Lee's Ferry, Arizona, Milky Way Photography Magazine Extra
How to Shoot Dark Sky Photography

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How to Shoot Dark Sky Photography

How to Shoot Dark Sky Photos

You can shoot Milky Way photography, create star trail images or paint with light in the dark sky areas. This page is being updated with the star trail and light painting information. For now, please read our detailed information on Milky Way photography below.

How to Shoot Milky Way & What You Need

Light pollution map

Check out a Light pollution map before you pick your dark sky location where the milky way is visible.


You will need a camera to control your ISO, shutter speed, and aperture manually.


A fast wide-angle lens of 1.4 – 2.8 is ideal. If you use a 3.5 or higher (slower lens), you must increase the ISO. The higher the ISO, the more grain or digital noise or grain in your photos.


A good sturdy tripod is essential for night photography. If it gets windy, you will need a sturdy one. Remember that when you buy one, it should be sturdy enough to withstand the wind but small enough to fit in your suitcase.

Sky Map

Sky Guide is available through the iTunes Store for $1.99. It has a 5 out of 5-star rating on both the current (3.2) version (1200+ ratings) and all previous versions (8600+ ratings).


Our choice is Coast brand for flashlights. The ideal flashlight will have high lumens, and you can zoom in and out on the light emitting from the flashlight. Get the HP7, PX45, or the G50. Ideally, go with the  HP7.

Moon Phaze Map

The best time to go is during a new moon; you want to be in the darkest area possible. The week before the new moon, when the moon has not risen, is a perfect time to go, so check the moonrise chart to see when the moon will be up.

Remote Shutter Release

When painting with light and you want to go over a 30-second exposure, you must have a shutter release to use your bulb mode. You can use the remote release or your camera’s built-in two-second timer when exposing your pictures.

How to Focus

Use live view. Use your camera’s live view to focus in the dark, hit the zoom button, and focus on a bright star. You can also use the infinity setting on your lens but do several test shots to determine accuracy. It can be off a little on some lenses. You can also light it up with a flashlight, focus, then gently, without touching the focus ring, put the camera in manual focus so it will not search for the focus. You must do this each time you move your camera to take your next angel.

Camera Settings


Start with ISO 1600 – 3200. This is a common starting point, and you will adjust from here.

Shutter Speed

Remember, the earth is rotating. If you leave the shutter open for too long, you will see star trails that will not make for a crisp image. We want crisp non-star trail images. Here is the formula to avoid star trails—the 500 rule – Divide 500 by the focal length of your lens. So, if you have a 24mm lens on a full-frame camera, you will set your shutter speed to 20 sec. (500/24 = 20.83). If you are using a crop sensor camera, first do the math of the crop sensor to find the focal length. Cannon is 1.6, and Nikon is 1.5. Convert to full-frame focal length, then use the formula. Nikon 18mm x 1.5= 27mm – 500/27 = 18.51 seconds.


Depth of field isn’t critical in these shots, but letting the light into the camera is; therefore, you should shoot wide open. If the depth of field is essential to you, try not to go too high. (wide open =the lowest aperture your camera will allow). You will have to increase the ISO some, giving you digital noise.

White balance suggestion:

Use live view mode to change your white balance settings and see what it will look like. You can shoot in shade or cloud mode as a standard setting and adjust things later.

When to view the Milky Way & Dark Skies

The Dense part of the Milky Way.

We can see this part of the milk way in the southern sky. During March, April, and May, the milky way rises above the horizon in the pre-dawn hours. At about 10:00 p.m., you will see the milky way in June. From July until October, you can see the milky way as soon as the sun sets, and it becomes dark enough to see about an hour after sunset. In November, the milky way no longer comes above the horizon. You will have to wait until March if you want to stay away really late or get up early to see her again.

See our Night Photography Information. 

Dark Sky Preserves

A dark-sky preserve (DSP) is an area that restricts artificial light pollution, usually surrounding a park or observatory. The purpose of a dark sky preserve is generally to promote astronomy. Because different national organizations have worked independently to create their programs, different terms have been used to describe the areas. This has led to confusion between reserve, preserve, and park. The International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) chooses reserve to avoid confusion with the park when using the initialisms “IDSR” (International Dark Sky Reserve) and “IDSP” (International Dark Sky Park).

In 1993, Michigan became the first state in the United States to designate a tract of land as a “Dark Sky Preserve” at the Lake Hudson State Recreation Area.

In 1999, the first permanent preserve was established at Torrance Barrens in the Muskoka region of southern Ontario. Nevertheless, protection zones around observatories existed well before creating that preserve.

The IDA recognizes protected areas worldwide. The Mont Mégantic Observatory in Quebec is the first such site to be recognized (in 2007) as International Dark Sky Reserve. IDA has also recognized Utah’s Natural Bridges National Monument as the world’s first International Dark Sky Park.

Canada has established an extensive standard for dark sky preserves that addresses lighting within the DSP and influences from skyglow from urban areas in the region. This was based on the work of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. There are no other established standards for dark sky preserves. Outside Canada, such designations are generally through self-proclamation. As a result, the validity of such a designation may be dubious. In some cases, dark sky preserves are neither dark nor protected.

It is generally understood that a Dark Sky Preserve, or Dark Sky Reserve, should be sufficiently dark to promote astronomy. However, this is not always the case. The lighting protocol for a Dark Sky Preserve is based on the sensitivity of wildlife to artificial light at night (ALAN). The lighting protocol for the RASC is based primarily on wildlife sensitivity.

How to Shoot Dark Sky Photography

Certified IDA International Dark Sky Parks

  • Antelope Island State Park (U.S.)
  • Anza-Borrego Desert State Park (U.S.)
  • Big Bend National Park (U.S.)
  • Big Bend Ranch State Park (U.S.)
  • Big Cypress National Preserve (U.S.)
  • Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park (U.S.)
  • Canyonlands National Park (U.S.)
  • Capitol Reef National Park (U.S.)
  • Capulin Volcano National Monument (U.S.)
  • Cedar Breaks National Monument (U.S.)
  • Chaco Culture National Historical Park (U.S.)
  • Cherry Springs State Park (U.S.)
  • Copper Breaks State Park (U.S.)
  • Craters Of The Moon National Monument (U.S.)
  • Dead Horse Point State Park (U.S.)
  • Death Valley National Park (U.S.)
  • Enchanted Rock State Natural Area (U.S.)
  • Flagstaff Area National Monuments (U.S.)
  • Geauga Observatory Park (U.S.)
  • Goblin Valley State Park (U.S.)
  • Grand Canyon National Park (U.S.)
  • Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument (U.S.)
  • Great Basin National Park (U.S.)
  • Headlands (U.S.)
  • Hovenweep National Monument (U.S.)

Certified IDA International Dark Sky Parks

  • Joshua Tree National Park (U.S.)
  • Kartchner Caverns State Park (U.S.)
  • Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park (U.S.)
  • Lauwersmeer National Park (Netherlands)
  • Mayland Earth to Sky Park & Bare Dark Sky Observatory (U.S.)
  • Natural Bridges National Monument (U.S.)
  • Newport State Park (U.S.)
  • Obed Wild and Scenic River (U.S.)
  • Oracle State Park (U.S.)
  • Pickett CCC Memorial State Park & Pogue Creek Canyon State Natural Area (U.S.)
  • Ramon Crater (Israel)
  • Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument (U.S.)
  • South Llano River State Park (U.S.)
  • Staunton River State Park (U.S.)
  • Steinaker State Park (U.S.)
  • Stephen C. Foster State Park (U.S.)
  • UBarU Camp and Retreat Center (U.S.)
  • Warrumbungle National Park (Australia)
  • Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park (Canada/U.S.)
  • Weber County North Fork Park (U.S.)
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