Stargazing in Aspen: Pro Tips on Nighttime Photography

Aspen is an ideal place for nighttime photography.
Aspen is an ideal place for nighttime photography. Jordan Curet
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Stargazing in Aspen is some of the best in the high country. The twinkling lights of town create minimal light pollution, and on a clear night, constellations, the Milky Way, and even the occasional meteor are visible in the sky. With some basic photography skills, anyone can take advantage of Aspen’s geography to create breathtaking, brag-worthy images.

But where for aspiring nighttime shutterbugs to start? One great option is Smuggler Mountain Road: Close to downtown Aspen, it’s an ideal spot for a nighttime hike to breathtaking vistas and photographs you won’t soon forget. Here, a few pro tips to get you started.

Getting Prepped

The moon can make for some stunning images, too. 
The moon can make for some stunning images, too.  Anil kumar B Bhatt/

Grab a headlamp, some warm layers, and your camera gear, and you’re set for a late-night adventure. As far as gear goes, for the best star photos you will need a DSLR camera, a tripod, and, ideally, a remote trigger or cable release for exposures longer than 30 seconds.

Don't forget to throw a Thermos of hot chocolate in your pack, as night photography requires a little time and patience. A warm drink will fend off the mountain chill and give you something to do while the shutter is open.

Your best opportunity for photos of stars is a clear night with little or no moon. But the moon makes for some great opportunities, too: A moonlit hike of Smuggler Mountain Road, about a three-mile round trip, makes for some incredible photos of Aspen glowing at night.

Ready to Hike

With a little practice, nighttime shots can be among your photography skills.
With a little practice, nighttime shots can be among your photography skills. Bureau of Land Management

Smuggler Mountain Road is a continuous incline that ascends 800 vertical feet, with a few twists and turns on the wide, fairly smooth dirt road. It’s fairly easy to navigate under the glow of a headlamp, even if you’re schlepping a bunch of gear.

Aspen will be off to your left for the majority of the hike, and if you’re feeling inspired, you can always stop along the way to take in different perspectives. From the road you are able to see downtown Aspen, the ski resorts, and surrounding peaks. The views only get better as you gain elevation, but the panorama from the platform at the top is truly breathtaking.

How to Shoot the Stars

Shooting the stars is all about exposure.
Shooting the stars is all about exposure. Jordan Curet

The platform at the top of Smuggler Mountain Road is an excellent resource for photographers, as it provides a flat, stable surface to set up on. Place your camera on a tripod, the sturdier the better, and manually focus, spinning the focus ring on the lens to infinity.

In the darkness, you’ll need to leave the shutter open long enough to let in the light of the stars. Most DSLRs will keep the shutter open up to sixty seconds, but for longer exposures use the “bulb” function, which will keep the shutter open as long as the button is pressed.

You don’t want any movement to affect your images, so a cable release or trigger will eliminate camera shake of any kind. This is where the trigger really comes in handy, as it can lock the shutter open rather than holding your finger on the trigger for fifteen minutes.

With long exposures, where you cannot use the internal light meter, you will have to use a little trial and error to hone in on the right amount of light. Start with a shot of town with the stars above: at about a 30-second exposure, you should get the glowing lights of town, mountain, and stars. If you do it right, you should be able to pick out constellations like Orion’s Belt in these photos.

Then try framing just the mountain and the stars in the shot. Since there is less light, you will need to let in more light for your exposure. At ten minutes, the stars appear to have some movement, and the mountains seem to glow.

To capture the motion of the earth’s rotation, you’ll need even more time with the shutter open, which creates dramatic star trails in the image. The longer your exposure, the longer the star trails will appear. At 15 minutes, the stars seem streak across the sky. By turning your camera to the right, away from Aspen, you can find the North Star (apps like Sky Guide can help you locate different stars and constellations). By framing the North Star at the center, the stars appear to rotate around it.

Nighttime photography takes some practice to get good at, but that’s half the fun. Along the way, you can enjoy the views, the silence, and your hot chocolate while your camera does the work. Once you get the shot you want, it’s an easy hike back into Aspen.

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