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The Amateur's Guide to Astrophotography

Want to take pro-level Northern Lights and Milky Way photos on vacation? Here's how.

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Milky Way


Ever wondered how the pros capture the neon Northern Lights dancing above a snow-covered tundra so brilliantly? Or how their Milky Way photos look even more cosmic than our galaxy does IRL? We asked, and they answered, so that you can snap some interstellar photos on your next trip, too. For Norwegian photographer Eskil Digernes and California-based Tiffany Nguyen and Jennifer Wu, it's all about the right gear, plenty of patience, and some post-vacation editing. Find their tips and tricks below.

It's all about the tripod

Whether you are photographing the Milky Way, Northern Lights, a meteor shower, or other celestial phenomenon, all of the pros agreed: you need a good tripod. All of the above involve long exposure photography, which leaves the camera's shutter open for longer periods of time to let the most amount of light in so you can capture pinpricks of light like stars. As a result, your camera has to be perfectly still so it can take in one continuous, clear view of the night sky. Most DSLR cameras are so sensitive that a gust of wind can make a difference in your photo quality. "Even with the perfect camera settings, a wobbly tripod will result in your final image being a blurry mess," Nguyen says.

The other piece of non-camera gear to snag? A red headlamp or flashlight. "This will help protect your night vision so that you are able to see your surroundings and camera in the dim light. Using a headlamp or flashlight with white light will cause a reduction in your night vision," Wu says. That means leaving your phone in your pocket (or at least turning it to "dark mode") and being careful around your camera's LCD screen. If you look at your LCD screen too often or for too long, "your eyes will adjust to the dim light, making an underexposed image look good as if it is properly exposed," she says.

And picking the right camera lens

Wu says it's all about the wide-angle lens for shooting stars—say, a 24mm or 16mm lens. "It will lessen the movement of the stars due to faster exposure times, and keep them closer to points of light instead of star trails," she says." Beyond lens quality, it's mostly down to the settings to get the perfect shot.

Astrophotography can happen on a smartphone, too

If you're not looking to invest hundreds of dollars into a new lens or camera, look to your phone for astrophotography lite. Google's Pixel 4 phone camera has a designated astrophotography mode, where it uses its built-in wide-angle lens and takes up to four minutes to capture the night sky. You'll know the astrophotography mode is on when you see a countdown clock appear on your camera, as opposed to the "hold still" message that comes with regular night sight mode. In that time, the camera taking a number of long-exposure shots, and then uses artificial intelligence to construct the clearest image. (You'll want a tripod or a tripod case for this, too.) It won't be as sharp as a DSLR shot, nor will you have nearly the same control over the exposure—but our editors have been wildly impressed by what the phone can pick up on a moonless night. The Pixel 3 has this ability too, but only up to one minute of capture time.

How to capture the Milky Way

"When you're first learning photography, you don't realize how much planning is involved in getting the perfect shot," says Nguyen. To capture a frame-worthy photo of our galaxy, there's a lot to think about, like "determining the orientation and path of the Milky Way, [looking up] moon rise and moon set times, and finding a location with very little light pollution," she says.

The apps

Luckily, there's tech to help you with that. All three expert photogs strongly suggested PhotoPills. "This app is practically made for Milky Way captures. You can plan for moon cycles and where the Milky Way will be in the night sky at any given time," says Digernes. For meteor, planet, or Milky Way photos you'll want to plan for a new moon, i.e. completely dark sky, when distant stars and planets are shining at their brightest and aren't washed out by our moon's light. As for where the stars sit in the sky, that's up to you and your creative vision. Whether you prefer the galaxy arching over the landscape, stretching horizontally, or sitting vertically in the frame will depend on your location and the time of night—and you can use PhotoPill's augmented reality map to see where the Milky Way will sit at a certain date and time before you head out to take your shot.

The framing

If you want to test out your view and photo composition, but don't want to wait until the wee hours of the morning, Wu suggests waiting an hour after sunset to practice with your camera and then grabbing a nap before heading out again later for the truly dark skies. Look for opportunities to offer perspective when you're scouting the area, too. To show the sheer scale of the Milky Way, Wu says she looks for "some foreground elements like trees, or boulders and mountains in the background."

The settings

As for the settings on your camera, there are a number of things to finagle for Milky Way photos. To find your shutter speed (how long your shutter is open), Digernes says to divide 500 by your lens focal length (that number with "mm" listed on your lens). So, for example, a 24mm lens will have a shutter speed of 21 seconds. If you're getting those star trails—long lines of light instead of dots for stars—dial it back a second or two. Then, set your ISO between 3200 and 6400 and your aperture to f/2.8 or lower, says Wu. Take a few test shots to find what works best for your shot.


Compared to the Milky Way, the Northern Lights aren't as easy to plan for. (Getty)

Capturing the Northern Lights takes luck (and solar storms)

You won't have to do quite the same pre-planning and sky mapping to capture the Northern Lights—but you will need a lot of patience and some serious cold weather layers. Neon auroras show up as a result of solar flares from the sun interacting with our atmosphere, so there's no planned schedule for when they'll crop up. "The best time to try to shoot the Northern Lights is during a solar storm when solar activity will be at its highest. There are websites and apps to help you forecast this activity but it all comes down to being in the right place at the right time," Nguyen says. Look to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center for up-to-date solar flare info.

Don't be as worried about the moon's light here, as the bright light can help illuminate the sky and the auroras, as well as the surrounding landscape. As for settings, you won't need nearly as long of an exposure. "You should never select a shutter speed surpassing five seconds. Northern Lights dance relatively fast," Digernes says. To get a photo where the auroras are in focus, you'll need to set your camera on manual focus and look for the infinity symbol on the focus ring on most lenses. Turn it all the way there and then "ever so slightly turn the focus ring a notch back," he says.

"Northern Lights are unfortunately not as predictable as the rest of the cosmos," says Digernes. "My advice? Hold out the in the frigid Arctic temperatures all night, you might get lucky."

Your raw photo will need some love

Do not expect your image to be Instagram- or frame-ready as soon as you've taken it. Even the pros' pics need some Photoshopping. Start with making sure you're capturing images in raw form, which will give you a little more control over the look of the final image (you can do this in the settings on your camera).

Then, download them to your computer and begin playing with the white balance, either in Photoshop or Lightroom. You're looking for a final photo that's more blue than yellow, which comes from the light of the moon. "A good white balance and tint is crucial, this is what the rest of the editing process is built upon," says Digernes. Here's the nitty gritty: If you're working with raw files, you'll be able to choose a white balance between 3,200 and 4,800 kelvins on the temperature slider. (Digernes says to tighten that range to 3,500 to 4,000 for Northern Lights shots.) Wu suggests reducing noise (in the Filter menu) and bumping up the contrast for a clean final image.

You don't have to go far to shoot

For Northern Lights, you can't avoid going north to get the perfect shot, preferably somewhere in the Arctic Circle—but that doesn't mean you have to fly halfway across the world. Nguyen suggest Canada's Northwest Territories or Iceland, if you want to stay closer to home.

And the Milky Way? You can see that just about anywhere that has little to no light pollution. "My favorite areas are national and state parks [like] Yosemite, Bryce Canyon, and Death Valley national parks. These locations often have Night Sky ranger programs at night [too]," Wu says, which will offer more in-depth info on the region's night sky. Nguyen has had luck in Joshua Tree, too. Then, there are always dark sky reserves, like in Central Idaho, which are recognized by the International Dark Sky Association for their commitment to pitch-black nights.

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This post originally appeared on Condé Nast Traveler and was published December 9, 2019. This article is republished here with permission.

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