top of page

The light in the dark: shooting the milky way in North Cascades National Park

Possibly my new favorite style of photography I've discovered since moving to the Pacific Northwest is astrophotography.: shooting the stars. In particular its most fun to hunt down the center of our own home, the core of the Milky Way. It is only visible in the summer in the Northern Hemisphere, in areas of low light pollution, looking to the southern sky.on a new moon or close to it, or if there is enough time between moonrise and sunset and vise versa.

You can see the more distinct stars but noisy foreground from the 6400 ISO /6 second combination. There's a Perseid meteor and a plane's red light streaked out.

Here is a brief breakdown of my process. So say it is summer in the Northern Hemisphere and its a new moon. Well, you still should find somewhere decently dark.

I go to this site,: a map with an overlay of light pollution data..

You will need::

-a camera body with high ISO: 1600 or much higher is great

-a lens with a low aperture: number, f2 and below is preferable. Also, a 16mm size (at full frame scale) or wider to capture the whole expanse of the star cluster

-a shutter remote, or if the camera has wifi, a remote app on a phone is even more helpful, but its one more battery to keep charged

-extra batteries


-headlamp for foreground lighting

Once you've found a nice dark area, think about scenery and positioning yourself north of a foreground you'd like to show. This is more optional, but it really adds to the dynamic of the photo, instead of it just being the Milky Way.

But you do have to look south to see the Milky Way core. If you're in a dark enough region, once your eyes have adjusted, you can actually see it with the naked eye. It appears like clouds to us because your eyes can't process all the photons that are coming at your cornea at once.

That's why we brought the camera. To unlock the colors and full density.

It's all about getting a bunch of light into the sensor while keeping the camera stable. Once you have the camera set up on the tripod, and your remote is connected, start with a 10 second exposure, your highest ISO, and pretty much always run aperture wide open. Also manual focus to infinity or a foreground element if you prefer.

Anything above 15 second shutter requires a device that turns the camera to keep pace with the rotation of the earth, otherwise the distinct stars will blur. You can experiment with multi minute exposure to intentionally create star trails. But that's another objective.

So from there it's trying different foregrounds, compositions, angles, and balancing shutter and ISO. If things are coming out too dark or noisy, you probably need a larger aperture lens or higher ISO/ higher quality sensor camera body.

Try shining a bit of light on some of the elements for a second or two of the exposure.

These examples from Artist Point, WA (including above) were shot with an f/2 12mm (APS-C crop) manual focus lens.

Also either 1600, 3200 or 6400 ISO and between 6 and 15 second shutter

Here noise is less but the stars are less distinct (lower ISO, longer shutter) The foreground was lit manually with a bike light.

This shot shows an interesting incidental artifact of light painting, the Milky Way is to the left.


Recent Posts
bottom of page