With the Milky Way season already under way in Eastern Australia, we know there will be hundreds of photographers pointing their cameras at the night sky on those cloudless, moonless nights attempting to capture the magnificence of the Galactic Core.
With years of experience capturing the night sky, we have learned a great deal about setting up to capture some stunning images, but the one aspect to Astrophotography and Nightscaping we have learned is most important, and often most rewarding and enjoyable, is PLANNING.
To help you get ready to capture your own incredible Nightscape imagery, here are our Astrophotography top tips you might find helpful in planning your Astro shoots.
We would love to hear your feedback on our Astrophotography top tips. Leave a comment below and let us know if they helped you capture an epic night sky, or tag @AstroWorkshops in your Facebook or Instagram posts.
#1 Know your gear
Regardless of the gear you have, our biggest nightscaping top tip is to Know Your Gear. Learn how to adjust the camera settings in manual mode, setting ISO, White Balance, Shutter Speed, Aperture. Practice using your Focus aids such as Live View and magnification to manually find infinity and sharp stars. Also know how to use your preview and magnification as this becomes a very important function to check your images for sharpness. Also practice setting up your tripod, and how to make adjustments on uneven ground.
Most importantly, learn and practice how to do all this in the dark without the need to use a torch to find buttons or the focus ring. It might seem to be a herculean task to operate all your gear in the dark while you are focusing on taking a great shot, but don’t be daunted by it. It will become second nature with practice, leaving you in a space where you can concentrate on adjustments, composition and sequencing of your shots.
“….being able to focus in the dark without the aid of a torch will dramatically improve your approach to Nightscaping.”
#2 Learn some astronomy
If you are blessed to live in a location devoid of Light Pollution, for much of the year you can simply look up at the night sky and after a short period of adjustment, your eyes can clearly point to the Milky Way. Then it’s often just a matter of pointing your camera there and opening the shutter. But learning a few things about the night sky will help you find those great shots and compositions easily.
Generally we say there are three things you should consider to understand how to locate the Milky Way when planning your shoots and composing your images. The Science, the Planning and the Setting Up.
The Science is relatively straightforward. Learn about the celestial poles (South and North), how the earth rotates and how this creates the movement of stars and the Milky Way, the period of visibility (or “astro season” as it has become known) each year, how the Milky Way moves across the sky at night, the direction it becomes visible, rises or sets, and very importantly the constellations to look for in the sky, and how your latitude affects what is visible. There are plenty of online resources to help you out here. Even with the most basic knowledge of the Theory puts very helpful context around how to plan your Astro shoots.
The Planning goes more in depth, looking at a specific hemisphere, location, date and time together with a knowledge of where and when the Milky Way will be visible, when it rises, when it sets, how it will continue to move and its angle change as time progresses. Thanks to the science, we already know all of this, and once again, the internet has provided many resources to help us learn and plan so we can select the best locations, dates and times to capture the Galactic Core. You can easily use an app like Photo Pills to help plan the location and movement of the Milky Way.
The Setting Up occurs while you are at your location, and, combined with the science and planning, this is where checking the sky for certain constellations in combination with knowing how the Milky Way will move will be critical to composing that perfect shot. Learn how to find the Southern Cross (Crux), and how to locate the constellation of Scorpius. Once again, this may seem to be daunting to a newcomer, but it only takes being out at night once or twice before you can easily sight these helpful constellations and put them to use in setting up your camera and composing your shot.
Photopills – Available on Android and iOS Devices – Photopills has become the best selling photographers tool, providing lots of different “Pills” to help photographers plan a sunrise, sunset or astro shoot. The Planner gives you a relatively easy to understand interface to set a date and time and see where the sun rises, sets, timing for blue hour or golden hour, and also the Milky Way position from any location overlayed on a Google map. But the planner is only one useful Pill, with the Night Augmented Reality mode (Night AR) a great tool for visually spotting the Milky Way against your foreground using the phone camera.
Stellarium – Available for PC/Mac and Andoid and iOS devices – Stellarium is one of my goto tools for planning any astro shoot. It provides a planetarium view of the sky from any location, at any time and date, and shows a very detailed view of the stars, constellations, deep sky objects, meteor showers, and of course the Milky Way, and how it will appear and move over time.
“….the most common response I hear when someone asks where the Milky Way is going to be is… “Use Photo Pills”.”
#3 The moon
One of the biggest myths I hear is that you can’t capture the Milky Way at a Full Moon, and while certain times during the moons cycle, the moon is full, bright and literally sits in line with the Galactic Core, time of year will decide when you can shoot the Milky Way at a Full Moon.
Understanding where the moon is at any given time, and how bright it is can be incorporated into your planning, and while you would avoid shooting when a full moon is directly in line with the Galactic Core, incorporating the moon into your shots can lead to some stunning and unique imagery.
Learn about the lunar cycle, its brightness and location in relation to the Milky Way. Consider that moonlight itself is reflected sunlight so can be as bright in a 15 second exposure at high ISO as the sun would appear off the horizon at sunrise.
Learn how moonlight can create lens flare effects when aligned above or below the Galactic Core. Learn how to hide the moon behind a foreground object to obscure its brightness in your shots.
Learn how moonlight changes the colour of the sky, causing dark skies to appear more blue.
Learn how moonlight can be used to light your foreground creating beautifully detailed nightscapes in a single shot without the need to incorporate artificial lighting, or stacking and multiple exposures to achieve your desired image, and understand how a rising or setting moon might change that lighting over time.
There are plenty of online resources available to help understand this, and encompass the moon into your planning.
“….it was interesting to see the result of hiding the full moon behind the tree, still being able to capture the Milky Way above it.”
#4 Find clear skies
It goes without saying that to capture the Milky Way, you need to have clear skies. Understanding and planning for the weather before you go out, and continuing to monitor it while on location is critical to capturing that perfect Astro image.
Consider that cloud won’t always cover the Milky Way, and certain types of cloud can even augment your images. We have known thin whispy high cloud to still reveal the Galactic Core, and even accentuate the stars around it, but you certainly won’t want to go out when thick cloud covers your entire sky.
If rain or storms are coming your way, you will likely get wet, and that is not always the most pleasant time to be out. That said, I have experienced incredibly clear skies after a rain storm has passed, so the inconvenience of hunkering under an umbrella for a little while can be offset by some amazing images.
Atmospherics such as high humidity and high temperatures, are more likely to bring clouds, will also fog up your camera and lens, and not reveal the sharpest of stars in the sky as moisture content in the air refracts the starlight. Crisp, cold nights are often best at revealing the clearest skies and best visibility beyond our atmosphere.
Wind is certainly something you want to be aware of. For one, it will move your scene, with trees swaying in the wind difficult to capture with long exposures. The wind may also cause your tripod to vibrate or even fall over, and you will likely get cold if you are in an exposed location.
Thankfully, the internet provides many almost real time resources to help you plan and monitor weather conditions.
Cloud Free Night – www.cloudfreenight.com – CFN, or Cloud Free Night is one of Australia’s best Astrophotography planning tools. Providing an overlayed map showing cloud forecast data from several different data sets. Generally CFN data will give you a reliable forecast for up to 5 days in advance. It is a forecast, and will change almost hourly as your planned dates approach, but continued monitoring will set you up for a great Astro shoot.
Bureau of Meteorology SATVIEW – satview.bom.gov.au – Satview provides an animated set of images of Australia from the Japanese Himawari satellite. Using this closer to your planned shoot will give you an almost real time view of the actual cloud formation and movement at your location. It can also be helpful in the field to spot the gaps in clouds, and when your shoot will likely be impeded by oncoming weather.
“….there is no better place to find crystal clear skies than the Red Centre.”
“….after sitting hunkered under an umbrella for 30 minutes, the rain suddenly stopped and behind the cloud front came the crispest clear skies I have ever seen.”
#5 Prepare yourself
Heading out in the small hours and standing, sometimes alone, in a remote location in total darkness can increase the personal risks of your photography. Going prepared and being safe is one of our most important tips, especially to newcomers to Nightscaping. Some brief things to put on your planning list:
- Get a good headlamp and make sure it is charged
- Wear appropriate clothing to protect from the cold, rain and the elements. A good beanie, gloves and warm socks will protect your extremities
- Use the right footwear. Good hiking boots. Wear Rock boots if shooting from ocean rock shelves or waterfalls.
- Take Insect repellent that is suitable for the environment.
- Keep Hydrated and fed. Take a water bottle and know where to get water from. Take some snacks.
- Check all your planning resources before departing
- Weather Forecasts (BOM, Willyweather, Weatherzone, Cloud Free Night)
- Authorities (National Parks, Rural Fire Service, Police, Councils)
- Let someone know where you are going and when you will be back (and very important, don’t forget to let them know when you do get back)
- Know how to get in and out in darkness (GPS, Maps etc.)
- Have an appropriate method of communications (Phone, UHF, Satphone)
- Know what to do in an emergency (First Aid, PLB, Emergency+ App)
- Maintain a High degree of self awareness, awareness of your surroundings, and awareness of other people
- Go in a group, safety in numbers
#6 Location, location, location
There are so many fantastic locations you can capture the Milky Way from all around Australia. In fact, Australia is fortunate to have one of the best views of the Galactic Core of the Milky Way pretty much all year round, and capturing a great Milky Way image as a Nightscape is often just a matter of finding a great location.
First and foremost. locations you visit need to be safe. We talk about safety a lot, but it is of the utmost importance that you remain safe while you are photographing a location and remain aware of your surroundings and what is happening in the environment, even more so when shooting at night.
It also needs to be accessible, not only safely, but also considering whether it is inside private property, a national park or reserve, whether there are access restrictions or closures, but most of all, consider you have to be able to get there and get out afterwards in darkness.
Look for clear open skies allowing you to capture the main subject, the Galactic Core. Consider direction, the alignment of the Milky Way, how it will interact with your foreground, the direction you will need to face.
Look for low light pollution. Although you can capture the Milky Way over highly lit areas, it can sometimes be difficult to manage. Where possible, look for clear black skies devoid of yellow hues and light domes of streetlights from highly built up areas, or even if you are in a brightly lit location, understand the direction of the Milky Way and if those skies will be clear, such as over the ocean.
Look for features in your foreground, such as sea stacks, rocks, valleys, sand dunes, static water reflections, flowing water from ocean swells, rivers and waterfalls, roads, buildings. There are so many ways you can compose a nightscape in a single shot using all manner of foreground subjects. What is most important, with the exception of flowing waters or some other desired movement (such as car lights), your foreground will remain stationary for the duration of your shots anything from 10 seconds to 30 seconds.
Finally, consider your composition and how all the elements, sky and foreground objects, can be composed to capture your desired image.
Photo Pills has grown to be the Astrophotograhers best friend. Using the Planner and the Night AR mode will help you plan your location, even if you’re not there.
#7 Get technical
Sometimes, capturing a fantastic image of the Milky Way is simply a matter of pointing your camera to the sky and clicking the shutter button.
But over the years of digital photography, many technical concepts and techniques have been adapted and documented to overcome certain inherent issues with capturing the night sky, and help capture the best Astro images. To take your Astrophotography to the next level, it is worthwhile learning some of these techniques so you can incorporate them into your planning, especially when you have a particular vision or goal in mind.
500 Rule / NPF – So you have captured your shot of the Milky Way, but when you look closely, all the stars have “trailed”. This is because you have opened the shutter for a long period while the stars have continued to move. The 2 predominant calculations you can use to calculate how long you can expose before stars begin to trail in your image are the 500 rule (or sometimes known as the 600 rule) and the “NPF” rule. The 500 rule has become less accurate as sensor Megapixels and lens capabilities have grown, which is where the more accurate but very complex NPF rule (a French abbreviation for “Opening”, “Photosite”, “Focal Length” developed by FRÉDÉRIC MICHAUD) takes into account your camera sensor size. My tip here is to know the optimum exposure for your camera and lenses before you depart. Waiting until you get into the field will take time. Thankfully Photo Pills takes the guess work out of these calculations with its very useful “Spot Stars” pill.
Blending – At a New Moon, you get the most amazing clear dark skies to capture the Milky Way, but there is no residual light to brighten your foreground making it nearly impossible to capture a scene in a single shot. You are also shooting at wide apertures (f/2.8 or wider) meaning Depth of Field will become an issue for foreground objects close by. Blending as a technique has grown in popularity, allowing you to capture multiple shots and “blend” them together in Photoshop to produce your final image. This allows you to capture a sky with optimum settings and exposure times, and then capture the details in a foreground at a different shutter speed, or bulb for a longer period, or use some Low Level Lighting and Focus Stacking techniques to capture the details from the foreground. It takes some thinking and planning, and for those long exposures, you need to consider anything that moves such as trees In the wind. The only steadfast rule to consider is the blended shots must be from the same location, without moving the tripod or camera and taken at the same time preferably as a sequence. Going beyond this and you will likely be called out for creating a “composite”. Before you head into the field, learn these techniques and know how to execute them while on location.
Noise Reduction – Seemingly one of the largest concerns for Astrophotographers is Sensor Noise. Capturing images at a High ISO produces the same graininess you would find on a similar film, and is a product of heat and the Signal to Noise Ratio (SNR) as the sensor is active capturing light. The camera has its own built in modes of noise reduction, both Long Exposure Noise Reduction (LENR) and High ISO Noise Reduction. We almost always turn off LENR as this uses the “Black Frame” technique to cancel out noise, meaning for every shot you take, the camera will take an equivalent shot at the same shutter speed, hijacking your camera for many seconds before you can shoot again. And the in camera High ISO NR algorithms sometimes do not provide enough control for managing noise across star fields and nebula like clouds we capture in the Milky Way. So photographers have turned to a technique using a sequence of images and stacking those together, and using a mode called “Median” to have PhotoShop cancel out this noise. The nuts and bolts of Median Stacking are quite complex, and it takes some practice and potentially many attempts to get it right. There are plenty of online tutorials available to show you how, but when you begin shooting your Milky Way images, learn about how to capture with Median Stacking Noise Reduction in mind. Consider capturing up to 5 sequential shots at the same ISO, Aperture, Exposure and Focus, one after the other, so you can use this method to manage the noise during post processing.
#8 Use some clever lighting
So you are shooting at night. It’s a New Moon, you’re trying to capture an amazing foreground with the Milky Way rising behind it. But you can’t seem to capture enough light to being out the details in the foreground at all. This is one of the biggest issues Astrophotographers face in trying to capture that perfect image.
Our Tip is to plan for optimum lighting so you can still capture a perfectly dark sky along with all the details you need in the foreground, and there are several methods you can use.
The Moon – We have already mentioned about understanding where the moon is, and how bright it is in relation to the Milky Way in your images. Why not use the moon to provide some lighting to your foreground? A thin sliver of moon in the sky behind you will provide enough reflected sunlight to perfectly light a foreground, and, most importantly, make it look natural. To plan for this really does take your astrophotography to the next level, with only certain days or times of the year where the moon is in the appropriate position, and phase in its lunar cycle, to provide such lighting, providing you with a small window of opportunity. Also consider how the moon will move while you are shooting. Gradually rising filling the scene with more light, or setting, reducing the light and casting shadows.
Low Level Lighting – At times when the New Moon provides no lighting to your foreground, astrophotographers have developed techniques such as Low Level Lighting to try and artificially light a scene, while still making it look like natural moonlight. Low Level Lighting uses low-lumen output of video lights such as a Sunwayphoto FL-120, set to a cooler, more moon like colour temperature, to light a foreground. It has become a very popular method of capturing a perfect astro scene. There are also “Lightbox” apps available for mobile phones such as Pocket Softbox that will brighten the screen and fill it with colour of a certain temperature. You can use this to continually light or just “paint” across a foreground while the shutter is open, creating a perfect glow to pull the details out of the shadows. However, Low Level Lighting techniques are not without some controversy. In some National Parks in the US for example, it has been seen as a pest, and banned entirely. So you should always consider and plan how you are going to use any lighting, any restrictions that may be in place, how it may impact other astrophotographers shooting the same location, and potentially how it may impact the natural or cultural values of any location you are using it.
Headlamps, Torches or other Handheld Lights – When looking for a unique astro image, you might consider using a very direct source of lighting within your shot. For example, the silhouette of a figure pointing the direct beam of a headlamp or torch at the Galactic core or using a cube light such as a Lumecube to insert a focused point of light in your hand that will flare through your image. Even using a camping lantern held in the hand to cast a low glow around a lone figure or subject in the foreground. These types of images can be unique and striking, however can become very clichéd when replicated by lots of different photographers. There is plenty of room for some creative lighting use and I am sure plenty of unique approaches to take, but consider how this might detract from a natural night scene, or unbalance the image when the focus is intended to be on the night sky.
#9 Capture something unique
There are so many Astrophotographers and Nightscapers out there today. In a few short years, Astro images have grown in popularity very quickly, thanks in part to the rapid technological innovations in Digital Cameras, and the rise of social media as a common sharing platform for photographers. Locations all over the world have become popularised for their stunning environment combined with dark skies, and often, you can arrive at a location at midnight to discover many other photographers there. In today’s world of nightscaping, you often see the same image shot from the same location by more than one photographer, and with the Milky Way occupying the same sky, you might see the Galactic core in the same position across many images despite the location and foreground being different.
So what makes a great Astro image or Nightscape? Finding something unique…
Give it a go. Here are few things you can consider:
- Point in Time or specific events (planetary or moon alignment)
- Incorporate Phenomena (Auroras, Zodiacal light, Air glow, Iridium Flares, Moonbows)
- Use clever lighting (Headlamps, Low Level lighting, Lighthouses, Moonlight, moving light sources)
- Capture some motion (flowing water, light trails from cars)
- Capture “Unicorn Moments” (Meteors, lightning, or another event that will never happen again)
“….just as I was about to pack up, a huge meteor streaked through the sky while the hut was lit by the headamps of runners finishing the Coast to Kosciuszko. My one truly Unicorn moment.”
You can even include people in your images to make them unique, although a distant silhouette standing atop a rock shining a headlamp at the sky seems to have become a common feature, even a cliché in many images.
There is plenty of scope for capturing the Unique in your Nightscapes, some you can plan for, some you can’t, some you will discover only while out shooting, and from time to time, Unicorns do appear. Which brings us to my final Top Tip…….
#10 Just get out there
All of these tips are meant to help you understand and plan for your Astro shoots. Whether you are a newcomer, or seasoned Astrophotographer, I hope this article has given you something useful. But my final tip, and one of the most important is this… Just Get Out There.
Even if you have never been out to photograph the night sky before, get outside at night, look up at the stars, identify the constellations, see how the stars move through the night, spot the Milky Way with your own eyes. I find great pleasure in planning Astro Shoots as it has helped me to capture some very enjoyable images, but I always find getting out and shooting, especially with friends or in a group to be the most enjoyable aspect.
And you may find your first night out garners the best astro image ever, but you still need to get out there to capture it, and practice the art of Astrophotography and Nightscaping.
About the Author
Jay Evans is a professional landscape and nightscape photographer based in the Blue Mountains west of Sidney, Australia. He is particularly passionate about Milky Way, star trail, and night sky photography. He is also a licensed tour operator and a keen educator and conservationist. Along with Luke Tscharke, he founded AstroWorkshops and he’s providing astrophotography and nightscape workshops across Australia.