Photography Tips - Location Scouting

When I first began photographing the night sky it was enough to get just the stars or maybe the stars and a few branches in the image. Eventually I realized my images needed foreground in them, not just random foreground but something the viewer can recognize, something that puts them in the image.

One of the drawbacks to shooting nightscapes on the east coast is the fact that it's heavily populated and there are houses, towns and cities that generate light pollution in every direction. The reason I initially started shooting at the beach was because it was the one place that had nothing in basic direction of the Milky Way. Unfortunately I can't always get there and really, who want's to take pictures in the same place all the time?


To shoot nightscapes you need three things from a location. Relatively dark skies, an open horizon and an interesting foreground. There are several tool available to help me find a spot that meets these criteria. The first is just keeping my eyes open when I'm out driving around. This has limitation though so I use it only get rough ideas.


The main tool is Google Earth or Google Maps. I can use these to find sparsely populated areas and then zoom in with Street View to get some idea of how open the horizon is. I can also to see if there is anywhere to park, any access gates and any security lights.


Next is the website DarkSiteFinder.com. The site has a scrollable light pollution map of the United States that will give you some idea how dark a place is and which direction you can reasonably photograph. Keep in mind there may be individual light sources that will ruin a shot that aren't on the map.


Finally I use social media to search for images other photographers may have taken at a particular spot. Daylight images will give me some idea of the view and if I'm lucky enough to find some night images I can gauge actual light pollution.


If the spot isn't too far away I may use one of the weekends that the weather is bad or the moon is too bright to do a daylight or even a night scout. Nothing beats an actual boots on the ground look at a potential location.


A few things to keep in mind. If you are photographing on private property you must have the owner permission to be there, you can be arrested for trespassing. If you aren't doing a physical scout things may have changed since the last Google Earth or Street View pass. There may be light from a new subdivision, trees may have grown higher, any number of changes that you have to be ready to deal with. I usually don't have just one spot in any particular area, I'll find several so it won't be a wasted trip is things are suddenly different.


It's not enough that a place is dark or has a great view, good nightscape images are complicated. They require thought, research and work. It's not always about your skill with the equipment, you need to develop skills in other areas as well.


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