Half the Park is After Dark! Photographing the Night Sky in National Parks

Astrophotography

The bright streak here isn’t a meteor — it’s an iridium flare satellite!

The 2016 Perseid meteor showers are happening this week (the peak is August 11, but they can often be seen a few nights before and after), and you should really try and find a dark location to watch this amazing display of shooting stars if at all possible. It’s an incredible annual show that we try not to miss.

I have always been fascinated with those star trail photos you see where the stars are basically blurred white circles around a center point — and those photos where the Milky Way shines bright and clear, but I’ve always been intimidated to try night photography. I was hoping to do a Milky Way photo workshop at Rocky Mountain NP when we were there, but I was waitlisted for the class. As the date drew nearer and I wasn’t in, I started thinking I should do some reading about how to photograph the night sky and just try it on my own. This is one of my favorite things about digital photography: once you have a digital camera, trying some new photography costs nothing but time.

Astrophotography

The Milky Way was very obvious to the naked eye in the dark at BCGNP

I used a few websites to get information — both true “how-to” sites and a couple of troubleshooting forums, and I spent a lot of time looking at images online. I find it really helpful to look at sample images when I’m thinking about any kind of shoot to plan out what I want to do. In this case, I also found it helpful to see images made through the techniques being described, since I didn’t have much of a clue about what I was doing. Another source that was really helpful was my camera’s manual. I had to do some things I’d never done before, like mirror lock-up and live view.

Night sky photography requires a few specific tools. It has to be done with a camera that can maintain an open shutter for a long period of time. In order to keep the camera from jiggling during the long open shutter, a tripod is needed. I used a shutter release cable and mirror lock-up to try and cut back on any camera shake as well. A fast, wide-angle lens is recommended. I have a really good wide angle lens, but it’s not necessarily fast (3.5 instead of 2.8 or 1.4). However, I wasn’t willing to spend the money to get a better lens just to do an experiment, so armed with the tools I had, my awesome sherpa/cheerleader husband and I went out to try and make some photos.

Astrophotography

Not too shabby for my first outing!

My first attempt was at Rocky Mountain National ParkAlthough the location I chose for my shoot seemed really remote and dark, there was actually a surprising amount of light coming from the valley below. But it was still exciting to try making photos! And the light made for some really interesting compositions. Unfortunately, the clouds came in and covered most of the stars right around the time the Milky Way was finally visible.

My other two attempts at night photography came at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. One of the park’s mottos is “Half the Park is After Dark” — Black Canyon has been designated an International Dark Sky Park. This seemed like a great opportunity to try again! The ranger from the night sky presentation we attended mentioned that the half moon might also provide an opportunity to photograph the canyon walls bathed in moonlight.

Astrophotography

We used a flashlight to briefly light this tree.

The first night we were photographing, the moon was nearly set by the time we got started, so we didn’t try for canyon wall shots. But the Milky Way was fantastic! Whether our photos turned out or not, we felt lucky to have had an incredible night of stargazing. We even saw a few shooting stars, although I didn’t photograph any of those. The second night, we got there earlier, and the moonlight on the canyon walls that was captured in 20-30 seconds by my camera was amazing. It was only a half moon, but in the photos you could see the crevices of the canyon walls. To be honest, I really had a hard time wrapping my head around how the camera could capture this. Physics, my husband said, it’s all physics.

There is no doubt I have a lot to learn about doing night photography, but for my first efforts, with no personal instruction, I’m pretty pleased. I’m also really excited to have signed up for a night sky photo workshop with Jason Weingart at Big Bend National Park on March 28-29, 2017. If you’re interested in joining us, there’s space available! Let me know and I’ll put you in touch with Jason. He has a great night sky photo tutorial that you may want to read as well — it’s much more depth than this post.

Astrophotography

The canyon — lit by the moon!

Enjoy watching the night sky, whether it’s during a week or a weekend. And remember, half the park could be after dark!

P.S.  You can see any of these photos in a larger view by clicking on them. They’re not perfect, but we think that they’re pretty cool!

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