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Free Planning Tools for Milky Way, Star, and Night Photography

April 24th, 2019

When I first picked up night photography a few years ago, planning barely included filling up my car with gas. I’d simply drive away from the city in any direction, moon or no moon, and snap a photo. It didn’t take long before I became frustrated with this approach and I determined I needed to learn the tools that it takes to plan thoroughly for night photography. The other thing you need to know about me, I am cheap. So my planning workflow needed to include tools that were completely free for me to use. Before jumping in I will say that I’ve heard a lot of good things about PhotoPills and Planit Pro: Photo Planner, they sound like all-in-one solutions. If you’re not frugal like me, then go ahead and buy those apps and save yourself from reading further. 

1. Know the Night Sky

Before you can even decide where you want to go and what landscape you want in your foreground, you need to know what’s in the night sky. As the earth rotates throughout the year, different parts of the night sky become visible. Understanding where these sections or objects are in the night sky is a vital first step in planning for your landscape astrophotography. I recommend a desktop program called “Stellarium” to help you understand what is in the night sky and when it will be visible in your location. There is a handy date and time function along with a location function in the left-hand panel. This allows you to input your potential shooting coordinates, and run through an unlimited possibility of dates and times so you can see where objects line up at different points in the year. An easy example: the shiny galactic core in the northern hemisphere summer sky (pictured below). Stellarium will tell you it is above the southeast horizon in Regina, Saskatchewan beginning just before dawn in February and will set over the southwestern horizon in September. 

2. You Need Dark Skies!

So you’ve figured out what object or part of the night sky you want to photograph. Now we need to nail down a general location and time. Trying to photograph the milky way or faint nebulae will be very difficult if you are too close light pollution, there is a bright moon shining in the sky, or the sun isn’t far enough below the horizon.

Light Pollution

Light pollution is a brightening of the sky caused by street lights or other man-made sources. This brightening has a disruptive effect in viewing and photographing the night sky. This means you will need to get away from the lights of the city or town, keeping in mind the direction you want to face in order to capture the celestial object you had in mind (ex. heading south instead of north to capture the galactic core during summer in the northern hemisphere). I frequently use Light Pollution Map on a desktop or “Light Pollution Map” app on mobile. The map is coloured coded so that the further you move away from red, yellow, and purple, the darker the night sky. I successfully photograph the night sky in darker green, blue or absolute dark skies. 

Moon

The moon has the same effect on astronomical objects as light pollution does. The reflected light of a full moon washes out all but the brightest stars in the sky, making nebula and other night sky objects difficult to photograph. Ideally, you will want to photograph on a date when there is no moon present or a very small one (the photos below is of the milky way with a 78% illuminated moon rising, compared to true dark skies). To find out the moon cycle for a potential date range, I use Time and Date to see when the moon rises and sets. This tells me when there is going to be no moon in the sky and gives me a better sense of what dates and times are possible for the photo that I want to get. If I’m on mobile I use an app called “Lunar Phase”. 

Twilight

The last factor to consider is when the sky will be darkest. Simply going out after sunset may not yield the darkest skies possible. There are different levels of twilight after sunset. First we enter what is called Civic Twilight (we call this blue hour). After this we experience Nautical Twilight and finally Astronomical Twilight. Dark skies occur when the sun is 18 degrees below the horizon, or after Astronomical Twilight. At this point the sky is no longer illuminated by the sun and we have Astronomical Dark. I find the times for Astronomical Dark by using Time and Date if I’m on desktop. If I’m using my cell phone, “Light Pollution Map” app has an integrated countdown to Astronomical Darkness, and “Clear Outside” has listed Astronomical Darkness start and end times right on the app.

3. Google Earth

We now know what night sky object we want to photograph and where it is in the sky, we know when and where the sky will be darkest. Nailing down exactly where we want to shoot is the next step. I will add that this stage could and will come first over time. Once you begin to understand what objects line up where and when, you can begin to plan the locations you want to shoot FIRST and then plan when you want to photograph them. Initially though, it is helpful to really get to know the night sky and understand when and where skies are darkest in order to give yourself the best opportunity to practice night photography. 

There are two methods I use to determine where I want to go. The first and most obvious is to visit the location in the daytime. Nothing can replace actually physically seeing the space and visually understanding how things are likely going to align. If for some reason that is not possible or practical, I rely heavily on Google Earth. You can navigate to any location in the world and see locations from the comfort of your arm-chair. By using street or ground view, you can put yourself into the environment you will be trying to photograph. This will help you to see which landscape objects will be roughly where before getting to the shooting location. That said, I always recommend getting to a place early in order to explore the compositional opportunities in daylight. You don’t want to be left scrambling and hunting for a composition in the dark. 

4. Pre-Visualize Your Photo

After this, I jump back into Stellarium, enter my GPS co-ordinates, set my date and time, and the general direction of the shot based on what I’ve uncovered in the previous 3 points. Next, I need to set my field of view. In Stellarium you simply zoom in and out to change your field of view. This will show you what different astronomical object will look like at various focal lengths. I use Chris Jones’ Calculator to find out what field of view I need to set for various focal lengths. There is much more to this point if you’re interested in getting into telephoto landscape astrophotography like what I’ve pictured below. If that’s the case, then be sure to check out the additional details in the video above.

5. Weather

Weather is a major factor when planning for night photography. You cannot photograph the milky way and other night sky objects if they are covered in clouds. I always start my planning workflow by nailing down a where, how, and a possible when. It is important to leave it as a possible when (unless there is only a day or two when things align, which does happen!) to leave some flexibility for the real possibility of being clouded out. I use Clear Outside and Windy (both of which have accompanying mobile apps) to understand what the weather and clouds will be doing as I get closer to my potential shoot dates. I pick a day when Clear Outside has forecasted less than 50% clouds coverage for that night and Windy shows that the direction of the clouds (if they exist!) are moving away from my spot. 

That’s it! You are ready to head out and capture the night photograph you’ve always dreamed of. 

 

Photography workshop leader Scott Aspinall under the milky way in Saskatchewan

I hope you found this tutorial helpful. There is more information on each of these points in the video at the top of the page. If you have any questions that you think I can answer, drop me a line! If you want to share these tips with your friends then use the the share links right here.

See more of my landscape and night photography on my social media.

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