Dark Sky Photography: Tips and Tricks for Finding your Night Sky

April 09, 2018 Posted by: Kevin Finnie
Did you know that there are Dark Sky Parks and Communities along the Anza Trail? These places have been certified by the International Dark Sky Association as a dark sky place and are beautiful places to experience the Anza Trail and photograph the night sky. And there are many other places along the trail to shoot the stars! Read below for some tools of the trade and get out there to #FindYourTrail and your #NightSky!

Night Sky Photography: It's all about Light

The night sky is vital for many of the world’s creatures and natural resources; it can also be a stunning sight.  Venture out to the wilderness where it is naturally dark, beyond street lamps and neon signs and gaze at the sky on a cloudless night.  There you will see an abundance of stars that are much brighter than you could ever see within the confines of the city.  If you were to photograph Orion’s Belt near L.A and take a second at Death Valley National Park, the stars that form Orion’s Belt would appear brighter and reveal a lot more stars around this easy to spot constellation.  The reason is simple; there is less light pollution at Death Valley to mask the brightness of the stars, although, you’ll still be able to see the glare of Las Vegas 150 miles away! Light affects all aspects of photography.  Light from the environment, the camera’s sensitivity to light, or your own light source from a flashlight or a lamp all affect photographs.  It’s all about light…….and a few other things!  

I’m an amateur photographer on a journey to achieve my goal of photographing the Milky Way, something I have not yet been able to do!  I became interested in photographing the night stars while visiting Utah two years ago and ever since I have been trying to improve my nightscape photography each time I visit a national park.  National parks are the best places to photograph the night sky in North America (in my humble opinion).  The Milky Way will be visible in the northern hemisphere from March through October; April is Dark Sky Month and seems the perfect time to try and achieve my 2018 goal!  Let’s talk about light! 

Faded stars shine over a brightly lit beach at night. The orange glow of the city is visible.
Seal Beach, California (near Los Angeles): There are many more stars in the sky, but they are hidden because of light pollution. Photo: Kevin Finnie, used with permission.

Taking Photos in Low Light

Taking photos in low light can be tricky.  Today’s cameras come with settings that can control the amount of light that is passed through to the camera sensor.  The amount of light that the sensor receives will determine how bright or how dark the photo is.  For nightscape photography you will need a camera that has a manual mode.  Manual mode allows you to change the three most important settings that control how much light is absorbed by the camera’s sensor during the exposure time: shutter speed, aperture and ISO.  Simply setting the camera to auto will not yield the best results!
  • Shutter speed: the amount of time the shutter is open whilst the picture is being taken. If the shutter is set to a slower speed, then more light will hit the sensor in the camera.
  • Aperture: a small opening in the lens that allows light to pass through.  The aperture is measured by the diameter of the hole which can be made larger or smaller.  If the hole is bigger, then more light will hit the sensor.  A smaller hole will mean less light hits the camera sensor.  
  • ISO: the setting that determines how sensitive the camera sensor is to light.  If the setting is higher, then more light will to be produced in the final photo.  When photographing the night sky, be careful not to put ISO too high as this can cause “noise” in the photograph. “Noise” can cause the black sky to look hazy with what may look like red dots in the picture.
Bright stars in a cobalt blue night sky over the city of Maui. The city is lit up, but the light is contained by clouds.
Haleakalā National Park, Maui. Less light pollution uncovers many more stars. Photo: Kevin Finnie, used with permission. 

The settings for shutter speed, aperture, and ISO will vary by camera. To take pictures of the night sky you will want your camera to absorb a lot of light which translates to a combination of slow shutter speed, large aperture and relatively high ISO.  You may start with a shutter speed of around 14 seconds, analyze the result, and adjust the shutter speed again or change the aperture or ISO.  Settings will vary depending on your specific camera and lenses.  Trial and error is a great way to get to know your camera.
Save your files in RAW format in the settings of your camera.  This setting will save a lot more information than it would as a JPEG.  Saving to RAW format will allow you to recover more information in post processing using software such as Adobe Lightroom.  If the files are saved as RAW you have more chance of lifting the shadows in photos to reveal part of the picture which at first seems lost due to lack of light.  Sometimes however, shadows and silhouettes can capture a nice ambience in photographs. 

A joshua tree and rocky hillside is silhouetted against a pink and blue sky at dusk. Joshua Tree National Park at dusk. Photo: Kevin Finnie, used with permission.

Get Creative!

Photographing national parks against the back drop of a dark sky can produce unique effects. Knowing how to manage light is fundamental and allows you to get creative. You can change the perspective of photographs by illuminating the environment with artificial light.

The night sky shines brightly behind a red rock that is lit with a red light. In the distant horizon, the hazy orange light of Las Vegas is visible.
Death Valley National Park. A rock painted red with the light from my head lamp. Photo: Kevin Finnie, used with permission. 

A joshua tree is dully lighted with the red light from a head lamp. In the background the night sky and stars are clearly visible.Joshua Tree National Park. A joshua tree "painted" from the side with the white light from my headlamp. Photo: Kevin Finnie, used with permission.

Star trails are another great way to manipulate light in photos.  A slow shutter speed will capture movement in a photograph. If the shutter speed is slow enough, the camera will pick up the Earth’s movement as it spins giving the illusion that the stars are flying overhead (also great for time lapses).

A bright lit night sky with star trails - streaks of white and grey. In the foreground a Jeep is parked on a campsite.
Death Valley National Park, February 2018. My trusty jeep under the night sky. The bottom left orange is Las Vegas, 150 miles away. Photo: Kevin Finnie, used with permission.

My journey continues to keep improving my night photography skills and hopefully I have inspired you to grab your camera and visit a national park this April.  Why not celebrate Dark Sky night and promote the protection of our national parks from light pollution! I have added some tips and a checklist below if you are interested in learning more about photographing the stars.  These are tips I have learned from research, reading photography books, or from my own (often frustrating) experience. Good luck!

Be Prepared!!

Heading out into the wilderness requires some preparation, particularly if you are packing up your camera gear to spend what could be a few hours in a remote area. Setting up your camera is much harder at night than it is during the day and preparation is key. A flashlight or a headlamp is very useful, preferably with a red light to keep your night vision and make it easier to see. A tripod is a must to stop the camera moving. A wired remote shutter release will also help to eliminate any shake. The remote can be used to function with your shutter speed settings set to “bulb”.

Trying to focus at night is far more difficult than focusing your lens during the day. It may be possible to focus on the moon, but it is much easier to set focus in the daytime. Focus on something very far away on the horizon then turn the autofocus off; masking tape can be used to lock focus in place. Be careful not to put the camera back to auto-focus while the tape is still attached as this can damage your lens if the camera autofocuses.

Scout your location before night fall if you can. I like to get to the location and set up well before it gets dark. Even with a headlamp, it is harder to set up your tripod and focus then attach the wired remote at night than it is during the daytime. The great thing about national parks is that there are hundreds of stunning locations all over the park, so getting to a picturesque spot will probably be a short journey to give you enough time set up during the day……..so there is no excuse not to get there early. I don’t always take my own advice on this and regret it every time! 

Recommended Checklist

This isn't inclusive, but a place to start!
  1. Camera with manual controls
  2. Tripod
  3. Headlamp (preferably with red light)
  4. Wired remote shutter release and spare batteries
  5. Memory card / spare memory card
  6. Camera battery / spare camera battery
  7. Camera cleaning equipment
  8. Focus in daylight preferred
  9. Masking tape
  10. Scout the area night photos will be taken
  11. Warm clothing
  12. Food and water
  13. Follow park rules and regulations (be sure to check for necessary permits in advance!)
  14. A loyal partner to help with light painting and who likes to knit and scare off wild animals! (My girlfriend Amanda fills ALL these roles.)

Kevin Finnie is an amateur photographer and a lover of National Parks. Originally from Scotland, he loves road tripping and visiting great American landscapes.

A man and a woman stand in front of the characteristically red-orange landscape of Monument Valley. In the background are buttes, rocky pillars, and cliffs.
Kevin and Amanda at Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park during one of their road trips. Photo: Kevin Finnie, used with permission. 

night sky, dark sky, Haleakala, HALE, Death Valley, DEVA, Joshua Tree, JOTR, desert, photography, tips and tricks, night skies

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  7. SueCass
    April 09, 2018 at 11:14

    Great stuff, Kevin! I’ve never played around with painting with light in my images, but that red rock photo inspires me. well Done!

  8. SueCass
    April 09, 2018 at 11:14

    Great stuff, Kevin! I’ve never played around with painting with light in my images, but that red rock photo inspires me. well Done!

  9. SueCass
    April 09, 2018 at 11:14

    Great stuff, Kevin! I’ve never played around with painting with light in my images, but that red rock photo inspires me. well Done!

  10. SueCass
    April 09, 2018 at 11:14

    Great stuff, Kevin! I’ve never played around with painting with light in my images, but that red rock photo inspires me. well Done!

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Last updated: April 9, 2018

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