National Park Astrophotography
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
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
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
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
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 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
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
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!