Get out of your tent in the middle of the night camping in the northwest and you might stumble upon a stunning star show. How do you capture it and bring home a slice of that beauty? Local night sky photographers have shared their top tips and tricks on how to suspend the cloudy Milky Way above a light tent in one shot – the perfect galactic shot.

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

Even with the right tools, a breathtaking shot requires a trained eye. Andy Porter, a high school photography teacher and longtime outdoor photographer, recommends practicing at home so that composing camera settings and tripod setup becomes second nature. Aspiring night sky photographers will become familiar 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, the calculations determine the longest shutter speed you can use before the stars start to have motion blur and appear blurry. “When you photograph stars, you want them to be little specks of light. But if you go over a certain period of time, they start to be little trails,” says Porter. But that may be your goal; not all night shots have to look the same.

Getting out in the dark is perhaps the most important and special part of night sky photography. “The main thing, of course, is to get out,” Porter says. The sweet spot has no light pollution, so it’s no job for photography-weary Kerry Park. Even the tulip farms of Skagit Valley turned out to have too much light nearby for Porter’s attempts at the Milky Way. One answer: the mountains.

Mount Rainier National Park is overrun with tourists with cameras vying for that shot of a galaxy or a sunrise. Imagine 250 bundled-up cameramen fumbling around with headlamps sending streaks of lens flare in every direction. “It’s like a horror show,” Porter admits. Still, it’s one of Dale Johnson’s favorite outposts as an amateur travel photographer. He recommends parking at the Sunrise Visitor Center and taking a short hike to lose the crowds. From here, the Milky Way appears to pass just above Mount Rainier in the summer.




Beating the crowds can score a quintessential postcard shot, while less crowded spots offer room for creativity. Keeping in mind that these remote areas require responsible management and scrupulous adherence to Leave No Trace principles, in addition to respectful photographic practices, experts remind newcomers to keep footprints on the trail and headlight beams out. pictures of others.

At the end of Mt. Baker Highway, Artist Point is a Porter favorite for capturing the stars above the top of the Cascade. Anywhere in eastern Washington (like Sun Mountain) is a safe bet for dark skies and the occasional Northern Lights sighting. On the western side of the strait, Shi Shi Beach and the tip of the arches in Olympic National Park offer minimal light pollution over the vast ocean.

Elopement and wedding photographer Joe Tobiason has a thing for the high desert of eastern Oregon and the national forest campgrounds around the Cascade Range, because the towering trees offer “something to build a picture around”.

For truly impressive night sky photography, composition is key. “We have such great places in the PNW. Having the mountains, lakes, trees and everything in the foreground really takes the images to a new level,” says Johnson. This is one of the reasons he loves photographing in Mount Rainier; nothing beats a shot of the Milky Way with tiny mountaineer dots culminating the massive peak in the foreground.

Photographers can also get creative with illuminating foreground objects. Johnson began experimenting with LED light panels placed out of sight to illuminate arches, trees and tents. The graffiti school bus near Palouse makes a perfect playground to experiment with foreground lighting under dark skies.

Timing is just as important as place. The two days before and after a new moon are perfect for capturing starry skies with the least amount of moonlight. The Milky Way is a little trickier; the summer months bring peak viewing in the northern hemisphere, as the Milky Way appears much fuller with two bands encapsulating hazy patches of light.

The best night sky photos are a delicate fusion of the right equipment and deft post-shoot editing. Coming straight out of the camera, photos of the night sky will likely be quite grainy and will require color correction with software like Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop. Tobiason’s best editing tip? “Make sure the photo still looks like a representation of the experience you had while making the photo. For me, photography is always about my experience in the moment,” he says. He doesn’t like to edit an image, so the end result is different from what he felt when taking it.

For more in-depth star-spotting efforts, Porter teaches night sky novices photo classes offered upon request. Photographic Center Northwest also hosts photography and editing classes for hands-on instruction.