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  • Oars + Alps

This International Dark Sky Week, join astrophotographer Jack Fusco as he shares his secrets on getting the perfect shot. His beautiful photography would not be possible without the efforts of the International Dark-Sky Association whose mission is “protecting the night sky from light pollution.”

The following blog post has been written by Jack Fusco for Oars + Alps:

Far away nighttime shot of man on mountains surrounded by a star-filled sky.
Photo: Jack Fusco

There's no denying the therapeutic effects of spending time in nature. The fresh air, the serene environment, and the absence of distractions all combine to create an experience that's calming, restorative, and rejuvenating. Combining that with the feeling of being under a truly dark sky, stargazing is the perfect choice to seek a bit of personal peace while allowing yourself time to reset. Whether or not visiting a dark sky has been on your list as a first time to-do or something you’ve been meaning to do again, International Dark Sky Week is the perfect time to plan your next trip

Light Pollution Map
Light Pollution Map

How To Get Started

To get started, the first thing you'll need to do is find a location with little light pollution. Escaping light pollution is key to a great view of the stars. You can use resources like the dark sky finder on the International Dark Sky Association website or apps like ClearOutside for your phone to help find the perfect location near you. By finding a spot away from cities and towns, you'll be able to see more stars and constellations than you ever thought possible.

Once you've found the perfect spot, becoming familiar with the night sky will allow you to enjoy the experience even more. There are countless stars, planets, and constellations to explore, so it can be overwhelming at first. A great way to start is by downloading a stargazing app on your phone or tablet. These apps use your location to show you which stars and constellations are visible in the sky at that moment. My personal favorites for stargazing are Stellarium, StarWalk 2 and Sky Guide, although there are quite a few free and paid options available in the app stores.

Man holding up phone taking a photo of the sky
Photo: Jack Fusco

Maximize The Stars You Can See

It’s important to keep in mind while using these apps to try and let your eyes adjust to the dark. It can take anywhere from 30 minutes to 3 hours for your eyes to fully adjust. As they do, the number of stars you’re able to see will increase as well. You can use a red light on a headlamp or your phone after you’ve started to let your eyes adjust to help protect your night vision. The dimness of the red light is less harsh allowing your eyes to stay adjusted. It might take a few times to not instinctively turn a light on or look at your phone, but forcing yourself to stay free of distractions can be a nice change of pace.

Man bending over looking into his camera set up on its tripod on a mountain taking a photo of the night sky
Photo: Jack Fusco

While spending some time under the night sky, taking your first photo of the stars can be an incredibly rewarding experience. Because our cameras take long exposures, which basically means the camera is capturing light for anywhere from 5-30 seconds, it's able to pick up more stars and detail in the sky than we're able to see. So while the detail you're able to see of the Milky Way already feels unreal, what your camera captures will blow it away.

Not long ago, taking a photo of the stars or Milky Way required a fair bit of expensive camera equipment. More recently, even the latest cellphones are able to take very impressive images of the stars. 

You’ll need to make sure you have a few pieces of equipment in either scenario, so let’s take a quick look at the essential pieces of gear and some basic settings to get started.

Gear Needed

DSLR / Mirrorless / Cellphone: For dedicated cameras, we’ll need to make sure we can control all of our settings, including using manual focus on the lens. This rules out many point and shoot cameras. Phones like the Google Pixel have a built-in Astro mode.

Wide Angle Lens with Fast Aperture: This will help capture a huge view of the night sky while allowing as much light in as possible.

Tripod: Absolutely essential whether you’re using a camera or your phone.

Headlamp: Be sure you can navigate safely in the dark. Look for something with a red light.

Dress in Layers: On clear nights the temperature can drop quite a bit compared to the daytime temp, especially in areas with higher elevation. Be sure to be prepared so you can stay comfortable and enjoy your time under the stars.

Man with red light headlamp crouched over on a mountain setting up his camera equipment
Photo: Jack Fusco

Settings 101

Aperture: You’ll likely want to use the fastest aperture your lens has available. This will let the most light in as possible. Ideally you’ll be using an aperture of f2.8 or faster.

ISO: This setting will vary the most from one camera to the next. You’ll need to experiment to find out what works best for your camera. Start around ISO 800 and slowly work your way to higher ISO numbers. Keep in mind, as you increase your ISO, it will introduce more digital noise into the final image. 

Exposure/Shutter Speed: To capture as much light as possible, you’ll be taking long exposures. Because the Earth is constantly rotating, you might need to experiment a bit to see how long you can expose for without the stars forming short lines instead of dots. Typically, your exposure at night will land somewhere between 5 and 30 seconds. If you’re using a phone, it might even take up to 4 minutes. This is why we need to make sure our camera is secure and steady with a solid tripod. 

Most Importantly, Enjoy Yourself

Taking a great photo of the night sky requires both practice and patience. It’s certainly not an easy genre of photography, but it can be extremely rewarding. Try your best to enjoy the quiet surroundings and to keep looking up. After all, you put in the effort to be somewhere with a beautiful view of the stars, make sure you enjoy it.

Far away shot of Milky Way in the nighttime sky
Photo: Jack Fusco
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