In the case of night photography of the Milky Way, I must create these images beyond the reach of heavy light pollution. In Colorado, the deeper west into the Rocky Mountains, the better. Moab, Utah is also a great place for night photography of the stars because it’s dark, and has interesting rock formations in the desert. Besides a dark sky, a neat foreground with the Milky Way above makes for a more interesting photo. This is a challenge because the Milky Way rises in the Southeast sky, and moves west throughout the night. You must choose a specific location that fits this alignment. I enjoy light painting the foreground elements in my night photos. Light painting is the method of shining a flashlight on them during a long shutter exposure. If the foreground object is too large or far away to light paint, you can simply let it fall into darkness, use a dim moon to light it, or use a long exposure with a very high ISO illuminate it. The moon can either be a hindrance, or help. You can’t capture the Milky Way and stars at their brightest on any night; you must plan it around a new Moon or after the Moon has set. However, if you can’t escape the Moonlight, you can use it illuminate the landscape just as the sun would.
Photographing by day provides enough light to use all of the camera’s settings at their maximum capabilities. Night photography is technically challenging because low light limits the camera’s capabilities. For example, when photographing the Milky Way, you have to keep the shutter speed under 30 seconds to prevent the stars from trailing (the shorter the better). To gather enough light to expose the scene in under 30 seconds, the camera must use a wide f/stop and high ISO. What that means is that star photography is a constant battle against shallow depth of field and digital graininess, called noise.
I enjoy night photography immensely for many reasons. Beginning a hike into the back country during the evening, and standing behind a tripod in the wilderness (often alone) well into the night is outside of the norm. It’s an exciting mental and physical challenge, especially when you’ve been out for so long that the sun begins to rise. Night photography demands a greater attention to detail than day photography. Focus is harder to achieve, batteries expire quicker, and framing a good composition with no light is tedious.
I do most of my night photography using a 14-24mm f/2.8 lens. The fast f/2.8 aperture lets in a lot of light, which allows shutter speeds under 30 seconds, and a lower ISO. Wide angle lenses also have tremendous depth of field. Even at f/2.8, most of the photo is in focus. And because wide angle lenses make things appear smaller than they really are, it de-magnifies the stars’ movement across the sky, called star trailing.
Night photography practically has no bounds. Lightning and cities come to life at night, and require a different suite of settings than Milky Way Photography. Where keeping the shutter speed short captures frozen stars, purposely leaving the shutter open for long captures beautiful star trails. Light painting, especially in urban environments can create vibrant artistic expression.