In this article learn:
Tips for the composition of a night sky picture
How to find a great location for night sky events, plus best spots in Algonquin
The best apps to use to time photographing the night sky
Camera technical equipment and technique that’s best for capturing night sky shots
So many people who visit Four Corners Algonquin comment on the brilliance of our night skies, and with good reason: the night sky is one of the most awe-inspiring sights in the world if you’re lucky enough to see it in its full glory.
Although dark sky designations that protect the night sky from light pollution are becoming more common, our location just east of Algonquin Provincial Park, and west of nowhere in particular means that the stars shine brightly on their own here, without much fuss, formality or intervention.
In fact, on a clear night the stars shine so brightly that you can observe many night sky objects and events with the naked eye including the North Star, the Big Dipper, the Milky Way and shooting stars.
All you really need for a memorable experience is a blanket, a cup of your favourite beverage and a clear sky. If you want to level up, download a free app that maps the night sky out for you and can tell you what you’re looking at. Telescopes, binoculars, or other astronomical equipment can help keeners with more complex knowledge see remote or difficult to spot events in more detail.
>> Read on to get the best tips from local astrophotographer Steve Dunsford, and check out some of his night sky shots!
Astrophotographer Steve Dunsford Shares his Night Sky Photography Tips
Whether you want to immerse yourself in the beauty of the night sky directly from one of our tent sites, from our outdoor theatre, or from inside our one-of-a-kind domed bubble tents, our neighbour and astro-photographer friend Steve Dunsford from the MadMusher Restaurant in Whitney has some tips and tricks on how to catch the perfect image.
5 Tips for Night Sky Photography
We interviewed Steve to learn five of the best tips for night sky photography including:
Composition of the shot - use water in the foreground for stunning reflections
Pay attention to night sky forecasts - use an app to capture out of this world events
Location, location - look for northern views
Equipment - use a wide angle lens and tripod
Technique - shoot with long exposure and have fun!
Read on below to learn more about Steve’s experience shooting the night sky.
FCA: Steve, you’ve been in Whitney for a long time, and you’ve taken some really striking nature photographs, many of which are available on your Impressions of Algonquin Website. You recently had an exhibit at the
Visitor’s Centre in the Park also. Tell me a little bit about how you got started in photography?
SD: Well, I suppose the bug first caught up with me when I was six years old.
My first camera was a double-bubble bubble gum camera. If you saved 100 bubble gum wrappers and sent them in with shipping costs, they’d send you a free camera. I still have a couple of photos I took in 1966 at Disney with that camera. About ten years ago I was inspired by some of my restaurant customers who would take images in the park and share them with me. I thought, I see these things too – I should get a camera and take my own pictures too.
I invested in some good equipment and my friend Wesley and I went to the Art Gallery in the park and photographed the Milky Way from there. We’ve become good friends and travelled to take pictures in different places in Ontario and around the world. We often go out at night-time when he’s up this way.
Also read: Stargazing in Ontario
Tips to Capture Meteor Showers and Night Sky Events
FCA: Tell me about this doubly dazzling photograph of the aurora and a meteor event. That must have been a super difficult shot to capture!
SD: I took this image of a meteor shooting across the northern lights during a trip to Lake Superior, in Wawa Ontario during two amazing nights in November. It’s always exciting to get more than one night sky event in a single frame photo. Some photographers will stack photos to get a similar effect – stacking means layer two photos into one image – but this particular image is one photo of two simultaneous events.
The technical and mechanical part of using a camera to shoot the night sky isn’t very difficult to learn. The most challenging part tends to be finding the subject you’re looking for. With the northern lights, for example, you don’t see them every night around here. You need to find a good location with a good composition and then wait for the event to happen. As you can imagine, certain events are more difficult than others.
Meteors are the hardest event to capture because they’re random, very quick, and there’s an element of luck involved because a wide angle lens will only capture a small section of the sky. Nine times out of ten the meteor is not in the section you’re looking at. On the other hand, the aurora is fairly easy – when it appears, it’s just there. You point your camera at it and click.
Composition for Night Sky Photography
FCA: You mentioned location and composition of the shot. Obviously at night it’s dark and you don’t actually see very much – and of course, the focus is the sky anyway. Do you have any tips for how to find a good setting for night sky images under these circumstances?
SD: With cell phones these days, literally anyone can capture a photo of the night sky. The difference between a so-so photo and a high-quality image comes down to interest and composition.
You want the shot to have visually interesting things going on. In this shot we had the lake in the foreground leading to the rocky shore. I like water as a foreground because you get really nice reflections in the photo. Honestly, the best way to find a good (and safe location) is in the daytime.
If you’re looking to photograph the northern lights, you need a good location that looks toward the north. For this shot, I wanted a northern view across a lake, which meant that I needed to find a southern shore, which eliminated a lot of locations we had access to. So do your scouting during the day, and pick something that doesn’t put you at risk of injury when you go back after dark.
The Best Times for Photographing the Night Sky
FCA: Tell me a little bit more about timing. How do you know when to chase a great night sky shot? How long does the process take?
SD: This particular image was taken on the west side of Algonquin Park in the third week of March. A friend of mine and I went out intending to take images of the Milky Way because March is the first month where you can see the core of the Milky Way rising due to the tilt of the earth - we lose sight of it in the winter. To our delight we got photobombed by the northern lights instead which weren’t supposed to be active.
So to pick the perfect timing, you need to know a little bit about the seasons and where to look in the sky to find what you’re looking for. You can increase your success rate by listening to the news media for northern lights announcements, or download an app that will alert you. And of course, be patient, because more often than not, what you really need is a little bit of luck.
Some night sky events are known ahead of time, so you’ll want to pay attention to forecasts, lunar eclipses, comets… those are events that you can know ahead of time and happen according to a predictable schedule. For other events, you don’t get a lot of prior warning. The aurora is a result of solar flares. Once the flare happens on the sun, it hits the earth within a few days. Having an app like AuroraNow for northern lights alerts is helpful. A lot of the apps you can set up so you get a warning when the event becomes active in your region. What you want to pay attention to is the KP – the higher the number, the farther south the aurora is visible. KP-1 is visible in the far north. KP7-8 is visible in the US. KP-5 means good potential in the Algonquin area.
How much time I spend depends on how busy I am the next day. Astrophotography is a night-time sport, so often I’ll go out for most of the night if there’s reason to anticipate an exciting display. I’ll go to several different locations to get different photos. For an average photo shoot, I go out for at least an hour minimum. Meteor showers are more difficult to capture and take longer.
FCA: With a portfolio like this, you must really enjoy night photography specifically – you’re good at it! Why do you do it? Have you ever encountered any surprises, or animals while out? I think a lot of people might be afraid of being out in the woods after dark…
SD: For me, I often go by myself because it’s quiet at night and I enjoy the solitude. Other times I go out with a group of friends for the camaraderie of being together and doing something different. Honestly, I also do it because there’s a lot less competition for resources. The same spot in daytime is completely different at night and not just because it’s dark. Being able to capture events that you can’t see in the day is a very peaceful experience.
I took this photo in Algonquin Park near the east gate in early summer when the Milky Way core rises earlier with a beaver dam in the foreground. I have often heard wolves in this spot – there is a pack in the vicinity and I often hear them howling. Sometimes I even howl to them and they’ve responded. I don’t know if the animals are aware of the northern lights, but wolves, loons, even geese, you can hear them at night. They seem to be more vocal when these events happen, at the beginning of the event and just before it. Not every time, but often this is the case in my experience. I often hear branches breaking, or owls at work. I once had an owl swoop at me after it viewed a light on my camera! Beavers will come by and snap their tails in front of me. They’re quiet, so you don’t hear them coming – it scares me every time. Thankfully I’ve never heard or seen a bear or moose at night.
Night Sky Photography Technical Equipment and Techniques
FCA: I understand that this is a photograph of the Neowise comet taken at Robinson Lake off of highway 127 in the summer of 2020. Can you tell me a little bit more about the technical aspects of catching a shot like this? What does your equipment and tool box look like?
SD: Visible comets are fairly rare, so this was a good opportunity to photograph something unusual, exciting and still fairly predictable because we knew it would be there.
The long exposure requires use of a tripod. You want a wide-angle lens (F2.8) to capture as much of the night sky and to let in as much light as possible. I use a “Canon 5-D Mark 3 Full Frame Camera” and a Sigma 20mm lens. I start with setting the lens to 2.8, the ISO to 3200, and the exposure to 25s. This is a good starting point for darker events like the Milky Way and meteors, but it’s way too much light for auroras. Depending on the intensity of the Northern lights I would adjust. They are often quite bright.
My toolbox also includes water and snacks if I’m going to be out for a long period of time and maybe a chair to sit in. I’m careful to dress for the elements and time of year. Winter is great for pictures because there’s less dust in the air (fewer wildfires). There’s a lot of humidity and dust in the summer. I also keep spare batteries. In the winter time, I put them in my pockets so my body warms them and they last longer. I’ve also noticed that shooting multiple shots in the winter produces heat which causes condensation on the lens, so I use hand warmers to keep them warm. An elastic secures it to the lens, but there are fancier devices you can buy if you have the budget.
FCA: Thank you so much for your time, Steve. Before we go, I have two last questions for you. First, have you got any advice for cellphone warriors trying to capture the night sky on a mobile device? And are there any locations in South Algonquin that you would recommend to night sky photography novices?
SD: I don’t use the cellphone as a camera very much but I know it can be done because I’ve seen people post some great images on social media. I would say that a lot of my advice applies in similar situations no matter what camera you’re using.
Be alert to the forecasts, pay attention to the composition, keep your equipment close at hand to capitalize on the randomness of night sky events. And if you’re able, bring a tripod or set your camera down on a flat surface to keep it steady during longer exposures. Most importantly, be patient, try things and have some fun. You get better with practice!
The best locations in the township are easily accessible and have a measure of public safety to them. Most of the beaches offer amazing composition with sky visible over water so you’ll see some great reflections.
Our bridges, dams and public parks are also pretty spectacular and well maintained by the township. For example, Whitney beach faces south-west and often has great sunsets. The Airy Trestle bridge faces north for the Northern Lights. Bark Lake Beach in Madawaska faces east for sunrises, with north and south exposures also possible. And if you look toward the Madawaska Rail Bridge from JR Booth Memorial Park you’re facing north again. Public parking and restroom facilities tend to be available at these locations as well, making them perfect for visitors who want to experience the night sky with less effort and less risk.