One of the most important lessons that astrophotography has taught me is the importance of planning. I’m a huge advocate of planning your photos in advance, no matter what your subject may be. With most genres of photography, you can wing it and still come home with some great photos. With astrophotography, you’re a lot less likely to get lucky if you don’t plan ahead.
There are many factors that come into play when photographing the night sky. You can’t just pick a location and hope for the best. A successful image will depend on sunrise/set, moonrise/set, the phase of the moon, milky way position, galactic center visibility, time of year, and light levels.
If all that feels a bit overwhelming, don’t stress. There are many tools available to help you research and plan your night sky photos. I’ve used a number of them over the years, but there’s really only one that I rely on these days.
The PhotoPills App
You may have heard of PhotoPills already. It’s a popular app among landscape photographers. I’ve used it for a while now, and I can’t imagine planning my travel and landscape photos without it.
PhotoPills is a great tool for figuring out the best time to photograph the outdoors. It gives you a bunch of useful information about the sun and moon at a specific time and location, which is great for planning sunrise and sunset photos.
It does so much more than that, though. It’s actually an incredibly feature-rich app that provides far more tools than I could cover here. If you’re new to PhotoPills, I recommend learning the basics of the app first. I’m just going to show you how to use PhotoPills to plan astrophotography.
The single most important factor in successful night sky photography is darkness. There are three main factors that will affect the amount of ambient light in the scene and potentially ruin your photos.
The first, and most obvious, is daylight. Photographing the night sky while the sun is still shining is difficult. While you may think that you just need to wait until after sunset, it’s not quite that simple. The light from the sun illuminates the sky for a lot longer than you may realize.
As the ambient light from the sun fades in or out at the end of the day, it goes through four phases. You’ve likely heard of golden hour and blue hour. There’s also nautical twilight and astronomical twilight. You don’t need to understand what these terms mean, just that there will still be light from the sun that your camera will see.
For the darkest sky possible, you want to shoot after astronomical twilight ends and before it begins again. In the PhotoPills app, open the Sun pill, select the calendar view, and tap on the date you’re planning to shoot. You’ll be able to see the exact times from golden hour and sunset, through the twilight phases, and into night time. The sky will be darkest between that time and the beginning of astronomical twilight the next day.
The second factor is light pollution caused by man-made light. This is most noticeable in or near built-up areas, so getting away from these is crucial.
The simplest way to find locations that have minimal light pollution is to look at a light pollution map such as Blue Marble Navigator. You can easily find locations far enough away from light pollution to photograph the night sky.
The third factor that can affect the amount of ambient light in your night sky photos is the moon. The moon can reflect a surprising amount of the sun’s light and wash out your night sky photos. It can also illuminate the foreground, which may be something you want to take advantage of. Unfortunately, you can’t have the moonlight on the foreground without it illuminating the sky also.
If you want to eliminate moonlight from your night sky photos, there are two ways to do it. The first, and easiest, is to shoot during a new moon. A new moon is the opposite to a full moon, meaning it’s completely dark. No matter where it is in the sky, it won’t reflect any light or affect your photos at all.
The second way is to plan your photos so that you’re shooting while the moon is below the horizon. That means before moonrise and after moonset. This isn’t as effective as timing your photography with a new moon, but you can come home with some great images using this technique.
PhotoPills makes it easy to plan using both these options. To plan for a new moon, open the Moon pill and go to the calendar view. You’ll be able to look ahead and see the date of the new moon each month. The new moon is completely black with the little circle next to the date. A day either side is also usually safe.
To figure out what time the moon will rise and set on a specific date, tap on that date while still in the calendar view. You’ll be shown a list of events for that date, including moonrise and moonset.
The Milky Way
If you want to include the Milky Way in your night sky photos, you’ll need to consider a couple of things. Firstly, although the Milky Way is visible all year round, the galactic center is only visible for part of the year. This is between March and October, or slightly longer in the Southern Hemisphere.
The second thing you need to remember is that the Milky Way moves through the sky as the earth rotates, just like the sun and moon. What this means is that when planning your astrophotography, you’ll need to consider the time that the galactic center is visible.
PhotoPills makes this super easy. Going back to the Sun pill, you’ll see that galactic canter visibility appears in the event list for your selected date. Note that this may not be the time that the galactic center rises and sets, it may be the time that the sky is dark enough to see it.
One of the coolest and most useful features of the PhotoPills app is augmented reality (AR). In the Planner pill, go to the date and location you’re planning to photograph, then tap Night AR in the option bar at the bottom. This will show you an AR view that superimposes the Milky Way over your screen.
This is useful for seeing where the milky way and galactic center will be at your selected date and location. You’ll be able to see the angle and relative position of the Milky Way, as well as watch how it will move across the sky by sliding your finger across the screen.
PhotoPills makes it super easy to see all this info in one place. Instead of having to go into each pill to find the relevant information you want, you can take a quick look at the PhotoPills widget and see times for the next sun, moon, and galactic center events.
This won’t work for planning future photos, but if you want to see if tonight is a good night for astrophotography, you can find out at a glance. I’m sure you’ll find it useful once you have a good understanding of the right conditions for night sky photography.
Dig Deeper Into PhotoPills
As I mentioned, the PhotoPills app is incredibly powerful and feature-rich. It includes many more useful tools, such as Star Trails, Spot Stars, and Time Lapse. If you want to dig deeper and find out what PhotoPills can really do, I encourage you to buy the app and spend some time working through the User Guide on their website. There’s a wealth of tutorials and how-to videos that will help you make the most of the app.
I would love to see the night sky photos that you create with PhotoPills. Feel free to share them below.