I’m an amateur at this stuff really, I must admit. Photographing the night sky is only something I started dabbling in last year, and I’m amazed at how hard it is even still. Weather conditions, equipment, nighttime temps can all effect your outcome and leave you wishing for more experiences, or frustrated with the shots you aren’t getting.
I especially made that realization when cloud cover spoiled a perfectly great night at Mono Lake, CA. I left, sad I didn’t get the shots, but even more sad I didn’t even get to see anything great that evening. What I did learn from it is setting expectations and being prepared makes a better mantle for you as a photographer and a human being.
That being said, one useful tool I use, in addition to checking the normal weather sources constantly, is a dark sky service, such as ClearDarkSky.com. I find these extremely helpful in determining whether the night sky ahead of me is going to be worth lugging along a tripod, weight I save both in emotions and pounds.
Clear Dark Sky gives you up-to-date info on generally where you’re going. Check often!
The above chart shows what a dark sky service will do for you, displaying thing like cloud cover, transparency and actual darkness of any given night sky. It allows you to search for general areas and gives you a good idea of what types of shots you might be getting. A tentative trip to the mountains leads me to be curious as to whether I’ll get too much cloud cover or not, a Clear Dark Sky helps me figure that out ahead of time.
Another cool tool is Dark Sky Finder, which hosts a graphical overlay of where naturally occurring areas of the night sky appear, in contrast to light polluted areas from city lights. Even if not scientific, this gives you a vague sense of if where you’re going is going to be dark enough for some cool shots, or not. One cool feature of this site is the dotted pins, which show you location so observatories.
Map courtesy of Dark Sky Finder
Remember, if you can’t grab the shot that night, it doesn’t mean you won’t be able to get it another. Nowadays, I don’t have that great of a batting average. Seems one of three or four evenings nets me something worthwhile, but I keep trying.
Don’t forget to slow down and enjoy the nights where you don’t grab anything, and ESPECIALLY, don’t forget to slow further down on the nights you do get something cool. The last thing you want is to only remember those stars from your viewfinder, and not your lovely, naked eyes.