Nights can feel slow and long, but that doesn’t mean any time is a good time to snap a star-studded photo. You’ll want to make sure you’re well-equipped and take the time to understand and plan for the right conditions. In this article, we look at the best time to take pictures outside at night.
Have the Right Tools for the Job
Before even stepping foot out the door to capture fantastic nighttime photos, you’ll want to make sure you have everything you need to succeed.
In theory, any camera will do that allows you to adjust the ISO, aperture, and shutter speed of your pictures. While some compact cameras offer these features to some extent, you’re going to be better off looking at a DSLR to get the shots you really want.
An ISO of at least 400 is required, along with an aperture of F/2.8 or lower to bring in enough light to make the stars really shine. You’ll also want to leave your shutter open for somewhere between 10 to 30 seconds to get enough exposure. A manual focus will help ensure the stars are looking crisp.
A human is unable to hold a camera completely still long enough to capture a nighttime image. You may get incredibly lucky with a rock or similar hard surface, but few people are willing to risk the safety of their device in that way.
Instead, be sure to bring a tripod with you when you venture out to take snaps. Depending on weather conditions, a simple design made of aluminum should suffice. Wind can wreak havoc on long exposures, and only carbon fiber can resist that vibration.
It’s beneficial to have a good understanding of your camera and tripod before you head out. Don’t hesitate to test your ability to turn knobs and press buttons in a dark room of your home. Should you need light while at your photo site, make sure to bring along a red-light flashlight so you don’t ruin your night vision.
Find a Dark Sky
The best astrophotos are going to come from the darkest skies you can find. It’s not impossible to get some starscapes from an urban setting, but you’ll be limited in the number of stars you can see. City lights may also whitewash your photos, leaving them overexposed.
Instead, venture out into an area that’s devoid of light pollution and set up there. If you’re not at all sure where to go, consider locating a dark sky park nearest to you.
The International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) has identified dark sky parks all over the world that stand out for the quality of starry nights there. The IDA works to prevent light pollution in and around these specific locations to keep stargazing at its best.
Most states and countries around the world have their own list of dark sky parks in addition to those on the IDA’s list. A little bit of research can save you the stress of driving from place to place.
Consider the Time of Night
You’re probably aware that the sky doesn’t go dark the moment the Sun dips below the horizon. At this point, the Earth enters into the first of three twilights as the sky gets progressively darker. Each twilight occurs over six degrees of the Sun’s movement as it moves further below the horizon.
In civil twilight, there’s enough light to still see clearly, and a planet or bright star may poke out. It’s still too bright to snap any photos of the heavens.
The Earth then progresses into nautical twilight, named for the sailors who used this time of evening to navigate the seas. The horizon is still visible, but more stars are coming into view that sailors use to set a course.
After the horizon fades away, astronomical twilight sets in. This phase starts around 60 minutes after sunset, and even more celestial objects come into view. Since the atmosphere still reflects small amounts of sunlight, the faintest objects still won’t be visible.
It’s only after all three twilights come and go that the world enters astronomical nighttime. It can take upwards of two and a half hours for the sky to reach this stage in the summer. We’ve finally reached the optimal time for astrophotography.
The opposite is true as well. Before the Sun starts to rise in the morning, it passes through these different phases of twilight before reaching the horizon. If you’re taking pictures in the morning, keep this in mind so it doesn’t get too light before you’ve lined up that perfect shot.
Research When Planets Are Visible
The five closest planets to us are quite bright and can add a lot to an already beautiful starscape. As you’re planning your astrophotography adventure, be sure to research where these objects are in the sky and what time they’ll be visible.
With the right magnification, you can get a clear zoomed-in photo of these planets all on your own.
It probably goes without saying, but be sure to check weather conditions before heading out the door. Even if the evening initially looks clear, even one cloud can significantly block a large portion of the sky for hours on end.
Avoid the Moon
The Moon, in all its cratered glory, is a fantastic sight to behold in the sky. It doesn’t give off any light of its own, but our neighbor does bounce a portion of the Sun’s light down our way. Featuring a relatively poor reflective surface, the Moon only redirects about 10% of the Sun’s rays.
Due to the Moon’s proximity to Earth, even his small amount of light makes a huge difference. A full Moon has an apparent magnitude of -12.74, making it far brighter than any other object in the night sky. This makes the Moon one of the worst offenders for ruining nighttime photos.
The best time to take pictures outside at night is when there’s no Moon in the sky. Called a new Moon, all of the Sun’s light hits the surface of the Moon we never see. The result is a perfectly dark sky for us to take our photos in.
The new Moon almost always happens just once a month, so it can be challenging to plan nighttime photo shoots for that specific day. Fortunately, even a crescent Moon four days on either side of a new Moon is still thin enough to cast a very slight glow. That allows for a more reasonable nine days for starscapes.
Unless You Want the Moon
It certainly makes sense to want to grab some images of the Moon from time to time. If the Moon is your goal, it’s best to take your photos during twilight to maximize available light. You’ll either be treated to a first-quarter Moon high in the sky or a full Moon rising up from the horizon.
Tips for Photographing the Milky Way
Astrophotographers often want to know the best time to capture the Milky Way galaxy on film. In truth, every single star, planet, satellite, comet – everything we can see in the night sky is a part of the Milky Way.
Most times, those same astronomers are referring to what’s known as the Galactic Center, which is the point our galaxy rotates around. It looks like a thick, colorful line painted in the sky and can take an amazing picture to a whole other level.
First, you’ll need to keep in mind the tips we shared earlier about gear and finding a dark place to shoot from. Also, make sure that the Moon is completely out of sight or there will be too much light.
Time of Year
No matter where you live, the Galactic Center isn’t visible from November to January. The further south you are on the Earth, the earlier in the year it becomes visible (and the longer it stays that way).
Australia is one of the best places to view this phenomenon from its vantage point in the Southern Hemisphere. As you work your way north, the Milky Way becomes visible later in the year. As far north as Canada, it may only be possible to see the Galactic Center from April to July.
Time of Night
During winter and spring, you’ll want to venture out in the early hours of the morning to have the best chance at photographing this cosmic wonder. Any time between midnight and astronomical twilight should suffice. Just be sure to check when astronomical twilight begins in your area.
The summer months find the Galactic Center best visible during the middle hours of the night. As summer gives way to autumn, the Milky Way will appear after astronomical twilight in the evening.
There are so many incredible options for astrophotography, it can sometimes be difficult to decide where to shoot first. These guidelines should provide a firm foundation to stand on as you plan. With the right tools, conditions, and a little bit of research, you can capture your own breathtaking stellar masterpieces in no time.