can take your flashlight or headlamp and put it 100 yards away. Then turn AF back on and focus not on the light, but what is illuminated by the light. Then flip AF back to MF and try night photos again. This is a picture I took after my daughter helped me refocus my lens.

Practice Matters

This was my very first attempt. The sky was a bit overcast and I didn’t really know what I was doing. My lens was just a kit lens without infinity. You can still see part of the Milky Way though, so that was exciting. I have definitely improved since then.

Dark Skies

The stars will show up best if you have a dark sky. Utah has nine officially designated IDA (International Dark-Sky Association) locations, which is more than any other state! They are Weber County North Fork Park, Canyonlands National Park, Capitol Reef National Park, Cedar Breaks National Monument, Dead Horse Point State Park, Goblin Valley State Park, Hovenwoop National Monument, Natural Bridges National Monument, and Antelope Island State Park. There are also additional areas where there are light laws to keep the light pollution low specifically for seeing the stars. Kanab is one of those places, so I only had to drive about 10 minutes out of Kanab to find very dark skies. This photo hasn’t been edited, but you can still see the Big Dipper, part of Ursa Major quite well.

My first time attempting star photography
Kanab, Utah March 18, 2021

By later that year I had a bit more practice under my belt so these photos at Bryce Canyon turned out better (Oct 2021). I got even more practice by the time we went to the Grand Canyon (June 2023).

Foreground

Recently I tried some night photos with tents in the foreground (and some glow sticks, ha, ha). They turned out pretty cool.

I also took some more focused on the Milky Way.

Editing Matters

Another point to consider is that editing matters. Even taking the jpeg and pushing “auto” in your cell phone’s editing program with improve most photos. I typically spend a minute or two in Lightroom. These two phots are the same shot, one directly out of the camera and one with just a couple edits.

You can play around with it, but here are some basic guidelines. Almost always you will want to increase your exposure. This is evident in the shot above. For the other settings I will just show you what I did with this shot. Most are similar. The most important are exposure, contrast, blacks, whites, vibrance and dehaze. If you don’t have Lightroom, just use anything to increase the exposure.

Moon Photography

Here are some calendars you can use to plan out when you will go. This first one is the moon calendar that includes the phase, moonrise, and moonset. Be sure to put in your location to get the right rime zone. The second is a calendar specifically for viewing the Milky Way. It also has specific times of year and night that it is visible. It appears in different shapes and is visible in the sky in different directions.

All of that information is in this calendar. You will probably want to download some time of night sky app as well, like Photopills is a great one, but has a fee. It is totally worth the $9.99 if you want to take photos of the Milky Way. It has amazing virtual reality and planner sections that allow you to set up your shots in advance and see where the Milky Way will be situated at different times. SkyView Lite is free and can show you the constellations. Deluxe Moon Pro is a great free one for the moon.

I need to spend more time taking photo of the moon. These were all taken previously. The red “blood moon” was during a lunar eclipse photo I took back in 2013.

Here are some since I got a better lens and more practice.

Here are some fun ones with clouds or smoke.

Click here for more about how to take moon photos.

Star Photo Settings

I am still new to this, but I will share the settings I used for my star photos. The first trick is being able to focus your camera. Unless the moon is up, there is usually nothing bright enough for your camera’s automatic sensor to focus on. You will need to either shine a light or otherwise focus the camera and then switch it to manual focus. Many night sky photographers actually focus on a mountain or something in the distance and then tape their lenses with gaffers tape so they won’t lose the focus while shooting. I have used this technique with great results.

Some lenses have infinity focus ∞. It usually has a range, so try a shot, then zoom in on a photo and seeing if the stars are in focus. If not, twist the focus slightly and check if that is better or worse until you get it fine-tuned.

This photo was taken when it wasn’t quite fully dark at Horseshoe Bend. The little sliver moon a few days after the new moon was up in the sky, so I could focus on that. This is an example of not as dark of a sky, but it still looks cool.

Second attempt at star photos
Page, Arizona March 18, 2021

The 500 rule is well-known in the astrophotography world. It is the longest amount of time that you can leave your shutter open without getting blur or star trails. So if my camera were a full-frame camera, then 500/18 equals 27.8 seconds. Since I have a crop-sensor camera, I have to multiply my lens by 1.6 (Canon’s crop). This means my camera automatically zooms in by this amount, so 18 x 1.6 = 28.8. 500/28.8 equals 17.36 seconds. So, I need each photo to be less than 17.36 seconds to get a good shot. With my new 10 mm lens I can do 31 seconds (500/16).

Sequator is a free program that is exceptional at stacking star photos, so if you take several photos in a row, Sequator will stack them and the compiled photo will have the information from all of the photos, thus giving you the detail of a longer shutter, without the blur.

Sequator is also great at removing moving objects. An airplane passed by as I was shooting. The one on top has the airplane trail and the right one is a stacked composite after Sequator.

You will also probably want to do some post editing in Lightroom or Photoshop if you can. Here is a photo I played around with in Lightroom and even added fun colors.

Edited from first night of star photos
March 18, 2021

For most night photos, you’ll want your F-stop as low as it goes. For my lens, it’s F3.5, but if you have F2.8 use it. ISO will usually be 800-3200, but sometimes photographers go up to 6400 (most of mine were 1600). Shutter speed was 10-15 seconds, but remember to stay below the 500 rule.

Summary:
Dark Sky (no moon and away from city lights) Wide angle lens with low mm (I used 18mm)
RAW image format
F-stop low (2.8-4)
Shutter Speed under 500 rule (10-25 seconds)

Tripod
Sequator (free) and Lightroom or Photoshop can all help with post-processing

utahhikingbeauty

We have so much beauty in Utah to explore! I love hiking and photography and can help you find your next favorite hike! All photos were taken by me!

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