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How to Take a Night Sky Photo in Washington

Where to get a jaw-dropping starry night picture in the Pacific Northwest, and what you'll need for Milky Way magic.

By Taylor McKenzie Gerlach

Photography teacher Andy Porter illuminated the Winchester Mountain Lookout in the North Cascades for a magical shot.

Image: Andy Porter

Exit your tent in the middle of the night while camping in the Northwest and you might stumble upon a stunning display of stars. How do you capture it and bring a slice of that beauty back home? Local night sky photographers shared their best tricks and tips for how to get the cloudy Milky Way suspended above a glowing tent in a single photo—the perfect galactic shot. 

Perhaps one day a simple smartphone will have the power to do true night photography, but for now it requires some gear: a DSLR or mirrorless camera, tripod, a cable release or wireless connection to a phone, and a wide-angle lens. But this hobby doesn’t have to break the bank; the Seattle locals at Glazer's Camera offer rentals and deals on used gear for a more affordable debut into the world of photography. 

Even with the right tools, a breathtaking shot requires a trained eye. High school photography teacher and long-time outdoor photographer Andy Porter recommends practicing at home so that dialing in camera settings and the tripod setup become second nature. Aspiring night sky photographers will get well acquainted with manual mode, learning to adjust ISO, aperture, shutter speed, and focus—all in the dark.

Experimenting with settings can drastically change a camera's output. For example, calculations determine the longest shutter speed you can use before the stars will start to have motion blur and appear out of focus. “When you're taking your picture of the stars, you want them to be little pinpricks of light. But if you go over a certain period of time, they start to be little streaks” Porter explains. But maybe that's your goal; not all night photos need to look the same.

Getting out into the darkness is perhaps the most important, and special, part of night sky photography. “The main thing, of course, is to get out there,” Porter says. The ideal spot has no light pollution, so this isn’t a job for the photographically exhausted Kerry Park. Even Skagit Valley’s tulip farms proved to have too much nearby light for Porter’s Milky Way attempts. One answer: the mountains.

Mount Rainier National Park gets overrun with camera-toting tourists vying for that galaxy or sunrise shot. Imagine 250 bundled-up camerafolk fumbling around with headlamps sending trails of stray light every which way. “It’s like a horror show,” Porter admits. Even so, it’s one of Dale Johnson’s favorite outposts as a hobbyist travel photographer. He recommends parking at Sunrise Visitor Center and taking a short hike up to lose any crowds. From there, the Milky Way appears to pass right over Mount Rainier in the summertime.

An abandoned bus in Eastern Washington makes for colorful contrast.

Image: Dale Johnson

Fighting the crowds may score a quintessential postcard shot, while less trafficked locales offer room for creativity. Bearing in mind that these remote areas require responsible stewardship and careful adherence to Leave No Trace principles—in addition to respectful photography practices—experts remind newcomers to keep footprints on the trail and headlamp beams out of others’ photos.

At the end of Mt. Baker Highway, Artist Point is one of Porter’s favorites for capturing stars over the Cascade peak. Anywhere in Eastern Washington (like Sun Mountain) is a safe bet for dark skies and the occasional aurora borealis sighting. On the western side of the sound, Olympic National Park’s Shi Shi Beach and Point of the Arches offer minimal light pollution over the vast ocean.

Elopement and wedding photographer Joe Tobiason has a soft spot for the high desert of Eastern Oregon and the national forest campgrounds around the Cascade Range, as the towering trees provide “something to build a photo around.”

For a truly impressive night sky photograph, composition is key. “We have such great places in the PNW. Having the mountains, lakes, trees, and everything in the foreground really brings the pictures to a new level,” Johnson explains. That’s one of the reasons he likes photographing at Mount Rainier; nothing beats a Milky Way shot with tiny dots of climbers summiting the massive peak in the foreground.

Photographers can also get creative with illuminating foreground objects. Johnson started experimenting with LED light panels placed out of view to shed light on arches, trees, and tents. The graffitied school bus near Palouse makes a perfect playground for experimenting with foreground illumination under dark skies.

Timing is just as important as place. The two days before and after a new moon are prime for capturing starry skies with the least amount of moonlight. The Milky Way is a bit more tricky; summer months bring peak viewing to the Northern Hemisphere, as the Milky Way appears much fuller with two bands encapsulating misty blobs of light.

The best night sky photos are a delicate fusion of the right equipment and skillful editing after the shot. Coming straight off the camera, night sky photos will likely be quite grainy and need color correcting with software like Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop. Tobiason’s top editing tip? “Make sure that the photo still feels like a representation of the experience you had making the photo. For me, photography is always connected to my experience in the moment," he says. He isn't a fan of editing an image so the end result looks different from how it felt when taking it.

For more in-depth star scouting endeavors, Porter instructs night sky novices in photo classes offered on demand. Photographic Center Northwest also hosts photography and editing courses for hands-on instruction.  

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