All you need is your eyes and clear skies: Experts give tips for sky watching and star photography

As camping season creeps closer and the outside temperatures begin to climb, the opportunity to watch and photograph the night sky presents itself more readily than any other season, and local star gazers have some tips and tricks to share that can bolster the experience of sky watching.

Allison Pluda is the owner of the Laramie-based photography business Seneca Creek Photography that she founded in 2007. Pluda has a vast amount of experience not only sky watching but also photographing the stars.

“I always love looking up and I just love the stars,” Pluda said. “My story with my camera is kind of the same thing, it’s something that I’ve just always done. So, I got my first camera 15 years ago now … basically I’ve been trying to take pictures of the stars since then.”

One of the biggest questions that arises with the topic of sky watching is where the best place to go see the dark night sky is.

“Pretty much anywhere outside of the city lights,” Pluda said. “Really anywhere as far away from light as you can get is the best, but honestly, you can go 10 minutes outside of town, whether it’s Cheyenne or Laramie; you can see the full-blown Milky Way.”

Cheyenne Astronomical Society Treasurer Marcy Curran said that a couple of hours away from Cheyenne will get you to areas like Fox Park, where dark skies can be found, and that the best spots are around Curt Gowdy State Park.

Both Pluda and Curran stress the importance of being in the darkest setting possible for the best visibility results. This also includes reducing the amount of normal blue light you expose your eyes to once you’re under the night sky.

”Whenever you turn on your headlamp and you get that white light, it ruins your night vision,” Pluda said. “Your eyes have to spend another two minutes adjusting all over again.”

Both Pluda and Curran said that using a type of red light allows you to move around and see what you’re doing without disrupting your eyes’ night vision.

“Some of the apps on your phone, the star gazing apps, always look for the ones that have a night shift or a red option so it doesn’t ruin your night vision,” Pluda said.

Curran also listed off a few other tips that a sky watcher should keep in mind.

“Beginning astronomers should first familiarize themselves with the stars and constellations,” Curran said. “There are many websites where you can get this month’s star chart so you can start exploring the sky.”

When it comes to the equipment involved with sky watching and photography, it’s all dependent on whether you want to further your exploration and choose to invest in quality gear.

“Once you can locate a few things, then maybe get a decent pair of 10×50 binoculars to start looking for some deep sky objects — things like nebula, galaxies and clusters,” Curran said. “I personally wouldn’t invest in a telescope until you know this is something you will enjoy for a long time. Stay away from telescopes you see in local department stores.”

The first number on a pair of binoculars indicates the strength of the magnification and the second indicates the size of the objective lens measured in millimeters.  

Curran also said that having a basic star chart is a good place to start for a beginning sky watcher.

Pluda said that when it comes to photographing the night sky, that you’ll definitely need a camera tripod, but you don’t necessarily need an advanced camera.

“It’s more about technique than it is about gear,” Pluda said. “A Canon Rebel was my first camera. I think patience is a lot (of the process).”

Another element to factor in to have a successful sky watching experience is the sky conditions.

“Avoid nights when the stars are twinkling a lot,” Curran said. “That means the sky is not very steady.”

Pluda said that the Wyoming plains are seemingly more fortunate, as extremely dark night skies are hard to come by around the rest of the United States.

“I just love showing people that we live in such an awesome place where most people, I think it’s like 90 percent of people nowadays, haven’t seen the Milky Way, and I think out here we definitely take that for granted,” Pluda said. “… a lot of people don’t even believe what I say ‘yeah, I look up and I can see all of Orion and the Milky Way in town.’”

Curran echoed Pluda in the idea that Wyoming skies are good to sky watchers.

“Wyoming has some of the best skies you will find. In really dark sites you can see glints of objects that generally require binoculars,” Curran said.

Pluda said that patience is very important in both sky watching and photographing the stars.

“Sometimes people think I just walk outside and take this awesome picture but there are a lot of bad trips,” Pluda said. “There are a lot of clouded-over trips and sometimes it’s worth it to wait it out and remember that it’s not always about getting the picture, sometimes if you get ‘bad’ pictures where it’s clouding up, sometimes you just wait an hour it clears up, even for 10 minutes; that’s all you need sometimes.”

For those who are interested in exploring the night sky and how to photograph it, you can get connected with the Cheyenne Astronomical Society and Seneca Creek Photography by visiting their websites:

Cheyenne Astronomical Society: killerrabbit.co or at

https://www.facebook.com/cheyenneastro/

Seneca Creek Photography: senecacreekstudios.com or at https://www.facebook.com/SenecaCreekStudios/

“Hooking up with a local astronomy club will give you a chance to further explore your hobby,” Curran said.

Pluda has offered star photographing workshops in the past and is possibly looking to offer them again this coming fall due to an influx of questions about it. To stay connected with up to date information about these classes, you can sign up for the email newsletter on her website.

“The sky is amazing and full of many wonderful things. I hope you’ll explore it,” Curran said.

Author’s note:

Hello readers! I just wanted to chime in on this story to throw out some tips of my own that I’ve picked up over the past few years of sky watching. Hopefully, they can help you have a better experience sky watching/star photographing.

First off, depending on the time of year and weather, make sure to dress in accordance to the weather. I’ve gone to photograph a meteor shower in December and it’s absolutely miserable if you don’t dress in layers and have things such as gloves.

Next, as photographer Allison Pluda mentioned in the main story, make sure to have a tripod for your camera if you’re planning to photograph the stars. In addition to that, I suggest possibly investing in a wireless shutter remote that will open the camera shutter without having to push down the shutter button. This will make your photos a little sharper by not having motion blur from you shifting the camera.

Even if you sky watch during the summer, I would suggest bringing a blanket or comforter to sit/lay on so you don’t have to lay on the ground. (Just so you’re a little bit more comfortable).

If you’re going to go sky watch by yourself, make sure to tell at least one person where you’re going. Most places that are nice and dark don’t have the greatest cell reception, so be careful.

Lastly, make sure to be present and to soak in how incredibly fascinating and vast the night sky is. In my book, it’s perfectly OK to spend hours laying on the ground staring up at the night sky.

About Courtney Walston (23 Articles)
Courtney Walston, a third-year student studying Mass Media at Laramie County Community College, hopes to someday become a photographer for National Geographic. Walston has already earned one degree from LCCC in Interdisciplinary Liberal Arts. Walston was the senior editor of the East High School newspaper her senior year and was involved with yearbook as well. She enjoys photography and frequently shares her work on her website, Instagram and Facebook. Walston is an active member of Phi Theta Kappa, the honors society at Laramie County Community College, and retains a position on the Honors In Action team. She’s hoping to utilize the leadership experience she’s gained from this position to assist Wingspan. Walston is a semi-professional photographer that is aspiring to transfer to the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia and receive a bachelors in Fine Art Photography. She also likes to her call herself a cat lady; as she has 3 cats at home and loves all of them dearly. To contact Walston, email her at cwalstonwingspan@yahoo.com or follow her on Twitter @Courtney42158656.

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