NP101: Planning and Preparing for a Nightscape Weekend!

I love capturing beautiful nightscape photography, and I’m always happy to share what I know and what I learn. I’m keen to inspire others to head outside and look up at the sky, and to photograph the sky.

So I’ve started a series of posts with the theme ‘Nightscape Photography 101‘ – sharing tips and tricks to help you take better nightscape photos.

In this 10th article I’m going to share my thoughts and processes as I go through Planning and Preparing for a Nightscape Weekend. What do you need to think about, plan and prepare for when it comes to heading away for a weekend of Nightscape shooting?

Planning and Preparing for a Nightscape Weekend!

Planning and Preparing for a Nightscape Weekend!

I was always planning on writing an article about preparation, but I’m literally in the process of planning my weekend away, so I’ll use this blog post to document how I prepare and the type of things you’ll need to think about. No doubt I won’t capture everything and will forget things along the way, but hopefully this will help you plan for your own weekend of nightscape shooting in the near future.

Why Plan? Why Prepare?

If you’ve read my What Makes a Great Nightscape Photographer article, you’ll know that I’m a big advocate for planning and preparation. Especially if, like me, you have limited opportunities to get out under the stars – I want to be sure I make the most of my opportunity and have the best chance of success of capturing some great images.

For me, it simply wouldn’t be possible to head away for the weekend at a moments notice – I have family and work commitments, so I need to plan with my family and with work to be away ahead of time. If you’re heading a long way from home, you don’t want to end up finding out you’ve forgotten something, or can’t get in where you want to, or the Milky Way will be in a different position from what you’d imagined. I wouldn’t be able to simply go out the next weekend to try again.

I’ve got one shot at this.

So I’m going to make sure I control the things I can control and give myself the best chance of success.

Case Study: My Own Weekend Away

As I said above, I’m currently in the middle of my own planning and preparation phase for a weekend away. I’m heading to Coonabarabran (Siding Spring Observatory) and Narrabri (Australian Telescope Compact Array) to do some nightscapes.

I’ll now take you through the steps that I went through to be ready for this nightscape weekend! The order of these isn’t fixed, and you might tackle some of these in a different order, or sometimes multiple steps at once – but I’ve broken them up just for ease of talking about each one.

Step 1 – Date and Time

You need to decide when you’re going to head away – is it for a weekend, or just for the night? For nightscape shooting, you need to be aware of the Moon Phase, and likely plan your dates around the best time for dark skies and favourable Moon Phase.

For Nightscapes, you have about 7-10 days either side of New Moon. New Moon, if it falls on a candidate weekend, means the darkest skies – which are great for deep sky shots with as little light in the sky as possible. However, sometimes you WANT a partial Moon Phase, as it helps light the foreground if it’s behind you and not in your shot. Sometimes you’ll work this in combination with Step 2 (the location), as you might WANT some moonlight to naturally light up a valley or rock formation or escarpment.

What you don’t want, is a Full Moon or mostly Full Moon. It means the sky will be really bright, and unless you’re specifically planning to have a bright Moon or bright foreground as a feature in your shots, it’s generally something you avoid.

So you need to look at a Moon Phase Calendar, and find some candidate weekends that fall on favourable Moon Phases.

Of course, if you don’t have an option of changing dates (family holiday or similar), then you’ll just have to do your best with the Moon phase you get and plan your nightscape shooting around when the Moon rises or sets.

My Plan

For my weekend away, I wanted to head away for 2 nights (a Friday and Saturday night), and I wasn’t fussed on whether it was New Moon or a partial crescent Moon. I used the Sydney Observatory Moon Phase Calendar, and picked some dates in August and September that were likely candidates.

Pick your dates corresponding to Moon Phase

Pick your dates corresponding to Moon Phase

Working with my family and work (Step 4), I settled on the 13th-14th September 2013. Unfortunately, when I look at the sky simulations for that weekend, the Moon will be right in the middle of the Milky Way. 🙁 This is obviously not ideal and will pretty much rule out most shots of the core of the Milky Way.

If I had more flexibility I would certainly choose the weekend before – but sometimes you have to take what you get, and the 13th-14th was the only weekend that worked out for me with work and family, so I’ll make the most of it anyway 🙂

Step 2 – Location

A pretty important step – where will you actually go?  If you’re planning on shooting nightscapes, then hopefully you’ve read my article on What Makes a Great Nightscape Photo – foreground interest and dark skies are among the top criteria you’ll be looking for.

Is the location close to towns or cities? What objects, structures, natural foreground interest, beaches, mountains, valleys, rocks, rivers, lakes, will you plan to include in your foreground?

You may have had some locations in mind for a while, you may go back and visit previous locations but with better knowledge or better gear than you had before. You need to consider how much time you have to get there in comparison to your date and time. If you’re only going for a night trip, then you’ll probably only want somewhere no more than 2-3 hours drive away. If you’re heading away for 1-2 nights, then you have more flexibility to head further afield to darker skies or more exotic locations.

My Plan

For my weekend away, I chose to head to Coonabarabran (the home of the Siding Spring Observatory) and Narrabri (the home of the Australian Telescope Compact Array radio telescopes).

ATCA at Narrabri

ATCA at Narrabri. Image from ATCA homepage.

They’re two locations I’ve always wanted to visit for many many years, but never found the time. They’re dark – very dark, and have great foreground interest – mountain ranges, telescopes, domes, radio dishes etc. They’re quite a distance away from me (6+ hours drive), so it’s not a place I can go in a single night, or even an all-nighter. I really needed a whole 2 nights to get both locations in, and even then, I’m only at each location for 1 night. I’m hoping the weather is clear!!

Alex Cherney (a nightscaper who inspires me greatly) recently posted a timelapse from ATCA as part of their 25th Anniversary celebrations, and it’s certainly reinforced my decision to go there. I’ll certainly be hoping to emulate his success but hopefully also add my own personal touch and style.

Step 3 – Company

Will you go alone, or take someone with you? Company is great! Someone to share the driving, talk to about your planning and preparation, share gear, share ideas and ultimately share the experience.

Waiting... all setup, waiting for night!

Sharing the experience with someone can be more fun than being alone

On the other hand, you might want to go alone because you don’t want to share the unique location, or have the hassle of worrying about someone else if you want to head somewhere else at the drop of a hat.

Ultimately it’s a completely personal decision and will depend on your goals and what you want to achieve in general or on that weekend. Whether going alone or with company, always make sure you tell someone else where you’re going!

My Plan

I was initially planning to go alone, just because I didn’t want the risk of potentially having to change my plans to suit anyone else (purely selfish), but in the end I decided it’s better to have the company for the reasons stated above. I invited my friend and ex-work colleague, Andrew Davis, to come along. He was able to get the weekend off too so we’re now going through the planning together.

Andrew has only recently started capturing nightscapes, but he’s enthusiastic, passionate and a very fast learner. It’ll be great to share this journey with him.

Step 4 – Work and Family

You’ve decided where and when, and now you need to make sure you can get time off work (if you have to take any extra days off) and also make sure your family are ok with it. Maybe they’re coming with you? In that case, great 🙂 But otherwise, you might be leaving your partner at home with kids all weekend – and in that case, you might need to earn some brownie points in the leadup to your trip 🙂

My Plan

I’m taking the Friday 13th as Annual Leave from work, as we’re leaving early Friday morning. My wife isn’t thrilled about the prospect of being home alone with the kids all weekend, but I’ve been working hard in the lead-up 🙂

Step 5 – Location Challenges

With the location chosen, you need to work out how you’re going to get there, where you’re going to stay, and if you need any special permissions, permits or contacts to go where you need to go.

That might be because of national parks, or maybe it’s private property, or maybe access is not allowed at night where you’re planning to go. Maybe you need 4WD access or maybe it’s going to be bitterly cold. Whatever the case, think about where you’re going and any challenges that may arise in completing your journey 🙂

My Plan

The locations I’ve chosen, at Siding Spring Observatory and the  ATCA, both have challenges in terms of getting access to the areas I’d want to shoot, especially at night when visitors are normally not allowed. If I’d just turned up without planning, I’d certainly be very disappointed.

I’ve been able to make contact with the right people to get permission to shoot at night at both locations, and get access to areas normally off limits. My contacts as a result of running IceInSpace for the past 8+ years have certainly helped with this.

In terms of getting there, Google Maps is certainly one of the easiest ways to plan your route. It’ll take us about 6+ hours to get to Coonabarabran, another 2 hours to get to Narrabri, and then about 7-8 hours to get home on the Sunday.

Quite a trip out to North West NSW

Quite a trip out to North West NSW

Step 6 – The Weather

Something you can’t control is the weather – but it’s still going to be handy to know what you can expect. How hot will it be during the days? How cold will it be at night? How windy might it be?

You can look at long-term averages to get some predictions of temperatures during the day and at night, but you’re only really going to know whether you’ll get clear skies in the last few days leading up to your trip. In some cases, you’ll have to simply hope for the best – but in other cases, you might be in a position to chase clear skies. If it’s going to be cloudy where you had planned to be, then maybe you could drive an extra few hours to find clear skies.

You can also use cloud prediction sites like SkippySky, and for the analytical, Phil Hart has written an article about Forecasting Cloud for Australian Astronomers.

My Plan

I used WeatherZone to look at long term averages for Coonabarabran and Narrabri. While not a great prediction, it at least gives me an idea of how cold it will get at night to help me prepare what clothes to take!

Long Term Weather Averages

Long Term Weather Averages

I’m pretty set on my location (for the foreground interest and dark skies), however if it’s definitely going to be cloudy on those nights, I’m certainly open to driving in any direction for a few more hours in search of clear skies.

Step 7 – Logistics

Time to get down to the actual planning. Take notes, write it all down. You’ll need to start making plans for:

  • What time you’ll leave, routes to take, travel times, what time you’ll get there
  • Sun and Moon rise and set times
  • If you’re near a river or the sea, when are the low and high tides?
  • Sky simulations and screenshots
  • Contact details of anyone you may need on route or upon arrival
  • A list of shot ideas, plans for timelapses etc
  • A list of what to take (don’t forget my Nightscape Gear Checklist)
  • How much is it going to cost you? Fuel? Accommodation? The inevitable purchases of a few ‘must haves’ before you go (I just need that new battery or power pack or dew heater….)
  • and likely much more!
My Plan

I created a notebook in Evernote and have been adding notes to assist with my planning – I’ve been adding notes covering all the things listed above. You can add anything and everything (notes, images, videos, voice memos, pdfs etc) in there to assist with your planning.

Screenshot of one my Evernote notes

Screenshot of one my Evernote notes

The good thing about Evernote, is that the information is sync’d to the cloud and is available on every device I have. So even when we’re out at Narrabri, I can look at my phone and have all the information available. I then shared the Notebook with Andrew, and together we can both add or edit information as we go through the planning.

Step 8 – What to Take

The list of what to take will start to grow exponentially – especially if you’re heading out further from home and for more than 1 night. It can be quite easy to get everything together for a night of shooting not far from home, but when you know you’ll potentially be away from civilisation, power, etc for any length of time, you start to think about all the things you’re going to need to get by – and not have a weekend ruined because you forgot to bring spare batteries or a battery charger.

A good place to start is my Nightscape Gear Checklist, but you’ll likely want to add to it to make it more detailed and include more of what you need for a night or two away from home.

Here’s a few questions you might want to think about, apart from the usual “don’t forget your tripod and camera”:

  • Do you have enough spare batteries, and how will you recharge them the next day ready for another night?
  • Do you have enough spare memory cards?
  • Will you take your laptop to transfer images onto? Do you have enough disk space? Do you need to take any external hard drives?
  • How will you manage dew? Do you have enough chemical warmers? Do you have a way of charging 12v batteries?
  • Do you need to take an inverter to be able to run 240v powered items?
  • Obvious things like food and water, especially if you’re far from civilisation and can’t ‘refuel’ or stock up again.
  • Where will you sleep? Comfy chairs? Stretcher beds? Sleeping bag?
  • Toiletries? A few rolls of toilet paper, hand sanitiser?
  • What about the weather? Freezer suits, warm socks, change of clothes, wet weather gear?

The more advanced you get, the more gear you accumulate, and ultimately the bigger the list will get when you plan to head away! When you have 2+ camera bodies and you want to do timelapses, then you’ll probably add dolly’s, rails, more tripods etc!

Just make sure you write down your list – so you can use it again next time and check it off as you pack (both before you go and when packing up to come home!).

My Plan

I’m pretty much following my own advice above – starting with my checklist and adding to it as I think of things. For example, Andrew is going to borrow my spare Canon 40D body – so I need to add that to the list, as well as batteries and charger for it. I’ve also borrowed some gear from Fred Vanderhaven (more lenses etc) that I need to keep track of, so I have to add that to the list.

At the time of writing (with a week to go), I’m starting to gather everything together into a big piles of stuff so it’s all together.

Step 9 – Planning Your Shoots

No doubt you’ve started thinking about this step in combination with the date (time of year, time of moon phase) and location (foreground interest, dark skies) – and no doubt you’ve got some ideas in your mind about the type of shots you’re going to take, the type of scenes you want to capture.

Single shots? Star trails? Timelapses?

Use tools like TPE, Stellarium, StarWalk Astronomy and Photo Pills to do sky simulations of the location at the date and time you’ll be there. You want to be able to picture where the Milky Way will be, where the Moon will be, what planets might be in the sky, when the Sun will rise and set and in which direction. Use Google Maps Street View to get a ‘ground view’ of the location (assuming it’s a place the Google car can get to :)).

Keep a note of your plans in your Evernote notebook or wherever you’re keeping track. Take screenshots and paste them in.

If you’re taking timelapses or star trails, take note of the settings you might need – how many shots do you need to fill out 15 seconds of timelapse, or what length of exposure at what ISO will you use for an uninterrupted star trail? If you need to, write it down!

My Plan

I’d originally used the timelapses of Alex Cherney and Emil Paell as inspiration for Narrabri. I’d started thinking about Milky Way shots with the radio telescopes framed nicely in the foreground.

Unfortunately it’s during this planning phase that I discovered the Moon would be smack bang in the middle of the Milky Way, pretty much eliminating any chance for Milky Way nightscapes over this weekend. It could’ve put a whole dampener on the weekend, but in a month or two, the Milky Way won’t even be visible at all – so there’s still a lot of sky left to shoot, and the foreground is still going to be magnificent! Like I said above, sometimes the date is the date and can’t be changed – and you make the most of what you can do.

The Moon smack bang in the Milky Way

The Moon smack bang in the Milky Way! 🙁

So I won’t be doing much in the way of the Milky Way, but there’s still the Southern Cross and Magellanic Clouds to the South, Orion rising in the East, and star trails will still look great no matter the direction.

Sky Simulation facing East at 2:30am (using Stellarium)

Sky Simulation facing East at 2:30am (using Stellarium)

The landscape photographer in me also can’t wait to capture the beautiful Warrumbungle Mountains, and any other country-side out there at dawn, dusk, and any time in-between.

Step 10 – When It’s All Over!

Some of this you may not wait until you get home – it depends what you take and how much time you have, but for starters, get the images off your card and onto your hard drive. It’s a good idea to either take multiple copies, or leave the images on your card as a backup until you get a chance to make multiple copies.

When you get home, make sure you charge all your batteries again before you put everything back in the cupboard – that way they’ll be ready to use again for next time, and you won’t have the situation of heading out for a night later on, and finding all your batteries are still flat from last time.

When you start transferring your images, make sure you catalog and categorise them properly, so they’re easy to find when you’re ready to start processing.

File and Folder Organisation after a Nightscape Weekend

File and Folder Organisation after a Nightscape Weekend

My Plan

For me, I’ll certainly be doing the above – but I’ll also be spending some time with the family and catching up. I’ll be heading out on a family holiday (to West Australia) a week after I get back, so I don’t think there’ll be much time to process images in the week in-between. There’s just going to be a huge backlog to get to when I return from WA 🙂

I hope this article will help you plan your own night or weekend away to shoot nightscapes. In the coming posts, we’ll talk about everything you ever wanted to know about nightscapes, including:

  • capture techniques for the different types of nightscapes
  • processing tips and tricks
  • using an intervalometer
  • noise reduction techniques

and much more. Please feel free to ask questions in the comments section below. Let me know your challenges and frustrations and questions about nightscape photography, and I’ll add them to the list of topics I’ll cover!

Make sure you don’t miss any posts in this Nightscape Photography 101 series!

I hope you will enjoy this series and your feedback and comments will always be welcome. Please share with your friends too!

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