Our digital cameras are much more capable of peering in the dark than the human eye. Mounted on a tripod and set to extreme settings, modern-day cameras are the tools to effectively create magical images. Join me now as we go on a step-by-step journey of shooting and post-processing nightscapes in DxO Opticts Pro and Adobe Lightroom.
The sun, moon and Milky Way
The Earth spins around her own axis every 24 hours. And over the course of a year, she completes her orbit around the sun. This is why our view upon the stars gradually changes during the year. But it doesn’t end there. The sun orbits a more massive object yet; the galactic centre in the constellation of Sagittarius. Because our solar system is sat about 2/3rds from the centre of the Milky Way galaxy, the Milky Way looks very different to us in June than it does in December.
To be able to see the photogenic galactic centre, there are a couple of things you should consider.
1. The time of the year. The view upon the heavens changes over the course of the seasons.
2. The Moon shouldn’t be lit; go out during, or around, a new Moon.
3. We should be looking up from a dark area, without artificial lights.
4. A clear sky. Check the local weather forecast.
5. The time: When the sun dips more than 18 degrees below the horizon, it finally gets perfectly dark. We call this ‘astronomical night’.
I won’t leave you to figure these things out. Here are five handy tools which I can recommend to aid in planning a successful nightscape shoot, the crucible of landscape photography and astrophotography.
The free ‘Stellarium’ (available here) helps to aid in precomposing an image. More importantly, Stellarium shows the view of the night sky at every location on Earth, at every date or time. Stellarium also guides you in predicting when the sun and moon will set and is available for iOS as well as Android.
A lunar calendar
With a lunar calendar, for example the one found on StarDate.org, you can forecast the phases of the Moon. The less the Moon casts light over the landscape, the better you and your camera are able to see the Milky Way. So plan your shooting trip at or around a new moon.
Light pollution maps
So-called light pollution maps are vital to see where the darkest places with unspoiled views of the night sky are. These places are precious gems, often found in remote or at least rural areas. The most accurate European maps I’ve found are at Avex-Asso.org. These maps project the amount of light pollution on a map, by using colour coded gradations. Very useful.
At Avex-Asso, they also host overlays that can be imported in Google Earth (which also became free to use not too long ago).
Never go stargazing without checking the local weather forecast. While your website of choice would suffice to tell you if it’s going to be cloudy or not, I’d recommend MeteoBlue. This rather technical looking table gives in-depth information about the quality of the air for stargazing (seeing). On a number of occasions, I spend the night in overcast conditions, while it had been forecast to be clear. That never happened after I started using MeteoBlue’s seeing forecast.
Time and date
In many parts of the world, it doesn’t go completely dark at night. That’s because the sun starts to come up again before it reaches 18 degrees below the horizon. As long as it does though, your images are guaranteed not to have any stray sunlight in them (be aware of the moon though!) Go to TimeandDate.com and type in a nearby city to look up the most ideal time for shooting; astronomical night.
I hope you've learned something new! These tools have proven time and again to be invaluable in my hunt for shooting the Milky Way. In the next chapter, we'll discuss gear-related tips that will make you a better equiped nightscape photographer!
Thanks for reading!