Basic Guide to Astrophotography for the Western United States

The basics of Night Sky Photography for the Western United States

Quick Summary:

  • Equipment needed
  • Steps to learn how to take night sky photos
  • Best places for night sky photography in the Western US
  • Astrophotography groups, workshops, and  guided tours

How to capture breathtaking night sky photography in the Western United States

Astrophotography is a unique form of photography that captures the beauty and wonder of the night sky.

The Western U.S. is perfect for stargazing and grabbing some unforgettable shots of stars and planets. 

Here’s what you need to get started, including the equipment, steps to learn how to take photos of the stars and planets, and the best places to take night sky pictures.

Equipment needed

Before smartphones, you’d need a good camera with special lenses and specific features for capturing pictures of stars and planets.

Today, most phones have the technology to get excellent pictures.  And there are apps like NightCap (for iPhone) and ProCam X (for Android) that turn your phone into a good night sky camera.

If you want to make sure you get high quality pictures, and  you want to do it “old school” style with a camera, here’s a short list of what you need…

  • Camera: A DSLR or mirrorless camera with manual control and high ISO capabilities is essential for astrophotography. Full-frame cameras are preferred, but crop sensor cameras can also work.
  • Lens: A wide-angle lens with a fast maximum aperture (f/2.8 or faster) is ideal for capturing the night sky.
  • Tripod: A sturdy tripod is necessary to keep your camera steady during long exposures.
  • Remote Shutter Release: A remote shutter release or intervalometer is useful for taking long exposures without touching the camera.
  • Red Light: A red light or headlamp with a red light mode is helpful for navigating in the dark without affecting your night vision.
  • Additional Accessories: Other helpful accessories include a star tracker, filters, and a light pollution filter. Here are some apps to help you find the right locations, make sure the weather is good for shooting, and help turn your phone into a night camera (if you don’t have a DSLR). 

Learning how to take night sky photos

It takes some practice to get used to getting all your equipment set up and ready to take clean crisp pictures of the night sky.

Once you do it several times, it gets easier.

Here are some general tips:

  1. Familiarize Yourself with Your Camera: Learn how to adjust your camera settings manually, including shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and focus.
  2. Scout a Location: Choose a location away from light pollution, such as a Dark Skies designated area, and check the weather forecast.
  3. Set Up Your Equipment: Set up your camera on a tripod, attach your lens, and make sure your remote shutter release or intervalometer is connected.
  4. Focus on the Stars: Use manual focus to focus your lens on the stars. You can use a bright star or planet as a focus point.
  5. Adjust Your Camera Settings: Adjust your camera settings to capture the night sky. Start with a high ISO (1600 or higher), a wide aperture (f/2.8 or faster), and a shutter speed of 15-30 seconds.
  6. Take Test Shots: Take test shots to adjust your settings as needed. Check the focus, exposure, and composition.
  7. Experiment with Different Techniques: Experiment with different techniques, such as light painting, star trails, and stacking multiple images.
  8. Edit Your Photos: Edit your photos using photo editing software to enhance the colors and contrast of your images.

Here are a few great video tutorials to get you started…

And of course, as mentioned above, you can also use apps to turn your phone into a relatively good night sky camera.

Just follow the directions for the app or find a good tutorial on YouTube.

Like this one…

The best places to take night sky pictures

Finding the perfect spot might take some traveling, especially if you are near a high density population area.

Even in rural areas, there might be light pollution from the nearest city.

Here are the best types of places:

  • Dark Sky Parks: There are many Dark Sky Parks in the Western United States.
  • Remote Locations: Choose a location away from city lights and light pollution, such as a national park or wilderness area.
  • High Altitude Locations: High altitude locations, such as mountain peaks, can offer clear skies and stunning views of the night sky.

Light Pollution maps or Dark Sky maps are a great tool for helping you find the perfect spot.

Here are a few…

Go Astronomy – Global Dark Sky Sites Directory

Blue Marble –  NASA night light satellite pictures

Dark Site Finder – Light Pollution Map

There are a lot of great places in the Western U.S.  Just look at this light pollution map from Blue Marble Navigator…

Photo via Blue Marble Navigator (

One such place is Tonopah, Nevada, which was once voted by USA Today as the #1 Stargazing Destination in the United States.

Take a look…

The other “location” deals with where exactly to look in the sky.

Apps like SkyView will help you locate what you want to shoot. (More astrophotography apps are here and here).

Another thing to keep in mind is timing and how it relates to where certain objects will appear.

For example, there are certain times of the year (and times of night) when the Milky Way will be in a better position for photographing.

From DarkSiteFinder, How To See The Milky Way”

The core of the milky way is only visible about half of the year. The other half it is located beneath the horizon.

In the winter months (December – February) it is not visible at all because it’s too close to the sun.

In the spring (March – May), it will first become visible a few hours before sunrise.

By June it will rise much earlier before midnight. The summer months (June – August) are generally the best viewing time because it will be up most of the night.

By fall (September – November) the milky way will be best seen in the evening, before it sets. Twilight can brighten the sky up to 2 hours before sunrise and 2 hours after sunset, so you want to avoid those times.

So depending on what you want to see and photograph, you need to know where and when your subjects will be in the best position possible.

Astrophotography groups, workshops, and guided tours

Night sky photography can be a special experience if you value alone time or just want to enjoy the cosmic show in solitude.

If you are just getting started and want hands-on help, or if you are looking to meet other astrophotography enthusiasts, there are plenty of options.

Here are some ideas:

  • Night Sky Photography Tours: Many tour companies offer night sky photography tours in Dark Sky designated areas, such as Joshua Tree National Park and Death Valley National Park.
  • Workshops: Astrophotography workshops are offered by many professional photographers and organizations.
  • Local Astronomy Clubs: Joining a local astronomy club can provide opportunities for guided tours and events focused on astrophotography.
Here are some specific tours and workshops:
One of the best things about these workshops and tours is that you won’t have to search for a great spot to take your photos. As a built-in part of the package, they will take you to the perfect photography location.
That is, of course, after you travel to the general location of the tour or workshop, which will be near a Dark Sky area.
And they’ll also help you locate exactly where to look to see specific things you might be interested in…like Jupiter, or a certain galaxy. 
As you get more experience, part of the fun will be finding great places on your own to take pictures and knowing when and where to look in the sky for your subjects.

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Basic Guide to Astrophotography for the Western United States

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