Astrophotography: Stargazing Souvenirs
Adventurer & Photographer
Disintegrating wood makes way for fresh logs and flames rise with laughter as the sun escapes the horizon. Good friends, clear skies, and moonless nights, so windless the stars glisten almost audibly. Astrophotography is a venture into darkness, and I’m going to be sharing the journey, the gear I use, and some of my favorite campgrounds and parks to enjoy after everyone else has gone to bed.
What is astrophotography?
Although it can get pretty complicated, astrophotography is quite simply the art of capturing the night sky in great detail. Astrophotography images usually consist of and center around the Milky Way and its core, which houses the densest collection of stars in the night sky. This is not to be confused with lunar, or moon, photography.
Go away Moon!
While both types of imagery are captured after dark, a barely visible or “new moon” is critical for photographing the stars. The radiance of the moon diminishes the appearance of stars, and in some phases rises alongside the Milky Way, obstructing its core: the most sought-after section of the night sky. There are several ways to determine the phase of the moon, as well as the trajectory of the Milky Way. My favorite all-in-one app is Photopills, which keeps you up-to-date on everything from the time the sun sets, to the minute the Milky Way peeks over the horizon!
As we literally chase darkness in search of crisp, clear images lit only by starlight, light pollution plays a critical role in how we view the night sky. For those like myself, who live in large, brightly lit metro cities, light pollution is inescapable. Even outside smaller cities, towns, and suburbs, it’s hard to escape the lingering effects of street lights, advertising billboards, and highways that make stargazing a difficult task. While this can be discouraging, I look at it as an opportunity for adventure. Planning a trip around the phases of the moon and hoping for a dark sky can be fun or frustrating because it’s all dependent on anticipation! Factor in weather conditions and astrophotography can be a coin flip!
It is rather difficult to say whether light pollution, moon phases, or even camera gear is the most important aspect of astrophotography, but weather conditions may reign above all! A clear sky is of utmost necessity, and it can be tricky monitoring the ever-changing forecast of a place you’re unfamiliar with weeks in advance. However, if you can manage clear skies, be prepared for a sea of stars!
The journey of astrophotography is the coolest: the buildup of all the variables needing to go your way as you venture out in search of the clearest, darkest skies to obtain a well-lit photo of our galaxy.
How to Light up the Darkness
Here we pivot from the hope for things out of our control to shift into place, to the necessary gear to capture the stars in all their glory. First, a headlamp with a red light (look for lights with the same functionalities as a bike light) is essential in staying true to low light pollution. Flashlights and phone lights won’t really work here as they brightly refract light into the night sky. Speaking of phones, dimming the screen as much as possible will help keep your eyes adjusted to the darkness! It’s worth noting that it is especially important to remember the “red light rule” when out under dark skies with other photographers, particularly popular astrophotography locations… You’ll get some complaints if you forget!
Next, camera gear.
There are endless cameras and lenses for astrophotography, so to save you the headache, here are some of the equipment I have either used or currently own, and recommend:
- Canon 80D or 90D alongside a Tokina 11-16mm 2.8 lens
- Sony A7R3 alongside the Rokinon 14mm 2.8 or Sigma 35mm 1.4
- A sturdy tripod and a shutter remote for perfectly still images
The 80 or 90D are beginner to mid-level cameras that, even with cropped sensors, can get the job done with the Tokina ultra-wide-angle lens! The more expensive pro setup, the Sony and Rokinon rig, allows for incredible detail while offering a truly expansive field of view, so you can capture the entire Milky Way with striking clarity! I also mentioned the Sigma 35mm lens because at 1.4, the lens lets in a ton of light, and I love to shoot compressed images of the galaxy’s core. Also, for those not sure about to making the deep dive into camera gear, there may be local camera shops in your area that rent all sorts of camera equipment, so plan that trip, pick up some gear (and many snacks), and get out in the dark! Questions about how to expose great images of the Milky Way? The 500 Rule has you covered!
Location, Location, Location
Some of my favorite places to shoot the stars are incidentally some of the most beautiful places in the country, day or night!
Campgrounds and Parks
Hurricane Cliffs, located just twenty minutes west of Zion National Park, is a step away from the bustle into a peaceful and expansive campground with moderate dark skies. For even darker skies, the Zion Scenic Byway pullout has dispersed camping, and it’s not 10 minutes from the entrance station!
Another great stargazing site is Jouflas Campground, located nearly on the Colorado/Utah border. This open, mostly flat landscape is great for devouring the Milky Way as it peeks over the horizon! Just 90-minutes away are both Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, great for getting some cool rock formations in the foreground of your photos!
Other parks I’ve seen the stars at their best include:
- Newport State Park, Wisconsin
- La Perouse Lava Fields, Maui
- Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
- Death Valley National Park, California