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Make the Most of the Night: 6 Things You Should Know Before You Go

Seriously, you most likely have planned this trip for weeks. You might even have new equipment not to mention, you may be traveling a long distance when you get there. So, here are 6 things you can do AHEAD OF TIME to help you make the most of your time in dark skies.

Storm in the Distance in the Davis Mountains
Storm in the Distance in the Davis Mountains

If you are joining us or about to head out to darker skies (and you are new to night sky photography), here are 6 tips to help you get the most out of your experience.

Most likely, you plan on traveling quite a distance to get to dark skies. You'll want to be prepared to get the most out of your trip. There may be only so many hours of darkness available and the Milky Way's galactic core may only be out for a limited time. So, why not make the most of your time. Here are 6 things you should learn to do prior to getting in those dark skies:

1. Understand the manual setting mode on your camera.

This includes knowing how to get your camera into manual settings mode. Understanding your manual settings isn't something you will be able to grasp in one night, it takes practice with lots of trial and error. We will help you with your settings while we are in the field. However, knowing how to change your manual settings is key. Practice changing ISO, aperture, and shutter-speed. Have a good understanding of their relationship with each other, but also what happens when you make changes to ISO, aperture, and shutter speed when you are shooting.

2. Know your camera and set-up in the dark.

If you are going to a dark sky area, it will take awhile for your eyes to adjust to the night, usually about 20 - 30 minutes. This is usually when we start to set up our tripods and camera equipment. Some folks are very quick as they know their equipment and set-up well. Others take more time. At some point, someone will announce that all lights need to go off so as not to impede on the photography. I will benefit you (make the most of your time) if you can set-up your tripod and camera in the dark. You can practice this too, right now! Turn off all lights in your living room and be able to do the following (I know this sounds silly, but it's true) :

Set up your tripod and secure your camera on your tripod (in the dark, no lights)

- Turn on your camera (in the dark)

- Place your camera into manual mode

This is how it will feel at Big Bend National Park or other places where there are darker skies. It will be to your advantage if you know what buttons to push without turning on a light. If you absolutely need a light, turn on a red light, but please be mindful to keep it pointed down on your camera and not out into the landscape. I have been with folks in the field who didn't listen to the etiquette advice and they not only ruined some of my shots, but also many people's pictures.

A little night photography humor....."Roxanne, you don't have to put on the red light. "

3. Know how to get into LIVE VIEW and ZOOM on your camera (in the dark):

Turn on and off LIVE VIEW. If you do not know about LIVE VIEW, please look at your camera manual to understand how to turn it on and off. We will often use LIVE VIEW to focus at night.


Review a photograph that you have just taken and ZOOM INTO the picture (using the + or magnifying glass).

Here are the reasons why these two tasks above are important to be able to manipulate on your camera in the dark: Focusing in the Dark: If you are wondering how you are going to focus in the dark, there are three ways to focus your camera for star and Milky Way photography:

  • Focus to infinity (far distance) while it is light out

  • Manual focus on the brightest star using LIVE VIEW (focus until the stars are fine pinpoints and not blurred balls)

  • Place a flashlight on something in the far distance (beyond 50 ft is good) and focus on an area that is light

Regardless of which method you use, you should take a photograph and ZOOM into the picture to inspect the stars (or distant landscape landmark) to see the outcome. So, knowing the exact buttons to push on your camera in order to ZOOM into the picture (while in the dark) will be helpful.

We will cover these in the field, so no worries. I prefer to use the second method. Just remember, once you get your camera in focus, you can accidentally bump or turn your lens and your camera will be out of focus. Some photographers will put gaffer's tape on their lens or draw a small mark with a pencil to mark this magic spot.

4. Know how to dim and/or turn off your review screen on the back of your camera (in the dark).

Most cameras have the ability to dim or even turn off PICTURE REVIEW (that shows up after every picture you take). Often, it is a very bright review screen that has the potential to get into someone else's shot. With every picture, there is a flash of light may bounce off of objects, cars, or people.

You can do two things to help prevent this:

  • Turn down the brightness of the review screen. Having this screen bright will also ruin your night vision. Just remember to turn it back up for your daytime photography.

  • Turn off the review screen. Most cameras provide the ability to turn this off completely. Remember, that every time your screen comes on, it is using your battery. If you are using your intervalometer and taking pictures, one right after the other, you won't be able to review your photos anyway. Rather than using up your battery, know how to turn the review screen off.

5. Turn off or hide all lights on your camera.

Some DSLR's and mirrorless cameras have lights that will flash on and off when they are in use. For example, a focus assist button that flashes a red light just before the shutter opens. Please look up in your camera's manual how to turn these lights off. If you can't turn them off, you can use Gaffer's Tape to cover them up.

6. Learn how to turn on/off the LONG EXPOSURE NOISE REDUCTION (LERN) on your camera.

There are pros and cons to using LONG EXPOSURE NOISE REDUCTION. There are times when it is incredibly useful and times when it is not. Knowing how to turn this off and on will be helpful for you. We will go over the pros and cons in the field.


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