National Park Astrophotography

January 31, 2017NPF Blog
The Milky Way glows brightly behind Mount Rainier
Stephen Byrne, Share the Experience
Stunning Sights of Dark Skies and Starry Nights

National parks across the country offer some of the clearest, darkest night skies in America, making them a magnet for stargazers and astrophotographers. But capturing the perfect shot of the Milky Way is no easy task. A lot of things in astrophotography must be just right, from the composition of the scene to the equipment you’re using, and even the time of year. This is your easy guide to capturing perfect national park photos of the night sky. 

The right equipment

A reflection of the Milky Way’s brilliance reflects across Crater Lake.
Manish Mamtani, Share the Experience

Every nightscape photographer has a favorite piece of gear, but the basics of night photography are pretty standard. Invest in a digital single-lens-reflex (DSLR) camera, which offers numerous advantages over smaller point-and-shoot cameras, including higher sensitivity and a bulb exposure mode for unlimited long exposures. You will also need a sturdy tripod and a remote control or shutter release cable to minimize shaking. A steady camera is essential to getting shots like this one of the Milky Way rising over Crater Lake National Park

The optimal location

The night stars shine in the purple-blue sky over a sailing rock at Racetrack Playa in Death Valley National Park
Cat Connor, Share the Experience

Choosing a good location is crucial, and the most important consideration is light pollution. Look for a place with minimal interference from local lights to give you the clearest image of the stars overhead. With little to no light pollution, pictures like this from Death Valley National Park really come alive. 

The ideal camera settings

The stars seemingly swirl above the red rocks of Canyonlands National Park.
Tucker Furniss, Share the Experience

You'll have to do some experimenting before you arrive at your ideal camera settings, but try a lens with a large aperture, set your camera at a high ISO — settings of 1,600 and 800 can both give you good results — and choose a shutter speed that will give you a long exposure. You can leave the shutter open for about 20 seconds before you start to see a star trail like the one in this shot from Canyonlands National Park.

The spiral star effect

A lighted tent sits beneath a colorful spiral star effect at Glacier National Park
Glenn Barclay, Share the Experience

Stars appear to rotate above the earth's axis — although it's actually the earth that's turning, of course — which means you can use your camera to achieve a spiraling star effect, also known as a star trail. To capture a star trail like the one in this stunning image from Glacier National Park, focus the lens to infinity, set the camera’s mode to the manual or bulb shooting setting, and use your timer or cable release to take a long exposure. Exposures can be anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour or more, depending on how long you want the star trail to be.

A stunning foreground image

The Bode Island Light Station shines brightly against a blue night sky at Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
Eric Hian-Cheong, Share the Experience

The night sky is pretty spectacular on its own, but you can really make your images pop by composing a photo with an interesting subject in the foreground. This shot of the Bodie Island Light Station at Cape Hatteras National Seashore is a great example.

Watch the weather

Stars peep through night clouds as they move over Delicate Arch at Arches National Park.
Lois Settlemeyer, Share the Experience

Keep track of weather conditions and phases of the moon so you'll know when to get images with perfect lighting and not too much cloud cover. The less moonlight there is, the longer an exposure you can take while avoiding a white-out. Of course, clouds can give you some pretty awesome shots, too, like this one from Arches National Park

Time of year

A camper sits within an illuminated tent with the Milky Way overhead at North Cascades National Park.
Andy Porter, Share the Experience

Winter provides plenty of great photo ops, but there's a dense section of the Milky Way that only peeks above the horizon in the Northern Hemisphere during the summer months. You'll find it if you point your camera to the south between June and October — here it is in North Cascades National Park

National park photography offers a chance to capture scenes that few ever see. Learn more about astrophotography and stargazing in our national parks, and be sure to bring a camera on your next overnight adventure!

Comments

I was at Arches last year with high hopes of capturing a great starry night shot, and all I ended up with is a broken lens from tripping over my tripod in the dark! I have a Canon Rebel t2i, and no matter which setting I tried, the shutter wouldn't fire. I see that I need to invest in a remote control, but I'm wondering if I also need a special lens other than the one that came with the camera. I'm obviously an amateur, but willing to try again!
Gena
Becerra
Hi Gena, Try again! There's a lot of trial & error with this kind of photography. Here are a few tips from a fellow amateur.... * A remote is definitely helpful in terms of both setting a long exposure but also to insure there is no camera shake. Personally, I recommend Pulse by Alpine Labs. It's a little expensive but gives you a great amount of information & range of use. That said, your camera's shutter should be able to stay open for at least 30 seconds, which is enough time to take a good shot at night. Anything in excess of that time, though, requires a Bulb setting & those are best handled by remotes. You can always try to just keep your finger on the trigger in Bulb, but again, I wouldn't recommend it due to camera shake. * Your lens has two important factors to consider, the focal length & the aperture. The wider the aperture, the more options you'll have. If you can only go to 5.6, then it's probably a good idea to invest in a lens that will get you to 2.8 or lower. The wider angle the lens, too, the more you'll be able to capture. There's a rule that you should Google called "The Rule of 600." Basically, it's an equation that gives you an idea of how long you can leave the shutter open - based on the size of your lens - without seeing a trail. The smaller the number (i.e. 14mm rather than 50mm), the longer the amount of time you have to play with to shot the stars & freeze 'em rather than see a trail. If you want to see a trail, then the lens size doesn't matter as much. Generally, though, the wider angle the lens & the most amount of aperture you can get, the better off you'll be. Everything goes hand in hand. * Highly recommend buying an App called PhotoPills. It gives you a moon calendar, exposure conversion times, and even a virtual map of any area to gauge the location & visibility of the Milky Way. Takes a lot of the guess work out. Still tough to get a great shot! But it's good for preparation. * Always shoot in Manual and, preferably, RAW. Shooting in RAW will later allow you to change the White Balance, which you'll see is very important in getting the colors you want in the final product. Keep your lens in Manual, as well, and be sure to turn on Long Exposure Noise Reduction in your settings. This will cause the photos to take longer to process, but you'll have a better shot in the end. Hope all of this is helpful. Looking forward to seeing your photos! ian.
Ian
Quay
I am guessing that your Shutter did not fire because your lens was switched to auto. Set it to manual then focus using Live View.
Pete
Collins
The 18-55mm is decent at shooting nightscapes with the ability to shoot at F3.5 but when not tracking you want to optimize the light gathering power of your camera. Renting or buying a lens with a focal ratio less than 2.8 is most optimal for nighscapes with focal lengths less than 24mm so you can get a greater field of view. I would always recommend renting lenses before buying, samyang 16mm F/2 lenses are one of my favorites which I ordered from lens rentals but they're tons of online sites you could rent from if you don't have a local store (like I did). I took that lens to the Monogahela National Forest for the Perseid meteor shower this past August and I absolutely loved it. Settings I typically use are ISO 1600, 13" if due south/25" if North at the lowest F/Stop possible I would definitely recommend getting an intervalometer but you don't have to get one too fancy (I got one sub $30 from Amazon), also if you ever image in places that can get humid, try to get a dew heater to wrap around your lens or, just handwarmers and a wristband; very handy for if you're on the east coast (probs not much of a problem at arches though)! I hope this helps and feel free to ask anything more! Fellow Canon t2i shooter, D. Boggs
Devin
Boggs
Switching your lens or camera to manual mode should definitely fix the shutter problem! Also, several people mentioned using cables or remote triggers - I've found great success just using the "self-timer" feature on my camera. I like using the 10second timer. I get enough time to make sure I'm not touching the camera or tripod (reducing shake in the image) and if I need to, I have a second or two to fix anything in the foreground before the shutter opens. Don't be afraid to raise your ISO above 1600 either. Higher ISO does mean a grainer picture in the end, but if you aren't seeing the results with the lower settings, increasing the ISO should help, especially if your lens is your limiting factor! :) Best of luck the next time you shoot!
Carsen
Popelka
We were at Glacier National Park early last October and stopped at one of the beaches on the south side of Lake McDonald to shoot start trails up the lake and were graced with a brilliant show of the Northern Lights that lasted over an our and a half. We left with some magnificent photos of the lake, mountains, and stars, as well a the Northern Lights.
Keith
Zimmerman

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