Planning your shots can be a crucial part of your creative process to help you get the result you desire. Here are some helpful resources to help you!
Clear Sky Charts – An excellent starting point for planning your night sky shots. This site is specifically for astronomers, so it tells you when to expect clear/dark skies. Instructions on how to read the charts are right on the front page. Also, check out the app link below for CSC.
U.S. Cloud Coverage – There is a lot of sites to check cloud coverage, but I favor this one personally on the WeatherStreet website. You can scrub through the maps and see the cloud coverage update as the hours and even days go by. Note that you can click a state specifically on the map here for a more in-depth look.
National Weather Service – An excellent spot to check for any weather alerts out there.
RiderPlanet USA – Sometimes you will need to get away from the city lights and even off the beaten path. This site shows you a ton of useful info for off-road locations, including maps, seasonal info, types, extra notes and much more.
SunsetWX – Perhaps it’s a cloudy evening, but you would still like to shoot! This site is worth taking a look at, as it forecasts the quality of the sunrise/sunset in your area.
Topaz DeNoise – A highly recommended noise reduction software! Achieve less noise with more quality! Part of my workflow, every day.
CG Pro Prints – You have created your beautiful photos, and now it’s time to share and display them! CG Pro Prints offers incredible quality and excellent service. They offer canvas wraps, photo prints, leather wraps, canvas standouts and more! Turn time is also quick on all orders!
The following apps are available on iOS and can help your nighttime sky shoots out quite a bit!
iCSC – Clear Sky Chart Viewer. A very useful app for viewing and photographing the night sky! This app shows observation forecast for 5000+ locations in North America. Critical visibility factors such as cloud cover and transparency, along with other factors are at your fingertips with this app. A freebie app!
Moon – (by CDV Concepts) This app is very simple, and that’s why I like it. I can easily and quickly see the times for the moonrise and moonset. It can also look up this information on any given day, in the future or past, very fast. Another freebie.
Sky Guide: View Stars Night or Day by Fifth Star Labs LLC – Hands down my favorite app for nighttime photography! An immense tool for viewing the night sky. This app allows you to plan your shots because you can simulate the time, place and day to see exactly, what is where in the night sky. You can also search for particular stars, satellites, constellations, etc. This app is $2.99 to download and well worth it!
Below you will find some common questions and other tips, tricks and thoughts to consider when shooting the skies above us during the night hours.
Camera settings do vary from shot to shot and can be somewhat situational, but some good starting points that I like are 30-second exposures, lens wide open (in my case f / 2.8 for my particular lens) and an ISO of 3200. After I have these dialed in, I will make the tweaks from there. On my first shot out the gate, I will crank my ISO up to have a better idea of what is in front of my for the foreground and gather my composition ideas. After I have my composition, I will dial back down to ISO 3200.
I prefer to take several shots and compile them in post processing, versus taking a single exposure. Having said that – My starting settings for these shots are 30-second exposures, f / 4 and ISO 1000. The ISO often varies depending on the brightness of the moon and the position of it, compared to the direction I am shooting. Often it will end up lower towards the 500 mark.
There are lots of apps to help you with this! My favorite is Star Walk which is available on both Apple iOS and Android.
Most of my shots are taken on a Nikon D600/D610 body. My go to lens is the Tokina 16 – 28 mm. I have shot quite a few times with the Nikon 12 – 24 mm as well. My opinion is both are very nice lenses, and both are more than capable of obtaining excellent shots at night.
Here are some general rules I follow. I wait until the sun has been fully set for about 2 hours. I also try to shoot a few hours before sunrise, if we are talking about the second half of the night. Sometimes these rules will be broken, and they should be, when there is something, in particular, I am trying to achieve such as grabbing some morning hues with my Milky Way shots. I like shooting in the middle of the night personally as it can make for quick travel and fewer cars out since I often shoot near the roads. When battling city light, later can be better, as the cities are lit up less as business and homes all start turning their lights off.
This is a very tricky question, which requires a lot of factors, such as distance, weather, location, season, direction of the shot, etc. Very loosely I can say 200 miles is good, but the more, the better. You can cut this down by quite a bit if you position yourself to shoot away from the city (if possible) and towards the Milky Way. I live right outside of Phoenix, Arizona, and I can obtain Milky Way shots about 50 miles away from our airport downtown. Again, positioning can be crucial. You can also look at light pollution charts online and get some ideas for good spots and bad spots. You will see it can be much harder to obtain these type of shots in the Eastern U.S. vs. the Western U.S.