How to Plan an Astrophotography Shoot

how to plan an aastrophotoshoot

Unlike many other genres of photography, where being spontaneous may deliver amazing images, it’s great to learn how to plan an astrophotography shoot for several reasons.

The principal reason is that you’ll be shooting after dark, so just finding a composition, let alone operating your camera, can be a significant challenge.

Why it’s important to plan for astrophotography shoots

Three considerations make planning for an astrophotography shoot essential.

  1. You need to find a dark location, that has minimal, or preferably no light pollution.
  2. You need to time your visit to this location either close to a new moon, or after the moon has set.
  3. You need to have found an interesting foreground element to give you a strong composition.
Milky way photography tips
Cap Rock Milky Way

Let’s look at each of these in turn.

Read more: 10 Ways to Improve Your Night Sky Photography

Dark locations

In 2016, National Geographic published an article saying that “more than 80% of the planet’s land areas – and 99% of the population of the United States and Europe – live under skies so blotted with man-made light that the Milky Way has become virtually invisible.”

Putting this depressing statistic aside, the site that I’ve found the most useful for finding dark-sky locations is the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) website.

It shows all the locations worldwide that have been designated as part of the International Dark Sky Places Program.

The first step you should make towards planning a successful astrophotography shoot is to take a look at the IDA website and find out where your local dark sky areas are. Hopefully, you won’t have to travel too far!

Read more: Star Photography Tutorials – The Complete Guide

Timing your visit

Once you’ve found a dark-sky location for your next astrophotography trip, you’ll want to start looking into when the best time is for that trip.

As well as minimising the amount of light pollution impacting your astrophotography, you’ll also want to avoid shooting when the moon is up or is at a phase where more than a crescent is visible.

astrophotography planning tips star trails
Cap Rock Star Trails

A full moon is about 19 times brighter than the faintest stars that we can see with our eyes, and so makes astrophotography impossible.

NASA has an excellent website that provides a lot of helpful tutorials about the moon.

The best time for astrophotography is close to a new moon (i.e., 3 or 4 days on either side of the new moon), or once the moon has set. This ensures that you’ll have the best chance of having a dark sky and being able to see the full range of stars, not just the brightest ones.

If you’re planning your astrophotography during the Milky Way season, you’ll also have the strongest chance of being able to see and photograph the Milky Way!

Milky Way photo tips
Old Timer Milky Way

Milky Way season refers to the part of the year when the galactic core (the brightest part of the Milky Way) is visible. In the Northern Hemisphere, this is from March to September, and in the Southern Hemisphere, this is from January to November.

Read more: How to Photograph the Milky Way

Useful apps for planning your astrophotography

PhotoPills (available as both an iOS and Android app) has some excellent tools for planning the right time, date, and direction to shoot your astrophotography. They also have an extensive range of tutorials and a user guide which I’d advise you to read.

how to use PhotoPills for astrophotography
PhotoPills Astrophotography Date and Time Planning Tools

To find out the date of the next new moon, and the window on either side of it, look at the Calendar view (above image, column A), in the Moon menu. In May 2021, New Moon was on the 11th, so planning to shoot on May 7th looked suitable.

Checking on the Moon page and going to May 7th (image above, column B), you can see that the moon was a waxing crescent on that day (11.2%), but even better, the moon set at 16:03.

Therefore, it would not rise before Galactic Centre (GC) visibility started at 22:50 (image above, column B).

Checking the next day, May 8th (image above, column C), the GC visibility ended at 04:13, before the moon rose at 04:28. That confirms that for the duration of GC visibility, the moon would be below the horizon and not visible.

Looking at the Planner page (image above, column D), you see the twilight times between which you want to be scouting and finding your potential compositions for that night’s astrophotography.

So, with a date and time range planned for your astrophotography shoot, you can start to scout for potential compositions. 

Read more: Star Trails – How to Take Captivating Night Sky Photos

Foreground interest

If you look at almost any outstanding astrophotography image, you’ll see that they have at least one thing in common. Whether it’s a sparkling star trail scene or a magnificent Milky Way, these shots will likely feature an interesting foreground element.

A good foreground element can help make your astrophotography image different from others. It can also help to tell the story and give your image some context, and it’s an important factor to keep in mind when planning an astrophotography shoot. 

Read more: How to Use Foreground for Better Star Photos

How to scout for an astrophotography composition during the day

With the PhotoPills app as your planning assistant, you can scout for astrophotography compositions hours, days, weeks, or even further in advance of your actual visit.

Give yourself plenty of daylight time to explore different locations in the overall area that you’d like to shoot and look for compositions as if you were going to shoot it during the day.

how to use photopills for astrophotography
PhotoPills Astrophotography Composition Planning Tool

Look for thought-provoking natural or man-made features, the topology of the terrain, and interesting trees or plants that could form your foreground subject.

Within the Planner, PhotoPills has a Night AR (augmented reality) function (image above, column A) that you can use during the day to plan compositions. You can have either Polaris (the North Star) for star trails, or the Milky Way, superimposed on your phone screen.

When you find a potential composition, activate the Night AR, hold up your phone toward the composition, and position Polaris (or the Milky Way) as you wish. You can even take a screenshot to remind you of the date/time you’re planning for your shoot.

Come back to the same location and set up your tripod and camera, and at the appropriate time, you’ll be able to capture the image that you had planned (image above, column B).

When planning star trail images, Night AR will show you the location of Polaris – at the centre of the concentric ring of simulated rotating stars. You can scrub left and right on the screen to change the time to see how that affects your location.

When planning Milky Way images, Night AR will show you where the band of the Milky Way is going to be in the sky (image above, column C), and will also show you with an orange circle where the GC is.

how to photograph star trails
Ryan Ranch Star Trails

You can scrub left and right on the screen to change the time to see how that affects the orientation of the Milky Way and also the movement of the GC.

Read more: How to Find Great Locations for Landscape Photography

How the location may inform the type of shot you take

Dependent on the location and your choice of foreground interest, you may make other choices about the type of shot you take.

If you wait until the stars and/or Milky Way is visible there will be little to no light on your foreground, so it may be very dark with barely any detail visible.

To avoid this situation, you have three choices.

You can choose to find your composition early, set up your camera and tripod, shoot the composition during the blue hour (when there’s sufficient light to retain detail in the foreground), and then blend that image with your dark sky image(s).

Alternatively, you can use light painting (after dark) to selectively add more light to the foreground.

how to plan an aastrophotoshoot

Be aware though; you’ll need very little light to make a profound difference to your exposure as you’ll be shooting at an aperture of f/2.8 (or wider), a shutter speed of around 15 to 20 seconds, and an ISO of 1600 to 3200.

It’s fun to play around with light painting and it takes quite some time and practice to get the results you may be pleased with.

Thirdly, you can deliberately choose to shoot your foreground as a silhouette and remove all detail from the darkest areas of your image.

All three approaches can be very effective.

Read more: How to Stack Star Photos to Reduce Noise in Photoshop

Planning and packing what equipment to bring

Here are a few things to think about when packing your gear for your next astrophotography photoshoot.

  • Make sure to fully charge your battery and carry a spare battery (or three). When batteries get cold, they lose their charge rapidly.
  • For astrophotography, a prime lens of around 14mm or a 16-35mm zoom lens (full frame focal length) will be needed, f2.8 or faster.
  • Stability is the number one priority in astrophotography, so you can use longer shutter speeds. Bring your tripod along with its head, camera attachment plate, or L-bracket.
  • Make sure you bring a shutter release cable or use the delayed-release setting (typically 2 seconds) on your camera.
how to photograph the Milky Way
Milky Way near Arch Rock
  • An intervalometer is also an essential piece of equipment when shooting star trails, or any long sequence of multiple exposures.
  • Bring formatted memory cards ready-to-use, and spare memory cards (minimum of 4 x 64GB cards). To create a single star trail image, you may be shooting 100-200 images.
  • If possible, only use a red light at night to allow your eyes to adjust to the very low light conditions.
  • Layer up as the temperature in the desert drops quickly in the evening, and bring a lightweight folding chair so you can be comfortable during the long wait while shooting a star trail or Milky Way timelapse.

Read more: The Best Lenses for Astrophotography

Final top tip

Remember, autofocus does not work for night sky photography. Before the sun sets, switch your camera to manual focus and focus on something that’s a few hundred feet away from you.

When you’ve got your focus set, use a piece of gaffer tape on your lens focus ring to keep it fixed. This will ensure that your focus is set to infinity and will help to ensure that your stars are pin sharp.

In conclusion

I hope this guide provides inspiration, and some useful tips to aid your astrophotography planning. 

Please remember to enjoy our wild lands and nature responsibly, follow local regulations, and adopt and practice the Nature First principles as you explore and photograph.

For comfort, remember to bring plenty of warm clothes, hot drinks, and food, as you’re going to be out there potentially for hours as you wait for the Milky Way to appear!

Visit Jon's website

Jon Norris is a landscape photographer offering one-to-one and small group workshops, online photography mentoring, and fine art prints for sale. He specializes in guiding and leading workshops in Joshua Tree National Park. For Jon, landscape photography is about the overall experience and isn’t just about the gear or capturing the image. His approach is to: Explore. Experience. Create.

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