If you’ve every looked at the sky on a clear summer night and was amazed by the haze of stars filling your vision, you’re not alone. I’ve always loved the quiet calmness of these moments and always wondered if there was more out there to see. Then I learned about astrophotography. I can absolutely credit this with my love of photography and what started me on this journey. Our eyes can only let in so much light at a time, but with a camera and the right settings, you can capture the Milky Way in all its glory.
Unfortunately, if you live near almost any large city on the East Coast the light pollution is so bad one sometimes can’t even see any stars at all. This was definitely apparent to me as I’ve basically lived in Philadelphia for 6 years now and grew up in the desolate valleys of Central PA. Looking up and seeing the bright lights from the city drown out almost every single star makes me homesick for those clear open skies. Don’t worry though, as its still not impossible to photograph the Milky Way on the East Coast, you just have to know where to go for the best results.
Before we go into detail with where to go, first I’m going to explain some of the basics of astrophotography. If you already know how to do this, skip to the end for the locations.
Almost any camera where you can manually control the settings can take photos of the Milky Way, but there are definitely some that create the best results. The two biggest things to consider would be the sensor and the lens.
Different cameras have different sized sensors ranging anywhere from smaller 1 inch sensors to large 35mm full frame sensors. The sensor size determines how much light is collected and more light means more stars. For best and most practical results I recommend any DSLR or mirrorless that is either APS-C or full frame. This can be anything from a Canon Rebel to a Sony A7iii.
The lens might be the most important piece of equipment in terms of astrophotography. You’ll want something wide with a large aperture. The wide angle helps capture more of the sky and allows for a longer shutter speed while the large aperture lets in more light to help capture the small amount of light the stars give off. For beginners I would recommend anything less than 24mm and an aperture smaller than f2.8.
Another piece of equipment that is a must is a tripod. To take these photos, the camera will have the shutter open for long periods of time and any small movement can cause the image to be blurred. Make sure you have a stable tripod and setup to ensure your photos come our sharp and clear.
Once you have the equipment necessary for astrophotography you’ll need the right settings to capture the Milky Way. To do this, you’ll need to use manual mode on your camera so make sure you’re familiar with how to adjust all the necessary parameters on your particular camera.
The first is shutter speed. This is how long the shutter is left open collecting light to produce an image. You’ll want to let in as much light as possible, but be aware, the Earth is rotating so too long of a shutter speed will produce star trails. This is when the stars stretch out and become lines and not small pinpoints of light. To get this perfect there is some math involved with what is called the “500 rule”. To use this, divide 500 by the focal length, for example 18mm, and this equals 27.78. That means when using an 18mm lens you can’t use a shutter speed longer than 27 seconds or else the stars will streak. Use this with any focal length and you can usually use anywhere from 20-30 seconds for most wide angles.
The second is aperture. This one is easy. Use the largest aperture your lens has to offer, whether is the smaller 2.8, or the very large 1.4 or less. This will ensure that you capture the most of the small light the stars give off.
Last is the ISO. This allows us to digitally increase the exposure of the image to capture more of the Milky Way light, but be careful as the higher the ISO the more noise is in the image. Depending on the camera a good place to start is 1600. You can go up past 8000 if your camera can handle it or the image doesn’t get too noisy, but adjust depending on what the situation is.
Finally, with all of these settings dialed in, you’ll want to change the camera to manual focus. Because there really isn’t anything to focus on in the sky at night, you’ll want to set the focus to infinity then take some test shots. Adjust the focus of necessary after reviewing some test photos until the stars are tack sharp.
Another large factor for astrophotography, specifically for the Milky Way is the timing. You’ll want to avoid full moons as this large light source can flood a beautifully clear night and make star photos very difficult. Also the Milky Way is not always present in the night sky. Your only chances of capturing it is between April and September, and the times vary greatly over those months. You can see the chart below for the breakdown, but the best time in my opinion is June and July, as its not too late or too early and the warmer weather makes staying outside all night much more bearable.
Now probably the most important part of astrophotography is the location. The less light pollution an area has the better the photo will be. I use the website https://www.lightpollutionmap.info to find the best places. Now, if you look at this you’ll see a huge disparity in the amount of light pollution when comparing the East Coast to the West Coast. The states with deserts, plains, or near the Rocky Mountains are the darkest places in the country because there are almost no cities for miles in some areas. But don’t despair! There are still some areas on the East Coast that are dark enough to produce some fantastic Milky Way images.
Cherry Springs State Park, Pennsylvania
Credited as the least light polluted area in Pennsylvania, Cherry Springs State Park is in the northwest portion of PA. Being located deep within the state forests of PA, this park is one of the best places to view the Milky Way in the country let alone the east coast. There are plenty of nearby forms of lodging, from “glamping” style cabins, to base bones tent sites, giving anyone plenty of options when visiting. Not only is a great place for stargazing; there are also many other outdoor attractions to visit. There are multiple smaller lakes for kayaking and other water sports, as well as two famous PA hiking spots: The PA Grand Canyon and the Kinzua Skywalk. Make sure you book your site early though, as sites sell out months in advance for new moon nights during the summer and weekends.
Adirondacks, New York
A beautiful and large mountain range in Northern New York, the Adirondacks provide some great landscapes and dark skies for dramatic nighttime photography. Packed with tall mountain ranges (for the east coast) and large lakes, the Adirondacks provide a myriad of locations for interesting compositions when photographing the night sky. Some of the better-known summits to venture are Whiteface Mountain and Mount Marcy, as well as fantastically large lakes, such as Lake George and Schroon Lake. The entire Adirondack Mountain area is very large I could not possibly list all of the available lodging in this area. It ranges from upscale cabins to desolate backcountry camping. Either way, the light pollution is so low almost every here that one is bound to have a great stargazing experience and capture wonderful photos of the night sky.
Acadia National Park, Maine
Northern Maine may be darker than Acadia, but fails to offer the same breathtaking views as Acadia National Park. Now, this is definitely the most populated area of this list, but for good reasons. Not only is it one of America’s best national parks, it is fairly accessible and offers easy and challenging hikes. Not only can you capture the Milky Way in your frame, but you can also capture some of the famous landmarks here such as Jordan Pond, Cadillac Mountain, and the Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse. Because this is a National Park campsites are aplenty, but they are popular and can fill up. Blackwoods campground is a great choice for tent campers as there are a lot of spots and is pretty close to all the best parts of the park. If there were a place to offer the best nighttime and daytime photography, this may be the place.
Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia
The Monongahela National Forest is one of the last great areas on the East Coast with the least light pollution. Nestled in the Alleghany Mountains of West Virginia, this area has some great natural attractions and covers a large area giving one plenty of opportunities for astrophotography. Never personally being here (yet), I can only base the quality of this area on the photos I have seen and its low light pollution rating. Because of this low light pollution rating, astrophotography is once again great here and because it has the highest peaks on the Appalachian range, offers some great vistas to view the night sky. There are several campsites nearby and is also fairly close to Shenandoah National Park, which again offers more beautiful rolling mountain views with more opportunities for lodging. Personally I cannot wait to visit both of these places this summer and complete my East Coast Astrophotography “Bucket List”.