One of the best things about night photography in general is how lenient it is. That is to say, you generally do not need special weather conditions to create a really beautiful picture. The night and the urban lights give you everything you need to work. Once it's dark, the light does not change, so you're not chasing the light. Almost every night will do.
But if you're trying to photograph the night sky it's a completely different story. The reality is that the photograph of the night sky is very fussy. If you intend to pursue this type of photography, be prepared for your opportunities to be very limited. You should also be ready for some failures.
Failure is never fun, but less so in the night sky photography. You have to go to remote areas, so you will often have to travel long distances to get the shot. You too will reduce the precious sleep time. We therefore try to avoid some of these failures. In this regard, here are the six major problems that I expect you will come across and how you could handle them.
Photograph of the night sky Killer # 1: The Moon
There is nothing that will destroy your opportunities for night sky photography more than the moon. This may surprise you, but it's true. Because that's how it is? Because the light that also comes from a quarter moon is over 100 times more powerful than the light of the stars. So simply wash the scene.
Having the moon in the sky has its advantages. For example, it can illuminate the foreground. But when it comes to photographing the stars, it's a killer.
Also, the moon is in the night sky for much of the month. Frankly, I would not plan a night sky for more than 4-5 days on either side of a new moon. Anything near the full moon is out of the question. This requires around 70% of the duration of the year for night sky photography. As such, it is a huge limit.
So how do you avoid problems with the moon? There are two ways, and for both, you do not need anything but a website called TimeAndDate.com. That website will tell you the moon phase, first of all. This way you can plan the night sky or close to the new moon.
If you're not familiar with the moon and its phases, the new moon is when there is no moon in the night sky. From the new moon, the moon will turn into a crescent moon, a quarter and then a few weeks later into a full moon (and then the process will begin to reverse). The nights around the new moon are fundamental because it not only limits the light coming from the moon, but during a new moon phase the moon will not even be in the night sky.
The moon travels through the sky during the day during the new moon phase and crosses the sky at night during the full moon. The closer you get to a new moon, the less time the moon will be in the sky at night.
This leads to the second way of avoiding the moon, which is to take note of the times of rising and setting of the moon. Again, you can get these times through TimeAndDate.com. Make sure this aligns with the other conditions you need for success (ie times of complete darkness, weather conditions, star movement, etc.). We'll talk about it in a second.
Killer # 2: light pollution
You may have read that header and said "duh". You already know that you have to be in a dark place to succeed in capturing the night sky. But you might be surprised by how dark it is. You can not drive out of a city for half an hour and expect it to be dark enough to really capture a great night sky or the Milky Way.
What you need to do is consult the Dark Site Finder. This is the best resource I have found to avoid light pollution. In practice, Google maps with an overlap of different colors that tell you how much light pollution will have a certain place. The darker the color, the better (less light pollution).
How much do you need it to be dark? Really dark Take a look at this picture:
This image was taken in a blue area on the dark site finder, which is the fifth darkest area among the 15 different levels. The light pollution you see in the lower left part of the image was not from a big city, but rather from a small, shady city on the map that was about 10-15 miles away.
The light pollution was not something you would have seen while you were shooting: everything seemed completely dark while I was there. But you can see very clearly in the shot, of course. Make sure it's very dark where you intend to shoot.
Killer # 3: Star Movement
If you are not familiar with night sky photography, you might think that you can simply open the shutter for a minute or two to allow enough light to get a proper exposure. But you can not, because the stars are moving. And they are moving much faster than you think. (Ok, I know this is actually due to the rotation of the earth – I'm not a paratrooper – but that's how it is it appears as if the stars were moving!)
If you shoot the night sky with a long exposure, the stars will move when you open the shutter. They will present themselves as little paths. It does not seem attractive and only makes the stars blurry. Of course, you can go with it and create paths that run through the entire frame, but this is a completely different story. What you are looking for here are the clear images of the stars in the night sky.
How much time can you use for a shutter speed? On all super-wide-angle lenses, you should not go longer than about 15 seconds. Even with wide-angle lenses, you should not exceed 30 seconds. You can also use something called the Rule of 500 to determine your longest usable shutter speed. This rule says that the maximum length of the shutter should be 500 divided by the focal length (for example with a 24 mm lens it would be 500/24 or 20.8 seconds).
For this reason, you should use the widest angle, the fastest goal for night photography. For more information on choosing a goal, check out this article.
Killer # 4: Lack of element in the foreground
A starry sky or a Milky Way will provide a nice background for your photo. It's like having a beautiful sunset. It's a great thing to have, but alone, it will not be enough. You also need a foreground element.
If you just turn the night sky without a real idea of where you're going, you'll probably have problems. You'll end up with an uninteresting close-up and then an uninteresting photograph. The heart of the night is not the time to explore and try to invent something. Remember that where you will go will be very dark. It will be total darkness, without moon, in a place without light pollution. You will not be able to see anything to get a close-up.
To solve this problem, you must explore your area ahead of time. Sometimes this is possible physically going there, but often it is not. When you can not move forward in time, you can still virtually explore the position. Use the Street View feature in Google Maps to get started.
Killer # 5: Unforeseen conditions that block stars
You probably already know that you can not go out on a cloudy night and expect to have some chance of success in photographing the night sky. You need a clear sky or, at most, partially cloudy conditions. There is no secret about how you control it. There are a number of weather apps, so use only the one you feel comfortable with.
But it is not the end of the problem. I had a lot of ruined exits when there was not a cloud in the sky. They have been ruined by things like clouds of dust, smoke and fog. These conditions are not as fluid as you might think. Remember that you usually do your night shots in remote places.
A desert environment is a fairly common place, and moderate winds raise enough dust in the atmosphere to block the stars substantially. If you are in a coastal environment, sea fog can do the same thing. Forest fires from hundreds of miles away can also affect your ability to get hit.
So make sure you take a close look at the conditions in your destination area. It is not fun to drive for many hours and so do not even take the camera out of the bag.
Killer # 6: A boring sky
In the end, not just a clear night and no moon will do. If you go out without understanding which stars will be in the sky when you shoot, you could be destined for a boring sky. If you have a strong element in the foreground, this may not matter. But if the night sky is the predominant topic, it must appear really beautiful.
For most people, this means including the Milky Way in shooting. This means capturing the band of stars that crosses the sky. It's best when you capture a cluster of stars in the middle of it. But the Milky Way is not visible all year. It is not visible at any time of the night during around November to February. From about March it will become visible just before dawn. In June until August, it will be visible for most of the night. From about September it will be visible only after sunset. This is true regardless of the hemisphere you live in.
To plan the inclusion of the most interesting stars and constellations (and, again, usually the Milky Way), just take one of the apps available for your phone. I use Star Walk 2 and I like it very much, but there are others available as PhotoPills.
Putting it together
Once again, the photograph of the night sky is fussy. Taking steps to prepare will pay huge dividends. Because you have to be in remote areas, this means a long journey to get there. Planning will prevent you from wasting a lot of time and effort.
But do not wait for perfection, this never happens. Plan the best conditions you can get and then give it a shot. It could lead to some wonderful images.