Many of us have looked up into the night sky in a particularly dark place and thought, "This is incredible! I really wish I could take a picture!" or we've seen others' photos of the stars and the Milky Way and wondered how on earth they got such incredible images. As it turns out, it really isn't as hard as you might think. This guide will teach you how to plan your shoot like a pro.
Photographs of the night sky fall into a peculiar category of technical photography, where the final image is dependent on planning and knowledge more than looking through the viewfinder and visualizing what you want the image to look like. Since we can't really see our target through the viewfinder, and some aspects of the final image may not even be visible to the naked eye, we need to do a little research. You can't expect astrophotos to look the way you want without planning any more than you can take a sunset photo in the middle of the day. For this, we will need some software to visualize the night sky in advance, and it is very helpful if this software can simulate viewing conditions. I recommend an easy to learn, free, open source, multi-platform program called Stellarium, which is used in planetariums and by astronomers around the world. For field use, you might want to make sure you have Google Sky Map installed on your Android device, or a similar app on your iPad, iPhone or other device. If you still don't have a tablet or smartphone or anything, you can print out star charts for the time you'll be shooting and bring a compass with you. For a simple map, you can go to Tools > Screenshots > Invert Colors in Stellarium and print the screenshots you need (invert to background is white) or you can use more advanced star charting software. You'll only need charts or maps if you really want to plan things to the last detail or photograph a particular night sky object however.