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Where the professionals go to get those awesome Milky Way images.

Jamie Carter
January 08, 2017

Jamie Carter is the author of “A Stargazing Program for Beginners: A Pocket Field Guide.”

Astrophotography is not about stars. It's about landscapes—and travel.

Sure, the thousands of visible suns up there provide an intoxicating theme, but it's only a backdrop: Good astrophotography is all about the landscape in the foreground. From lighthouses and derelict buildings to strange rock formations and Northern Lights, the challenge is to find something unusual or surprising to frame the night sky's many wonders.

What they all have in common is the darkest of night skies, which means that many astrophotography hotspots are in remote locations far from light pollution. Here are just a few of the most iconic and impressive astrophotography locations on the planet.

Arches National Park, Utah

Delicate Arch in Utah's Arches National Park is perhaps the most iconic spot for astrophotography, and as the sun sets at this natural arch there's always a group of photographers waiting to make their own attempt. It's not the easiest place to get to, but a 45-minute hike from the nearest car park.

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Visit in summer when the Milky Way will be easily visible behind the 65ft high arch after sunset, though you will have to wait for the selfie crowd to disperse (or you could just find a smaller arch—there are 2,000 to choose from). Photographer Ben Coffman runs night sky workshops in Arches and nearby Canyonlands National Park.

Fuerteventura, Canary Islands, Spain

Point a camera at Polaris, the North Star, take 100-200+ images over the course of an hour or two, and stack them together in StarStaX and you've created a star-trail—visual proof of Earth's rotation.

With plenty of iconic lighthouses, ancient-looking windmills and deserted buildings to create star-trails around, there are few better places to practice than Fuerteventura, a Starlight Reserve in the Canary Islands. Award-winning astrophotographer Simon Waldram at Fuerteshoot runs excellent workshops that cover both the island's most iconic places and its top secret spots.

Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya

Africa is seriously underrated as a destination for astrophotographers, but as anyone who's been on a safari in a remote game reserve will know, the night sky is often just as memorable as the animal encounters.

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The Art of Night astrophotographer Marc Gee runs a two-night Art of Night Africa Photography Tour workshop at both Mara Bushtops camp in the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya, and also at the Serengeti Bushtops camp in Serengeti National Park across the border in Tanzania. The workshop includes day and night game drives.

Brecon Beacons National Park, Wales, U.K.

Although only a few hours drive west from London, rural Wales has some of the darkest skies in Europe. It's also relatively little-known outside the U.K., which makes it a great place to visit for unique astro-photos. Designated an International Dark Sky Reserve a few years ago, its most iconic feature is the curved escarpment of Pen y Fan, its highest peak, while the darkest area is in the western areas around Crai Reservoir.

Stargazers Retreat near Crai has a computerised Meade telescope and camera adaptors for guests, while astrophotographer Dan Santillo and Dark Sky Wales run workshops in the area.

Atacama Desert, Chile

At an altitude of more than 5,000 feet, Chile's arid Atacama Desert is way above the densest part of Earth's atmosphere, which gives it the best atmospheric conditions for stargazing, astronomy and astrophotography.

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It's home to almost all of the world's top telescopes, including the Paranal Observatory, home of the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope (VLT) array, humankind's most advanced optical observatory and a stunning backdrop. Sky & Telescope runs a tour to this “astronomy capital of the world.”

Sahara Desert, Morocco

From the Atlas Mountains and the nomad Berbers of the Sahara Desert to the intoxicating souks in Marrakesh, Morocco is a photographer's dream destination. Photography Tours At Night offers a Morocco Photography Workshop that includes the chance to capture night-scapes and the Milky Way, while Hotel SaharaSky at the eastern end of the Draa Valley has a rooftop observatory equipped with Schmidt-Cassegrain and Ritchey-Chretien telescopes amid some of the darkest skies in the world.

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah, U.S.

Southwest USA is packed with high-altitude National Parks that provide some of the darkest skies and most iconic photography backdrops. Bryce Canyon is a prime spot for stargazers and astronomers, with its National Park Astronomy & Night Sky Program every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday including the chance to use telescopes. Perhaps the most iconic spot for astrophotography is at Sunrise Point, where a juniper tree called the Ballerina perches precariously over the rim.

Lapland, Scandinavia

A bucket-list perennial for tourists and astrophotographers alike, the Northern Lights (or aurora borealis) are all about latitude. Get between 64°-70° North latitude in winter—the Arctic Circle—and pulsing green lights are a common sight.

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Bordering Sweden, Norway and Russia, Lapland in Finland is one of the best places to see them. Experienced aurora-photographer Gareth Hutton at Adventure By Design leads photography-focused hunts for the aurora in Finland and northern Norway, with an emphasis on unique and remote locations.

Botswana & Namibia

If you're after an edgy nocturnal experience where you sleep next to your camera in bush camps as you photograph the night sky, Botswana is the place to go. Based on a walking trail safari through the Tuli Block in Botswana, landscape and astrophotographer Emil von Maltitz and Nick van de Wiel have created a seven-day Wilderness & Astrophotography tour.

The pair also run a 13-day Composing the Dunes tour in Namibia, of which astro-photography is an important component. Shooting locations include Quiver Tree Forest, Spitzkoppe, Kolmanskop and the Namib Desert, the latter of which you need a special permit to enter at night).

Headlands International Dark Sky Park, Michigan, U.S.

West of Mackinaw City and strung along two miles of undeveloped Lake Michigan, Headlands International Dark Sky Park has a growing reputation or stargazers and astrophotographers in the north of the US. Within the park and the surrounding Emmet County, outdoor lighting ordinance is slowing the growth of artificial light.

There's even a chance to see Northern Lights, a rare opportunity from mainland U.S. (Get the aurora forecast.) The park organizes various events, which sometimes include astrophotography sessions.

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