Everyday backpacker turned pro-shooter shares his best tips and tricks.
Ben Canales’ love affair with stars began on a 2002 backpacking trip through Australia’s remote Atherton Tablelands. He woke up one night, stepped outside his tent, and looked up. “I could not figure out what the weird, glowing cloud was in the middle of the sky,” he says.
Turns out, it was the Milky Way. “It was a cosmic, spiritual experience to realize I could see that with my own eyes,” says Canales.
Following his Australian epiphany, Canales took to stargazing whenever possible. Over the next five years, while working overseas, he’d gaze at the sky from the deck of a Navy ship outside Guam, in the Scotland Highlands, South America, and other regions around the world.
It wasn’t until 2009 that he discovered night sky photography. Canales injured his finger woodworking right before he and a few friends took a trip to Paulina Lake Hot Springs in Central Oregon. A friend loaned him a camera—something to do while injured—and, on a lark, Canales tried taking a few night sky photos. “I was curious if it was possible to get a photo of the Milky Way,” he says. “I was just drunk enough to try.”
By the end of the night, following some trial-and-error, Canales had his photo. “The camera could see more than I could see,” he says. “Literally, my jaw dropped.”
He continued to take night sky pictures over the next few years, always on the hunt for remote locations where he could pitch a tent and snap photos. One night, after spending hours shooting at Crater Lake National Park, he decided to lighten the mood. At around 3 a.m., he hit the timer and fell into a snow angel position, in front of the lake. That picture was named the National Geographic Travel Photo of the Year in 2011.
Canales, now a filmmaker with Uncage the Soul Video Production, still shoots stars. But the experience is about more than what happens when the shutter’s open. “With our saturation of digital screens and digital moments, the stars feel like a reset button,” he says. “It’s this heart-level reminder that there’s a universe out there beyond our little glowing screens. It puts life and us in a perspective that we can’t have any other way. Even seeing pictures of it isn’t enough; you have to go out there.”
Interested in seeing some of the starriest skies for yourself—and taking photos along the way? Canales shares some of his best advice.
1. Know Where to Go
Canales recommends the Dark Site Finder for getting away from city-caused light pollution around the world. (The brighter the region on the map, the more light pollution will impact night sky photography.) A few best bets that are also near quality trails: the Cosmic Campground in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest, Maine’s Baxter State Park, and California’s Modoc National Forest.
He also enjoys taking photos near iconic Mount Hood. “It’s really cool to have that mountain anchored in the image,” he says. More specifically, Canales says, “Lost Lake is stunningly beautiful, with the reflection of Mount Hood on a calm night.”
Canales is also fond of Central Oregon, where cities are few and far between and clouds struggle to pass the Cascade Range. The result? Clearer night skies on the east side. In particular, he loves taking photos at the Pine Mountain Observatory, roughly 34 miles southeast of Bend. Far from the city lights and at 6,000 feet above sea level, the observatory offers 360-degree views of Oregon.
2. Know What You’re Doing
Canales’ 13-minute video tutorial breaks down the technical aspects of night sky photography.
But here are a few tips that go beyond ISO settings and shutter speeds:
Keep the moon in mind. Trying to photograph stars with a full moon is like watching a movie with the theater’s house lights turned on, says Canales. For the best photos, know when the moon is rising or setting in the sky, and keep an eye on which phase it’s in. The less the moon is visible, the brighter the stars will be.
Look out for light pollution. Wherever you go, angle your camera away from city lights (even if they don’t appear visible to the naked eye). With long exposures, that light pollution can creep in and ruin an otherwise perfect shot. Even in Central Oregon, Canales warns that a photo of Mount Hood may be marred by Portland city lights.
Don’t worry (too much) about your camera. While your iPhone probably won’t do the trick, you don’t need an uber-expensive DSLR to take night sky photos either. Entry-level DSLR and mirrorless cameras are equipped for basic night images.
3. Know What You’re Getting Into
Given that the best night sky photos are taken hours after sunset and often at higher elevations, arrive prepared for fast-changing conditions. Some of the most ‘gram-worthy shots are on exposed summits, where photographers aren’t shielded from wind, rain, and cold weather. You know the basics: Ensure your sleeping bag and tent can handle wind and dropping temperatures, dress in layers, and don’t forget a hat and gloves.