Don’t get caught in the dark with nothing to show for it! Planning is crucial, here’s some advice.
Wide-field astrophotography is something I got into in 2014. I’ve spent many years imaging deep sky objects, and still do, but I found myself sitting night after night watching the data being downloaded to the laptop and not really appreciating the beautiful night sky.
I had seen amazing images of the Milky Way in some beautiful landscapes and thought how I would love to get out there for a change under the skies and create some of these images myself.
I quickly found that the more planning was involved, the better the results. The first time I attempted a wide-field astrophotography imaging session was not successful by any means. I didn’t plan it well. I didn’t travel far enough from the local skies, so it was not very dark and quite light polluted. Also, the time of the year and night was not at all favourable for the best view of the Milky Way at my latitude of 52-degrees north.
The planning, I found, is crucial.
There are some great mobile apps out there which can give details of when, where, and precisely what time and position the Sun and Moon rise and set. These apps will also often give the times for when civil, nautical, and astronomical darkness begin and end, which is useful to know when it will be dark enough. All of these factors are very important to know when planning your night shoot.
Also, a good few (free) planetarium applications are available to help you simulate the best times when the Moon is out and its phase. Obviously, the few days around a new Moon is the most favourable to get the faint detail in the night sky.
Knowing where the Milky Way will be during best time of year and the best time of night at your location is important to be able to get the result you want. (Use resources like Stellarium, PhotoPills, etc., to help you based on your location.) Here in the UK, we are around 50 to 58 degrees latitude depending on where you are. Regardless of your location around the globe, if you are hoping to image the central core of the galaxy, you need to be in the right place at the right time.
For me, the best time for the Milky Way is during the spring months around 3.30 AM, just before astronomical darkness ends. At that time of year, the Milky Way is low and can present a great photo opportunity. Autumn is also a good time as the Milky Way is very high overhead, and the best time for capturing Sagittarius and the central core is just as astronomical darkness begins.
To get the best from the night sky means travelling away from built-up areas, as far away from street lights as possible. This can sometimes mean a trip to the coast because the light pollution is minimal and skies are very dark. This also brings with it a very important factor: the tide times. In the spring, I went to a remote site to a beach in Suffolk, UK, to get my shot at around 3.30 AM. I had to cycle a mile after I parked, with a hefty camera bag on my back and then walk a half mile up the beach to reach my spot. The tide can be very high there, so planning for a low tide time was essential.
Another thing to consider is clothing. The right gear for the conditions is as essential as having a torch, and to set up for any unplanned situations. For instance, the beach is sandy! I know, obvious, but a ground sheet helps when changing a lens and setting up. Sand and DSLRs don’t go together!
It is a very rewarding hobby, and just being at these locations and seeing the night sky is often reward enough. However, if the planning is in place, you will have more time to enjoy it and the results will be much better.
From hard learnt experience, don’t forget your house key as I did the first time. I had to call my wife at 4AM to ask her to let me in, I don’t recommend you do that!